Music and Emotional Intelligence

Wenxin Song

Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate how different forms of musical engagement impact emotional intelligence from early childhood to adulthood.
  • Relate the neurobiological connection between music and emotion to how emotional intelligence is associated with listening to music.
  • Explain the correlation between preferred music genre and ability to regulate emotions.



Our emotional intelligence quotient is indicative of social ability and psychological wellbeing, but it is not set in stone. Engaging in music, both actively and passively, may have the potential to improve emotional intelligence scores. This is because music activates brain regions involved with emotional processing and is associated with mood enhancement. Peer-reviewed literature on the topic, published in recent years and from a variety of international sources, has been evaluated and compared in the following discussion. There is a mutual, positive correlation between emotional intelligence and both musical training and listening to music, independent of genre.

Emotional Intelligence and Music Throughout Life


From as early as infancy, music has the potential to shape our cognitive processes. Particular attention should be given to toddlers and young children, as their brains are in a process of rapid development. By learning music through singing or playing an instrument, children can improve their emotional sensitivity (Destiana 2017). Singing especially can be beneficial, given its ease of access. It serves as a healthy stimulant that promotes socialization, heightens motor skills and coordination, boosts self-esteem and self-confidence, and makes children more sensitive to sounds (Destiana 2017). Each of these factors can in turn increase future emotional intelligence.


The next major stage of development occurs in adolescence, during which understanding one’s self-identity and peer socialization are crucial. Researchers at Udayana University examined how playing in a Balinese gamelan ensemble affected emotional intelligence scores in 135 adolescents (Ariani & Suarya, 2013). The ensemble provided not only musical exposure, but promoted groupwork through playing in harmony. How intensely the students practiced, the independent variable, was measured with an Exercise Intensity Scale. Following the ensemble, researchers administered an Emotional Intelligence Scale. A product-moment correlational analysis was performed, and it yielded a 0.55 r score. This is demonstrative of a slightly positive association between emotional intelligence and gamelan practice (Ariani & Suarya, 2013). The benefits of playing an instrument are clear, but simply listening to music may also be an avenue for adolescents to boost emotional intelligence.


Gamelan Orchestral instruments
The gamelan is a traditional Indonesian orchestra consisting of various percussion instruments (Retrieved by Song, W., public domain)

Dingle et al. (2016) assessed a pilot program called Tuned In that utilized group music sessions as a way to train youths in emotional regulation and awareness skills. The program consists of three activities to be done with self-selected songs: drawing imagery that occurs during listening, detailing physiological sensations felt on a human body outline, and highlighting any moving lyrics. Dingle et al. (2016) tested a sample of at-risk adolescents in an experiential learning system and a sample of adolescents from a regular secondary school. The Emotional Regulation Questionnaire was given to both samples before and after the Tuned In program. A significant improvement in emotion awareness, regulation, and identification was

found from pre-program to post-program, p<0.01 for the at-risk sample and p<0.001 in the mainstream sample (Dingle et al., 2016). This supports the findings of Ariani & Suarya, (2013). Music, either practicing an instrument or actively listening, is particularly valuable in regulating the emotions of adolescents.


By young adulthood, the brain reaches maturity but still exhibits neuroplasticity. As illustrated by the following studies, music continues to have an impact on emotional intelligence. Vijayabanu & Menon (2016) assessed a population of adults between 21-28 years old. The participants listened to instrumental music for an intervention period of ten days. The Bar-On Emotional Intelligence Scale was administered prior to and following the intervention. Researchers found a significant difference between the mean of the pretest and posttest scores, indicating that young adults can improve their emotional intelligence by listening to music (Vijayabanu & Menon, 2016). This study lacked the socialization aspects found in research on children and adolescents, but still produced significant results. It can be inferred that the music itself had a greater effect on emotional regulation than simply being in a group activity.

Extending the findings of Vijayabanu & Menon (2016), McGinnis (2017) examined an undergraduate class of music education majors. The participants were students in a foundations of teaching music course, which lasted for a single semester. The course could be expected to engage students in a variety of musical training and education techniques, presented in a social classroom setting. Researchers administered the Emotional Intelligence 2.0 Test before and after the semester. A statistical analysis of the average pretest and posttest scores showed a significant difference between the two (McGinnis 2017). The study did not specifically focus on listening to music or playing an instrument, instead integrating several musical aspects. Its results are nevertheless consistent with previous findings. Throughout the stages of human development, various forms of musical engagement are able to increase emotional intelligence.

