The role of music in
adolescents’ mood regulation
Psychology of Music
Psychology of Music
Copyright © 2007
Society for Education, Music
and Psychology Research
vol 35(1): 88‒109 [0305-7356
(200701) 35:1; 88‒109]
SUVI SAARIKALLIO AND JAAKKO ERKKILÄ
UNIVERSITY OF JYVÄSKYLÄ, FINLAND
ABSTRACT The aim of this study was the exploration and theoretical
clarification of the role of music in adolescents’ mood regulation. The
phenomenon was approached through an inductive theory construction. The
data were gathered from eight adolescents by means of group interviews and
follow-up forms, and were then analysed using constructive grounded theory
methods. The analysis resulted in a theoretical model, which describes mood
regulation by music as a process of satisfying personal mood-related goals
through various musical activities. The general nature of the mood regulation is
described, the goals and strategies of mood regulation are examined, and finally
the specific role of music in mood regulation is discussed.
KEYWORDS:adolescence, emotion regulation, grounded theory, mood, mood
Aim and approach of the study
Affective experiences are shown to be central reasons for music consumption
and musical activities (DeNora, 1999; Laiho, 2004; North et al., 2000; Roe,
1985; Sloboda and O’Neill, 2001; Wells and Hakanen, 1991; Zillmann and
Gan, 1997). However, the study of emotion has not been central to music
psychology. Despite the recent growth of interest in the area, our under-
standing of the psychological functions of the emotional experiences of
music is still conceptually diverse and theoretically unstructured. Researchers
have engaged in investigating emotional functions of music in everyday life
but there is a serious lack of theoretical grounding of the empirical results.
Sloboda and Juslin (2001) argue that theoretical development on emotional
experiences of music has been hindered by the complexity of the phe-
nomenon, and the reluctance of music psychologists to turn to emotion
psychology for theoretical guidance.
The purpose of the present study was to rise to the challenge of theory
development, and deepen the theoretical and conceptual understanding of
the emotional functions of music. Mood regulation, a central psychological
process related to emotions, was chosen as the main focus of the study, and
the aim was to find a theoretical clarification of the mood regulatory
processes. Adolescence was considered an important age period for studying
music in mood regulation. Music has a strong relevance, particularly for
young people: adolescents consume music to a great extent and consider
music an important part of their lives (Christenson and Roberts, 1998;
Christenson et al., 1985; North et al., 2000; Zillmann and Gan, 1997), and
most of the Strong Experiences Related to Music (SEM) occur in adolescence
and early adulthood (Gabrielsson and Lindström Wik, 2003). Youth is also a
transitional period with many developmental challenges, which may cause
emotional unrest and increased demands for mood regulation (Halle, 2003).
The approach of the study was fundamentally psychological in the sense
that the aim was to discover internal explanations for human behaviour. The
underlying assumption was that engagement in music is a goal-oriented
activity of the psyche, whether or not individuals are consciously aware of it.
The study aimed at understanding the role of music as a part of the
psychological functioning of the individual. This perspective reflects the ideas
of John Blacking (1973), who stressed that music must always be understood
in relation to the individual and the social environment. Similarly, Sloboda
and Juslin (2001) have argued that there is an urgent need in the field of
music and emotion to focus on the interaction between the person, the music
and the context. Considering music as a resource for satisfying personal
needs in everyday life is also one of the current interests of music sociology
(DeNora, 2001), and this perspective is comparable to the ‘uses and
gratifications’ approach, which studies individuals as active agents who use
media for their personal needs (Arnett, 1995; Arnett et al., 1995; DeNora,
Defining issues of mood regulation
Mood regulation refers to processes directed towards modifying or main-
taining the occurrence, duration and intensity of both negative and positive
moods (Cole et al., 2004; Eisenberg and Spinrad, 2004; Gross, 1998;
Parkinson et al., 1996). There is a wide range of various behaviours that can
be applied to regulating mood. For instance, Parkinson et al. (1996) identified
over 200 different regulatory strategies. Regulation of moods and emotions
may or may not be conscious, and may be targeted at different aspects of
emotions: behavioural expression, subjective experience, or physiological
responses (Gross, 1998).
Moods are generally differentiated from emotions by their longer duration
and lack of specific cause (Gross, 1998; Oatley and Jenkins, 1996; Parkinson
Saarikallio and Erkkilä: Music and adolescents’ mood regulation 89
et al., 1996). In addition, moods are considered to be indicators of internal
states and bias cognition, whereas emotions are thought to reflect environ-
mental states and bias action (Gross, 1998; Larsen, 2000a). Gross (1998)
differentiates mood regulation from emotion regulation as being more about
experience than behaviour. In the current study, the term ‘mood regulation’
was chosen rather than ‘emotion regulation’ because the data were more
relevant to regulating undifferentiated mood states and subjective experi-
ences rather than regulating behaviour, or specific emotional responses to
Music has been acknowledged to be a mood-regulatory behaviour. Some
studies on general mood regulation have identified listening to music as a
regulatory strategy (Parker and Brown, 1982; Rippere, 1977; Silk et al.,
2003; Thayer et al., 1994), and many studies on music have reported mood
regulation to be among the most important reasons for music consumption
(Christenson and Roberts, 1998: 47–9; DeNora, 1999; Laiho, 2002, 2004;
North et al., 2000; Roe, 1985; Sloboda and O’Neill, 2001; Wells and
Hakanen, 1991). The use of music in emotional management is acknowl-
edged in much empirical research. However, there is little research that has
tried to theorize these findings and specifically identify all the different
regulatory processes. Also, general theories of mood regulation have received
little attention in music research.
