The Importance Of Music: When and Why we listen to music

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There is no doubt that most humans spend a lot of time listening to music. Music is clearly important to us. Neilson (a global measurement company) says that Americans are listening to 4.5 hours[1] of music a day; another one[2] says it’s 2 hours. Many others like me spend between 2 and 4 hours listening to something musical. So why is music so important to us?

Fun Fact: One of the oldest instruments known to humans is a Flute made out of a vulture’s wing bone. It is at least 40,000 years old. Researchers consider the existence of instruments as a clear marker of advanced societies. (source[3])

The 42,000-year-old flutes from Hohle Fels, Vogelherd and Geißenklo¨sterle upper Danube region (now southwest Germany)

Music is essentially something that stimulates the auditory nerves (hearing sense). But, music is perhaps one of the only stimuli, received to a single sense organ, which stimulates almost all of the brain in unique ways. A lot of “music” happens within the brain. Our interpretation is necessary for differentiating between music and noise.

No person perceives music in exactly the same way. Bearing this in mind, one can say that every person is uniquely motivated to listen to music. People will also have specific reasons to listen to music. Some common reasons are:

  1. Enjoyment
  2. Special emotion
  3. Structural parts of the song which are preferred (chorus, beat, etc.)
  4. Unique sensations like ASMR (head orgasm), piloerections (goosebumps), euphoria, deep trance, etc.
  5. To not get bored (after all, music stimulates the whole brain)
  6. Social/Interpersonal bonding

Functions of music: the common role it plays in our lives

Theoretically speaking, you can listen to any music at any time for any or no reason. Research[4] by Jenny M. Groarke and Michael J. Hogan points to 11 important adaptive functions of music that describe the role music plays in our lives. Those factors are:

  1. Stress Regulation: We use music as a way to distract ourselves from stressful situations. It helps us escape a situation and comfort us.
  2. Anxiety Regulation: We believe music helps us regulate our anxiety and comfort us. Sometimes by increasing positive emotions, matching anxiety to music, distracting and comforting us, or even re-evaluating our thoughts.
  3. Anger Regulation: Music can calm us down or even validate our emotions. We listen to music because we believe it helps us regulate our anger.
  4. Loneliness Regulation: Music helps us reduce our feelings of loneliness.
  5. Rumination: We sometimes dwell and focus on anxious and sad thoughts because music lets us do so in a unique way.
  6. Reminiscence: We remember our past experiences – good or bad – and dive into those with a small sense of reliving those memories.
  7. Strong Emotional Experiences: We seek out profound emotional experiences through music.
  8. Awe and Appreciation: Sometimes, listening to music is all about appreciating its beauty.
  9. Cognitive Regulation: Some of us use music to improve our concentration and focus while studying or working. This includes streamlining attention, buffering against sensory inputs, changing the sensory landscape, etc.
  10. Identity Formation & Relatability: Music helps us express ourselves and develop an identity. This extends to a social identity shared by a larger group of people too (subcultures, genre-fans, musicians, etc.). It works as a social glue and a tether between people.
  11. Sleep Aid: Many of us use music (songs, noise, and auditory podcasts) to help us sleep.

Some psychologists call this self-regulation using music a “self-soothing” mechanism. Like when people start humming a tune when they are stressed or briefly put on earphones in a social gathering to listen to just a part of a song they love to repair their mood.

When can you listen to music?

I can say ‘always’ but let’s break it down. There are specific perspectives to this question that will be subjective to you. I’ll highlight a few common ones here.

A lot of people listen to music to pass time. In fact, some of us do this unconsciously and we end up estimating the total driving time as the length of songs heard.

Some music is traditionally meant to be heard during specific times in the day. This is seen in Indian Ragas (the traditional-classical music structures of India). Read more here.[5]

Strictly speaking, in the context of tradition, Raag Poorvi is ideal during the prevening. Raag Bhairav is ideal during the mornings. This is strikingly specific. These Raagas have a unique musical structure and they come with built-in rules to follow. So music based on these Raagas has a uniquely distinguishable ‘feel’ or texture. When you are listening to Raagas, you might want to consider these traditions. The link I’ve provided gives a comprehensive list of them with their ideal time of the day.

Heavy metal music is generally loud & raw. Consider how you feel during different times of the day. Can you enjoy something loud and raw right after waking up or right before sleep? The brain’s chemistry comes into play here. People have different levels of ‘excitation’ during different times of the day or across climates. That is, chemically speaking, your nervous system could be excited in general (with or without symptoms like restless legs) and you might feel that you want strong stimulation. So heavy metal music could work for you if you want more excitation.

A polar opposite scenario: If you are biologically excited, you may also not want more excitation. So soothing ambient music could work for you during those times. Fundamentally, music is a form of stimulation. Your choice of music could deviate from your genre preference (that is if you have any) based on your current psychological, social, and biological arousal.

