In a time when hyper-medicalized and invasive treatments are frequently put forward as the gold standard approaches to wellness, more easily accessible interventions are often overlooked, even when effective.
A recently released study by Anja C. Feneberg and seven colleagues explores the impact of music on coping with stress from the COVID-19 lockdown. While this may sound like common sense, the study also analyzes the complexities of how the valence, type, and reasons for listening to music affect mental health outcomes.
“Music listening qualifies as an easily accessible coping strategy during times of a pandemic,” Feneberg and coauthors write. “Music can modulate cognitive, affective, and neurobiological processes. Moreover, historical evidence suggests that, particularly in times of crisis and disasters, individuals across cultures turn to music to lift their moods and to increase feelings of social connectedness. This evidence is supported by recent research that investigated the role of music during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Given high levels of distress across many populations during the COVID-19 lockdown, Feneberg and colleagues sought to understand how a widely accessible intervention, music, impacted stress and mood at the time. Exploring this phenomenon during a pandemic contrasts previous research, which suggested positive effects of music on stress may be limited to acute or chronic stressors.
Previous studies on the subject asked participants to estimate how they felt after listening to music over the past week or month, making results likely to be affected by recall bias. Instead, the authors used ecological momentary assessment to understand better how changes in mood, stress, and other behaviors relate temporally:
“Momentary stress was assessed using the item, “At the moment, I feel stressed,” answered on a visual analogue scale ranging from 0 (not at all) to 100 (very much) at each data entry. Momentary mood was measured based on a validated mood scale with 6 items assessing the 3 basic mood dimensions: valence (unwell-well; discontented-contented), energetic arousal (tired-awake; without energy- full of energy), and calmness (restless-calm; tense-relaxed).”
They explored three main possibilities in a sample of 711 people in Germany and Austria. First, they hypothesized that listening to music would be associated with lower stress at the moment and higher mood in terms of valence, energetic arousal, and calmness. Second, they looked at how stress and mood were impacted by a person’s stress and mood from the previous day. Third, they suspected that music listening would explain the relationships between momentary stress and mood with chronic stress.
Participants were 69.9% female, 68.1% residing in Austria, and at least 18 years old, with a median age of 27. Unfortunately, data on first language, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status were not provided.
Feneberg and colleagues found that music listening was associated with decreased stress shortly afterward and more positive mood and calmness. How much one’s music listening related to momentary stress varied based on previous stress levels. Music listening at times of high stress was associated with decreases in stress, while, surprisingly, music listening at times of low stress was related to increases in stress. Music listening at times of low energetic arousal was associated with higher energetic arousal, but listening at times of high energetic arousal had no associations with arousal afterward.
More music listening was not associated with a person’s general stress or mood on a person-to-person basis. However, people with chronic stress showed higher energetic arousal and more positive mood after music listening than others.
The type of music and reason for listening also matters. Listening to happier music than a person’s general mood was associated with a more positive mood, calmness, and last momentary stress. On the other hand, listening to music for distraction was associated with higher momentary stress levels. A complex interaction was found for listening to distract oneself and mood valence.
Feneberg and colleagues acknowledge that they recruited a convenience sample that may not represent the people living in Austria and Italy. They also recognize that they have no pre-COVID data, which prevents them from understanding how responses to music may differ due to this widespread stressor.
Additionally, they explicitly required participants to be fluent in German or Italian and to own a smartphone. These requirements are likely to systemically exclude immigrants and low-income people, who are also likely to have higher stress levels in their lives. It is important to understand how coping strategies might impact these populations, not just people who are likely to have more instrumental and logistical support in their lives already. Having no report of ethnicity or income also makes it difficult to verify which populations may have been omitted from the study.
Also, there is not enough information to understand what it means that listening to music for distraction is associated with higher momentary stress. For instance, is it that people who are more stressed tend to listen to music as a distraction, or is it that listening to music as a distraction leads to higher stress? More research would be necessary to answer questions like these and, likely, on a broader variety of people.
“Because music is highly popular across cultures and age groups and readily available at almost no cost, music listening can be considered a low-threshold intervention to improve health and well-being on the population level during times of crisis.”
These results suggest that music is likely to affect mood and stress levels at many moments but that the valence of the music, reasons for listening, and other factors related to how we may have been feeling beforehand have an impact on these effects.
The authors have contributed to understanding how an affordable and widely available intervention can be used effectively. However, this work would benefit from including the experiences of those who may have additional sources of regular stress within a society.
Feneberg, A. C., Stijovic, A., Forbes, P. A. G., Lamm, C., Piperno, G., Pronizius, E., Silani, G., & Nater, U. M. (2023). Perceptions of Stress and Mood Associated With Listening to Music in Daily Life During the COVID-19 Lockdown. JAMA Network Open, 6(1), e2250382. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.50382 (Link)