Description of the research process
Exploration of a complex and conceptually vague phenomenon required an
inductive approach. The data were gathered by means of group interviews
and follow-up forms, and analysed using constructive grounded theory
methods. The concept of mood regulation provided a theoretical framework
and a point of comparison for the empirically constructed theory.
Eight Finnish adolescents participated in the study. The selection of the
informants was based on purposive sampling (Saunders et al., 2003: 175),
with the aim of finding informative cases and enabling a selection of hetero-
geneous informants in terms of age, sex and musical background. The
informants were divided into two age groups: a group of 14-year-olds, and a
group of 17-year-olds. Both groups consisted of two girls and two boys. The
sample included adolescents who were active music makers as well as those
who just liked to listen to music.
DATA COLLECTION PROCEDURES
Both groups had two interview sessions, which lasted about one and a half
hours each. The first sessions focused on musical activities, situations, musical
90 Psychology of Music 35(1)
tastes and experiences. Each adolescent brought along one recording of
personal importance, the meanings of which were discussed. There was one
week between the sessions, during which the informants completed a follow-
up form each time they engaged in a musical activity. In total, 120 forms
were completed. The form consisted of three parts: describing the musical
situation; describing the affective experience in terms of pleasantness and
energy level; and reflecting on the affective experience. The adolescents were
instructed to consider possible changes in their mood state. In the second-
interview sessions, these kinds of experiences were discussed, and the
interviews focused more thoroughly on mood-related experiences, mood-
regulation issues and motivational factors.
The study sought to gather rich, extensive data. Semi-structured and in-
depth interviews are good methods for finding new insights and reaching
subjective experiences and meanings. The group discussions were highly
productive, since the atmosphere was confidential, a variety of points of view
emerged, and the participants were able to challenge each others’ views
(Saunders et al., 2003: 270). Some general topic areas had been devised
beforehand, but the nature of the interaction was fundamentally non-
directive, and the interviewees were given the opportunity to talk freely about
their experiences. The follow-up form was employed to ensure validity
through triangulation. It provided a more private way of expressing
experiences. Sloboda and O’Neill (2001) argue that the diversity of musical
experiences may not be captured in retrospective studies such as interviews.
The follow-up form was used to reach the mundane unfolding situations of
daily occurrences with music. Retrospective data are also vulnerable to
memory loss. However, that was not a problem in the current study. A
deliberate concentration on those issues that were memorized actually served
the purpose of tracking significant personal meanings.
GROUNDED THEORY AS ANALYSIS METHOD
Grounded theory was chosen as the analysis method since it is specifically
designed for inductive theory construction, and helps to achieve an
understanding that is highly abstract but also profoundly grounded on the
empirical data (Charmaz, 2003a, 2003b). Even though the framework
focused the analysis on regulatory processes, the emergent theory was
inductively constructed from the experiences of the informants and topics
that emerged as significant themes in the data. As part of the grounded
theory, the approach of the current study mostly resembles the constructivist
approach proposed by Charmaz (2003a, 2003b). Constructivist grounded
theory aims at an interpretative understanding of subjects’ meanings. It
assumes the relativism of multiple social realities and recognizes the mutual
creation of knowledge by the viewer and the viewed. The resulting model of
the current study is, thus, a construction of the subjects’ portrayals of their
experiences and the researcher’s interpretations of them.
Saarikallio and Erkkilä: Music and adolescents’ mood regulation 91
Theory development started with line-by-line coding, and evolved to a
selective or focused phase of using the most significant codes to synthesize
the data. Axial coding, defined by Charmaz (2003b) as specifying categories
and finding links between them, was also used. Making comparisons at each
level of analytic work is characteristic to grounded theory (Charmaz, 2003a,
2003b), and the reasons for shared and unequal elements between codes and
categories were explored. Each adolescent was also considered as an
individual case, and compared to others. The theory development reached
the formal analysis through memo-writing (Charmaz, 2003a, 2003b), which
moved the analysis beyond individual cases towards defining patterns. The
circumstances and preconditions, properties, characteristics and conse-
quences of different mood regulation processes were explored. It was only at
this point that the hierarchical structures and causal relationships started to
emerge, and the different components started to find their place as a part of
the whole. Saturation in grounded theory means saturation of categories.
Even though the number of the informants was small, the amount and
richness of data appeared to be plentiful. The analysis reached its end when
the abstract categories seemed to be able to cover and accurately explain the
underlying quality of the empirical data, the properties of the categories had
been identified, the categories were situated in larger processes and the
theory seemed to fit the data.
Results: a model of mood regulation by music
92 Psychology of Music 35(1)
FIGURE 1Mood regulation by music.
