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Can Music Have Negative Effects on People?

There’s a B-side to music you didn’t know of.


Photo by Maria Teneva from Unsplash

Who doesn’t like music?

If you put aside Freud’s disgust for music, most of us enjoy listening to or playing music.

But there’s another side of music we don’t look at very often (or we’ve never thought of).

American songwriter Ani DiFranco says, “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”…or if you use it wrong, I might add.

And that applies to music as well.

Despite my love and everyday work with music, I want to share with you the negative effects of music on people. It’s not something I enjoy writing about, but I feel it’s necessary to share with all of you.

Let’s dive in!

# 1 — Music can make us see the world more negatively


Photo by Vlad Tchompalov from Unsplash

Sometimes when we assess things in front of us we’re influenced by cues we’re not aware of at the moment.

That’s the case with background music.

Judging other people’s faces differently because of music

According to a study on visual perception, emotional stimuli, such as music, can alter how people judge other people’s faces.

Participants were asked to listen to happy and sad background music while trying to identify other people’s emotions based on their facial features.

When they listened to happy music, participants were more accurate to detect happy faces than sad faces, and vice versa. People become more sensitive to facial features that are congruent with their current emotional state.

Happy mood = easier happy recognition

But researchers found something else as well. People were presented with stimuli that didn’t show any face on the screen, and many still judged it like a happy or sad face. Even when there was no real stimuli, mood influenced what people saw.

Listening to sad music, can make us see the world a little less bright than it actually is.

But that’s only the mild version.

Imagine when you’re always listening to negative mood induced music, what happens to your perspective on life? If you’re constantly in a negative emotional state and enhanced by music, you’ll distort your view of reality.

I know, music is just one element contributing to a darker viewpoint, but it can help keep it that way.

More aggressive thoughts due to violent song lyrics

Now imagine that those songs are not only sad but also contain violent content.

What can lyrics do to our worldview?

A study showed that people have more aggressive thoughts after listening to songs with violent content. This can be seen in three different ways:

  • People judged aggressive–ambiguous word pairs, to be more similar when listening to violent songs, than when listening to nonviolent ones. Some of the aggressive words were “ kill, knife, choke”, while some of the ambiguous words were “ alley, animal, rock”. In other words, hearing violent songs led participants to signify ambiguous words aggressively.
  • Violent songs increase people’s reading velocity of aggressive words, compared to non-aggressive words. By timing how fast people read these words, researchers discovered that after listening to violent songs, people required less time to pronounce aggressive words (e.g. assault, choke). This means that people get easier access to concepts contained in the music they’ve listened to earlier.

If people increase their level of aggressive thoughts and feelings of hostility, these effects will influence how they perceive things around them.

Think of social interactions.

If someone regularly listens to songs with violent and sexually aggressive content, they’ll be more likely to interpret interactions with a hostile tone. This can lead to a more confrontational response (both verbal and physical) and escalate the situation to an outcome he or she will soon regret.

We can’t continue to be naïve about what we choose to listen to regularly. There’s a tangible risk we should work towards avoiding, or at least balance the kind of music we listen to every day.

# 2 — Music can increase our aggressive behavior

Since ancient times, music has been used in war.

Whether it was used to motivate troops, raise their efficiency, scare the enemy, or torture them, music has been intertwined with the worst in humanity (as well as the best of us, of course, but for argument’s sake, we’re focusing on the negative part now).

Okay, that’s how music was used in the past for the right/wrong reasons. But how is music used today to incite violence?

Drill music

One study looked at how this music style could increase aggressive thoughts and encourage crime among its audience.

Gang groups use drill music (a subgenre of rap music) to communicate violence towards the police and other gangs. The lyrics talk about power, masculinity, the use of illicit drugs, shootings, and even direct threats to kill rival gang members.

For instance, one of the music videos analyzed by the authors has the following lyric: “We got bells and polls in the ride, if he’s from 1.9 he has to die”. For ones embedded in this environment, the song states a clear location of rival gang members they want to wipe off.

And this is just one of many violent references to drill’s lyrics.

Apart from promoting violence, there’s an additional problem: turning those words into reality.

