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Taken correctly, music can act as a very powerful medicine

I once watched a singer pouring out her heart and soul as she held a cordless microphone. Habibi, she sang, in a melancholic tone. Her mournful expression of this one word – habibi (my beloved) – lasted for what seemed like minutes. The singer’s eyes were closed and her coiffured head moved gently from side to side, as if she ws trying to prolong her exhalation. At the end of it, she clutched the microphone close to her heart, as if embracing a long lost love.

Even if you didn’t speak a word of Arabic, you would have understood that this was a sad song. What effect does such emotive music have on us?

There is a widely used measure in depression research, called the response-styles questionnaire (RSQ), that asks people about their mood regulation strategies – what type of things they do to help themselves when they feel sad and low. Options on the RSQ range from “do something fun with a friend” to “listen to sad music”. The latter is viewed as an example of rumination, a passive, repetitive and unproductive focus on the causes and consequences of low mood.

Rumination, or brooding as it is also sometimes called, is problematic because it tends to prolong and intensify negative emotions such as sadness, anger and anxiety. Research shows that people who ruminate in response to sad moods are far more likely to develop major depression in the future. So, perhaps listening to Umm Kulthum’s Baeed Ank (Far from You) isn’t such a great idea when we’re already feeling blue:

I’ve forgotten sleep and its dreams

I’ve forgotten its nights and its days

Far from you my life is torture

However, our relationship to emotive music is not that simple. Music therapy researchers – let’s call them musicologists – have uncovered at least three different ways in which we typically use music to help ourselves cope with negative moods: diversion, solace and discharge. Diversion is listening to music to deflect the mind from negative thoughts. Solace-seeking is listening to music that reflects a mood and taking comfort from the idea that we are not alone in our woes. Discharge, on the other hand, is listening to emotive music to blow off steam, vent and express negative emotions.

For example, angrily rocking out to a death metal track after receiving an unjustified D-grade for an assignment you worked really hard on.

The journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience recently published an article exploring the relationship between these three different music-based mood-regulation strategies and mental health status. The study, undertaken among 123 residents of Helsinki, found that the tendency to listen to emotive music for either solace or distraction was unrelated to mental health status (depression, anxiety and neuroticism). However, discharge, that is listening to music to express negative emotions, was related to a poorer mental health, especially among men. In other words, it’s not what we listen to, but why we listen to it that seems to count.

Of course, this research only looks at associations, not causes. There is more work to be done to fully understand the mechanisms and the exact nature of the relationship between mood, music and mental health.

However, given the ubiquity of music in our lives, such research is particularly important. It might be that some of us are actually abusing music to ill effect. Furthermore, although music therapy still resides on the fringes of mainstream medicine, scientific evidence in support of its potential clinical utility is growing. For example, music therapy has been successfully used as an adjunctive intervention in the treatment of major depressive disorder. It has also been used to explore cognitive recovery in stroke patients, as well as to help assist learning and memory in patients with multiple sclerosis. Music is potentially a very powerful medicine. Perhaps we need to give more thought to how we use it to self-medicate.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

Justin Thomas, www.thenational.ae, www.msidallas.com