Personality, age, developmental needs, gender, experiences, attitudes, mood state, etc…
Mood-Regulatory Needs and Goals
dancing, etc. …
– activity is voluntary
– activity suits for
Time, place, situation, other people, life events, activities, etc.…
REGULATED ELEMENTS OF
Ɣ Valence, intensity,
Ɣ Chills, energy levels,
Ɣ Emotional expression…
The analysis resulted in a theoretical model of mood regulation by music in
adolescence. The model describes mood regulation as a process of satisfying
personal mood-related needs by musical activities. In what follows, the
general nature of the process is first discussed and then the regulatory goals
and strategies are described in more detail. The whole regulatory process is
demonstrated in Figure 1.
PERSONAL NEEDS DETERMINING THE CHOICE OF MUSIC
The use of music in mood regulation was determined by specific needs that
stem from various personal factors, including mood. The adolescents said
that they did not usually choose to play, sing, or listen to music in order to
achieve specific goals. However, they did have a sense of what kind of music
they thought they needed at a given moment. Thus, on the whole the choices
of music were not consciously intentional but still strongly based on specific
mood-related needs. An excerpt of one of the discussions illustrates this:
Eric: I have never thought why I really listen to a certain kind of music at a
particular moment . . . I think it happens regardless of a conscious
decision about what music to play, so it doesn’t go: now I’m depressed, now
I will choose a really positive song . . . You just do it like . . . I just choose
something that reflects how I feel.
Alice: But somehow in your head it’s clear that this is the kind of music you need
Adolescents’ personal need for music was based on their mood, attitudes
and experiences concerning the situation and activities taking place around
them and the company of other people. For example, the adolescents chose
different music for relaxing in their room, sporting activities, or for dancing
at parties. They might always listen to a specific band when they felt
depressed. The most important mood-related goals seemed to differ between
individuals according to their personalities and the life events they had
encountered. Thus, the mood-regulatory goals seemed to reflect not only
situational and mood-related demands, but also personality, life history and
gender-specific or age-related needs.
CHARACTERISTICS OF REGULATORY MUSIC
All kinds of musical activities, from listening to music to writing songs, were
employed for achieving mood-related goals. It is important to note that
listening seemed to fit all the regulative purposes, which implies that music
may also be an important means for mood regulation for those adolescents
who just listen to music. There were, however, some essential requirements
for the activity to be able to satisfy adolescents’ needs. First, the musical
activity had to be voluntary. Since the endeavour to regulate mood was based
on personal goals, the satisfaction of these goals was guaranteed only by
personally pursuing them in self-selected ways. The adolescents appreciated
Saarikallio and Erkkilä: Music and adolescents’ mood regulation 93
freedom in their choice of playing, wanted to make their own decisions about
the kind of music and volume levels of the music they listened to, and aimed
to engage with music because they felt like doing so, not because they should.
Second, the music somehow had to fit the current mood state and energy
level. The adolescents preferred different kinds of music for different moods,
and one criterion for good music, according to them, was that the music
should fit several different moods and situations. The emotional fit of the
music was partly defined by the prevailing subjective experience: current
feelings, previous experiences and situations had an impact on how the
music was interpreted. Thus, the ambiguity of music provided possibilities for
using the same music to satisfy different needs.
REGULATED ELEMENTS OF A MOOD STATE
The data were mostly about regulating subjective feeling experiences. Music
had a strong impact on the adolescents through atmosphere creation. They
repeatedly mentioned how background music created the desired feeling
either in solitude or in social situations. In addition, music was able to create
particularly strong affective experiences, and deeply touch their inner
feelings. Musical activities seemed to regulate at least three elements of
subjective experiences: valence, intensity and clarity. Music had a profound
impact on valence mainly by strengthening positive feelings and helping to
move away from negative feelings. Music also regulated the intensity of the
affect, the experience of how strongly and intensely the mood was felt. Music
typically increased the intensity. The adolescents often wanted to listen to
mood-congruent music and to become immersed with their feelings and
sensations created by music. Music also affected the clarity of the experience
by giving form to different feelings. The adolescents felt that sometimes music
helped them to clarify their thoughts, and somehow made their feelings more
The regulatory processes in the data were not limited to subjective feelings,
and many implications for music’s influence on physiological processes also
emerged. Music was an effective means for changing energy levels, providing
thrills, and inspiring dancing and movement. The adolescents also sometimes
preferred to listen to music at a high volume in order to feel it strongly in their
bodies. The physiological components of musical experiences were an
inseparable part of mood regulation. For example, lifting spirits and getting
energy from music were typically blended as a single regulatory act. Music
could also be considered as a way of regulating behavioural emotional
expression in the sense that it provided an optional means for it. Music
promoted self-expression of feelings, and gave form to emotions varying from
anger to elation.
94 Psychology of Music 35(1)
MAIN GOALS FOR REGULATION: CONTROLLING MOOD AND FEELING GOOD
Music proved to be an extremely multifaceted means for mood regulation.
Two main goals and seven subgoals for regulation emerged from the analysis.
The goals were hierarchically ordered since all the subgoals seemed to
promote the attainment of the main goals. In a sense, the subgoals served as
strategies for reaching the main goals. The two main goals identified in the
analysis were the need for controlling one’s own feelings, and the desire to
feel good or better, and they were labelled ‘mood control’ and ‘mood
improvement’, respectively. Music seemed to have an outstandingly strong
effect on mood improvement: as long as the musical activity was self-selected,
it always seemed to make the adolescents feel better and change their mood
in a positive direction. The effect of music on mood improvement was clearly
expressed by all the informants. Here is a comment from Betty:
Betty: In my opinion, music is never lousy. So that at least I always get really
happy because of it.
