The Power of Music to Boost Your Mood with Dr Sandra Garrido
Ellen: With me today is Doctor Sandra Garrido. Sandra is a pianist, a violinist, an author, a mom, and a researcher. And she's had a varied career. She started studying law but found that she didn't really like arguing with people for a living, so she returned to University to study music and psychology. And this has been the foundation of her career ever since.
Ellen: Sandra completed her PhD at The University of New South Wales in 2012 and her post-doctoral research at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and the ARC Center of Excellence with a history of emotions. And this work concerned the use of music in depression in both the modern day and historically.
Ellen: Sandra is currently an NHMICARC dementia research fellow at the Marks Institute for Brain Behavior and Development at Western Sydney University. And today she's here to talk to us about music, mood, and our well-being. Welcome Sandra.
Sandra: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Ellen: It's lovely to have you on. This has been a topic that I have wanted to cover on the podcast, I think pretty much since we began a bit over a year ago because, whilst I have no training or background in it, I certainly know from my own personal experience that music has a big impact on mood, and that's probably not news to anybody. And it's certainly something that I have consciously used, both to manage my mood, but also to manage my performance. And I'll talk a little bit about that later, but I was so thrilled because I read a copy about a professional magazine, psychologist professional magazine, in psych and the title story for that episode, issue I suppose it is, not an episode, that's a podcast thing, was why music moves us. And you were the lead author on that particular piece. And I thought, "Who hoo, I have found my expert to speak to about music and mood." I was very excited and I'm so glad that you're here and able to join us to talk to us about this topic that absolutely, I'm sure must affect everybody.
Sandra: Yeah. It's always a topic that seems to interest a lot of people. It's like we use it instinctively, like you said, to manage our mood and our performance, but at some level we don't actually consciously understand how that's working and what's going on. So, I think that's one reason why it really fascinates a lot of people.
Ellen: Yeah. Yeah. And I can think of two instances for me in which I've used it. I've had to use it consciously, again without necessarily understanding, but at one point when I returned to work after having my first baby and I spent a long time, I was in Sydney and there was a long public transport commute that involved multiple legs, and waits, and horrible things. And I used to find myself fretting during that, it took me a while to realize, but I was fretting between leaving the office and getting home because I think over that period on public transport I felt like I wasn't working, I wasn't at home with my baby, I was just in this stupid-
Sandra: Wasted time. Yeah. Yeah.
Ellen: And it took me a while, but I suddenly thought what did I used to do to kind of ... When, I don't know whether it was commuting or I just had this flashback to listening to music as a way of, I don't know, maybe distracting, maybe a mindfulness, I'm not sure what it was. And I dug at this, this is a long time ago because it was before you put all of your music on your phone.
Ellen: Yeah. An old iPod and ... But I used that and it was such a relief. I just, I found it helped significantly just to listen to music and to be allowed to kind of just do that in that interim period.
Ellen: And the other time was when I was writing my book, first book, which was you're an author, so you know what it's like, it's a horrendous experience trying to write a book. And I was really struggling, again with the well-being aspect of it, the motivation that the [crosstalk 00:04:30]-
Ellen: Do what I wanted to do it, but it was so hard. So many issues. And I used music then, in particular Eminem's song 8 Mile, I think that's what it's called.
Sandra: Okay. Yeah.
Ellen: [crosstalk 00:04:44]. Anyway, I wasn't particularly into Eminem, but there was something about that lyric.
Sandra: Yeah. Okay.
Ellen: And something about the sound that I just found his story of having to just front up and do something even though it terrified him.
Ellen: So there was something probably in those lyrics that motivated me. And I listened and I listened to that song on repeat, but it did. It made me do stuff. It helped me do stuff.
Sandra: I use like some of those, there are these YouTube mixes that have got movie themes in it and anime themes and it's all this real sort of power, overcoming challenges, that sort of really big orchestral music often. And I find that really motivating, finding it difficult to get my head stuck into a task and I just don't want to do it, I'll put that on and it makes me feel like yeah, I can tackle the world and take on anything.
Sandra: Yeah. It really works, doesn't it?
Ellen: Yeah. What it was about. So tell me a bit about the science of this. Why is music important to humans firstly?
Sandra: Why is music important to humans? That is a huge question.
Ellen: That's a huge question. I always like to start with a huge question.
Sandra: Thanks for that. Yeah. I think it goes back to the evolutionary purpose of music. And we don't totally know what that is, of course. We don't have a clear answer on that, but there is several different theories about where it came from and why it exists. And the answer is probably a combination of all of those things.
Sandra: So one of the theories is that it developed sort of maybe alongside language as a way of communicating emotions before we had linguistic ability, because we have ... And even babies have this instinctive ability to be able to understand the emotions that are expressed, even without words. So we're using tone of voice. So it seems like we get, because it's important to our survival as helpless babies, our ability to understand those emotions that are communicated without words, there's sort of some functions in the brain where that ability is rewarded. And so we get a little boost in the brain that says you've done well, you've done the right thing, which just makes you feel good.
