Why We Listen to Music

Outdoor music festival

Music brings us joy. That’s the simplest explanation, right? We listen to music because it awakens something inside of us. Something exuberant. Or thoughtful. Or something sorrowful. Music is spiritual like that.

However, if you look a little deeper, the question of what motivates us to listen to music is one that defies simple explanation. Yes, music brings us joy, but why? Music definitely “activates” something inside of us, but how? And what is that “something,” anyway? These are big questions.

In one sense, subjective experience is the only way to address the problem. The reason you listen to music (and the reason you listen to the specific music you listen to) is your reason alone. Mine might be different. But there’s also another approach to the problem – a more academic approach.

Scholars have sought to discover the reasons behind our shared joy of music. Their findings, though far from definitive, are nonetheless insightful. From escapism to health to social cohesion, the reasons behind our shared love of music are as numerous as the genres in your local record shop.

And at least one of them probably aligns with your own reasons for listening.

Strong storytelling creates strong communities

What makes your community a community? Maybe your community has a shared identity based on common professions, religions, recreational pursuits, or politics. Music, at varying levels, supports those identities and helps us define our communities. Put more simply, it enables social cohesion.

There are many reasons to believe this is true:

  • Human civilizations have engaged in musical activities for at least the last 40,000 years. Though we know less about the functions of music in early human societies than during, say… the last two millennia, music certainly mattered to ancient civilizations. In an age when the survival of the hunter-gatherer band was paramount, it’s reasonable to conclude that music somehow contributed to the strength of the group. Otherwise, why create it?
  • As scholars have noted, national anthems bind countries together; work songs bind laborers together; lullabies bind families together – people create music to build and strengthen ties to one another.
  • Music plays a key role in celebrations. It’s an integral part of religious and community rituals, not to mention small, informal social gatherings among friends and neighbors.

For example, you've probably enjoyed live music at community events – 4th of July parades, anyone? – or at family gatherings. Maybe you even participated by playing an instrument, singing, or just clapping your hands along with the rhythm. These are common experiences that help bind us to our surrounding community. Music brings people together, and the stories that we tell through music reinforce our sense of shared identity.

The same holds true for private social gatherings. We've all put on music to provide ambiance and enhance the feeling of togetherness we feel when we're among friends and family. And for many of us, music itself is the reason for getting together with others! We put on an LP or dive into a playlist together and talk about what we hear. It's a bonding experience.

A feeling of community is also why you scream at the top of your lungs and pump your fists with friends at concerts. It’s why you curate playlists to please everyone’s tastes during long road trips. It’s why you may feel connected to something bigger than yourself at a religious ceremony. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, a sense of community is important to us as humans. Music helps us create and maintain our communities.

We don’t just listen to music to strengthen communities, though. Music, as we’re about to explore, is also an ideal companion for our solitude.

Ritual with music in Bali

Sit back, plug in, and retreat from the outside world

Ever feel like music transfers you to another place? Somewhere far away from the stresses of everyday life? So did respondents to a large survey on the functions of music published by Frontiers in Psychology. “Self-awareness,” it turns out, is a big reason we listen to music. Mood enhancement, achieving a better understanding of feelings and emotions, and alleviating boredom are others.

In other words, music gives us a means of escape.

To be sure, the wide availability of audio recordings could be responsible for this function of music. After all, how easily could humans “escape” from their reality before the era of recorded music? The first phonographic records didn’t hit the consumer market until the late 19th century, so it’s not as if we’ve have been listening to our favorite tunes on demand throughout human history. Until quite recently, the only ways to use music for escapism were to attend a live performance, sing at a religious service, or participate in some sort of community event.

Or, if you were so inclined, you could create music yourself. Recorded music, in some sense, enables non-musicians to sample some of the creative catharsis that musicians have always experienced.

Just as a church organist in the Middle Ages could retreat from the toil and drudgery of everyday life every time he sat before his instrument, we, too, can take a break from our harried existence every time we stream a playlist, put on a record, or pull up the Sonos app. It’s truly a privilege of modern life.

Part of musical escapism takes the form of nostalgia. If you’ve ever heard a song that triggered a memory (and who hasn’t?), you understand the feeling. Even though a particular tune – a pop song from the 90s, say – might not appeal to you today, you still enjoy listening to it because it puts you back in a time and place that you recall with fondness.

Psychologically speaking, this phenomenon is strongest when there’s an emotion attached to the music. Maybe there’s a certain track that reminds you of good times. Maybe you associate a positive event from your teenage years with a particular album. Whatever the case, nostalgia (positive nostalgia, in particular), is another reason we listen to music.

We want to relive the “good old days,” even if we unknowingly idealize them.

Father and daughter listening to music

Feel better, be better

According to Daniel Levitin, a psychologist at McGill University, “music can alter brain chemistry” in a positive way and improve immune system function. It also “alter[s] pain thresholds” and improves “mood, heart rate, and respiration rate.”

Basically, music helps us feel better. And when we feel better – more at ease and less stressed – we tend to stay healthier, longer.

Levitin also stresses that the research out there on music and health is still pretty limited. There’s also a lot of “pseudoscience” and “anecdotes” that might sound nice but aren’t grounded in scholarship. If you’re trying to learn about music and health, pay close attention to sources and think critically about the claims being made.

At the same time, much of the research that does exist is confirming what many already assume about how music impacts our health. It makes us feel good.

Perhaps that “something” we feel when we listen to music has a biological explanation after all. We feel good because good things are happening inside of us. That would explain why:

  • Music reduces the need for pain medication. External stressors can make it difficult to manage pain. Since music helps quell our stress and anxiety, it also serves as an effective pain management aid.
  • Music reduces blood pressure. High blood pressure, another condition tied to anxiety, often responds to music. Patients who listen to certain types of music can lower their blood pressure to safer levels.
  • Music helps fight disease: Although numerous studies suggest that music improves immune system function, this one from the Massachusetts General Hospital, is particularly compelling. It suggests that listening to Mozart’s piano sonatas can decrease blood levels of a protein associated with diabetes and heart conditions.

Of course, you don’t have to be a doctor or medical researcher to know that listening to music improves your mood and helps you experience positive emotions. You know this intuitively. And since feeling better (i.e. lower stress levels) generally translates into a longer, happier life, it’s easy to see how listening to music influences health outcomes.

Man relaxing and listening to music on the couch

Music, it turns out, is key to our humanity

Finding camaraderie, enjoying solitude, feeling happy… music helps make these experiences possible. These aren’t just “nice if you can get ‘em” sensations either. They’re key to living a fulfilling life.

Music, then, is more than a tool for providing ambiance or a way to alleviate boredom. It’s central to the human experience. We know this intuitively, and it’s confirmed by mountains of scholarship. We don’t just listen to music because we want to. We listen to music because we have to.

That's why music moves us. Every time you tap the play button on your smartphone or set the needle on a record, you’re tapping into something intangible yet nonetheless real.

So keep on listening. Your brain wants music. And your soul needs it.