There were some temporary exceptions to this pattern. When the adolescents
were using music to reflect on or vent negative feelings, the music tem-
porarily strengthened the existing negative feeling and sometimes made the
adolescents feel even worse. However, eventually, these processes helped the
adolescents to get rid of their negative moods, and made them feel better.
Another main goal appeared to be a need to control and self-determine
one’s mood. Mood control was implicit in the experiences of the informants
but this was only discovered after a deeper analysis and interpretation of the
tacit meanings behind the statements. It was reflected, for example, in
attempts to take control over one’s own emotional reactions when trying to
calm down by listening peaceful music, by attempts to make sense of one’s
own thoughts and feelings through mental processes, and by attempting to fit
mood and energy levels to situational demands. In fact, all actions of mood
regulation could be considered as attempts to control and self-determine
current mood to suit different personal and contextual needs. Eric talked
about how he chose music:
Eric: I think you can select in a way for different moods and stuff when you
listen to certain kinds of music. So that, I have kind of an ‘evening playing
list’ that I put on a computer and let it play, and then, well, there are some
‘lifting up lists’ [laughs] . . . No, but in principle on this basis . . . You can in
a way control it by yourself.
The seven emergent regulatory strategies reflect patterns of employing music
to satisfy mood-regulatory goals and needs. The characteristics of each
strategy are now examined and are also summarized in Table 1.
Saarikallio and Erkkilä: Music and adolescents’ mood regulation 95
Bill: I have a habit of listening to music whenever I’m in my room, and it’s nice
to let the music play in the background while doing chores.
Music surrounded the adolescents almost all the time, creating the desired
atmosphere and offering leisure and amusement. The adolescents often
played or sung just for their own pleasure. They used background music to
accompany almost all activities, such as reading, travelling, playing sports,
visiting friends, chatting on a computer, doing housework or homework, and
even sleeping. Preferred music created positive feelings, and made uninter-
esting and irritating chores, such as doing the dishes, homework, or vacuum-
cleaning, much more tolerable and less boring. Helen commented:
Helen: If I’m cooking or something like that, then I listen to music, or sing or . . .
It somehow gives you a better feeling because you don’t necessarily like to
do the dishes or something, which is a quite brainless task as such, so it’s
much nicer if you listen to music.
96 Psychology of Music 35(1)
TABLE 1The characteristics of the regulatory strategies
Regulatory Typical mood Typical musical Typical social Typical changes
strategy before activity situation in mood
ENTERTAINMENT No specific moods, Mainly listening, Mostly alone Lifting up spirits,
feeling ok, some- music is usually but also with maintaining
times boredom in the background others positive mood
REVIVAL Stress and Mainly listening, Mostly alone Feelings of
treadmill, need but also singing, but also with reviving, relaxing,
for relaxation, playing, writing others and getting energy
need for energy songs …
STRONG No specific moods Any kind of musical Both alone Intensity and
SENSATION activity, involvement and with attention become
is strong others stronger,
DIVERSION Anger, sadness, Listening, singing, Both alone Forgetting about
‘depression’, stress, playing, music is and with current negative
disruptive and happy and pleasant others mood
DISCHARGE Anger, sadness, and Mainly listening, Alone Music gives form
‘depression’ sometimes playing, to the expression
music is aggressive of current
or sad negative mood
MENTAL WORK Issues that require Listening, writing Alone Music promotes
thinking, like songs imagery, insights,
personal conflicts, clarification and
on mind reappraisal of
SOLACE Sad and troubled Listening, attention Alone Feeling understood
to lyrics and comforted
The role of music as entertainment and pastime was especially important
when the adolescents were alone. It offered them variety and stimuli. The
adolescents felt that they needed music almost constantly in the background
to prevent silence and boredom. Often, listening to music helped the
adolescents to achieve a more energetic and happier mood when they were
preparing to leave for school or for an evening out. Music also had an
important role in creating atmosphere in different social situations by
providing background, creating a relaxed mood, or stimulating dancing. Jeff
Jef f: If you listen to some jazz, like background music . . . It’s just fun in some
bar if there’s a lot of dust, and jazz on in the background, it’s cool.
Sarah: After school, it’s fun and energizing to listen to music [after a long day at
school] and to relax one’s neck muscles.
Music provided the adolescents with relaxing, energizing and revitalizing
experiences. Music was often used for relaxation in the evenings and providing
energy in the mornings. Some of the adolescents even felt that they could not
get to sleep without the help of relaxing and sedating music. Very often, music
helped to relax and provide energy simultaneously. In essence, music served
as a recreational activity, as a means of personal renewal. It helped the
adolescents to get new energy after a tough school day or some kind of
dynamic activity. It often offered a reviving break from homework. A typical
way of relaxing was to listen to favourite music while lying alone in bed:
Helen: I had been shopping for six hours and then I came home and wanted to
relax, so I put the music on and went to lie in my bed.
Playing and singing were also considered to be strongly reviving activities.