The Neurocognitive Perspective

The connection between music and emotional intelligence can be traced to a neurocognitive link. Within the cortical and subcortical networks of the brain are structures that are crucial to the generation and regulation of emotion. In those diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, these structures demonstrate pronounced dysfunction. Music is able to influence the neural processes in the cortical and subcortical networks by modulating emotions (Hou et al., 2017). Individuals with strong emotional control may be more inclined to purposefully use music to alleviate negative moods. A common method is to reminisce about the past while listening to music. Lonsdale (2018) found a significant correlation between the likelihood of manipulating cognitive arousal through music and the emotional intelligence of an individual. This points towards a mutual relationship between the two, in that music improves emotional regulation and those with higher emotional intelligence utilize music more often.

An image of neurons in the brain
An image of neurons in the brain (Retrieved by Song, W., public domain)

Music Preference Affects Emotional Regulation

Music can be categorized into various genres, and those who exhibit a preference for certain genres may tend to have higher emotional intelligence than others. In a cross-sectional study, researchers gave an emotional intelligence test to participants after they identified their musical preference. Spearman’s analysis revealed a weak positive correlation between test scores and pop, jazz, folk, classical, and gospel. A weak negative correlation was found between punk music and test scores (Kaparang and Gayo 2020). Another cross-sectional study focused on the metal and pop-punk music communities. Researchers measured emotional intelligence in the members of each group with a Bar-On scale, but did not discover a significant difference

between them (Sahputra 2020). This may be due to the fact that pop-punk and metal are similar in terms of tempo. An examination of 794 students at a large urban university found that using music to regulate emotions is positively associated with preferences for the pop, soul/funk, dance, and rap/hip-hop genres. Rather than any specific genre having a superior correlation with emotional intelligence, rhythmic and energetic music is key to our modulation of emotions (Cook et al., 2017).


Emotional intelligence is an important indication of how well an individual can modulate and socialize with their emotions. Starting in early childhood, simple ways of engaging in music, such as singing, boost sensitivity to personal emotions and aid in communication. Listening to music and playing an instrument can improve emotional intelligence scores in both adolescents and adults. This is due to neural processes in the cortical and subcortical networks of the brain that music acts upon. Individuals with higher emotional intelligence may, in turn, choose to listen to music in order to regulate their emotional arousal. There is weak evidence for music preference affecting emotional intelligence. Rather, it is more likely that rhythmic music in general is associated with emotions. A gap in the current research is identifying the short and long-term effects of music on emotional intelligence. Without the sustained study of a population, it is difficult to determine how the effect changes over time. Future research should investigate the trend of emotional intelligence scores in participants following a musical intervention period.


Ariani, N. W. T., & Suarya, L. M. K. S. (2013). Hubungan Intensitas Latihan Musik Gamelan Bali dan Kecerdasan Emosional. Jurnal Psikologi Udayana, 1(1), 151–159.

Cook, T., Roy, A. R. K., & Welker, K. M. (2017). Music as an emotion regulation strategy: An examination of genres of music and their roles in emotion regulation. Psychology of Music, 47(1), 144–154.

Destiana, E. (2017). The Effect of Music On The Emotional Intelligence Development Of Early Childhood. Proceedings of the ICECRS, 1(2), 7–10.

Dingle, G. A., Hodges, J., & Kunde, A. (2016). Tuned In Emotion Regulation Program Using Music Listening: Effectiveness for Adolescents in Educational Settings. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1–10.

Hou J, Song B, Chen ACN, Sun C, Zhou J, Zhu H and Beauchaine TP. (2017) Review on Neural Correlates of Emotion Regulation and Music: Implications for Emotion Dysregulation. Front. Psychol. 8:501. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00501


Lonsdale, A. J. (2018). Emotional intelligence, alexithymia, stress, and people’s reasons for listening to music. Psychology of Music, 47(5), 680–693.

McGinnis, E. J. (2017). Developing the Emotional Intelligence of Undergraduate Music Education Majors: An Exploratory Study Using Bradberry and Greaves’ (2009) Emotional Intelligence 2.0. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 27(2), 11–22.

Sahputra, L. (2020). Perbedaan Kecerdasan Emosi Komunitas Poppunk Dan Komunitas Metal di Salatiga. KONSELING: Jurnal Ilmiah Penelitian Dan Penerapannya, 1(2), 60–66.

Vijayabanu, U., & Menon, R. (2016). Impact of music intervention on emotional intelligence. International Journal of Humanities, Arts, Medicine and Sciences, 4(1), 19–24.



Music and Health (Development Version) Copyright © by Wenxin Song. All Rights Reserved.

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