Sandra: So it could partly be that. It comes down to the fact that basically our brain is rewarding this behavior. So like when you do anything that's pleasurable, you exercise, it's good for you, you get an endorphin kick. All sorts of things give you that endorphin kick. The same sorts of neurological reward systems work in the brain very often when you're listening to music. So it could be that the brain's rewarding it because it's a necessary part of our being able to understand communication.
Sandra: There are also theories that it was part of helping us to bond as communities in our evolutionary history. Rather than sort of individuals working on their own there was sort of a point where our ancestors began to realize, "Hey, if we work as a group, we're safer and stronger." And so that was musical communication was a form of bonding and coordinating group efforts.
Sandra: So yeah, for whatever reason it seems that for throughout human history, and even probably pre-human history, listening to music has been behavior that the brain rewards basically. And of course, what we get out of it today is very different because society's different, but the basic thing is the same. It's still about communicating, feeling like we're connecting with people, that we're understanding emotions and things like that, experiencing emotions.
Sandra: But [inaudible 00:08:41] have a physiological effect on us too. So sometimes it's as simple as that. For example, everybody has what we call an optimal level of arousal, as you probably know. So it's a level of sort of alertness where you feel most comfortable. You're not overstimulated and all worked up, but you're not feeling sleepy.
Sandra: And music, the right kind of music at the right time can help you reach that peak level of performance where your brain is just at the right level of alertness to help you really focus on something and to feel really motivated. So there's a whole lot of things like that that come into play, which I think is part of why music is just such a big part of human society.
Ellen: Yeah. And I'm thinking, I've just been traveling and sort of exposed to cultures in different parts of the world and music is, any kind of tour of the history or tour of the culture that you do in a different location there's always music. Isn't there? It really does transcend all of our cultural differences. I can't imagine that there is a cultural history anywhere in the globe that doesn't have music as a part of it.
Sandra: Not that we know of. Yeah. You're right. And in fact, it's really only in the last sort of hundred or two hundred years in western cultures where music has become this thing where you have these sort of elite performers and everybody else is just the consumer. Throughout most of human history, and still in most traditional cultures around the world, everybody is considered a musician. It's what you do, it's part of the culture, it's part of what you do as a family. So yeah, the way things are in our society today is quite different musically to what it always has been traditionally.
Ellen: Yeah. That is interesting. So we've always sung and danced as just part of what you do. And when you think about a lot of the traditional cultures that still exist, you do still sing and dance, but we don't.
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah.
Ellen: We decided somewhere along the line that no, singing, and well, perhaps not dancing so much, most of us might have a dance at a function.
Sandra: When nobody's watching.
Ellen: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Or doing [inaudible 00:11:01].
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.
Ellen: But certainly, singing and creating music in other ways, yeah, at some point we perhaps, I don't know, internalized this idea that that's not what I do, that's not what I'm good at.
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I find it quite sad actually that you sometimes, you meet people and they'll say, "Oh, I really love music, but I had this music teacher when I was kid that told me I was no good and so I didn't follow it up." And I find that just so sad because, you know, really who cares if you're good or no good. What defines good or no good as a musician? We've got this commercial understanding of it, but if you want to just enjoy music as a human being, which is what music is really for, then there's really no such thing as good or no good. It's just about experiencing it.
Ellen: Yeah. And I know there's certainly been, because I have some friends and colleagues who participate in things like pub choirs-
Ellen: ... and some of these sort of community type choirs in particular-
Ellen: ... where you perhaps, because you're not standing out as an individual you can make a contribution and experience. And everyone raves about it. And I think, in fact I don't consider myself a musical person, but I did go to a school that emphasized music in particular. And so we did a lot of choir and performance in groups, and it was a thrilling experience, even though nobody was ever going to, maybe stand up [inaudible 00:12:29].
Ellen: The actual positive experience, the well-being, that coming together with other people, that music, I suppose a little bit of a performance was, you know, it was fun. It was energizing.
Sandra: Yeah. And there's something that is really quite fascinating. If you've done that, you would've experienced it. But just the feeling of being in a group of people that are raising their voices in unison, it goes beyond being just musically satisfying, there's something about it that just raises the hairs on the back of your neck. And you used the word thrill, it is a real physical thrill doing that, really. Isn't it? It's just there's a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself. And I think those sorts of experiences really highlight the fact that musical engagement is part of our biology and it really shouldn't be this situation where people are thinking I'm not good at music. It's part of our biology. We are biologically programmed to engage in music.