They served as a refreshing counterbalance for schoolwork, and helped the
adolescents to enjoy themselves. Musical activities lifted spirits, cheered up
the adolescents, made them feel better, and gave them energy and strength
for continuing their tasks. Here is an excerpt from Alice:
Alice: It was wonderful, after a long time, to sing the songs I used to sing every
day some years ago. My feelings improved adequately so that I got the
energy to go somewhere. [Musical activity: I sung Killer’s songs with all
my heart. I hope the neighbours weren’t at home.]
Toni: It [music] is life . . . you start living when there’s music. Because to live
without music, there would be nothing . . . without music there would be
no feelings in life, in a way . . . It is so that . . . you like visit this world, and
it’s the sugar on the top.
Saarikallio and Erkkilä: Music and adolescents’ mood regulation 97
The adolescents seemed to search for strong emotional experiences from
music. They really enjoyed surrendering to the feelings, thrilling sensations
and feeling deep emotions. Music was a way of reaching powerful enjoyment,
excitement and pleasure; to live life to the fullest. Sometimes the strong
sensations were evoked by aesthetic enjoyment, by listening to music that
sounded really good. Favourite songs and the voice of a singer seemed to
affect the adolescents most strongly. Intensely pleasurable experiences were
also reached by singing or playing. Sometimes, when everything went right,
playing could be a really enjoyable, flowing experience of effortless and
concentrated involvement, as in Eric’s description:
Eric: We played Faith No More’s famous song ‘Easy Like a Sunday Morning’,
and we made a bit different version of it, and it was a really enjoyable and
exciting experience. It started right away, it started to roll on from the
beginning, the song, you did not have to make the song roll, it just started
The adolescents talked about moments when they were so concentrated
on the music that they didn’t hear if someone called them. While listening,
playing, or singing they could fling themselves into the music, put their soul
into it. Deep concentration and inhibited expression was easiest alone. Some
strong experiences from parties and concerts also came up, and there the
aesthetic pleasure was mixed with the atmosphere created by the context,
location, and crowd. One way of getting powerful sensations was performing.
Those who liked performing said that they enjoyed not only the success and
positive feedback, but also the excitement, the surge of adrenalin before the
performance. Performing was important to Helen, and she tried to describe
Helen: It is the feeling. Although you sometimes screw it up totally, I’m sure that
I’ll screw up tomorrow . . . but it is just the feeling. Somehow just the
excitement before it, and then, when you get to the stage, you just forget
the anxiety, and then it’s somehow . . . You can’t explain it.
Jef f: I listen to peaceful music when I’m angry.
Pleasurable music and enjoyable musical activities helped the adolescents to
forget about undesired states of mind. The adolescents said that they played,
sung, or listened to music when they wanted to distract themselves from
school work and stress. Music also facilitated a detachment from emotional
preoccupations and worries. Some of the adolescents said that they preferred
listening to peaceful or cheerful music when they felt angry, irritated or sad,
and the music helped them to calm down, or lift their spirits. Sarah
98 Psychology of Music 35(1)
Sarah: If you’re in a terribly depressed mood, then, in my view, it’s much nicer to
start listening to something uplifting.
The adolescents said that when there was silence their minds easily started
straying. Music filled the silence, and helped the adolescents to forget about
disturbing feelings and thoughts that kept going round and round in their
heads. Betty described:
Betty: I listen specifically to the music, so that I never ponder on some other stuff.
And that is the very point of it, why I listen to music at night, because
then, like, all other thoughts kind of get away from me, so that I can get to
Alice: Somehow you like discharge the aggression to it [aggressive music], so that
you don’t have to do anything aggressive yourself.
Music was a way of expressing and releasing emotions. The adolescents
reflected that their emotions to music somehow represented their inner state.
Listening to heavy metal or other aggressive music at a high volume seemed
well suited to venting anger. Betty said that in solitude she might accompany
listening with shouting. Emotions could also be released through playing.
Drumming, for example, was considered a releasing activity for discharging
emotional pressure. Music gave form to negative emotions, helped the
adolescents to release them and made them feel better. Sarah commented:
Sarah: You always get, when you’re depressed, a strong need to listen to even
more, so that you start feeling even worse, kind of amazingly, so that you
can release it then, so that it gets released in the end. But then, on the
other hand, in the end I put on something really uplifting, like, kind of as a
joke, I can put some Gimmel or Tiktak on.
Music was an effective way of releasing anger, but also sadness and
depression. Music worked as a reflective surface through which sad emotions
could be expressed. After this release, the adolescents could turn to listening
to something more uplifting. In addition to helping to expel negative feelings,
music was also a way of expressing them to others. For example, the
adolescents could express their annoyance with their parents by playing, at a
high volume, some aggressive music their parents hated.
Sarah: I calm down in the evenings, before going to sleep, by listening to music,
and at the same time, I think about stuff that has happened during the day
because after I’ve thought that through, then, I can get to sleep, that now
these are worked out.
Saarikallio and Erkkilä: Music and adolescents’ mood regulation 99
Music encouraged and facilitated mental imagery and contemplation. In
addition to the music, the lyrics also seemed to be of importance in arousing
thoughts, ideas and feelings. The adolescents appreciated songs that
concerned issues they considered meaningful. Songs could give them new
ideas and insights into different issues. Music often aroused affective
memories of past experiences. Certain songs brought back memories of
certain times, places and people. Music also promoted daydreaming, such as
imagining being the singer of the song, a great star, performing to an
audience. Music also enhanced pondering on desires and expectations for the
future. Alice described listening to a disc that included all her favourite songs:
Alice: All the good memories come to my mind when I listen to the songs on that
disc. In the evening I listened to it by myself, and in addition to the past
also the future came to my mind because on the disc there are songs that
reflect the world I hope to enter in one year’s time.
