The Brain, Grief and Music

Coping with Grief Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

Listening to music may not sound like much of a coping skill, but music is a wondrous thing when applied properly.  We wrote a post way back when about creating music playlists, inspired by the book Love is a Mixtape.  We have a volume one and volume two on songs about grief.  But what we haven’t really explained is just WHY music can be so helpful.  So today we’re tackling the connections between the brain, grief, and music.

As you may remember from our posts about comfort eating and alcohol and your brain, we have a pleasure center in our brain where all sorts of feel-good neurotransmitters make us feel really good when we do certain things.  Sometimes we resort to negative coping to stimulate that pleasure center – things like sugary and fattening foods, drinking alcohol, comfort shopping, and gambling (Las Vegas pretty much relies on our brain’s pleasure center to stay in business).

But it turns out music is connected to the pleasure center of our brain too.  I could explain it, but why increase my carpal tunnel risk by typing when you could just check out this great video?

Interesting, right?  This is why music can be such a great coping tool; it allows us to release feel-good neurotransmitters without resorting to wine and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

In addition to music causing pleasure and improving mood, there is research that shows certain types of music can even help with memory and concentration, something that feels almost impossible while we’re grieving.  It can help us work more efficiently, make better decisions, boost energy and reduce stress.  Don’t believe me?  Researchers at Stanford University, University of Miami, Mayo Clinic, and Harvard University all agree.  When our mood is improved it has a cascade effect in our brains that improve many other areas and there is a slew of research that backs that up.

In one study, researchers found that after listening to happy music people who were shown a neutral face would interpret it as happy (the reverse was true too – sad music resulted in people interpreting a neutral face as sad).  You may wonder why people would want to listen to sad music if it makes us feel sad or see the world as a sad place.  But it is clear from the hundreds of sad songs out there that people don’t always listen to happy music. This study determined that when we listen to music we can actually perceive the emotions in a song, but then derive pleasure from appreciating the music itself.  In this way, we can actually enjoy sad songs.  Not to mention that I believe sad songs make us feel less alone.  I have no research to back that up but, come on, it just makes sense.  Cue one of my new favorite sad songs:

Though it involves a lot more motivation and sweat than music, another way to boost mood is exercise. For those of us who prefer the couch, music can actually be a great motivator for exercise and help us work out longer and harder.  This research study demonstrates that music can increase stamina and help people push through exhaustion when exercising.  And this study showed that we actually exercise more efficiently when we exercise to the tempo of the music.  In case you still aren’t feeling motivated, Fitness magazine claims this is the best workout song of all time (with no specific research to back up that claim, but hey, not everything can be evidence-based!).

When it comes to music, my skills end at pressing play on my iPod. But for those who are more musically inclined, the value of music is not just in listening to music, but also in creating music. This small study done in 2012 demonstrated that songwriting as part of grief therapy improved grief processing scores in 12-18-year-olds.  Playing music has its own benefits for the brain, including significant impact on the developing brain.

Though most things that trigger our pleasure center in the brain have a clear evolutionary purpose (we love sugary, fattening foods because they helped us survive, we love sex because it is important to procreate as a species) music is less obvious. There is still debate as to just why we evolved to have such a connection to music. Human beings are the only primates that can move to the beat of the music, and some speculate that evolutionarily music became pleasurable to bring humans together through a shared enjoyable experience.  And though we are the one primates that can rock out to a beat, we are not the only animal that can.

When it comes to stress, anxiety, and relaxation there have been multiple studies showing that music can reduce people’s subjective experiences of stress and anxiety, as well as reduce physical symptoms like high blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol rates.  One study showed a significant decrease in anxiety and hypertension among patients going into surgery who listened to music.  Another study found a similar reduction in cortisol levels among surgical patients exposed to relaxing music.

So get going on some playlists – one to boost your mood, one to reduce stress, one to pump you up when you work out, and one for the days that you just want to listen to sad music and enjoy it.

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Used music to boost your mood or cope with grief?  Leave a comment to let us know!

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7 Comments on "The Brain, Grief and Music"

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  1. Ann Chessman  November 8, 2014 at 3:32 am Reply

    The Blues (Music) makes me happy. However, when I am very troubled, I must listen to music without words. I don’t want to hear them, they’re not good enough

  2. Suzanne  November 9, 2014 at 7:52 pm Reply

    I lost my boyfriend of 8 years to cancer a little less than 2 weeks ago. I miss him so much. He was a musician and an audiophile. Had the most amazing stereo setup. Anyway, I’ve found that lately every song I hear on the radio is a message from him. Sometimes makes me cry but overall very comforting. I’m working on some playlists and also thinking of making some healthy lifestyle changes, so this was very timely.

  3. Jean D'Aquila  April 21, 2016 at 4:18 pm Reply

    I have been a very crappy griever, too, and I hate myself for it! My son has a severe mental illness: schizophrenia (paranoid) and even though he is “okay” now, he will never be the same and I’m pretty destroyed right now. But I am getting a little better. Schizophrenia is a heartbreaking disease! 🙁 And wow! Yes, music is so powerful and sometimes soooo emotional. My son’s only interest just happens to be listening to music, and I listen with him.

  4. Caroline  January 27, 2017 at 5:08 pm Reply

    Some excellent pointers. Next time this topic comes up, consider reaching out to the American Music Therapy Association for the latest research studies regarding music in grief work. Music therapists are trained to use evidence based practices to help clients achieve their goals, and grief and loss is one of many common areas where they work.

  5. Katelyn Nelson  October 5, 2017 at 12:40 pm Reply

    My boyfriend of one year started to sexually abuse me. I broke up with him months ago, but I find that I still miss the relationship we had previous to the abuse. He was my confidant in a life filled with abusive parents, he helped me beat anorexia and self harm. we talked every day for an entire year, he would drive hours just to see me. My heart is still grieving the loss of my best friend, and I find that indie/folk helps lift my spirit.

  6. Ahang  September 7, 2019 at 10:58 am Reply

    Music presents brain activity of choice
    Thank you

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