Ellen: And we're talking now about the participation in music creation, not just the consumption, because that's a different side of it as well. I was talking to you earlier about listening to music for motivation, or well-being, or mood regulation, but there's then at the moment we're talking about that creation and actually being a participant.
Sandra: Well, I tend to think that it's very hard, really, to draw the line between those two because if you think about it we have this thing called entrainment, which is something that basically mostly only humans have. Primates certainly don't have it. And that's that thing where when we hear a rhythmical bait we can't help but tap our foot or nod our head or whatever. We just start to synchronize with the beat. And you don't need musical training to do that.
Sandra: I've forgotten where I was going with that.
Ellen: We were talking about the difference between consumption and the participation.
Sandra: Oh. Right. Right. Yeah. So we have that intrinsic ability in that it's just a tendency that we don't deliberately control, it just happens. You're listening to music and you start tapping your foot. And that means that even when you're what we might call passively consuming music, you're actually not passive. You are actually getting involved.
Sandra: And so where's the line between somebody who's drumming their fingers on the steering wheel while they're listening to music and somebody whose had a bit of professional training and he's drumming on a proper drum kit? It's, as far as I'm concerned, it's all creative and it's all active involvement in music. So even when we're consuming music that is produced by somebody else, our natural tendency is to get involved in that and to co-create, even in a small way.
Ellen: Yeah. I guess you're right. I hadn't thought about it that way. But it is ... Yeah. I mean, we all sing along to the radio when a good song comes on.
Ellen: In the car or in the shower.
Ellen: Or, you know, have a little dance or, yeah, and just that. Interesting because even thinking about you talked earlier about babies and how early some of this happens, and it's fascinating that this is a human and not necessarily somethings entrainment, it's not necessarily something that occurs in other species, but there's certainly plenty of videos and probably most of us who have children ourselves have witnessed our own kids kind of bopping along to music.
Ellen: At a very, very early age. There’re some great videos of kids doing a bit of head banging to Metallica or something.
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And it seems like the only other species that have that capability is some of the bird species that are actually able to mimic human speech. So there's a really famous little YouTube clip about a cockatoo called Snowball where he's actually dancing along to a beat and they put different music on and he can move to that beat. So the fact that it's only these species that have got a little bit of linguistic ability tends to suggest that, again, somehow there's some connection between the development of music and language in human history. Because even primates, they can be trained to tap along to a beat, but it looks like they're using different processes and it isn't just an intrinsic ability in the way it is with humans.
Ellen: Yeah. That is interesting too. Yeah. Oh. Okay. I'll dig that clip up and make sure that we put a link to it in the show so that people can have a look at Snowball the cockatoo.
Ellen: Sandra, you mentioned earlier about some of the physiological effects of music. And there's a range from understanding from the in psych article that I mentioned. Physiological, social we sort of touched on and mood we'll talk about, but what are some of these physiological effects that music has on us?
Sandra: Okay. Well just like I was saying, we entrain to music in that we tap our foot or our fingers or whatever to the beat, it seems that our physiological systems also tend to entrain to a beat. So our respiration rate, our breathing, our heart rate, our pulse, things like that can also start to synchronize to an external beat. So that's why when you want to go to sleep at night, for most people what they're trying to do is lower their arousal, slow down those physiological systems. So for the majority of people they would go for music that has a slow tempo because then their body entrains to that and you start to feel a little sleepy.
Sandra: And then on the other hand if you want to go to the gym and you need a little bit more energy, you tend to go for music that's a bit upbeat because then your respiration and your heartbeat are going to pick up and you just feel like you've got more energy. So that's a generalization, not everybody does it that way, but that is an example of how it does have, yeah, a physiological effect.
Ellen: Okay. So that's the science behind all those fortified playlists, the workout playlists.
Sandra: Yes. Exactly. Yeah.
Ellen: All those playlists, they're actually, they possibly don't know that that's the science behind it, but that's what's going on. It is actually having a physiological effect.
Ellen: How fascinating. And is there any other kind of physiological effects that we're aware of that music has?
Sandra: Physiological effects that we're aware of. I mean to some degree we might be aware of that, the fact that it kind of picks up our heartbeat and things like that. I guess the other thing is just, as I mentioned before, the pleasure kick, the reward in the brain. When you're listening to music that you like, that you find aesthetically pleasing, yeah, you just get a feeling of pleasure from listening to that.
Sandra: There's another very interesting phenomenon that we've mentioned before, which is where you actually get physical chills. So you actually get your hair standing on end and you get that feeling of goose bumps and chills. The research suggests that it's sort of only a minority of people that experience that, a small proportion of people that experience that, but I think it's probably more common. I think it's probably more common than we think. Yeah. So that's often something that people will report is that there's a particular piece of music or a particular point in a piece of music where they literally get this physical feeling of chills in their body. Yeah.
