Music unquestionably affects our emotions. We tend to listen to music that reflects our mood. When we’re happy we may listen to upbeat music; when we’re sad we may listen to slower, moving songs; when we’re angry we may listen to darker music with heavy guitar, drums, and vocals that reflect our level of anger. Were you ever asked to name your favorite band or performer? Were you able to rattle off the top five you listened to regularly?

We may not know why we prefer the artists we listen to, except to say that we resonate with or feel the music, or just that they write songs we like.

But we can learn a lot about our emotional selves through our musical tastes.

Consider John, a pleasant man in his mid-40s who describes his mid-20s as a time where he was figuring out his place in life. At the time, he considered himself to be standoffish, internally anxious and shy, well-mannered, and sensitive. But the music he preferred to listen to was dark, heavy, rough, and aggressive.

After some time in therapy, John realized he’d been repressing significant anger and aggression due to years of childhood emotional and physical abuse. Music had become his voice and his outlet. In a sense, music could touch the deep emotions that John dared not experience on his own. Now, equipped with an awareness of his previously-suppressed emotions, John has been able to unlock them and begin to work through the issues that have existed since childhood.

Cyndi, a woman in her mid-30s, has struggled through years of depression. While depressed, she often listened to music that reflected sadness and emotional pain. However, Cyndi also noted that she had a passion for upbeat, energetic music that made her want to dance and feel free from emotional struggle. But she rarely felt this energy and freedom without the music fostering it.

It turned out that Cyndi was an energetic and happy child. She was enthusiastic about life, enjoyed connecting with others, and was a considerably open person. However, when Cyndi was 11 years old, her mother died after a brief illness.

Cyndi’s struggle with depression began after her mother’s death, and she slowly disconnected from her childhood self. As an adult, when listening to upbeat music, she became aware that her core self was attempting to emerge and reconnect. Previously, she had known only that she enjoyed the feeling the upbeat music brought to her as a way to relieve her depressive moods.

With the help of therapy, Cyndi is now in the process of breaking through the layer of depression that has blanketed her emotional self since losing her mother.

Music also can be an effective coping strategy. We can listen to music that elicits emotions we want to feel in a given moment. If we feel lazy and unmotivated, maybe a playlist of uptempo, energetic songs would be a helpful way to change our mood. It could be interesting to create playlists based on various emotions so they’re within reach as desired.

In summary, while music can move us in an acute emotional moment, it’s also notable that it can be used to elicit underlying emotions and teach us about unconscious elements of our emotional structure. If we notice a pattern of emotional music that raises questions about current feelings or about who we are, it could be a worthwhile opportunity for self-exploration.