Dr. Brian Primack Speaks More About His Research

Last week, we posted an article which highlighted a recent study that claimed that teens that listen to music are more likely to be depressed than teens that use other forms of media, such as television or reading books. We contacted the lead doctor, Dr. Brian Primack, asking him if he would like to speak more about his research as a response to our article, and we are extremely fortunate to have received his reply. The following was a letter that he sent back to us in response.

Hello Weasel –

Thanks for your interest in our research, and for writing a thoughtful piece about it. I wholeheartedly agree with your pointing out a major limitation of our study: although we controlled for basic demographics, we were not able to asses and control for parental factors. So, imagine for example that when your parent is depressed, you are more likely to be depressed for genetic reasons and that also you are more likely to listen to music for environmental reasons (for example, maybe your parent is not as interactive and so you end up listening to music a lot). Then, the association between depression and music could be completely explained by parental depression!

The only thing about that, however, is that then you would probably expect to see a lot more TV, Internet, and video games use in the depressed group also. So, even if there was an unmeasured factor like that, it was still interesting to us that there were associations there for music that were not there for the other media types.

As we mentioned in the paper, we can’t tell which direction the association goes. However, if I had to guess I would actually say it would be more likely to be in the reverse direction from your headline: people who are depressed may turn to music, either happy/hopeful music because it makes them feel better; or melancholy music because it gives them a sense of camaraderie in their challenges. Isn’t that what art is for? Music is particularly good at conveying emotion – there is something about the whole package of rhythm, melody, harmony, and tonal character that really connects with humans. And it very conveniently fits in your pocket these days!

Might the direction of your headline also be true – that once you start listening to a lot of depressing music, for example, you become depressed? Well, like anything in your environment it may have some influence. But, I doubt it is responsible for the 8-fold difference we saw in depression between the group listening to the most music compared with the group listening to the least music.

Thanks again for your interest!


Brian brings up some very interesting points that need some touching on, so let’s check those out now. First of all, with the limitations of the information that was gathered, they can only jump to a few conclusions, and unfortunately, one of them is not if music itself was the catalyst making teens depressed, or if it were external factors that were causing them to listen to music, but as he mentioned, if the results were in general surrounding a parental issue in the household, there would be an influx of depression coming from teens who used any type of media, instead of just with music, so it’s easily possible that there is more of a connection between music and depression than other forms of media.

It has been argued for many a year over what types of media are more influential to a person’s mood than others, but word around the water cooler is that music is one of the best in that category, and the research happens to agree with it. Unlike with television or movies, where the situation is laid out in front of you and could be more visual, music is based on the tone and lyrics, and of the most popular songs on the charts, they have very strong lyrics talking about many various situations.

To cover why we chose the title for the article as we did is basically because it felt as if that was the message they were trying to convey. We’ve heard from a few people that the article headline is somewhat misleading, as the point we tried to make as we wrote was that teens do not get depressed solely because of music, and we understand that. The good news about this research is that it can open up more doors to similar research that gets more in-depth into the factors, and allows us to look deeper into how music really affects a teen with the onset of depression. Music is a very strong piece of art, and is extremely widely listened to, so there’s no doubt that it can highly affect a person’s mood.

Reading Dr. Brian Primack’s response, do you have any follow-up questions that you’d like to ask about the research? Any final thoughts of your own that you have about it all? If further research were to be conducted, what other factors would you study for? Let us know in the comments!

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