Ellen: And so what about, because that kind of leads into this emotional aspect of it, which I know has been kind of the focus of a lot of your research, and how we use music to manage our moods or maybe understand our moods or where we connect to music according to different moods. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Sandra: Yeah. Well I guess the way we connect with music, it happens on a few different levels as it does for all sorts of emotional experiences. So we have these very instinctive physiological responses to music that we don't have much control over, but then you've got the more logical part of your brain, the cognitive process that sort of come in and are doing a little bit more logical thinking about the music. So that might be a situation where you've got lyrics to the music that just really resonate with you, you've gone through something similar or it's what you're feeling at the moment. And so then we connect with the music on that level. We feel like this is about me, this is a story about me, or this person is communicating with me, or telling my story, or whatever. And so there's a sense of self validation there as well as perhaps connection with another human being.
Sandra: We've also got the fact that different pieces of music really can trigger memories, very potent memories of particular individuals or situations. It might be a situation where we've heard that song before or it might just be, again, that the lyrics remind us of a particular situation. But the research suggests that music is pretty much second only to smell in terms of its power to evoke really strong memories. So that is part of how it has an emotional effect on us as well.
Ellen: Yeah. That's interesting. I have, for unknown reasons, been listening to a 90s Spotify playlist lately and it keeps taking me back to my University days. You do get those flashes of being at, you know, in my undergrad, which was the early 90s, so being back at Uni, or the people, or even just random memories of things that you maybe haven't given any thought to in sort of perhaps decades.
Sandra: Yes. Yeah.
Ellen: That just pop back into your head. So do we know what's happening in the brain when that happens? Or we just know that does happen, but we don't know why or how yet?
Sandra: Well, I guess most emotions, especially the really ... Sorry. Most memories, especially the really strong memories, are connected with emotions. So memories tend to be more strongly encoded when they're associated with a strong emotional event. And that period in our life sort of adolescents into early adulthood tends to be a very emotional period of our life. Our emotions are really peaking. And so a lot of our memories from that period of our life are very, very strong.
Sandra: And so when you hear a piece of music and it evokes similar emotions or takes you back to that time, yeah, those are the memories that are most likely to be triggered because they're so strongly encoded in the brain.
Ellen: Yeah. Okay. So perhaps I won't remember so much of the music that I was listening to while I was sitting in my desk at my office in the early 2000s because-
Sandra: Maybe not. Yeah. Yeah. But that period of your life where music is just, you know, it's everything. It's who you are. That period of your life, that emotions around that music tends to be very, very strongly encoded in your brain.
Ellen: Okay. Interesting. And in what other way? Because you've done work with depression or individuals experiencing depression and using music to manage that. Would that be the best way to phrase it? Tell us more.
Sandra: Okay. So I guess that there's a difference, of course, between clinical levels of depression and feeling sort of a temporary feeling of sadness or a low mood in response to things sort of happening. So there are all sorts of physiological benefits that people can get from listening to music in those sorts of situations.
Sandra: So like we mentioned before, just feeling like your situation or your feelings are being articulated by the music is really helpful. Feeling that there are other people out there that understand what you're going through is really helpful. Just having the chance to sing it all out or cry it all out can be quite cathartic. It can sometimes be an opportunity for people to go through processes of problem solving or cognitive reframing where they are listening to music and it's reminding them of the situation they're going through. And as they're listening to it they're having a bit of a cry, but they're also thinking of how can I make sure this doesn't happen again, or what can I learn from this experience, or how can I see the positive side of this. And so they can often go through that experience where they're listening to a piece of music that's making them cry, but they actually come through it and they feel a bit better because they've changed the way they're thinking about the situation or they've just gotten some emotions off their chest.
Sandra: So a lot of really good things that people can do when they're feeling depressed, using music to help them manage their emotions. But we have found in our research often that particularly people with tendencies to clinical depression, they might often be finding that those processes aren't working so well for them. So they think, "I'm feeling really upset. I want to listen to this piece of music because it's going to help me have a good cry and get it all off my chest", but what might happen is instead of getting those emotions off their chest and then moving on is it's actually triggering lots of negative thought patterns, which can be very difficult for them to break out of without external assistance.
Sandra: And so rather than it making them feel better it can actually make them, sort of digging them into those cycles of negative thinking a little bit more.
Ellen: Being more stuck.
Sandra: Yeah. Getting a little bit more stuck in those emotions. So it's something that people really need to do a lot of self-reflection on. And that's what we're finding really helps most with those sorts of individuals is to just help them really reflect, because such a lot of what we're doing is fairly unconscious. Just to really reflect on the effect that their music listening choices are having. We tend to keep doing it thinking this is what we need, but then when you stop and think about it you might kind of go, "Oh, yeah. I did actually not feel so good when I was listening to that music."
