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My girlfriend tends to listen to music that express how she feels at a given moment. For example, if she's feeling frustrated then the lyrics of the songs she listens will be of frustration.

Does this external agent (music) expressing her feelings actually help her deal with negative emotions (depression, frustration, anger, sadness, etc.) or does it cause more harm than good?

Are there better or worse kinds of music for helping with negative emotions?

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    It is sometimes claimed when you're upset or frustrated, that you should let it all out. Scream or punch a punching bag or something like that. Release your anger in a non-destructive manner. The evidence, however, shows that this is likely to cause the people to a) spend more time thinking about what made them upset and b) be more inclined to think that releasing anger is a useful response to provocation. So in that case the advice is actually detrimental. – David Hedlund Jan 12 '12 at 9:54
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    I wouldn't be surprised if the same objection can be raised in regards to your question. I don't have the data (hence the comment), but I find it plausible that listening to such music would tend to make her dwell on the issue for a longer time, and to some extent fuel her opinion which may be detrimental in itself (for instance, listening to depressive music when you're depressed) – David Hedlund Jan 12 '12 at 9:56
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    We want to focus our attention on doubtful claims that are widely held or are made by notable people. Please provide some references to places where this claim is being made. – Oddthinking Jan 21 '12 at 1:35
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    @Oddthinking I would consider that claim widely held. I've encountered many, many people throughout life who claim it personally. Have you really not heard people claim that enough that you would not consider it widely held? – Sonny Ordell Jan 21 '12 at 8:30
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    @Oddthinking I find it very odd that you have never heard someone claim that listening to sad songs helps them to better deal with their feeling sad. Especially since you have heard the claim that if people are sad they will listen to sad songs. Note, the claim is not that listening to sad songs while sad can make you happy(that is never claimed in the question) just that it can aid with feeling sad. – Sonny Ordell Jan 21 '12 at 15:15
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Violent or anti-social music lyrics may provide a short-term catharsis for depression and feelings of alienation, by giving the listener the company that mysery is said to crave.

In larger doses, however, the negative emotions expressed in those songs are apt to work at ingraining the attitudes they portray in their lyrics into the minds of their listeners, thus reinforcing the feelings of depression and sometimes by validating thoughts of violence or suicide. (Shneidman and Farberow, 1994)

Sometimes, when addiction to heavy metal or rap music becomes extreme, a "media delinquency" can develop, when the music becomes an actual contributory factor in a person's thoughts, decision-making and behavior. (Pezdek & Roe, 1995)

Finally, Goleman states (1995):

To immerse oneself in angry, desperate, depressing music is a poor strategy for coping with anger, despair, and depression. Neuroscience suggests that 'brooding,' or dwelling on one’s current emotional state, is more likely to deepen the state rather than to alleviate it.

On a brief personal note, I can tell you from first-hand experience how a person's choice of music can backfire on them. My husband (now ex-) has always listened to heavy metal head-banger stuff since I've known him. When we were 20, it was not such a big deal, I guess. But as the years passed, it was like the pissed off teen rebel "I hate my parents and I'll do what I want" theme somehow stunted his emotional growth. I have long believed that the 4 to upward of 10 hours each day he has spent listening to angry, depressing anti-social lyrics as though they were a personal anthem has seriously affected his brain and the way he thinks and views himself and the rest of the world. "Hate Rock," I always called it.

So to answer the question: Yes, listening to sad music while a person is feeling sad themselves can be cathartic and is a matter of personal choice of whether to deal with their feelings that way. BUT, beware the negative effects of over-indulgence, especially in those prone to addictive behavior. (Pezdek & Roe, 1995)

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    +1 for the references and links, not so much the personal anecdote. – SpellingD Nov 6 '13 at 16:23
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Music can make you feel better. There are some trials showing this, I would highlight two of then:

Pleasurable emotional response to music: a case of neurodegenerative generalized auditory agnosia.

Music therapy for acquired brain injury.

