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Why a New Taylor Swift Album Can Resonate So Deeply

CU Anschutz expert weighs in on music and mental health

minute read

What You Need To Know

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, the CU Anschutz newsroom is highlighting some of the ways our campus faculty conduct research, provide patient care and extend support around mental health.

There’s nothing quite like the anticipation of your favorite artist’s new album. As a bona fide Swiftie, I awoke early on April 19 and was surprised by not one new masterpiece from Taylor Swift, but a double album: “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.”

For the next 72 hours, I streamed the songs over and over. Swift’s new album is a departure from her mostly upbeat pop material, and to me it perfectly encapsulates heartbreak and how it feels to be a woman in your mid-30s. It even seemed like the weekend’s gloomy weather captured Swift’s and my moody dispositions.

It’s no surprise that music affects our mental health, but how and why? Danielle Sukenik, instructor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, discusses how music affects our brains, our collective excitement about a new album and what to look out for when the excitement goes too far.

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How does music affect our brains?

Music impacts our brain in profound ways, ways in which scientists and neuroscientists are still trying to understand.

Many different regions of our brain are activated when we listen to music, including the auditory cortex and the temporal lobe, which process tone and pitch. From there, it impacts the limbic system, including the amygdala and hippocampus, responsible for emotions and memories respectively. This explains why music can evoke nostalgia, or a strong association with past memories and is also why we're seeing some individuals with dementia respond really well to music.

Music also impacts the cerebellum, which is a part of regulating and processing timing, rhythm and movement.

Why does it sometimes feel so good to listen to sad music when you’re feeling down?

When we listen to music that matches our mood, it can help us feel our feelings. If we're feeling sad and move towards sad music, then it aligns with our mood and the energy flow of the emotion can move through us. It can help us give words to our feelings that sometimes can be really difficult to describe, especially with those harder emotions, and it feels really good to be acknowledged and understood from that musical lens. There are also hypotheses that prolactin can be produced by listening to music, which is a hormone that may promote crying; it also produces a calming effect that can help sit with emotional pain a bit easier.

Can music positively impact our moods?

Absolutely. Music activates the reward system in our brain, producing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins triggering feelings associated with joy and pleasure. Music can also lower cortisol levels, which is directly associated with stress and why we can sometimes feel more relaxed when we're listening to music and it can help prepare us for sleep.

There have also been studies on how music can produce naturally occurring opioids or pain reducers in our systems.

Does experiencing music live vs. recorded have any noted mental health benefits?

Yes, studies have shown that live music impacts our emotional state more significantly than recorded music. Live music is like the evolutionary root of music. Music has existed long before recording technology and streaming devices, and listening to it live really can't be replicated. There's something about witnessing the musicians and feeling the energy of the crowd that we just don't get when we're listening to a recording on a device.

Why is there so much anticipation when Taylor Swift or another popular artist releases new music?

Humans like to be a part of something, and there’s certainly a community and culture around Taylor Swift or anticipating an artist’s new release. Since Swift’s music is often so relatable, this leaves many feeling seen and understood, which keeps them anticipating the next drop. When we anticipate something, it creates this sense of craving in our brain and leaves us wanting more. When we do get it, whether it’s a release or a drop in a song, it produces a really pleasurable effect. Of course, marketing plays a role here too – an artist may be more successful with a new release if they work to build up hype within their audience.

Is there a point when a para-social relationship with a musician like Taylor Swift can go too far in terms of someone’s mental health?

I'm very much a believer that most things are OK and harmless in moderation and with balance, including para-social relationships. It's normal, usually harmless, but has the potential to create issues for some. If we find ourselves developing one of these relationships on a celebrity crush, it’s important to check in and ask: Are other areas of my life being impacted by this, such as my personal relationships, work, school or home life? That's a good measure for any kind of pattern or behavior: Is it impacting my functioning in areas of my life?

It’s also important to check in with how someone feels. For many people, a para-social relationship can be really fun and bring joy and a lightness, or it can be really consuming and distressful, and then people may not be living aligned with what's important to them which can be a cause for concern.

Who is your Taylor Swift?

I appreciate this question because I don't identify as a Swiftie. I respect and admire what she's doing, but it's not my vibe. My “Taylor Swift” is a feature that I use on the listening platform I use, Spotify, and it's called ‘daylist.’

It curates songs and changes four to five times a day based on my listening patterns and the time of day. It usually resonates with my mood or the activity that I'm doing, and it helps me connect to new artists, so it produces that same exciting, pleasurable feeling some may get when singing their favorite Taylor Swift song.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Danielle Sukenik