Music can ease the January blues – but the types of songs that work depend on your age and mindset

Music can ease the January blues – but the types of songs that work depend on your age and mindset


Music can significantly boost your mental health – delivering benefits similar to those provided by exercise or weight loss. It can also reduce feelings of anxiety and physiological measures of stress and, as neuropsychologist Daniel Levitin argues, even create the same “neurochemical cocktail” as other pleasurable activities, like orgasms or eating chocolate.

So what type of music should you turn to in order to boost your mood? Researchers have found that music with a fast tempo, written in the major mode (such as Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll) evokes a sense of happiness, whereas music with a slow tempo in the minor mode (like Johnny Cash’s sombre cover of Hurt) evokes a sense of sadness. But, as illogical as it may seem, that sensation of sadness may actually help lead to positive emotions.

Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll has a fast tempo and is written in the major mode – ideal happy music.

A 2013 research paper says that mood-congruent experiences of art – like listening to sad music when feeling sad – offers a sense of emotional sharing, akin to interacting with an empathic friend. And research from 2018 on music’s effect on mood confirms that “sad” music can have a positive effect, with the researchers arguing that “when experiencing sadness, focusing on sad music can be a positive and even a strengthening experience”.

This links with philosopher Aristote’s theory of catharsis, which suggests that we experience the emotion of sadness through music in order to purge the emotion from ourselves in real life.

Professor of musicology Kim Cunio agrees that lifting your mood with music probably isn’t as simple as listening to up-tempo music in a major key. She suggests that to reap the mood-boosting benefits of music, listeners need to “follow the heart” and choose the music that most resonates with them.

Dancing Queen is a mood-boosting choice for those aged over 25.

But what about the lyrics? It may be the case that sad sounding songs have a positive effect on mood, but can the same be said about sad words?

A 2020 study on trauma processing noted that lyrics that were relatable helped patients feel supported when processing their emotions and struggles.

This is supported by a research paper by psychologists Kazuma Mori and Makoto Iwanaga who reported that when listening to a sad song, listeners could identify with the lyrics and felt as if the singer knew their own
sad experiences. This made them feel understood, bringing about an experience of pleasure.

Research has already suggested that our musical tastes change as we get older. For example, our preference for classical music increases as we age while our preference for rock decreases. But further findings have shown that a listener’s age can also affect the types of music that improve their low mood.

Young adults report a preference for listening to sad music to lift their mood, compared with adults over the age of 25, who tend to report more positive feelings being evoked by happy music.

So, if you’re suffering from the January blues, and you are over the age of 25, it might be a better idea to listen to Abba’s Dancing Queen or Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop The Feeling instead of The Cure or Billie Eilish. In my case, though, as a devotee of what my family categorise as “misery music”, this may just make things worse.


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