Sandra: And so going through, working through those sorts of processes can be quite helpful and can often help individuals to work out, "Well is what I'm going through, just a natural reaction of grief and sadness to something or am I maybe in a situation where I need to get some professional help if it's getting to be very difficult to get out of those feelings?"
Ellen: Okay. So a bit of reflection required and a bit of an assessment as to whether or not something is helping or not helping.
Sandra: Yeah. And just some self-awareness. Yeah. I guess because we do have that brain reward system happening in our brain, and crying of course is a healthy thing to do. Feeling sad is a good thing, it helps you reassess areas in your life that might need improving or changing. So again, our brain is rewarding that behavior, but for some people where that goes on for long periods that may be an indication that perhaps there's something else going on there. But so the brain is rewarding that feeling. And so there's often not an awareness that it's not working for particular individuals.
Ellen: So it can actually be that being consistently drawn to music that is perhaps sad or makes us feel sad, if we're not moving beyond that over time this could actually be an indicator that more professional help is needed. Is that what you're saying?
Sandra: Yes. Possibly. Yeah. It could be a point that individuals can just start to take a little bit of note of and yeah. That could be something that can make them more aware of whether they need to get extra help or not.
Ellen: And I don't know if this is within your area of expertise, but what do we know about the impact of ... I know a lot of parents get concerned about the sorts of music that their teens or kids might be listening too. It's too aggressive, the lyrics are unpleasant, the themes are awful. You know, I have a 10 year old and even some of the stuff that he listens to I'm like, "I don't know if that's really very appropriate."
Ellen: What do we know about the longer-term impact? Do these things have a significant impact? Are they likely to cause problems for kids down the track?
Sandra: Again, I think it's very individual. I think that there may be a lot of kids that can listen to music of just about any kind and it's not going to have any impact on them, but then you might have some very vulnerable individuals who are listening to things like that and it could have an unfortunate impact on them. I guess to me it really all comes down to the thought patterns that are triggered for each individual. It's not about the actual song itself, but it's what thoughts is this triggering in the individual.
Sandra: So there is some evidence that, for example, aggressive lyrics and things like that can just kind of normalize those patterns of thought and I guess that's a little bit of a worry for parents and I guess something to be aware of. But then again, I think there are probably a lot of young people that can listen to that and it doesn't have an effect on them. So yeah, it really is, again, all about what thoughts is this triggering in the individual.
Ellen: Yeah. That's a good point because I sometimes, and whether this is just justifying it to myself for allowing my 10 year old to have access to Spotify and what he's listening to, but I often, I think back ... And even now occasionally I will listen to songs that I listened to when I was young and I said, "Oh, that's what that means."
Ellen: That's totally washed over me, the lyrics, the content, the themes that I just wasn't developmentally able to understand at that point. There's a part of me that kind of hopes that that's possibly what's happening, the humor as well.
Ellen: But I take your point, I think that that probably is really important, that normalizing of themes. It's a little like the music videos and some of the stuff that's being shown. It's like is it appropriate to tell a generation of young kids, tweens, and preteens that the nudity or the sexuality or whatever it might be is normal. Is that helpful?
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I think a lot of time people aren't actually even listening to the lyrics. They might just be really enjoying the beat of the music, or the melody, or the singer's voice, or whatever and they're not really paying that much attention to the lyrics. So that's all very individual as well.
Sandra: Some of the participants that we've worked with have expressed the feeling that often when the music that they might pull out and listen to when they're feeling good, they're just enjoying the beat and they're just enjoying the music, they don't really pay attention to the lyrics, but it's when they're feeling down, the music that they pull out then they tend to be attracted to music that's got lyrics that really resonate with them. So in that situation it might be those kinds of situations where people tend to be more influenced by the lyrics.
Ellen: Yeah. Actually, that's a really good point. It's a lot more nuanced, isn't it, perhaps than we might think on face value that there's all of these different components there.
Ellen: There is lyrics, there's the kind of identification of thoughts or with thoughts or themes. There's the beat, there's ... I have some songs that I love and I listen to lyrics and go, "These are really stupid lyrics." It's just dumb, but I still really like this song.
Ellen: Probably because of the beat, or the melody line, or something.
Ellen: And I think probably even there's an element of being attached to a performer, maybe, or just liking this generally.
Ellen: So even though you might go, "These are stupid lyrics, but I really like this person so I'm going to keep listening."
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah. And for young people that's another element that comes in to it because music becomes a culture, an identity, a group of people that identify with. And it then goes beyond a particular song, but it becomes about what is this artist, what does this artist represent to young people, and what life values do the people who adore this particular artist, what do they represent. And so if my teen is becoming interested in that music, is it more than just the music of a ... Are they then becoming part of that culture? So there's, yeah, there's a whole lot more to it than, in this day and age where you have access to so much information about celebrities and their lives and that sort of thing, you can follow them on Instagram and see how they're feeling every minute of the day pretty much. Yeah, there's so much more to it than just the features of the music itself.
