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Can classical music make you happier? Sort of.

Credit: University of Missouri

Does what we put in our heads impact our outlook on life? The media you consume influences how you feel, but how exactly do one’s choices influence mood? Can a dose of music by Aaron Copland get you out of your funk? Will a movement of Igor Stravinsky heard at the wrong time send an emotionally fragile person over the edge?

An MU report found that listening to music with the intention enhancing your mood might just work. MU Department of Psychological Studies faculty member Ken Sheldon and his former student Yuna Ferguson have backgrounds in happiness research. They were curious about what happens when you tell yourself “I am going to be happier.” They added certain classical musical selections and then documented the mood changes.

In an interview, Ken Sheldon said:

We were trying to address this question that is out there in the literature of “Can it work to try to boost your own mood or happiness or is it almost bound to backfire?” If you go into an activity saying “I am going to use this to feel happier” does it create a sort of an “Am-I-there-yet-am-I-there-yet?” feeling that prevents you from attaining the pleasure that’s intrinsically available in the activity?

Ferguson and Sheldon created two groups of study subjects. One group was told that they were to actively try to be happier. No such request was made of the second group. Both groups were exposed to classical music selections thought to be generally happy or sad.

You can try the experiment yourself: First, determine your mood. Consider your overall state. Rank yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 with a score of 1 being total despair and 10 being complete transcendence. If you are like me you are probably hovering somewhere near a six.

Now regardless of what else is happening in life tell yourself “I am going to work to feel happier.” Go ahead, say it to yourself.

The first piece of classical music that MU researchers played for their subjects was a selection from Aaron Copland’s work Rodeo:

How did that affect your mood? Now take a dose of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring:

A selection from 1913's Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinksy.

How’s your mood now? Rite of Spring is clearly a very different slice of 20th century American classical music from Aaron Copland’s upbeat work as heard earlier.

Sheldon’s research found that subjects told to work at feeling happier were more successful when assigned to listen to the Copland composition. Ken Sheldon summed up what this might mean for the average person:

Maybe sometimes people want to pick music that matches a state such as if they are feeling confused and maybe angry and frustrated. Recent research suggested that if people are feeling angry they might prefer discordant music or they might prefer sad music if they have experienced a recent loss. That can certainly be true but for the average person in an okay state who would like to feel better it might be a good idea to find some happier music to listen to.

Does this suggest an all-Copland diet for those working to feel better? Should Stravinsky be avoided by those with mood swings?

Probably not.

It does mean that music can affect our moods. As a music programmer here at KBIA armed with the results of Dr. Sheldon’s research, I feel an even greater responsibility now for sharing the right music with listeners at the right time. If you still feel bad after your week-day dose of classical music on KBIA, well, please don’t blame me. You can choose to feel better, right?

Trevor serves as KBIA’s weekday morning host for classical music. He has been involved with local radio since 1990, when he began volunteering as a music and news programmer at KOPN, Columbia's community radio station. Before joining KBIA, Trevor studied social work at Mizzou and earned a masters degree in geography at the University of Alabama. He has worked in community development and in urban and bicycle/pedestrian planning, and recently served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia with his wife, Lisa Groshong. An avid bicycle commuter and jazz fan, Trevor has cycled as far as Colorado and pawed through record bins in three continents.
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