Time, for us, can also be with respect to ‘before work’ or ‘after work’ or ‘weekend party time’. Your biological and psychological state would be different during these times. Understand the level of excitation or stimulation you want. It has some influence on your choice of music.

10 reasons why music is important to us

I’ll begin by saying that music affects everyone. It’s universal. The human condition as a whole is encapsulated by music and musical phenomenon – from feelings of joy and sadness to cultural bonding. Music has been a constant throughout the ages. However, there are exceptions. Some people do not comprehend music – a condition called amusia[6]. And, some derive zero pleasure from music – musical anhedonia[7]. For them, there is lesser interaction between 2 brain regions: the auditory cortex (sound perception) and the nucleus accumbens (reward center). The lowered interaction reduces the inherent pleasure of music. One estimate[8] suggests 5.5% of all people have low music-reward sensitivity or musical anhedonia.

Anyway, let’s break down the involvement of music in our lives into 10 parts. These 10 reasons are not directly mapped to the 11 functions of music described in the previous section. The factors below are more anecdotally-relevant and re-grouped based on day-to-day habits around music listening. Essentially, the functions of music and the list below are different perspectives of each other.

1. Music & Emotions: We humans have a large set of emotional experiences. And they dictate our behavior in odd ways. You may listen to some specific type of music when you are in a certain mood or an arbitrary song could change your mood. It’s a 2-way mechanism. Just like your mood/emotional environment affects your choice of music, the music you listen to changes your emotional state or preferences. The general research consensus is that music makes us feel better. Even sad music makes us feel better. Listening to sad music usually evokes 3 types of responses – genuine sadness (negative valence), comforting and uplifting sorrow (positive valence), and sweet sorrow (positive valence). Self-chosen music (as opposed to prescribed music) can also help regulate negative emotions induced by other taxing activities. Research also shows that listening to heavy metal music can be a healthy way of processing anger. People often use it as a way to regulate their emotions. People may seek out mood/personality-congruent music or may even do the exact opposite based on psychological needs. This approach is similar to the emotional regulation function of music.

2. Music & Attention part I: Many people say that they can concentrate with the help of specific music and many can’t. Vocals, Guitars, Violin, and Trumpets are instruments that have a frequency range that gets amplified in the ear – around 1000hz. These instruments also resemble speech in some ways; therefore, the brain is distracted when you hear music with these instruments – speech has priority for the brain. It is not the best idea to listen to this music when you are reading, writing, and trying to memorize. When it comes to working, some music can help us by occupying surplus attention and limiting it to be “just enough” and not “too little or too much” to feel bored or distracted. If a person is generally calm, music with a lot of detail might distract you. But if you are a hyperactive person, electronic music can engage some of your attention and the remainder can be focused on productivity. That’s the sweet spot some of us find and that music becomes a part of our productivity culture.

3. Music helping Creativity: Do you ever feel you need to think creatively? While some music can help you relax, ANY music can help you with creativity. Say you had a difficult math problem or an architectural floor plan to make and you just can’t figure things out. It is great to let your brain work on these problems at an unconscious level (a process called Incubation). And to enhance this, music activates many regions of the brain and that might just help you get your creative breakthrough. You can read more about how music affects creativity and productivity here.

4. Music & Exercise (non-professional): Music while exercising helps break the monotony and lets you sync with a beat to keep you motivated. One example[9] is how music at around 170BPM can lower one’s perceived effort for endurance-based exercise. Nonetheless, many professional athletes will say that music is not good for physical training. Mainly because of the 2nd point I mentioned. It takes away attention from things like breathing.

5. Music & distraction from pain and negative emotions: Sometimes you need your attention to be taken away. Perhaps when you are sad or you are highly disturbed because of a scary incident like watching an accident. Music will take your attention away. Music you enjoy can also blunt the experience of physical pain and increase tolerance, even though the actual pain doesn’t go away. This likely happens through the emotional shielding effect of positive emotions[10] and taking attention away from pain[11] (which directly reduces pain perception). You can listen to 80s pop music to get distracted from paranoid thoughts or listen to music you like while getting dressed up for an injury. This approach is like a mixture of emotion and cognitive regulation functions of music.

6. Social facilitation aka Musicking: Listening to music with people fosters a certain type of ‘coupling’ between them. People readily sync with each other and find each other more favorable under a shared musical experience. Author William Benzon, who wrote Beethoven’s Anvil[12], a discussion of the musical experience in society, defined musicking as an experience with music that goes beyond listening to it and making it. For example, dancing and coming close during a romantic song. Music and dance share an intimate relationship from the dawn of civilization. Humans connect via movement, and the metaphor “music moves us” might be quite a literal explanation.