Ellen: Yeah. Interesting stuff there about identity, isn't it? That kind of connection with others and groups, it's part of forming our identity. I know that Lee Sales, the APC presenter, has had a few tweets out lately about the music that she enjoys and the fact that some of the younger people in her work place roll their eyes a little bit at her music choices, listening choices. And yet I look at that and I'm like, "I know. I agree. That's a really good song. And yes, I do kind of enjoy it [inaudible 00:35:03] radio." But I think that is identifying my age years.
Ellen: [crosstalk 00:35:12].
Sandra: [crosstalk 00:35:15]. Yeah. I guess to me one good thing about the fact that music is so broadly available these days is that I feel like young people have much broader tastes in general. They're more accepting of lots of different genres. And I suppose older people tend to be as well because you're just hearing more of lots of different types of music over time. So yeah, it's kind of good.
Ellen: Yeah. I guess that's a good point, isn't it? Because once upon a time, certainly when I was growing up, you had the radio and then you had, and there were limited choices there, and then you had to go and spend money buying albums, cassettes as it was for me, and then CDs later on. But these days music is vastly more, and as you say a range of music is vastly more accessible to people. Isn't it?
Ellen: Yeah. So we are hopefully, I don't know, maybe growing our music tastes over time. I did make my children listen to Queen last night because I was catching up on a couple of scenes from Bohemian Rhapsody that I had missed [crosstalk 00:36:20].
Sandra: Bohemian Rhapsody.
Ellen: Yeah. The airplane version.
Sandra: Yes. Yeah. Right.
Ellen: And they recognized it, just from the movie they already recognized some of the music and went, "Oh, yeah. That's Bohemian Rhapsody." They didn't know who Queen was, but they knew that it was from Bohemian Rhapsody. Yes. Expanding their repertoire somewhat.
Sandra: We typically have Queen sing along sessions on the way to school in the car. That's a pretty normal feature of our mornings. We are the Champions, all that.
Ellen: I'd happily do school runs in your car. Sandra, what are some of your tips, I suppose, for how people can use music particularly for their well-being? That's what we largely talk about here on Potential Psychology Podcast. What are the things that the everyday listener can do to really use music perhaps in a proactive way to enhance their well-being?
Sandra: Okay. Well I think for the majority of the people, they probably have an instinctive understanding of what helps them and what doesn't. But if they want to think about it in a more targeted way, I guess what I would suggest is think about what you might like to achieve during the day. So if you have difficulty getting going in the morning, or you have difficulty winding down at night, or you have those moments like we were discussing before where you have trouble finding the right motivation during the day, then think about creating playlists specifically for that, for those purposes. And don't just go, "Ah, yeah, that's a song I really like. I'll listen to that", but actually think about songs. And even keep some record of the effect that particular songs have on your moods.
Sandra: So I guess we're actually in the middle of developing an app now that works in that way that when people are listening to music they can record the effect that its had on their mood. So it's not about the mood that the song is expressing, but it's about the effect that it has on you. It could be a really sad song, but you find it really beautiful and it makes you feel very peaceful and calm, or it could be a really happy upbeat song and you find it highly irritating.
Sandra: So a lot of these streaming platforms and things have got music categorized into the mood that is expressed by the music, but really reflecting on the impact that that has on you and then developing these really targeted playlists based on your individual experiences, not other people's tags about the effect that it has on you. And I guess particularly really taking care around the music that you listen when you're not feeling good and just really reflecting on whether your listening choices at that point in time are helping you to think positively about a situation or whether they're making you get a little bit more stuck in those negative feelings.
Ellen: Yes. That does make sense. So there is a lot of reflection and paying attention, we often talk about paying attention here in different ways, but again, paying attention to what's going on for you internally as you listen to music, not just. And I think that that's probably that's fascinating, that idea of your app. So we'll have to keep in touch and make sure that we get that information out to listeners as it's developed because that really is starting to tailor that, a playlist to an individualized response rather than just assuming that certain styles of music will work for everybody.
Sandra: That's right.
Sandra: Yeah. And it's all about awareness of how things are impacting you because it's so individual, you can't tell anybody this is the kind of music you should be listening to make you feel better. It's really about just going on that self-discovery journey and making your own decisions about what works for you, but maybe having some knowledge so that you're equipped to make those decisions well.
Ellen: Yeah. And I think too that nuance piece that we were talking about earlier about the difference between whether it's the lyrics, or whether it's the beat, or whether it's the key, or what is it about that music that does something for you and what is it that it does because I have a ... There's an old Split Ends song called Charlie, which is essentially about domestic violence. It's actually really, really grim when you listen to the music or the lyrics.
