One of my favorite things about the end of the calendar year is receiving my Spotify Wrapped playlist. I treat my Spotify as I hope to treat my kids, and my playlists are more curated and organized than any of my school work.
My obsession with music is not a quality reserved for only me, but it is inherently human. While birds can create incredibly intricate tunes, they do not cry at soaring arias or rock out to distorted guitar solos. Our capacity to make, understand and love music is uniquely human.
With streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, access to music has never been easier. But is this a good thing? Unfettered exposure to music may come with downsides.
Before looking at the possible negative effects of music, we must first acknowledge that it is abundantly positive.
Countless studies have shown that music can have an incredibly therapeutic effect. In addition to being a de-stressor, music reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety and can improve cognitive performance.
Intense forms of music therapy have had profound positive impacts. Music can return certain memories to patients suffering from dementia, as shown by the incredible featurette “Alive Inside: A Story Of Music & Memory.”
Music therapy can also be used to help people with trauma, those dealing with a range of mental and physical illnesses, certain individuals on the autism spectrum, those in correctional settings and many more people, according to the American Music Therapy Association.
The therapeutic effects of music are not, however, reserved only for those who are suffering from diagnosed illnesses. Studies have shown that when listening to music, physical and mental fitness improve across the board.
Learning to play an instrument also induces a diverse range of positive effects. It has been linked to an increased ability to learn, improved relationships and faster recovery from traumatic events.
But is all music created equal? Does every kind of music provide equal benefit, or is there more nuance to this story?
To begin, there are certain demonstrably negative effects of music, such as its correlation with distracted driving and hearing damage — as both a drummer and a fan of loud music, my hearing is pretty much shot at the age of 20.
However, there is also much more complexity to the impact of listening to music. Certain studies have shown listening to music can actually increase stress, worsen relationships and reduce creativity.
Here emerges the idea that music may not intrinsically provide emotional benefits, but may instead be tied to certain emotions that are evoked when played.
A love song may not cause you to fall in love, but it can certainly provide an environment that fosters the emotional feeling of love, if present. The same can be said of calming music, nostalgic music and upbeat, anxiety-ridden music.
If we are feeling down and put on sad music, then we may actually be adding to our stress and anxiety. Indeed, studies have shown that Gen Z, which has an alarmingly high rate of depression and anxiety, on average listens to much more “sad” music than any previous generation.
So, should so-called “negative” music be frowned upon? Well, this response is too simplistic and does not consider the nuance hidden between the lines.
A music form that has embraced its negative connotations more than any other genre is heavy metal, and of course, no music form has been banned and disowned more than heavy metal.
In 1990, the heavy metal band Judas Priest was infamously put on trial after the parents of two boys who attempted suicide blamed the band for putting subliminal messages in their music.
The band was ultimately found not guilty, but the judge did rule that there seemed to be subliminal messages within the band’s songs. It was decided, however, that these messages could not have been enough to actually cause the two boys to commit suicide, and thus the band was not directly responsible.
There are many examples of musicians being blamed for unfortunate events because of their “negative” music, and these accusations may not be entirely false. However, in the same way music alone cannot simply cause you to be happy and successful, it cannot be the sole reason for negative thoughts and the unfortunate acting-out of these thoughts.
We are then left with a much more subjective view of music. There are obvious benefits to listening to music, and even more for playing it — but, there are also many downsides.
Music is simply a catalyst — very powerful, but still simply a catalyst — that has the potential to unlock within us those positive and possibly negative effects if we allow it to. At the end of the day, however, it is still within our power to conduct the train down whatever tracks we choose.