Given the cultural context of this subgenre, the audience might expect rappers to do what they say in their lyrics. They can be pressured to commit those violent acts to prove their credibility to others.

This actually happened to the rapper M-Trap. He wrote about knife stabbing in his lyrics and then went to kill a 15-year old (along with two more friends).

Was he announcing his violent act or wanting to prove that he means what he says?

To be clear, we can state that music lyrics glamorize violent crime but we can’t affirm causality. Music doesn’t necessarily make people commit these actions. However, it can add significantly to the pressure to react.

The justice system takes this quite seriously. Lyrics from these songs have been used in court as evidence for criminal behavior, and they have even led to convictions of many, especially in the UK.

Now, to be fair, people are more biased towards rap music. They tend to have more negative connotations towards it than towards other genres. In fact, a study shows that when people assess the same lyrics in country music, they find them less offensive and more acceptable, compared to their rap version.

Sexual-Aggressive Song Lyrics

An intriguing study focused on the influence of sexual-aggressive song content on participant’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors towards the same or opposite sex.

These songs came from different musical genres: contemporary rock, pop, and rap, so it’s not about the music style but the content in them.

Participants were asked to listen to either misogynous or neutral song lyrics and then administer hot chili sauce to another participant (who were actually male and female research assistants). The participants could choose the amount of sauce poured into the other participant’s cup and they knew that this person had to drink all its content no matter what. They were also ensured, no one will know how much content they poured into the cup.

Don’t worry, nobody was harmed in the process.

Results show that men listening to misogynist song lyrics reacted more aggressively to female than to male participants. They administered larger quantities of hot sauce. Women didn’t show this kind of behavior with men-hating lyrics (good for them!).

Moreover, men listening to misogynist song lyrics are more prone to think of negative attributes about women. The same happens to women listening to men-hating song lyrics. They are more inclined to think of negative attributes about men.

Music can change people’s perspectives about others. How we think of others will then influence how we behave towards them, so we need to be careful how we see people in the first place.

#3 — Music can take us into a never-ending spiral of sadness

Inspired by an article written by Elaine Mead, I wanted to explore the idea behind a frequent listening experience of sad songs.

What happens when you drown yourself in songs filled with melancholy and nostalgia?

I don’t mean listening to them just one day because you’re sad. I mean, listening to them every day for days, weeks, or even months.

The evidence suggests that people with symptoms of depression (e.g. a tendency to ruminate) are attracted to sad music, but report feeling more depressed after listening to it.

Listening to downhearted music enhances their proneness to get stuck in negative thinking patterns.

It’s like a never-ending cycle.

Listening to sad music feeds them with negative thoughts and feelings, which makes them feel even worse, and they come back to the same type of music to try to cope with these feelings.

A negative feedback loop.

Nonetheless, they still argue that music helps them, when in fact it makes them feel worse. They don’t realize that they’re digging a deeper hole for themselves by repeating these kinds of behaviors.

Listening to music that makes you feel worse can be quite dangerous. More so if you don’t even realize that it’s bad for you.

And we do listen to a lot of music. According to Nielsen Music 360, a comprehensive study of consumer interaction with music, people listen to 26.9 hours of music per week.

That’s almost 4 hours a day!

If we pair a negative state of mind with so much music a day, we can get a very bad outcome.

Be aware of your habits and see if they’re really benefiting you. Remember that even people with depression might think it’s good for them when it’s actually making them worse.

Take a hard look at yourself and be totally honest about the impact of your daily practices on your life.

Be aware of what you surround yourself with

It all comes down to how we interact with music and how much do we use it every day.

We listen to almost 4 hours of music a day and that certainly influences our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

It colors the way we see the world.

How can it not, if it’s so present in our lives?

We’re feeding of content, whether it’s an emotion or a meaning, and it’s molding us to see the world in a certain way. Interpretations then lead to behaviors, which can result in outcomes we might regret later.

It’s up to us to be aware of the content we’re consuming daily. We have to choose what we listen to and how much do we want that in our lives. If we feed ourselves with negativity, that’s what we’re going to share with the world.

Music is a powerful tool, we just need to know how to use it.


By Pavle Marinkovic on .

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