Ellen: But I love the music. I find it so uplifting. There's something about the sound itself, despite the ... I'm always brought back to this kind of sense of conflict between why am I enjoying a song about-
Ellen: ... relationship domestic violence so much. But yeah. And possibly others could listen to that and have a very different response to it.
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah. And I feel that, I guess, there's songs around those sorts of topics. There's, again, a balance to be found. And this is, I suppose, a social responsibility that I feel that the artists have where they ... You need to bring attention to particular social issues like domestic violence, but is it being done ina way that is really giving positive messages to people or is it being done in a way that's, as we said before, normalizing those behaviors. Yeah.
Ellen: And this one's definitely not. This is really actually a very bad song about realization and regret and all sorts of horrible things.
Ellen: But yeah, but presented in a kind of beautiful way.
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah.
Ellen: I'll put it in the show notes for people to listen to. Go and find it and see if you've never heard it before. It wasn't one of their most well-known songs, I don't think, and it is kind of old now.
Ellen: A weird way. Any other tips for how people might use music for their well-being? I think that's a wonderful idea that we need to kind of individualize our playlists and incorporate it into our, almost our planning for the day, or a week, or a period of our life. What else could we do?
Sandra: I guess the other thing that helps is ... I mean there are so many things that contribute to our well-being such as exercising. And it's a kind of thing that a lot of us find difficult to motivate ourselves to do.
Sandra: So thinking about how you could use music to motivate you to do some of these other things that are really good for our well-being could be helpful. Often when people are feeling depressed, they just feel like kind of staying at home, and withdrawing, and cutting themselves off socially. And there can be some pieces as music that can help you get over that, as well things that can sort of give you a little bit of motivation to get out there and spend time with people that you care about. Yeah. I guess even if sleeping is an issue for your well-being, then try and find the right music that's really going to help you. So yeah, I mean music can really do a lot to enhance those other aspects of life that contribute to our well-being as well.
Ellen: Yeah. That reward part, particularly when you mentioned exercise. I think being able to almost consciously reward yourself. I'm going to go listen to that artist that I love, or that music that I love, or that playlist that I love, and that's part of my reward for actually getting out there and going for that run or going for that walk, or because you do get that double benefit then of the exercise plus also the reward kicking into your brain from listening to the stuff that you enjoy.
Sandra: Yeah. And your brain begins to make connections between that stuff very quickly so that if you're exercising and your hating exercising, but your listening to a piece of music and you suddenly get a burst of feel good energy from the music, your brain is going to begin to connect that feeling with exercise and then suddenly you find that you view exercising as being a more pleasurable thing to do as well. So yeah, you can often sort of pair things like music that give you a burst of feel good energy with other things that are less pleasant but you know you should be doing in order to set up the right sort of connections in your brain.
Ellen: Really using it quite strategically.
Ellen: And sleep then you mentioned as well, which I know is ... Well, it's a fascinating topic and something that we don't all cope with or manage all that well every day. So using music then, and you mentioned earlier that kind of calming effect of finding things for most people.
Sandra: Yeah. Calming music, a lot of people like to go for sort of ambient music that doesn't have any real strong sense of rhythm at all so that sort of thing ... There are different sort of producers out there that claim to have sort of found the right tones or whatever that adjust right to put people to sleep. I think, again, those things probably work for some people, not for others. It's very individual. I know that there are plenty of people who actually find something like heavy metal music will put them right off to sleep. So it's very individual. Again, it depends on your individual arousal levels, what kind of day you've had. So again, it's very much a part about people just exploring what works for them.
Ellen: I find it difficult, personally, to imagine being able to go to sleep to heavy metal music.
Sandra: No. I agree.
Ellen: [inaudible 00:46:18] response. And I know I certainly use that kind of ambient background, what I call my yoga music because it's the kind of thing that plays in the background in the yoga studio-
Ellen: ... for even for meditation, using it as a kid of sound meditation.
Ellen: Preferring that to say spoken meditations.
Ellen: Just finding that a little easier. And I hadn't really thought about the fact that there isn't really much of a beat, but you're right, there isn't.
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah. And often people find that music with lyrics will make them think about particular things. It makes them think too much. And so if you're studying, for example, it will be too distracting, or if you're trying to go to sleep it's just making you think, whereas music that doesn't have lyrics and doesn't have a strong beat, you can be a little bit mindful in the way you're listening to it and just really be focusing on particular sounds without sort of having too much of that verbal conversation going in your head about what it is.
Ellen: Yeah. I did read some research, I have to dig it out, I can't remember who it was by, but recently that regarding productivity and whether or not using music is helpful to productivity and it suggested that very thing, that music can be very helpful, but usually music that doesn't have a lyric to it. So kind of more background music, which does make sense because it's hard for your brain to think about, you know.
