More than a Feeling: Prescribing Music to Alter Moods


I’ve just discovered this satellite radio channel called 1st Wave. It plays alternative ’80s rock that’s mined right out of my undergrad years. The Cure, REM, The Smiths, Pretenders, The Clash. I guess it’s kind of like my oldies station. (I can’t believe I even have an oldies station.) I drive around listening to this stuff and the memories pour in. Not just where or when I heard a song (read: what party, with whom and how wasted), but deeply visceral sensations, echoes of entire swaths of time and their accompanying gestalts – i.e., that summer of love or that winter of discontent. It’s about memories, yes, but it’s more than that. These songs actually reproduce a mood. It’s an odd sensation that I’ve chalked up to some kind of clinical nostalgia.

But maybe not. My editor just sent me this story from the BBC: “Study to develop ‘musical prescriptions’ for patients.”

Turns out these scientists at Glasgow Caledonian University are using a “mixture of psychology and audio engineering” to see how music can elicit specific responses. The plan is to analyze everything from tone, to pitch, to lyrics and even “associated thoughts” to accurately chart listeners responses and perhaps one day create music regimens that can take care of emotional needs. The potential here is to write music prescriptions to “help those suffering physical pain or conditions like depression.”

It isn’t any secret that our environment affects our moods. And if you pollute your ears, your mind will surly follow (sorry). So, in some ways there’s a No Sh*t Sherlock factor to this story. The BBC itself reported not too long ago stories such as “Music therapy ‘restores vision‘” and “‘Music helped me recover from stroke.'” Of course, too, there’s the Washington Post reporting  just last month that “single French women were more likely to accept the advances of an average-looking man after listening to a romantic song.” And not to put too fine a point on it, there was another nifty story just the other day called “Five ways to have better sex through music.” Indeed.

The goal of the study is to “develop a mathematical model that explains music’s ability to communicate different emotions.” In the future, computer programs might be able to identify very specific sound packages that will have very specific effects on our states of mind.

“Music expresses emotion as a result of many factors,” says Audio engineer Dr Don Knox, who is leading the study. “These include the tone, structure and other technical characteristics of a piece. Lyrics can have a big impact too.” Indeed, the BBC story points out, some online music stores and services use terms like “happy” and “sad” to describe a piece of music objectively, like musicovery. Of course, memories also play a role, and our subjective perceptions also factor into a response.

What form could an Rx take? Of course, there would be the free prescription that costs a couple hundred an hour. “Listen to this and call me in the morning.” But programming presentation descriptors – think iTunes happy section or Pandora mellow music – could soon have a real scientific basis to them. Mood Music. No, really.

Next time you’re jamming to some tune, your mood swaying to and fro along with the rest of you, know that somebody’s looking into it. And who knows, maybe one day Pfizer will wonder why sales are slumping and there’s dancing in the streets. Maybe The Cure were, in fact “¦

Image: flattop341

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at