Music is a powerful force that can elicit strong emotional responses in listeners. While music is commonly associated with positive feelings like joy, relaxation, and inspiration, for some people certain types of music can actually trigger feelings of anxiety. In this article, we’ll explore the question of whether music has the power to induce anxiety, look at the types of music that are most likely to cause this effect, and discuss some of the reasons why music may spark anxiety for susceptible listeners.
Can Listening to Music Really Cause Anxiety?
Research suggests that music can in fact provoke anxiety and negative emotions under certain circumstances. Studies have found that individuals with conditions like anxiety disorders or depression may be more vulnerable to experiencing anxious arousal in response to music.
One study conducted on a group of adults diagnosed with anxiety disorders found that over two-thirds experienced a spike in subjective anxiety when exposed to panic-inducing classical music. The participants exhibited both psychological symptoms of anxiety like rumination and nervousness as well as physiological symptoms like increased heart rate.
Another study exposed a group of adults to happy, sad, and anxious music and monitored their reaction using psychological and physiological measurements. They found the anxious music reliably increased subjective anxiety, negative mood, heart rate, and nervous system arousal.
So while music can certainly uplift and calm listeners, it also appears to have the power to do the opposite and trigger anxiety in some cases. The response seems most pronounced in those already prone to anxiety.
Characteristics of Anxiety-Provoking Music
What is it about certain music that activates feelings of anxiety? Research has uncovered some common traits shared by anxiety-inducing music:
The main distinction between “happy” and “sad” sounding music often lies in whether it’s written in a major or minor key. Music in a minor key tends to sound solemn, brooding, and ominous compared to brighter major key music. Many studies have found music in a minor key is more likely to elicit anxiety and negative moods.
Atonal music lacks a tonal center and discernible chord progressions. The dissonant, arrhythmic sound runs counter to the patterns found in most Western music. Atonal classical pieces have been found to increase anxiety, tension, and negative emotions in listeners.
Music that is excessively loud and intense can induce anxiety and feelings of irritability or overwhelm. Extremes of volume, especially when combined with dissonant tones and erratic rhythms, are thought to activate the body’s fight-or-flight response.
Abrupt, jarring changes in the elements of music like tempo, rhythm, and melody disrupt predictability. Research suggests unpredictable music can unsettle listeners and place them in a heightened state of arousal.
The combination of clashing, inharmonious sounds within music has been associated with anxious reactions in studies. Music high in dissonance and low in consonance appears to create tension and distress in susceptible individuals.
Anxiety-Provoking Music Genres
Some research has zeroed in on how different musical genres affect anxiety levels:
While not all classical music causes anxiety, certain composers and compositions stand out. Minor key requiems, symphonies, and operas by the likes of Bach, Wagner, and Beethoven are frequent targets of music and anxiety research.
The loud volumes, dissonant chords, and aggressive tones common in heavy metal have been linked to symptoms of anxiety as well as anger and sadness in studies. However, fans of the genre often report feeling energized and empowered so effects differ across listeners.
Harsh Electronic Music
Atonal electronica styles full of jarring sounds, screaming synths, and dark, ominous atmospherics contain many anxiety-provoking attributes. Genres like industrial, noise, and certain types of dubstep and EDM fall in this category.
The avant-garde nature of experimental artists like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen purposefully defies musical conventions. Their atonal, arrhythmic, abstract compositions are meant to unsettle and provoke reactions.
|Classical||Minor key, atonal, sudden changes|
|Heavy Metal||High volume, dissonance|
|Harsh Electronic||Atonal, discordant sounds|
|Experimental||Atonal, arrhythmic, abstract|
Why Can Music Induce Anxiety?
There are a few key reasons why anxiety-provoking music can trigger feelings of unease and distress:
Humans implicitly expect music to follow certain patterns and conventions. When compositions defy expectations by being atonal, arrhythmic, and dissonant, it violates those implicit expectations and puts listeners on edge.
Chaotic, loud, and abrasive music appears to activate the body’s sympathetic nervous system. The fight-or-flight response then kicks in, causing physical anxiety symptoms like increased heart rate and sweating.
Ominous minor key music seeming to signal danger can cause anxious thoughts and rumination focused on threat and uncertainty. This mental anxiety builds on the physical reactions already taking place.
Arouses Negative Emotions
Dysphoric, tense music naturally elicits matching emotions of sadness, anger, and fear. Listeners already prone to anxiety and depression are especially susceptible to absorbing the negative tone.
Overwhelms Coping Abilities
Anxiety-inducing music may simply overwhelm the coping skills of someone with lower distress tolerance. The music acts as a stressor they cannot handle as easily as someone less vulnerable to anxiety.
Other Risk Factors for Music-Induced Anxiety
In addition to the inherent qualities of the music itself, there are some pre-existing risk factors that make someone more or less likely to experience music-induced anxiety:
Mental Health Conditions
As touched on earlier, people with diagnosed anxiety disorders, chronic anxiety, depression, PTSD, and sensory processing sensitivity appear most susceptible to anxious reactions from music.
Personality traits like neuroticism and introversion have been associated with greater likelihood of music-induced anxiety. Openness to experience and musical training, on the other hand, lower risk.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
Adults who faced traumatic situations in childhood seem to be more easily emotionally triggered by disturbing music. Unpleasant music memories formed early on may also play a role.
