Music is the soundtrack to your life – what’s on your playlist?

Music can be used as part of a ‘healthy process of self-regulation’. Sascha kohlmann

We all know music can move us emotionally. But how does it impact on our behaviour? That relationship’s not immediately clear.

A YouTube clip was doing the rounds on social media a while ago – the music from one of the most chilling scenes in the 1975 film Jaws had been quite cleverly changed. Instead of the original hair-raising theme that we all know by composer John Williams, the scene was accompanied by the delicate ballet music of Tchaikovsky.

The effect was startling. It could have been a completely different film – one about a fun-loving dolphin. It’s a good example of what an incredibly powerful mood-setter music is. So many of our favourite films just wouldn’t have the same impact without the music.

Ed Yourdon

It’s the same outside of the cinema – a fact that has been instinctively understood by humans since written records began. In ancient China, more than 4,000 years ago, flute music was prescribed to calm an over-excited foetus.

The Egyptians also seemed to use music for therapeutic purposes at least as early as 1500 BC. Then there is the much-loved biblical tale of King Saul being soothed by the playing of David’s harp in the Old Testament.

Today, we often use music to “get into” a mood – using soft music and lyrics to set the scene for romance which, as a seduction tactic, can be quite effective. Researchers in France found that women who were exposed to love songs were more likely to respond to a request for a date than those who were in a control group and did not hear this music.

At other times, we may use a fast, up-tempo piece of music at the gym to get us working harder. Music has also been used across the centuries to pump up soldiers in the face of battle, the same energising facets of the music being drawn upon, in this context to promote aggression (see famous Wagner scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) below).

So does that mean that music can be both good and bad for you? Potentially, yes.

But music exists within a socio-cultural context and it is how the music interacts with other factors that produces a particular result.

So, at the gym it is how and why the music is framed that helps to promote its invigorating qualities for the desired work-out ends. Where it could lead to aggression, there are contextual factors that influence the way in which it’s processed and in turn how it affects us.

Recent anti-noise bans that prevented live music being played in many Australian pubs connected loud music with aggressive behaviour.

The truth is that rock music might indeed encourage patrons to move faster, be more pumped up, and perhaps drink more, be less inhibited, louder, and so manifest a whole range of behaviours than might be regarded as anti-social, leading to an aggression response. But, these are not generated from the music itself, rather in the context and the alignment of many interacting factors.

masha krasnova shabaeva

Perhaps the most useful way to reflect on the positives of music is that it can be part of a “healthy process of self-regulation” as American music therapist Bridget Doak says and, when negative, it may be part of an “unhealthy, distress-addiction cycle”.

Researchers have found that people listen to sad music for a variety of reasons. Some may find that having a good cry while listening to a piece of music is a good way to let go of bad feelings. For others it may give them a chance to think through things that are making them feel sad in their own lives and reach a point of resolution.

But some people do not have such effective ways of making themselves feel better. People with mood disorders, for example, often engage in behaviours that can make them feel worse, and music can be a part of that behaviour.

Music can have such a powerful impact on mood. Whether or not our lives resemble a light-hearted ballet or a scene of terror in shark-infested waters may have much to do with the music that surrounds us on a daily basis.


Professor Davidson will give a public talk on the use of music in daily life at the University of Melbourne on Tuesday May 20 at 6.30pm. My Life As A Playlist (2014) by Jane Davidson and Sandra Garrido is published by UWA Publishing. You can participate in research and learn more about the interaction between music listening choices and personality here.