7. Deep thought: Music can act as a projective and reflective surface. Many times, due to the stimulating nature of music, one can think in unique ways because the music is modestly guiding your thoughts. While listening to instrumental music, you could interpret the music in certain ways. That interpretation is likely to reflect some of your core thoughts on life, people and yourself. Appreciating beauty in music can also facilitate deep conversations that make that moment special.

8. Enjoyment & Environment: You could get your entertainment with music, you could spend time at a location with specific music which grows on you, and you could spend time listening to it for no apparent reason. Simply pairing music with a location and a nature of conversation can make you like or dislike either of the 3: music, location, or the conversation. It could also just be a part of your environment as background noise. Music plays almost everywhere where people are present.

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9. Instrument learning & Musicianship: Learning music is similar to honing a wide range of cognitive processes- attention, sensitivity, abstraction, memory, spatial and motor concepts, etc. A musician listens to music for the aesthetic as well as technical aspects of the structure, tone, timbre, lyrics, etc. That helps to separate the craft from aesthetic appreciation. This can be considered as a different form of active and passive engagement with music. Some of these cognitive processes could help to learn in other areas such as computer science. Converging lines of evidence show that music buffers against old-age and Alzheimer’s disease-related cognitive decline via the development of a cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the totality of cognitive enhancements as well as structural and functional changes in the brain that are utilizable resources. These resources create an in-built resistance to damage and aging.

10. Music for special purposes: You could listen to specific music through habit or incidental reasons. For example, some music could help you sleep, or you could use it to induce a trance. Or some music just goes well with what you are doing because you had pleasant experiences in the past. For example, one could listen to death metal and share happy memories of bonding with friends and then use death metal while eating because you miss them. Many many other purposes for music listening can be mentioned under this heading. They are almost always subjective. One of the best outcomes of research in music psychology is music therapy. Music can be used to heal and cope with a number of psychological and physiological problems. Here is an overview of music therapy[13].

Recommended book on music and the human condition

One of the best books on music and the human condition is a book called Beethoven’s Anvil. It is relatable and very insightful from a cultural, personal, and scientific perspective. If there is one book I recommend for music, it is this one! You’ll learn about insightful cultural differences in music; some unique experiments which show how music affects us at the granular level of behavior as well as the holistic level of society. The author also introduced me to the concept of Musicking – the action and experience of music. It goes beyond listening to music or making music.

Note: You can click the link below to buy it from amazon. It’s an affiliate link – I get a small commission if you buy the book at NO additional cost for you. It helps me run this blog:)

Click this link to buy Beethoven’s Anvil[14]

Best music psychology book

Music psychology References

  • Ahmad, Nawaz & Rana, Afsheen. (2015). Impact of Music on Mood: Empirical Investigation. Research on Humanities and Social Sciences. 5. 98-101.
  • Schäfer, T., Sedlmeier, P., Städtler, C., & Huron, D. (2013). The psychological functions of music listening. Frontiers in psychology4, 511. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00511
  • Schäfer T. (2016). The Goals and Effects of Music Listening and Their Relationship to the Strength of Music Preference. PloS one11(3), e0151634. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0151634
  • Egermann, H., Fernando, N., Chuen, L., & McAdams, S. (2015). Music induces universal emotion-related psychophysiological responses: comparing Canadian listeners to Congolese Pygmies. Frontiers in psychology5, 1341. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01341
  • Sanivarapu S. L. (2015). India’s rich musical heritage has a lot to offer to modern psychiatry. Indian journal of psychiatry57(2), 210-3.
  • Eerola, T. and Peltola, H. (2016). Memorable Experiences with Sad Music—Reasons, Reactions and Mechanisms of Three Types of Experiences. PLOS ONE, 11(6), p.e0157444.
  • Diaz Abrahan, V., Shifres, F. and Justel, N. (2019). Cognitive Benefits From a Musical Activity in Older Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.
  • Hanna-Pladdy, B. and Gajewski, B. (2012). Recent and Past Musical Activity Predicts Cognitive Aging Variability: Direct Comparison with General Lifestyle Activities. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6.
  • Groarke, J. and Hogan, M. (2019). Listening to self-chosen music regulates induced negative affect for both younger and older adults. PLOS ONE, 14(6), p.e0218017.

P.S. Here is some research on listening to music while working and listening to music while studying. It shows the importance of music in cognitive regulation.

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2 thoughts on “The Importance Of Music: When and Why we listen to music”

  1. There are, however, a small percentage of us who do not get an emotional “kick” from music. I spent my youth trying to fit in and “get” music. Truth is music has never had an emotional impact on me. Now I don’t bother, never listen at home, use it has background noise in the car to cover road noise.



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