Background music is everywhere: in grocery stores, dental offices, elevators, homes and cars. It can change our mood, shape our behavior and even influence what we buy. But what happens when music becomes more than an echoey hum as we’re pumping gas or standing in line? What happens when we focus intently on music and really listen?
“Music is powerfully influencing us even when we are not paying close attention,” says Suzanne Hanser, chair emerita of the music therapy department at the Berklee College of Music and incoming president of the International Association for Music & Medicine. “So you can imagine how much bigger the impact can be when we really focus on the music.”
Giving music your full attention, for the length of a song or a whole album, can move you physically and emotionally, kindle memories and help you see the world in new ways, Hanser and other experts say. But in an age of constant streaming, shuffling and sampling, that kind of listening is more challenging, notes Frank Diaz, associate professor of music education at the University of Indiana Bloomington.
“Music listening used to be a special thing,” Diaz says. You would turn on a record player, select an album and pull it out of its sleeve, then set it on the turntable and place the needle “just so,” he says. “Then you sat down in the living room and listened. You couldn’t take it with you.”
Portable, plentiful music is not a bad thing. But when we don’t slow down and immerse ourselves in the world (and in music), “we lose a lot of the texture of our experiences,” Diaz says.
There’s no wrong way to listen to music, says Hanser, who contributed to a new report on music and the brain for AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health. You don’t need noise-canceling headphones or a special chair. You can do it in the shower or on a walk. You can dance or hum or sing along — or just sit quietly. “Everyone listens in their own way,” she says. But here are some ideas for a deeper listening experience.
- Quit thinking that you need a doctorate in music theory to appreciate what you hear. “There’s been this long-standing belief that if people understood music technically, they would appreciate it more,” Diaz says. “It really doesn’t seem to make that much difference in terms of your emotional experience.”
- Be fully in the moment as you listen. In one study, Diaz found that students who prepared for a listening session by practicing mindfulness meditation exercises, such as focusing on their breathing and mentally scanning their bodies, reported stronger emotional reactions and a greater sense of engagement with a familiar piece of music. “It was like they were falling in love with the music again or listening to it for the first time,” he says. Musical mindfulness might be a stretch for the average listener, but eliminating distractions can create a richer experience.
- Focus on some element of the music. You could choose the lyrics, the melody or a particular instrument. Or note how a song creates mental pictures, associations and memories. Having a listening plan will help you stay engaged, Diaz and Hanser say. Remember when people used to listen to the Sgt. Pepper album with headphones and focus on the intricate, swirling sounds and that lonnng final chord from “A Day in the Life”?
- Concentrate not only on your emotional response but on your physical response. Notice what happens to your breathing, your heart rate, muscle tension and your sense of calm or excitement. “We might notice that we are feeling very differently than before we turned the music on,” Hanser says.
- Experiment with new music but feel free to indulge in old favorites. “Music doesn’t have a satiation saturation point,” Hanser says. “We can listen over and over to our favorite pieces and experience pleasure but also experience new things. It triggers so much about who we are from an internal point of view.” —Kim Painter