Music not only aroused thoughts and feelings, but also provided a frame-
work for reflecting on them. Music served as a surface onto which personal
experiences could be projected. While listening to music, the adolescents
contemplated on issues like falling in love, things that had happened during
the day, or some major events in their lives. For example, when we discussed
lyrics that the adolescents felt were good or memorable, Sarah, who had
recently lost her friend, mentioned a song that metaphorically described the
death of a young girl. Music helped the adolescents to confront and clarify
their thoughts and feelings, and to work through personal problems and
inner conflicts. This reflective mental work provided the adolescents with a
deeper understanding of their unsettling thoughts, and improved their self-
knowledge. One effective way of dealing with personal issues was writing
one’s own songs. Helen, for example, said:
Helen: If I write lyrics, I have really a lot of personal stuff in it. Sometimes they
become such that you couldn’t possibly publish them because they are
too, like, private. But they often do speak at least in some way about my
Interviewer: What kind of topics do you have in them?
Helen: Well, especially, if I have some terrible problem, I just have to make a
song about it. Otherwise, I can’t get over it, or something like that.
Alice: They are the singer’s personal stuff, what he has written there. Even
though the whole song is not like completeness or you don’t understand
the words, but then there is one sentence you do understand. And then
when you feel that I have experienced so much the same as him, then
they kind of fit into my life, too, and then like comfort in some way.
100 Psychology of Music 35(1)
Music seemed to offer comfort in times of sorrow and trouble. The
adolescents often felt they could identify with the lyrics. They felt that the
songwriter had faced up to feelings, worries and experiences similar to their
own, and that made them feel understood and comforted. The music told
them that their worries were not their burden alone: the experience was
shared with the songwriter. Identification with the lyrics was often due to the
adolescents’ own interpretations of them; they found what they needed to
find from the lyrics. Music could also offer consolidation by arousing
memories of happy situations and close friends. It provided the adolescents
with a feeling of connection to significant things. Sarah, for example, found
solace by listening to songs that brought back happy memories of her lost
Sarah: Basically it [a CD] is the one that we played as replay all summer. When
we were out somewhere, we always had the player with us.
Interviewer: Has it helped you to listen to that disc?
Sarah: Yeah, it has, in a way. It brings back all the good memories to my mind
basically, what we had, and all that.
The strength of qualitative research lies in its ability to explore relationships,
processes and overall impressions. This study succeeded in providing a
theoretical clarification of the complex mood-regulatory functions of music.
The regulatory goals and strategies were identified, and music’s role in
individuals’ self-regulatory behaviour was clarified. Many similarities exist
between the processes of the constructed model and the processes found in
previous literature. The model seems to gain support from studies of both
music research and mood regulation research.
EVALUATING THE MAIN GOALS
Mood improvement emerged as an important regulatory goal. The need for
mood improvement and positive affect is comparable to hedonic motivation,
which has been recognized as a major goal for mood regulation (Larsen,
2000a, 2000b; Tice and Bratlawsky, 2000; Tice and Wallace, 2000;
Zillmann, 1988a, 1988b). The data also included instances where negative
mood was temporarily maintained or even increased. Larsen’s (2000a)
discussion of delayed hedonic gratifications may have explanatory value for
these processes. He proposes that some activities that do not improve mood
immediately may still be considered to promote happiness in the long run.
Reflecting on a sorrowful experience when listening to sad music may
increase melancholy in the short term but increase happiness and well-being
in the long term by helping the listener to gain understanding and clarifi-
cation of the experience. The apparent discrepancy between hedonism and
Saarikallio and Erkkilä: Music and adolescents’ mood regulation 101
maintaining bad moods has also been considered just to reflect the fact that
hedonism is not an exclusive goal for self-regulation (Larsen, 2000b; Tice and
Wallace, 2000). Sometimes, other personal goals may dominate behaviour or
situational factors may change standards for the desired mood. For example,
after the death of a pet, it is quite appropriate to experience negative moods
for a while.
Another main goal for mood regulation by music was mood control,
which reflects the need for self-determination of personal mood states, the
ability to voluntarily experience preferred moods and aim to achieve them.
This process is fundamentally related to the whole framework of self-
regulation. It has parallels with the control or system theory model of mood
regulation, which considers mood regulation as an attempt to minimize
discrepancies between the current state and the desired state (Hoeksma et al.,
2004; Larsen, 2000a). Mood control also resembles the concept of self-
determination. Vuorinen (1990: 141–50) argues that the need to experience
one’s own emotions as voluntary and unforced is an essential part of self-
determination and self-regulation. This aspect also relates mood control to
the experiences of power and personal control (Peterson and Stunkard,
1992). Hochschild’s (1983) discussion of ‘emotional work’ considers mood
management as deliberate efforts to adjust feelings and expressions for social
and situational purposes. The current model also acknowledges the influence
of contextual demands to personal mood-regulatory needs.
