If you like to listen to music, you’re probably familiar with the intense flurry of emotion that can come when you hear a song that precisely fits the mood you’re in—a song that perfectly captures what you’re thinking and feeling. You might have organized playlists to turn to in order to create such an experience, securing instant access to songs that can meet your needs.
You’re not alone if one of those playlists is suited for heartache. Many of us turn to music after breakups, whether this music is muffled from under a tear-soaked blanket, blasted through running earbuds, or belted from the diaphragm.
A breakup is a loss, so it evokes everything that comes with loss: confusion, denial, longing, anger, depression, despair. Through all this chaos, heartbreak can magnify our needs for comfort, support, and understanding. One way we can meet those needs is through music.
Pain Relief: How Music Supports You at the End of the Road
For decades, researchers have been examining the pain-relieving effects of music, and for good reason: a considerable amount of research supports the notion that music can have positive effects on listeners in pain.
In one study, published in 2006, Mitchell and McDonald induced pain by having participants immerse their hands in ice water. They found participants who listened to music of their choosing could withstand pain for significantly longer than those who listened to music chosen by the experimenters or no music at all. In a 2008 study, Mitchell, McDonald, and Knussen found listening to music also decreased study participants’ levels of anxiety when the researchers induced pain.
Researchers are investigating the mechanics underlying the impact of music on coping with pain. In a 2010 study by Salimpoor et al., participants were asked to bring along music they found moving. The researchers then examined functional MRI scans of participants and found significant increases of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in reward and pleasure, in the brain at the moments that participants were deeply moved by the music they chose. The dopamine increase started even in preceding moments, when the participants started to anticipate these poignant parts of their songs.
Have you ever gotten the chills while listening to music? Salimpoor et al. suggest this dopamine rush is responsible.
Music can have soothing and moving effects on us, including actual physiological reactions in our brains. Neuroscientists are continuing to research this topic, learning more about the way music affects our brains and shapes our experiences. But what we know so far indicates what many of us recognize intuitively: listening to music you love can alleviate some of the hurt in your heart.
Why, then, are we drawn specifically to breakup music? If any music we enjoy can give us a dopamine boost, why do we look to breakup songs to help us feel a little better?
Song Lyrics: How Words Remind Us We Will Survive
Have you ever been so overwhelmed with feelings you just didn’t want to talk about them? Intense emotion can make you feel lost—stuck in a place where you may not know how to tame the tornado of thoughts and feelings inside of you and order them into tidy words.
The lyrics of a good breakup song can help you express thoughts and feelings often difficult to articulate otherwise. You may not even know how you feel before you hear it stated perfectly in a song. At a time when it can be difficult to organize your thoughts—let alone communicate them to others—hearing, “How can you mend a broken heart?” can suddenly give you clarity about the anguish you’ve been dealing with: it’s a broken heart! The lyrics of a song can bring unresolved, unspoken, unknown thoughts to the surface and bring you closer to understanding what is happening inside of you.
On top of realizing how you are feeling, it can be powerfully validating to hear someone express thoughts and feelings similar to yours. You learn even though you are hurting, you are not alone in an abyss of misery built only for you. You’re grieving, and that’s a human reaction to losing love. That experience doesn’t isolate you. In fact, it connects you to the people around you.
Coldplay and Carole King and Lauryn Hill can help you remember that.
- Mitchell, L. A., & MacDonald, R. A. (2006). An experimental investigation of the effects of preferred and relaxing music listening on pain perception. Journal of Music Therapy, 43(4), 295-316.
- Mitchell, L. A., MacDonald, R. A., & Knussen, C. (2008). An investigation of the effects of music and art on pain perception. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2(3), 162-170.
- Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, 14, 257-262. doi:10.1038/nn.2726
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