Why do people listen to music?

Walk down a busy street, listen to the noise and sound all around you. It is reasonable to expect you will hear music coming from the cars, businesses with open doors, and exterior speakers. Music is common place, we are drawn to the rhythms and coordinated presentation of harmonic or dissident sound. In my view listening to music commands much of our time and effort. We hear it all the time, even when we are watching TV. We invest a lot of hard earned cash to purchase listening technology or to purchase recordings of performances. We use music almost like a companion to help fill our leisure activities, to frame formal events, enhance relationships with others, to define who we are (by what we select to listen to).  Music permeates our life.

For eons we have documented our pondering and musings on topics such as listening to music; our thinkers (philosophy, psychology, anthropology, musicology, and neuroscience to name a few) have tried to sort out the origin and purpose of music. A few have even attempted to apply the rigors of scientific analysis to investigate music. Yet, I look at how music was written, documented, and presented centuries ago vs how we accomplish these tasks today and accept the notion many of the functions (why people listen) may have shifted over the years. We are very different from people in the 16th century. Yet, I suspect there are a few functions for music that have transcended the years. These functions provide a sense of why music has remained prominent in our culture.

I remember reading a study a few years ago (The Psychological Functions of Music Listening) that surveyed literature (about music) from the past 50 years. The survey examined essays and documents that defined music functions; their research documented more than 500 functions for music. They assessed the list and applied rigorous data reduction techniques to define 129 non-conflicted musical functions. They used additional data modeling techniques such as correlation and causation to group the 129 functions into three groups. What emerged from that study were three basic reasons people listen to music: mood regulation, self-awareness, and social relations. They tested their findings with additional surveys and focus groups.  The scientists concluded their assessment was reasonable. I find merit in their assessment.

I think that people listen to regulate their mood (how do they feel), to achieve self-awareness (who are they, what makes them the way they are), and then use music to announce how they want to be perceived (social relatedness, where do they fit in their culture, making friends). Additionally, I believe the notion of self-awareness and social relations extends to include using music as stimulus for dancing.

Listening can be a very safe way to elevate your emotions, become more comfortable with yourself, and build long term social relationships. This was true in the 16th century and is true now. Music, as Art, has a purpose in our life.

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