  • As far as I can see, some kinds of music do seem to have a positive effect on people with brain injury, but has there been a study regarding people without them? Also, in general music can be pleasurable and make you feel good, I know that much, but do depressing lyrics actually help deal with negative emotions? That has not been addressed, and neither whether there are better kinds of music for dealing with this. – Kenji Kina Jan 20 '12 at 23:12
  • Now I understood what you are asking... I don't know the answer either. – desgua Jan 21 '12 at 0:39
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It is perhaps a type of sublimation. To quote from the book Music therapy in the treatment of adults with mental disorders

according to Noy (1967) uses of music within psychoanalytic therapy included (1)music as a means of sublimation for channeling instinctual drives in a socially acceptable manner

Wikipedia says:

sublimation is a mature type of defence mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are consciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behaviour, possibly converting the initial impulse in the long term.

There seems to be evidence that music can influence the emotion of the listener. For example this study found that emotion induced in the listener was the same as the emotion expressed in the music.

Lastly, to quote from the The Philosophy of Music from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Shifting focus from benefits located in the expressive work to those located in the emotional listener, the oldest suggestion is Aristotle's theory of catharsis, according which our negative emotional response to negatively expressive art results in a (positive) psychological purgation of the negative emotions (Aristotle 1987, 36-9 (ch. 6)). A less therapeutic approach is the suggestion that, since these emotions are without ‘life implications’ (that is, as discussed above, we are not sad about anything), we are able to take advantage of our responses to savor these emotions, gain an understanding of them, and be reassured that we have the capacity to feel them (Levinson 1982).

I couldn't find any studies examining specifically if listening to depressing music while depressed can be beneficial.There is an abundance of literature showing however that music in general can be beneficial for helping people with depression. It would then not surprise me if some people such as your girlfriend do find it beneficial, perhaps as a form of catharsis as proposed by Aristotle.

  • @Downvoters why the downvote? – Sonny Ordell Feb 20 '12 at 6:04
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    And why the deletion of the comments? – Kenji Kina Feb 20 '12 at 11:53
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    @SonnyOrdell I think the downvotes are due to the fact that it doesn't answer the question. If music can induce it's emotion into the listener than maybe given a depressive person depressive music will make them more depressed. It could also help them to process those negative emotions. We don't really know. The answer doesn't help us to decide whether the girlfriend of the person who made the question should listen to that music. – Christian Jul 13 '12 at 16:39
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Sonny Ordell's answer is good. He has inquired deep within the subject. Let me add to it. The emotional listener feels like crying when listening to a sad song. These are REAL emotions but the reason for them is not clear. The music is only the trigger. What in the music triggers this? It makes you remember something. Such strong emotions are emotions that have been suppressed for a long time because no one would accept them. Words can do the same thing. If you hear something sad expressed in a very honest and emotional way you will get sad too. Its the sympathy we can feel for someone else who is sad. You can't feel sympathy for something you havent experienced yourself too. That makes something in common between you and the other one. Something that you both stand for. So in essence on a more basic scale there is not a difference between sad music and a sad poem. They are both not real life situations. They are both the expressed feelings of someone else. So sometimes it may be good to be reminded that you have these feelings yourself. Its just another form of expression like speech. you can get sad from hearing someone say something sad. Music is very powerful because it can't lie whereas speech can. If you hear something being said you would not necessarily believe it unless its absolutely clear that the speaker is honest. But in music there is no doubt. So in essence we feel sympathy for the imaginary person who expressed this feeling because it somehow reminds you of a feeling you have yourself. And thats why you feel like crying. And also you get reminded of your own feeling and feel it very intensely. I think the biggest reason we feel sad when listening to sad music is that we are shown that we are not the only one, that someone else is also suffering. Crying is just an expression of negative emotions that have been built up inside too much. And at the moment we cry its like confession which instantly comforts you. The pain is gone. Sometimes so so much has been built up that it takes minutes of crying without stop to confess everything. But in this case what triggers the confession is not real. So we express our feelings but to ourselves. And we get a temporary relieve. But the person we confessed to never really existed and that fact catches up with us again some time. So its good to sometimes be reminded of our feelings but we have to struggle to find someone real to express them to who will understand and comfort us for real. Otherwise we have to listen to music again. If you can, try to understand your girlfriends emotions and to talk to her. If she doesnt want to talk then write again and we'll think of something else.

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