Biases like selective attention and negativity bias can influence what elements of music individuals focus on. Dwelling on the ominous instead of the uplifting portions of music may increase unease.
The setting where music is heard and the listener’s present state of mind can impact effects. For example, hearing eerie music while home alone at night may spark more anxiety than at a bustling concert surrounded by friends.
Strategies to Prevent Music-Induced Anxiety
If you find certain music reliably stirs up anxious feelings for you, there are some precautionary strategies you can take:
Avoid Problematic Genres and Artists
Figure out which genres and musical acts tend to trigger anxiety and steer clear of them in the future.
Listen With Others
Anxious reactions may be lessened if problematic music is heard alongside trusted friends and family members.
Only Play When in a Stable Mood
Ensure you are not already feeling anxious or stressed before electing to play mood-altering music. Starting out calm provides a buffer.
Have a Plan to Pause or Switch Music
Empower yourself to immediately turn off or change the music at the first signs of mounting anxiety.
Opt for More Soothing Music
Seek out instrumental music, nature sounds, or ambient electronic music with a calming, hypnotic effect if you need auditory stimulation.
When to Seek Help for Music-Induced Anxiety
Occasionally feeling jittery from a disturbing song is not necessarily cause for concern. But if you regularly experience strong anxiety reactions to normal music, it may be indicative of an anxiety disorder or other mental health issue warranting evaluation.
Consider seeking help from a professional if music-induced anxiety:
– Occurs frequently from a range of different songs and genres
– Causes physical panic attack symptoms like rapid heart rate, trembling, dizziness
– Leads to avoiding listening to music entirely
– Prevents you from participating in certain social or occupational activities
– Is accompanied by obsessive worries and thought spirals before, during, and after music listening
– Impairs your overall quality of life and daily functioning
Treating an underlying anxiety condition often reduces reactivity to potential triggers like music. Learning coping strategies and anxiety management techniques can further help counter anxiously arousal.
The Impact of Lyrics vs. Instrumentals
Most studies on music-induced anxiety focus exclusively on instrumental music without vocals. However, in everyday life people often listen to music with lyrics. This raises the question – do the words matter when it comes to provoking anxiety?
Research that compared reactions to instrumental and lyric versions of the same songs found that:
Lyrics Contribute to Anxiety Response
Songs with lyrics – even if they were emotionally neutral – caused greater increases in objective anxiety measures like heart rate and skin conductance than instrumental versions.
Threatening Lyrics Worsen Impact
Lyrics with explicitly threatening words like “worry” and “fear” caused more negative emotional reactions than neutral lyrics. Lyrics appear to amplify the anxiety-inducing effects.
Lyrics Direct Attention
Lyrics give the listener’s mind something concrete to latch onto instead of interpretive instrumental music. Lyrics guide attention in a particular direction, for better or worse.
Familiar Lyrics Lessen Anxiety
Interestingly, when study participants were familiar with threatening lyrics because the songs were well-known, the anxiety response noticeably decreased. Familiarity with lyrics may thus confer some protective effects.
So in summary, while menacing sounding music can stir up anxiety on its own, adding disturbing lyrics tends to worsen and prolong anxiety reactions. But anxiety may be mitigated if the lyrics are already very familiar to the listener.
Examples of Anxiety-Inducing Music
Below are some examples of well-known compositions and songs across genres noted for their anxiety-provoking qualities:
– Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor
– Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5
– Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2
– Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8
– Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath”
– Metallica’s “One”
– Nirvana’s “Endless, Nameless”
– Tool’s “ Hooker With a Penis”
– Aphex Twin’s “Gwarek2”
– Autechre’s “Nil”
– Nine Inch Nails’ “Mr. Self Destruct”
– Skinny Puppy’s “Worlock”
– Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho Suite”
– John Williams’ “Jaws Theme”
– Silent Hill video game soundtrack
– 28 Days Later film soundtrack
Benefits of Exposing Yourself to Anxiety-Inducing Music
Actively listening to music that elicits anxiety may seem counterproductive or oddly masochistic. However, in controlled doses, purposefully subjecting yourself to anxiety-provoking music can provide certain benefits:
Letting the music drive you to a peak anxiety state and fully experiencing those emotions enables release and purification. Catharsis provides a cleansing effect.
With repeated exposure, you habituate to the music and no longer respond with as much anxiety. It loses its potency. This is the premise behind exposure therapy for anxiety disorders.
Tolerating discomfort and managing fear response to threatening music can strengthen coping skills and build confidence in ability to handle anxiety and uncertainty generally.
For some, there is enjoyment and thrill in experiencing the adrenaline rush from music that terrifies, disgusts, or shocks you. It provides an extreme sensory experience.
When leveraged carefully, music that sparks anxiety can be transformative. But caution is still advised, as uncontrolled exposure likely does more harm than good. Professional guidance is best for serious therapy.
Research indicates that music certainly has the potential to trigger anxiety and negative emotional reactions under the right conditions. Individuals already vulnerable to anxiety disorders and those sensitive to overstimulation appear most at risk. Characteristics like minor keys, atonality, and dissonance as well as certain provocative genres tend to be most likely to induce anxiety. But despite the distressing response some may have to anxiety-provoking music, controlled, intentional exposure may also have value as a resilience building tool. Overall, being aware of how you respond to music and which types unsettle you can allow you to take steps to manage your listening habits and environment to avoid adverse reactions when possible.