Ellen: The words as well as what it is you're supposed to be thinking about.
Sandra: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Again, I think that's quite individual. There can be some people who maybe they have quite a high threshold, high stimulation threshold and they're feeling very, very sleepy and something that's really up tempo and might have strong lyrics will be just what they need to wake themselves up to the point where they can focus and they can block the lyrics out. So I think as a generalization it seems to be that a lot of people find music without lyrics works best, but that wouldn't be the case for everyone.
Ellen: Yes. That comes back again to paying attention to your own situation or your own preferences. And that's interesting about the arousal threshold too, because that's not something I think I've really given much thought to that does differ for people. So some of us need to be a bit more amped up to get going.
Ellen: Others might need to be ... You know, if you amp me up too much I just got to get stressed.
Sandra: Yes. Yes. Exactly.
Ellen: I need the calming.
Sandra: Yes. Yeah.
Ellen: Sandra, you've mentioned some great resources in here already. Are there any other kind of books, YouTube clips? And I will put a link to your Ted Talks, so you spoke for TEDx on music and sadness. I forgot, what was the actual title? I had got it written here.
Ellen: Why do we like sad music.
Sandra: Yeah. Yeah.
Ellen: Yeah. So I'll put a link to that in the show notes for this episode. Are there any other resources that you really recommend to people of any description in terms of music, and mood, and well-being?
Sandra: Other resources that I recommend. I can't think of anything off the top of my head. There are some quite good books out there about the psychology of music if people would like to dig in to more about how music effects our brain and our behavior. There's an interesting book by Daniel Levinton, which I can't think of the name of at the moment, but that's quite a good one.
Ellen: That actually may even be the one that I was, it might have been Levington's research about that lyrics and productivity.
Ellen: So I think I've got the name of that somewhere. I'll dig that one out.
Sandra: Okay. Yeah. I also love Oliver Sacks book Musicophilla, which is really interesting. So he didn't write exclusively on music, of course, but yeah. That's a really, really interesting one about just, which sort of helps people to understand a little bit about how music seems to be working in the brain. Some of the disorders around not being able to process music, which helps us to understand more about how it probably does work for most people.
Ellen: That's great. What sort of music do you like listening to? Where do you get your music from?
Sandra: I have very broad taste and it probably has changed as time goes on. During my teen years I probably listened almost exclusively to classical music and early adulthood, but being a working mom I find these days that classical music just takes too much brain power to process and I find myself listening to these sort of electronic chilling out dance music that just has a really steady kind of a beat that I don't have to think about much, but I feel like it just really chills me out. If the kids are killing each other in the backseat of the car, I put that on and I just zen right out. I don't even know it's happening.
Ellen: Again, probably a perfect example of that individualized response to music and how it works for us as individuals and at different points in our life.
Sandra: Yes. Yeah.
Ellen: I think so many of us attach music to our history from early childhood and even for me I had randomly on my phone one of The Wiggles songs came on that had been stored away for when we listen to an awful lot of Wiggles about 10 ... Well my oldest is 10, my youngest is seven, so over that period, which doesn't ever pop up, but as soon as that music came back on I was taken right back to those toddler days.
Sandra: Yeah. I've been listening to a lot of Frank Sinatra recently because we've been doing work with people with dementia. And we went into one facility and I couldn't get the device to work so I had to download the playlist to my phone and it wiped out everything else that I had. So I basically, this particular individual really liked Frank Sinatra, so that's pretty much I've got on my phone at the moment.
Ellen: That's all you've got.
Sandra: Yeah. But I'm enjoying that, it's great.
Ellen: Yeah. Opportunity to broaden your repertoire again.
Sandra: Yeah. Ella Fitzgerald as well is good.
Ellen: Wonderful. Sandra, thank you so much for today. I really enjoyed this conversation and I'm certainly going to go away and think much more strategically now and pay a little bit more attention to what the music that I'm listening to, what impact it has and how I can actually consciously use that to manage my motivation, and my moods, and perhaps my exercise, and the different parts of my day, what's the best thing to listen to zen out while the kids are killing themselves-
Ellen: ... in the backseat of the car.
Sandra: So worth finding something.
Ellen: Absolutely. I'm going to put that into place and I hope that our listeners, I'm sure that our listeners are too. I'm sure they're all have been, as they've listened, reflecting on, "Oh, yeah. Why do I like that bit of music? And why does that take me back to my teenage years?"
Ellen: I will put all of the links to the books, the TED talk, your TED talk, and the other bits and pieces that we've mentioned today in the show this episode. And I will also keep in touch and I will keep our listeners informed on the development of your app, because that sounds like a wonderful tool for all of us.
Sandra: Yeah. I'll keep you posted.
Ellen: Sounds fantastic. Thank you again.
Sandra: Thanks for having me.