Three Ways to Use Music to Change Your Mood

Sharon Carne is an author, speaker, musician, sound healer. She’s the founder of Sound Wellness and the Sound Wellness Institute, whose programs are at the forefront of education and training for practitioners in using sound for healing and for those looking to support their own wellbeing. She & I have known each other for many years, in fact, she was one of my many classical guitar teachers. Even though we don’t see each other often, Sharon remains a well-loved confidante and member of my ‘Village.’ This conversation was from a visit last summer.

H: What is it about music that makes us feel good?

S: That’s a great question! Music was our first language. There are a couple of flutes that were found in Europe that are believed to pre-date our use of language, so music is humanity’s first language. That’s part of what makes it feel good, because what science has been finding lately is that the neuro-cocktail of hormones that are released by the brain that boost your immune system – that’s dopamine, seratonin, oxytocin – that bond us together in community. Imagine the national anthem at a football game, or when the Flames score and everyone sings or claps or cheers, or the “We will, we will, rock you!” is a bonding for all of the fans, physically in the hormones released by the brain. So all of these things, how our brain and nervous system responds to music, and it being our first language, it can’t NOT make us feel good! Or sad, or happy.

H: Do the benefits of listening apply to any style of music we’re drawn to?

S: The short answer is, yes. This is one of the questions I get a lot from parents who are concerned about their teenagers listening to, in particular, angry heavy metal music. I’ve had many conversations about this style of music, which many people have a negative response to. When our younger son, Matt, was getting into this angry form of heavy metal music (it has many different genres within the genre), he was in a huge depression, and the anger expressed in the music helped him get past the it. He refused to take any of the medications prescribed. He threw them all away, saying, “I can do this myself, Mom.” If he came home feeling very frustrated, he’d go to his room, slam the door and listen to  his angry music for about 30 minutes while we plugged our ears. He’d come down after this time and say, “I feel better now, Mom, what’s for supper?” So for him, what many people judge as very angry music, was very healing. It helped him to express that anger.

Another comment he made in relation to heavy metal music is, it’s very masculine. We have a big rise in feminine energy in the world right now, and he finds this style of music very powerful for him in a masculine way. It’s speaking to the masculine side of us that has been over-empowered, maybe for the last several thousand years, but also needs to be empowered in a more balanced way – in addition to the neuro-cocktail of hormones that you receive whenever you’re listening to your favourite music. It’s the same hormones, whether you’re listening to heavy metal or classical music, it doesn’t matter.

H: Does playing an instrument or participating in a musical experience offer something that simply listening doesn’t?

S: Yes! It does, enormously. There is some ground breaking research being done at McGill University and one of the researchers is Daniel Levitin. He wrote a book called, This is Your Brain on Music. One of the things he studied was about the benefits of playing a musical instrument was done with Sting (doc on cbc website). He put Sting in the MRI & took pictures of his brain while he was singing and playing his guitar (awkwardly) and the results were unequivocally that playing an instrument lights up the entire brain. Nothing else we ever do that lights up the brain as much as playing a musical instrument, singing with others or drumming with others.

H: Of course, for me, as a flamenco, I’m super curious and would assume that since the music and dance are so interactive, that it would be the same for the dancers as the rest of the musicians because it’s so integrated and participatory.

S: Very good point, yes. And in flamenco, you need to oxytocin in a big way, because you have to bond with the other musicians in order to almost know what they’re going to do before they do it. That’s the advantage of the hormones. In Levitin’s second book, The World in Six Songs, he provides the theory that because music is our first language, it helped us create our first communities. The oxytocin bonded us together, and it continues to support our communities through things like National Anthems. Whenever people need hope or to express sadness, we always express it with music most efficiently.

H: Can you give us 3 ways to use music to improve your mood?

S: The first one relates back to one of the other questions about the neuro-cocktail of hormones. They definitely change your mood, it’s a physical change.

Another thing that music does relates to the rhythm. Your heart is programmed to match the beat of any music in the environment within about 4-5 minutes. This is called entrainment. When you change your heartbeat, either to slow it down to relax and or speed it up to become more lively or focused, you also change your breathing and your brain wave state. These three systems are intimately connected. That’s why mindfulness calms down the heart and the breathing; breathing calms down the brain and the heart. You can use the beat of the music in your collection to help you change your mood, which changes your physicality or vice versa. For example, a relaxed heartbeat is 50 – 80 beats per minute, depending on which research you’re looking at. So if we take 60 – which is like, one one thousand, two one thousand – that’s a relaxed heartbeat. If you’ve had a stressful day or are angry and you need to shift out of that. Your breathing is faster, your heart rate is faster and its shallow and your brain is stuck on beta and you’re into your monkey mind or repetitive worries. To shift out of that, put on some music with a beat of about 60 and put it on in the background and within about 5 minutes, your heartbeat will start to slow down, your breathing will deepen, your blood pressure will drop and your brain might shift more into alpha. You enter into a more relaxed state, which in turn shifts your mood.

The third is emotional processing, which is something we do intuitively. A friend of ours, named Ed, shared a story about this. He was manager of a very busy printing plant, with a lot of stressful days with problems and crises involved in the job that he had to deal with.  Every morning he’d get into the car, turn it on, and would have loud, heavy rock music blaring at him. For a long time, he couldn’t figure out who had been messing with his radio, until he realized it was him! In the morning, he loved listen to light classical music, because it helped set him up for the day with a calm, focused mind. But on the way home, after his stressful day, he found that he needed the heavy, regular beat of the rock music, and he’d arrive home feeling much better. Its a neat story that shows how we intuitively choose the music that helps us feel better and shift our mood. We’re so wired to respond to sound in so many brilliant ways. We ARE sound at the basic level of our structure and it’s sound that holds us together, I believe. Science is starting to find out why this is so. Music is the language that everyone on the planet understands. We don’t NEED words, just music, and everyone everywhere understands it. It’s our language for the heart and the soul, it always has been, and community.

I spent my life in music, getting up on stage so many times, having that journey with the ego, falling flat on my face and then going through it all again. For me, all that personal growth was preparation for helping people remember that sound and music is our first language. We are wired for that, and it is deeply, deeply healing.