How listening to music in a group influences depression

Listening to inspiring music in a group and engaging in discussions about music and life is a more positive interaction that makes people feel good.

Listening to sad music and talking about sad things tended to make people feel more depressed after listening to music. Image by Shutterstock.

New research published in Frontiers in Psychology takes a closer look at how music influences the mood in people suffering from depression.

— By Anna Sigurdsson

Listening to music together with others has many social benefits, including creating and strengthening interpersonal bonds. It has previously been shown that enjoying music in a group setting has an impact on social relationships, and that synchronizing with other group members to a beat influences how people behave to individuals both within and outside of the group. Similarly, the sharing of emotions has many social benefits as well: it helps us create and sustain relationships with others and to cement social bonds within a group, and it intensifies the potential for emotional responses. A question that still remains is whether sharing emotional and musical experiences with others might be a particularly powerful form of social bonding, and what the outcome of such an interaction might be.

In this study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers wanted to investigate the self-reported effects on mood that comes with listening to sad music in group settings, and how mood is influenced by rumination (a maladaptive focus on negative thoughts), depression, and coping style. To do so, they recruited 697 participants who completed an online survey about “their ways of using music, types of musical engagement and the effect of music listening.” The participants also completed a number of additional questionnaires, which helped the researchers determine factors such as: the presence of symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress; general tendencies towards depression; coping styles, i.e. tendencies towards rumination or reflection (i.e. healthier tendencies to self-reflection); musical engagement as a measurement of wellbeing; as well as questionnaires addressing a variety of aspects of music listening, both alone and in a group. The results reveal two distinct behavioral patterns related to group music listening:

1. Listening to sad music and talking about sad things tended to make people feel more depressed after listening to music. This kind of group rumination was more common in younger people, and likely reflects relative importance of both music and social relationships to younger people.

2. Listening to inspiring music in a group and engaging in discussions about music and life is a more positive interaction that makes people feel good.

These results provide some clues as to how people with depression use music, and why. “Behaviors relating to music use fall into distinct patterns, reflecting either healthy or unhealthy thought processes,” says Dr Sandra Garrido (corresponding author). “These results reveal important information about how people with depression use music.” The results shine a light on how music can facilitate the sharing of negative emotions, and show that the outcome is related to the coping styles and thinking patterns used in each setting, meaning that people with generally maladaptive coping styles are more likely to experience negative outcomes from group rumination of music.

The results also show that young people may be especially vulnerable to the impacts of group rumination with music. “While young people with tendencies to depression who are a part of social groups may be perceived as receiving valuable social support, our results here suggest that the positive impacts of such group interactions depend on the types of processes that are taking place in the group,” explains Dr Garrido. “Susceptible individuals with a predilection for rumination may be most likely to suffer negative outcomes from group rumination, with social feedback deepening and exacerbating negative thoughts and feelings. However, group interactions that provide social support or opportunities for processing of emotions in a constructive way have a much higher likelihood of being positive.”

These findings partially help clarifying under what conditions social interaction around music provide social benefits, and when it might instead amplify negative emotions. This opens up for further research to create a more detailed picture of how group interaction dynamics influence the outcome.

2 Comments on How listening to music in a group influences depression

  1. While the claims made in Sigurdsson’s blog post are certainly though provoking, I only agree with them to a certain extent. First off, her claim that the results of the study showed that listening to sad music makes people feel depressed and that listening to happy music makes them feel happy can be considered common knowledge. While people experience and interpret music in their own way, it’s a fair statement to say that things of a darker nature leave people feeling unsettled and things of a lighter nature can relieve tension. The statement, though accurate, does not go into depth of the study which has far more implications as pertaining to group listening specifically. While generally the mood was lighter and more enjoyable with a group present, the critical comprehension of the music that was being played took a backseat as it had now become more of a social event. While there are many reasons to listen to music in groups, such as going out to a concert, the addition of a social element is intrinsically limiting to the listener. If listening to music as a coping mechanism for depression, it is more effective to be alone with one’s thoughts where they can listen multiple times and discern their own meaning from the piece.
    In public, listeners are more susceptible to group opinions and the band wagon effect; additionally, many suppress their reactions in public compared to the privacy of their own residence. The study finds that “Susceptible individuals with a predilection for rumination may be most likely to suffer negative outcomes from group rumination, with social feedback deepening and exacerbating negative thoughts and feelings” (Garrido 2017). If one’s objective is to deeply reflect on a song’s meaning and trying to find personal value in it, a social setting is typically not conducive to this. However, the study also notes that “…group interactions that provide social support or opportunities for processing of emotions in a constructive way have a much higher likelihood of being positive” (Garrido 2017). If the social group is a healthy environment that encourages reflection and discussion then it can be hugely beneficial to listen to music with them. This is perhaps why the depression was reportedly higher in younger demographics, many are simply not engaging in any kind of meaningful discussion or debrief about the material as it pertains to them. Many musicians will analyze their favorite charts with each other, but that level of response is more focused around the mechanical aspects of the song and its structure more so than how it made them feel from an emotional standpoint. Overall the article makes some interesting claims that are thought-provoking in terms of how we consume and listen to music. There is a time and a place for listening to music to make yourself feel a certain way; if you attempt to do so with friends, just make sure you are all on the same page and ready to have discussion about it afterward.

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  2. I do not think that a person can be thrown into depression by listening to sad music…what is sad music anyways? who defines that. When I throw a pair of cowins that lifts me up and does not make sad…respectfully disagree with an author

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