The power of music

Picture of Orna Herr

Orna Herr

Choco-lot or choco-less? A question we’ve frequently encountered as of late in an attempt to perk ourselves up during the January blues. Fortunately (for us at least), there may be an alternative to the silky, smooth, treat on hand and the solution won’t involve any additional calories, but music instead.

Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association, features in our latest insights article; discussing the power of music and an experiment that could reveal something much sweeter than chocolate.

If you’ve ever reached for a packet of chocolate biscuits when you’re feeling sad or stressed, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Emotional eating, which, as the name suggests, is eating in response to an emotion, is very common. 

Eating can release dopamine, a hormone that makes us feel good, so using it as something of a quick fix when we’re feeling negative emotions is understandable. But since the snacks we go for are usually high in fat, salt and sugar, as they are effective in triggering the release of the feel-good hormone (research found the release is similar to the brain’s response to drugs), it’s not the healthiest habit.

We still deserve that pick-me-up when stress strikes and, since music is also known to have a powerful impact on our emotions, could a good song do the same job as that biscuit or five?

This is a question psychologists Annemeike van de Tol, University of Lincoln, and Helen Coulthard of De Montfort University in Leicester explored at their interactive event at the British Science Festival.

The experiment

The Festival audience, curious about the small packet of mystery snacks they found on their seats but were told not to open, were split into two groups, then asked to complete some anagrams in one minute, some seeming particularly tricky (amoos, anyone?).

The first group were then allowed to eat the food (sweet and salty popcorn), in silence, followed by the second group who enjoyed some music while they ate. This was followed by a short survey including an estimation of how much of it you’d eaten and questions about the food.  

This was a simpler version of a study Annemeike and Helen have conducted with 120 psychology students to discover if listening to music had any effect on the urge to comfort eat. 

The anagrams at the start were revealed to be a stress inducer (‘amoos’ is unsolvable) and the food questions were to disguise the true nature of the experiment.

Students were given the option of three types of music:

  • Diversion – fun music to provide a distraction from negative feelings
  • Solace – music that helps us find acceptance and understanding when feeling sad
  • Discharge – music that helps us release anger and sadness by expressing the same emotions.

A control group was not given any music. The music, or silence, was played while the students had access to comfort snacks.

What did we find?

The results, even with a relatively small sample size, were striking. Some students, instead of doing anagrams, were asked to recount a sad memory to induce sad feelings, so the effects of food and music could be tested on sadness. In both experiments, music playing correlated with less food being eaten.

For students feeling stressed, solace music was the most effective at reducing the amount of chocolate eaten (participants had access to several snacks), while for students feeling sad, discharge music was most effective. These students ate less than half the number of grams of chocolate as students who ate in silence.

If these results are replicated across a bigger sample size, this finding could be monumental. Turning to music instead of high salt, sugar and fat snacks to modify our moods doesn’t have to always be the choice, there’s nothing wrong with indulging a sweet tooth every now and then, but knowing music can play a role in cheering us up is worth remembering.

Whether it’s Jazz, Hip-hop, Pop, Rock or Blues, music has the power to uplift, overcome and connect with people in ways no other creative art can. For more information on the benefits music could have on your wellbeing why not visit our health & wellbeing page to discover how music could re-energise team and help to create a more positive workplace.


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