A deeper understanding of how we listen to music
Why we listen to music, listening styles and how music boosts brain health.
When I was younger one of my favourite pastimes was listening to music. I would lie on my bed for hours and take in every element that I could, doing nothing else. I would become captivated by the different nuances that I would hear on each repeat, getting swept up by the build I knew was coming, before settling into the next section. Nowadays the majority of my time listening to music is in the background while I work, or while I’m performing or learning a new piece. While these are all very different ways of consuming music, they all provide stimulation in some form. In this post I explore the reasons why we listen to music and what happens inside the brain when we enjoy our favourite tunes.
Why we listen to music
The article ‘The Psychological Functions Of Music Listening’ suggests that ‘people listen to music to regulate arousal and mood, to achieve self-awareness, and as an expression of social relatedness’. (Schafer et al. 2013). The scholar E. Bullough expands upon these reasons, adding the desire to tap into past memories as another reason to listen to music: ‘music can be used to activate associations, memories, experience, moods and emotions’ (Schafer, 2013). I am fascinated by the way music can become like a sonic photograph. A personal example is the song Live and Let Die by the band Wings. I am immediately transported to being seven years old, in the back seat of my family’s car, reading the first Harry Potter book. Though I have never really cared for Harry Potter or for Wings, this memory remains vivid and ‘close to hand’ whenever I hear that song. Perhaps the song heightened my attention at a crucial part of the story and the two have become forever intertwined in my mind.
We have memories that involve all our senses: sight, smell, sound and so on. Sound does seem to be a particularly powerful sense though. Storr (1997) writes ‘at an emotional level, there is something ‘deeper’ about hearing than seeing… Seeing a wounded animal or suffering person who is silent may produce little emotional response in the observer. But once they start to scream, the onlooker is usually powerfully moved.’
‘We expect a fine composition brilliantly performed, but how often do we think that it should also be brilliantly heard?’
In Aaron Copland’s book ‘What To Listen For In Music’ (2009) he outlines different styles of music listening. He says that the majority of us are passive listeners, consuming music without mindfully focussing on what it is we hear. With practice though, we can all become active listeners, paying much closer attention to and even analysing the sounds.
Copland also has an interesting way of categorising the listening experience into three planes, and believes that active listeners experience all three planes simultaneously.
- The sensuous plane. Listening for pure pleasure. You’re bathed in the music without focussing on it.
- The expressive plane. Listeners have a desire to form concrete meaning from the music they hear.
- The musical plane. Listeners conduct technical analysis of the music, and this analysis is at the forefront of their experience.
Music and brain health
In the fields of music and neuroscience an interesting question has been raised: can music improve brain health? In 1993 the psychologist Francis Rauscher and his colleagues claimed that listening to Mozart’s sonata for two pianos for ten minutes resulted in ‘significantly better spatial reasoning skills [compared with] listening to relaxation instructions designed to lower blood pressure or silence’. (Jenkins 2001). He called this the Mozart Effect.
Although this has been a controversial and hotly debated topic ever since, in recent years neuroscientists have made enormous breakthroughs in understanding how our brains work. In studies, participants’ brain activity increased much more when listening to music than when reading or carrying out maths tasks. When looking at participants’ brain scans ‘they saw fireworks’ when people were listening to music (Anita Collins, 2014). This increase in neural activity increased even further when musicians performed the music themselves: ‘the little backyard fireworks became a jubilee’ (Anita Collins 2014).
Other researchers agree that performing music positively impacts brain health. Yugay (2019) writes: ‘Research has shown that the brains of musicians are more symmetrical. And that the parts of the brain responsible for motor and cognitive functioning, coordination, and reasoning, are significantly larger. And thanks to an enlarged corpus callosum, the two hemispheres of the brain have better communication’.
We listen to music for many reasons, from simple pleasure to helping to manage our mood and our energy throughout the day. We can listen with varying degrees of focus, but however we choose to listen it seems there is evidence to suggest that music supports our brain health.
The word neuroplasticity refers to the ability of neural pathways to reorganise themselves and grow within our brain. It occurs through repetition of an experience, aka learning, and results in us being able to physically do or mentally understand more than we were previously able to. As a composer and sound designer with an interest in improving health, I am curious to understand this topic more deeply and to discover ways music, sound and technology could come together to assist people who need to boost their brain health. For instance, could musical games delivered via apps help improve motor functioning, cognitive functioning, coordination, reasoning etc? I think it would be fascinating to delve more deeply into this topic to better understand how composers and sound designers could potentially play a role in improving patient outcomes.
COLLINS, A. (2014). How playing an instrument benefits your brain. [Online video]. July. https://www.ted.com/talks/anita_collins_how_playing_an_instrument_benefits_your_brain. [Accessed: 29.11.2021].
COPLAND, A. (2009). What to Listen for in Music. New American Library.
JENKINS, J, S. (2001). The Mozart effect. [Online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1281386/. [Accessed: 06.12.2021].
SCHAFER, T. SEDLMEIER, P. STADTLER, C. HURON, D. (2013). The psychological functions of music listening. [Online] Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00511/full. [Accessed: 06.12.2021].
STORR, A. (1997). Music and the Mind. Harper Collins.
YUGAY, I. (2019). Everything You Need To Know About Sound Healing. [Online] Available at: https://blog.mindvalley.com/sound-healing/. [Accessed: 09.11.2021].