When we are helping little ones (or grown-ups) to learn to regulate their emotions, we are teaching them to label and safely express how they feel. We aim to help them to match their behaviour to certain situations, to turn their energy levels up and down – a little like we might adjust the volume of a stereo or the temperature of an oven.
Sometimes we need to build our energy up – like when we need to get going for the day or when we are about to play sport. Sometimes we need to turn it down, like when we are getting ready for bed or ready to concentrate and learn at school or at work.
We can adjust our feelings output levels and intensity using a range of techniques like changing our breathing, changing what we “say” to ourselves internally or by doing different exercises. Music can also help us to turn the volume up and down on certain feelings. We can immerse ourselves in a particular emotion by adding a certain background sound track to a moment.
Some music works for us emotionally because our reactions to it leave us feeling a certain way. Researchers know that we are very likely to select the music we play so that it is congruent or feels the same as our mood. We can also use music to help us move from one emotional state to another.
Just like emotions, music can be high or low energy and it can have a pleasant vibe or a more unpleasant edge to it. We can change our mood and our energy levels by exposing ourselves to certain music. Up beat, happy music can energise us. Quiet, lilting, melodic, perhaps classical music, can lower our energy and can calm us.
Researchers have also reported that music that is classified as “extreme” can make you feel calmer. Punk or heavy metal music can help people connect and share an emotion. People can connect with the anger or the rage that is being expressed in the beat and in the lyrics. They can relate to it, then release.
Music and songs can also help immerse us in memories. It can take us back in time to happier, sad or rebellious phases of our life. Familiarity and repetition can soothe us, so it is not surprising that we often go back through our music collections looking for a certain track from a certain point in our life to immerse ourselves in a certain feeling. However, musical memories can also leave us with an annoying advertising jingle stuck in the recesses of our minds for days.
Movie makers have known about the power of music to effect emotions for a long time. In a movie soundtrack, music is used to play with your emotion. Music can help to build suspense and even to add fright to a scene.
Music can help you build your emotions and then perhaps release them when the beat drops. Dance and techno music often uses a rising beat, then a pause, and then “the drop” where all of the tension is released. A dance can be a physical and emotional work out and the repetition of certain movements can be soothing. Humans tend to pace, jiggle or rock when agitated and this can help them soothe themselves.
So, if you are dealing with someone who has trouble regulating their emotions, or who is still learning to regulate emotions, think about the ways that music can be used to help them.
For instance, if you are driving along and in need of manipulating the mood in the back seat of the vehicle, perhaps you can try to play a certain track in the car. Many parents will attest to reaching a destination with nursery rhymes ringing in their ears and minds for the day, but somehow feeling a little more sane or less stressed. Please be aware, though, that changing the music should not be excuse to push beyond stress levels that are affecting the driver’s concentration. Oh, and at the risk of sounding patronising but needing to be safe, you should always pull over to change the music if you are driving a vehicle – we don’t want anyone getting in a situation that requires emergency sirens in the sound track.
You can also use music choice as another way of talking to children about feelings. “I feel a bit uptight – let’s choose something a bit soothing”. “I feel happy – let’s choose something up beat and celebrate”. As you watch films together, you can highlight that you expect something scary is about to happen because the music is changing and explain that movie makers do that on purpose. Perhaps, you can all have a go at making some emotional music, too. Crack out the instruments, or even the pots and pans from the kitchen.
Just like all things in life, expose your child to a variety of music genres and cultures so they can sample what works for them. Perhaps the repetition and the movement associates with learning to play an instrument can introduce them to a way to soothe or regulate their emotional selves for years to come?