Mar 29, 2016

Why do we listen to music? What is it that stirs within us that has led all cultures to produce and consume art?

Not soon after we started to make music, we’ve wondered just why a particular series of pitches and rhythms can draw out of us euphoria or sorrow, like few other things can. For most of music history, these questions — and perhaps the biggest question of why our ancestors, for whom basic survival was the primary motivator, found a need to spend time and resources make music at all — belonged solely to the philosophers.

Take the ancient Greeks who authored the “doctrine of ethos,” which held that particular music could create certain emotions or even morals in its listeners. For Hellenistic philosophers like Plato, this wasn’t just a pleasant abstract description of beauty, this was a political reality worthy of fear, which caused him to write in The Republic that musical innovation presents a “danger to the whole State” as changing the musical modes inherently changes the “fundamental laws of the State.” On that point, perhaps Plato and Tipper Gore would agree.

If you take the Greeks as a starting point, we have almost two and a half millennia of philosophic thought and writing trying to answer questions about the power or value of music or ideas such as whether wordless music means nothing on its own (see Immanuel Kant) or if there is greater meaning inherent in its form because of its freedom from language (see ETA Hoffmann.)

It’s worth remembering that on this front, we live in a recent golden age — and “recent” is a relative term here. As the “-ologies" have exploded, we now can examine the intrinsic questions of music through a lens of psychology, behavioral and social science, anthropology and neural biology. Outlining the process that releases dopamine in the brain during music, or theorizing about the basic need to communicate the danger over that hill or bond a society that might have led to both language and music probably won’t put the question of “why music?” to bed. But trying to answer that question through different disciplines provides additional pieces to a puzzle.

Earlier this month, Thomas Schäfer, who researches and teaches music cognition at the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany, published a study looking into the functional reasons we listen to music and how that might affect our musical preference. “Musical preference” refers to individual taste in genre, styles or artists, but for this study it mainly refers to the degree that someone listens to music. For example, you won’t find many people who don’t enjoy music to some extent, but some prioritize listening to it more than others and spend more of their time and money doing so. Schäfer wanted to look at whether the purpose behind the reason for listening to music explains these differences.

“Music can be a functional behavior,” he theorizes.

To test this, 121 participants were asked to keep track of and record every listening experience they had for 10 days and then complete a questionnaire each evening. Participants were asked to evaluate each listening instance and categorize their goals for listening into three categories: self-awareness (self-related cognitions and emotions), social relatedness (social bonding and affiliation), and arousal and mood regulation (background entertainment and diversion). They were also asked to evaluate how successful listening to music was in accomplishing those goals. Lastly, they were asked about their music listening history, and how successful music has been at accomplishing these goals in the past.

Schäfer had two aims for his research. The first was to see the hierarchy of listening goals in everyday listening. To that end he found that of the three goals, mood regulation — listening to music for background entertainment and diversion — was the most common. The next most popular goal was self-awareness, followed my social relatedness.

The second reasearch goal was understanding how well music actually helped different people attain those goals and how that relates to music preference. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people demonstrated a range in how effective music was for them from a functional point of view, and those who found it more effective in the past also had the strongest musical preferences (both in terms of having strong opinions on the type of music they listened to and the desire to listen to music.) Basically, if music works for you, you will keep going back to that well and feel strongly about it.

“These functional experiences may be the most reliable variable with which to predict the strength of preference for music in general. In other words, how much somebody is involved in music-listening activities overall very much depends on the intensity of positive outcomes through music-listening activities in the past,” Schäfer writes.

He continues that this result isn’t likely to be a surprise but also notes that this isn’t something that music psychologists have incorporated into their models of music preference.

From an outside view, that functional framework might seem limiting at first. In some ways it seems easier to answer the “why” in “why do you listen to music?” with traditional philosophic or even abstract poetic terms of being artistically and personally fulfilled. To some, it can seem a bit artless to try and think about listening to music as a goal-driven, almost transactional experience. However, there is something interesting about forcing a level of mindfulness every time you listen to music in the car, at work or at home. Even in terms of going to see a concert, this framework forces you to answer the question, “Am I seeking a grand musical experience for myself, or did I agree to this because I wanted to be with my friends who are going?” There might often be a purpose that isn't top of mind.

In very traditional scientific terms, Schäfer concludes his paper by discussing the further research he hopes this experiment will help build towards. This is standard academic talk, but there is something particularly charming about this when put in context of that larger question of “why music?” that has fascinated philosophers for thousands of years. Fields beholden to the scientific process are fast to admit just how much we don’t yet know about “why music?” But there is an optimism in the idea of further research because just as Schäfer notes that music psychologists are developing and refining their models, so too are other (relatively young) disciplines offering up potential answers to fundamental questions about music.

Depending on your wiring, you might prefer the answers from the philosophers over those of modern fields. But just like asking a poet and botanist to describe a flower will produce radically different results, so to does evaluating the purpose of music through different disciplines — and somehow each might bring us satisfying versions of truth.