The main goals of mood regulation by music are highly abstract level
constructs. It may be that the grounded analysis of the informants’ experi-
ences could not reach all the abstract processes that motivate mood
regulation. Factors like homeostatic processes, as proposed by some
researchers (Forgas and Ciarrochi, 2002; Zillmann, 1988a, 1988b), may
very well play a part in it. However, the task was not to engage in theorizing
about all the factors proposed in mood regulation research, but to present the
ones that emerged from the data.
EVALUATING THE REGULATORY STRATEGIES
Seven processes with distinctive characteristics emerged as regulatory
strategies. The strategies are related in a complex way to each other and
different musical activities. For example, several different musical activities
could be used to realize one regulatory strategy. Conversely, one musical
activity could serve as a means for realizing multiple regulatory strategies,
even at the same time. Listening to energetic party music could simulta-
neously be a means for distracting oneself from worries or schoolwork,
creating an entertaining atmosphere for a forthcoming party or even gaining
strong emotional sensations. Shah and Kruglanski (2000) argue that
individuals often choose means that simultaneously attain the satisfaction of
as many goals as possible. The importance and power of music in mood
regulation may be founded on its versatility in satisfying multiple goals.
102 Psychology of Music 35(1)
Music was an effective means of discharging negative emotions. Similar
findings have also been reported in previous research (Lacourse et al., 2001;
Ruud, 1997b; Schwartz and Fouts, 2003; Sloboda, 1992; Sloboda and
O’Neill, 2001). Emotional disclosure has been considered to be an adaptive
functioning which helps to restructure thoughts and feelings (Salovey et al.,
1999, 2000; Sloboda and O’Neill, 2001). However, ventilation of anger has
also been found to correlate with health risk behaviours and depression
(Galaif et al., 2003; McCubbin et al., 1985). Therefore, is ventilation of
feelings through music harmful or salutary? Studies that have linked venti-
lation to negative outcomes usually define it in terms of verbal aggression,
yelling, blaming and complaining – behaviours that impact negatively on
other people. Music, for its part, does not suffer in this way. As a symbolic
object it enables acceptable and non-destructive expression of violent
thoughts and feelings (Ahonen, 1993: 139; DeNora, 1999; Small, 1998).
Anger ventilation by music resembles modulated emotion expression, which
is defined by Izard (2002) as a dual-step process of first directing anger into
harmless activity, and then redirecting the modulated anger to constructive
activity such as negotiation. Thus, music may help to let anger out and calm
emotions down before any engagement in verbal confrontation.
Distraction using pleasant activities to lighten moods is considered to be
one of the most advanced and effective ways of mood regulation (Salovey et
al., 1999). The adolescents appeared to employ music effectively and succes-
sfully in diverting themselves from stress, worries and disturbances. Also
previous research has demonstrated that pleasant musical activities may help
to distance thoughts and feelings from personal burdens (Behne, 1997;
Christenson and Roberts, 1998: 203; Christenson et al., 1985; Lull, 1987;
Schwartz and Fouts, 2003; Sloboda, 1992). Confidence in being able to
influence mood, concentration on distraction, and absorption of the distrac-
tion have been reported to be among factors that influence the effectiveness
of distraction (Erber and Erber, 2000, Oikawa, 2002). The distractive power
of music may be due to the fact that the adolescents were motivated by
musical activities; they considered them interesting and focused on them.
Music promoted mental imagery and reflection. Several researchers have
also previously proposed that music may serve as a kind of self-therapy and
help people to identify feelings, work through conflicts, and regain control
over psychic processes (Behne, 1997; DeNora, 1999; Laiho, 2002; Larson,
1995; Lehtonen, 1986; Ruud, 1997b; Sloboda, 1992; Small, 1998: 160–71;
Ziv, 2004). Larson (1995) argues that, in early adolescence, solitude becomes
a constructive domain of self-reflection, emotional discharge and personal
renewal, and music is used to construct this domain. It is important to
differentiate reflective mental work from rumination, which is considered a
maladaptive coping strategy (Garnefski et al., 2004). Ruminative people are
constantly monitoring their feelings and get confused in their attempt to
make sense of them, whereas the ability to identify and understand one’s
Saarikallio and Erkkilä: Music and adolescents’ mood regulation 103
emotions prevents rumination (Salovey et al., 1999, 2000.) It is possible that
listening to sad music increases rumination through concentration on
worries, but the results of the current study suggest the opposite. Music
actually seemed to promote the clarification and understanding of feelings.
Music also provided the adolescents with experiences of solace and
consolation. The strategies of mental work and solace are very similar in the
sense that both include experiences of dealing with worries and starting to
feel better in the process. The difference between them is that mental work is
more about understanding something with the aid of music, while solace is
more about feeling understood through the music. Previous research has
shown that music is often felt to be an understanding and valued friend
(Laiho, 2002: 71; Sloboda, 1992; Small, 1998: 202). According to Schwartz
and Fouts (2003), music provides validation for the emotions of the
adolescents by assuring them that they are not emotionally alone, and that
their feelings are real. Ruud (1997a) argues that the first musical memories
often include feelings of ‘being held’ by parents, and songs are links to these
experiences of being in a safe, accepting and trustworthy relationship.
Music offered adolescents strong emotional experiences and entertain-
ment, and served as a resource for personal renewal and recovery. Even
though these qualities have distinct functions, they are quite similar to each
other from the viewpoint of mood regulation: all are processes of lifting up
spirits through enjoyable activity. The problem of finding some correlation
between these strategies and strategies of general mood regulation is that
theories of mood regulation have widely neglected the role of positive
emotions. However, some research has been carried and recent studies imply
that positive emotions have important consequences for health and well-
being over and above negative emotions (Gable et al., 2004). Positive
emotions are thought to broaden individuals’ thought–action repertoire and
build resources (Fredrickson, 2001), and to enhance well-being and regulate
and mitigate negative feelings and their ill-effects on self-control (Izard,
2002). It has been shown that positive moods make it easier to feel good
about oneself (Keltikangas-Järvinen, 1994).
The data of the current study implied that the importance of music is
intrinsically related to enjoyment and positive experiences. Also previous
research on music has demonstrated that people frequently engage in
musical activities simply for increasing positive moods, and favourite music is
often associated with positive emotions (Lull, 1987; Wells and Hakanen,
1991). It is proposed that pleasures of musical experiences may produce a
sense of well-being, stability, wholeness and purpose in life (Larson, 1995;
Ruud, 1997b). Understanding the functions of positive emotions appears to
be central for understanding the role of music in mood regulation. It is
essential to move beyond the traditional conceptions and not to limit the
exploration of mood regulation by music just to dealing with negative mood.
The strategies of strong sensation, entertainment and revival provide the
104 Psychology of Music 35(1)
possibility for considering positive emotional experiences as actions of mood
regulation. These three strategies all have in common the employment of
music for creating resources for well-being rather than preserving well-being
in times of trouble. The line between the goals that regulate negative moods,
and goals that further positive moods, however, is faint. Many of the
regulatory strategies include characteristics of both kinds of processes.
Diversion, for example, is a process of dealing with negative feelings by
focusing on pleasurable activities. All the strategies ultimately aim towards
the common ends of mood improvement and emotional self-control.
Theory development lays the foundations for further empirical investigations.
Theoretical clarification of the existing mood-regulatory processes provides
the basis for studying personal and contextual differences in these processes.
The model may also prove to be applicable in studying mood regulation by
music in other age groups. It would be reasonable to presume the main goals
of mood regulation are quite similar regardless of factors like age or gender.
However, the model is based on the experiences of adolescents, and some
regulatory strategies, such as strong mood sensations and discharge, seem to
fit especially well with the strong intensity and unrest of emotional
experience in adolescence. Furthermore, in general, there may be a stronger
need for an additional medium for mood regulation in adolescence due to the
incomplete acquisition of sophisticated regulatory strategies. The music itself,
as a typical feature of adolescent life, may be an easily approachable medium
especially for the young. It seems important to be cautious in generalizing the
findings too far beyond Finnish adolescents.
Music proved to be a versatile means for mood regulation. It offered the
adolescents resources for increasing and restoring well-being, and made their
emotional life more varied and colourful. The underlying motivation for the
study was to clarify one piece of the puzzle in exploring the meaning of
music. The study succeeded in demonstrating the impressive capability of
music for promoting emotional self-regulation. The constructed model
specified the different regulatory processes and provided a useful theoretical
framework for the psychological inquiry of our musical behaviour.
The authors wish to express their gratitude to the Pythagoras Graduate School,
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108 Psychology of Music 35(1)
SUVI SAARIKALLIO is a doctoral student at the Pythagoras Graduate School for Music
and Sound Research. She is currently finishing her doctoral studies on the emotional
and psychological meanings of music in adolescence. She received her master’s degree
from the University of Jyväskylä in 2002, with music education as major, and
psychology and education as minor subjects.
Address: Department of Music, PO Box 35 (M), 40014 University of Jyväskylä,
Finland. [email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
JAAKKO ERKKILÄ is a certified music therapist and psychotherapist who received his
doctorate in music therapy from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He is currently
working as a Professor of Music Therapy at the Department of Music, University of
Jyväskylä, where he is running a music therapy master’s programme. Before his
current post, he worked for years as a music therapist, mainly in the field of
psychiatry as well as with children with neurological disorders. His research activities
are concerned mainly with theoretical works on psychodynamic music therapy and
improvisation in music therapy.
Address: as Suvi Saarikallio. [email@example.com]
Saarikallio and Erkkilä: Music and adolescents’ mood regulation 109
Conference Announcement and Call for Papers
Composition & Computer-assisted Music-making
Saturday 31 March 2007
This one-day conference will include invited presentations and selected submissions from
researchers on the theme of ‘Composition and computer-assisted music-making’. Papers are
invited on educational and psychological aspects of composition, and the use of computers or
non-acoustic musical resources, including interactive performance. Contributions are welcome
from researchers at all levels and are especially encouraged from postgraduate students. In
addition to spoken papers, a short lunchtime concert is planned demonstrating interactive
performance with technology. Please send abstracts for spoken presentations (200 words) and for
posters (100 words) to Peter Johnson (contact details below) by 31 January 2007. For technical
details on Birmingham Conservatoire’s Recital Hall, see
For further information, please contact:
Dr Peter Johnson
Head of Research
University of Central England
Birmingham B3 3HG
Dr Elaine King
SEMPRE Conference Secretary
Department of Drama & Music
University of Hull
Hull HU6 7RX