The Magic of the Shared Listening Experience
The lights were low, the ritual candle illuminating the walk-out basement. There were five of us, sometimes six. There was food, there was conversation, there were shenanigans, but mostly there were long stretches of silent contemplation mixed with closed eyes and knowing smiles.
A Pink Floyd album played on a tape deck in the corner, filling the space with sounds unlike those on the pop music stations my middle school friends and I had coveted just a year before. But now, I was in high school. I had my first boyfriend, J, and this was my first Floyd Fest -- a monthly all-night gathering that J and his friends had devised out of their shared love of the progressive British rock band. At times it was merely background music, but it was never in the backs of our minds. My first Fest was amazing, leaving me excited and aglow and with a handful of new friends.
A few days later, I purchased Pink Floyd's "Animals," the last LP I would buy from a soon-to-be-extinct mall record store. I devoured it in my bedroom on my old orange and white Fisher Price record player. I fell hard for the music (this went far beyond what I had known of Pink Floyd from the radio), but even more than that, I entered into a love affair with the incredible feeling of a shared music experience. I cranked the volume as loud as my little player would take it and counted down the days until the next Floyd Fest.
Even now, as I write this while listening to some Floyd on a pair of Dan Clark Audio AEON 2 headphones, I can remember the subtlest of details from those experiences, from the faded colors of the wax on the soda bottle drip candle to the smell of the incense (yes, incense) that permeated the air. Most of all, I remember how incredibly bonded I felt with these people. Sure, we had other things in common, but I felt like we got to know each other through the music.
But what was this seemingly mysterious power of music? Was the music doing something to us? Was it because I was high on the hormones of love? Or was it simply the fact that this small group of us shared an identity as fans of this band?
Turns out, it may have been a bit of everything.
Research has shown that listening to music in the company of others fosters connections and strengthens social bonds. Now, I suppose I could write about the many means through which groups of humans bond, from sports to wine to motorcycles. But I work for Moon Audio, and music is my biggest passion.
1) Music makes us feel good together
I've written previously about the physical and mental health benefits of music (check out Music Is Therapy). Listening to all types of music can elicit physiological responses, from changes in heart rate and blood pressure to improved sleep quality and lower levels of cortisol (the "stress hormone") in our bodies.
And then there are feel-good chemicals that are released when we listen to relaxing music as well as upbeat music. For example, listening to music we love will make our brain release the neurotransmitter dopamine, a key component of the brain's reward system and in our emotional and cognitive functioning. And research has shown that we have higher levels of endorphins and serotonin in our blood when we hear music, which correlates with less pain and fewer symptoms of depression.
But when it comes to bonding through music, oxytocin is the neurotransmitter that takes center stage. You may know it as the "cuddling" hormone, as it is released when we have physical contact with another person, promoting feelings of companionship, trust, and well-being. Research has shown that both playing and listening to music may prompt our bodies to release oxytocin. It stands to reason that listening to music with others fosters feelings of social closeness due to the flood of oxytocin.
2) Music helps us find our "people"
Think about a lesser-known song you like, or a band you love but whose fandom doesn't exactly tend toward mainstream. Now imagine you meet someone who feels the very same way you do about said song or artist. How do you feel? Chances are, you feel excited, quite possibly with some of the following thoughts:
1) I suddenly feel like I know a whole lot about this person.
2) This person shares my beliefs and values.
3) This person is my soul mate.
OK, maybe tongue in cheek on that third point. Still, we can't help but assign deeper meaning to the realization that someone shares your musical tastes.
And there is research to back this theory. Studies have shown that people equate musical taste with the holding of particular values. In other words, finding out that someone shares our taste in tunes can lead us to think that we share similar thoughts, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world.
3) Music fosters trust, empathy, and cooperation
Research has shown that the act of playing or listening to music in a group can generate feelings of trust, empathy, and cooperation among musicians and non-musicans alike. Stefan Koelsch, a psychologist and neuroscientist who studies music and the brain, has called music "a potent elixir of social bonding," with numerous studies provide persuasive support for the role of empathy-related processes during music listening. In "From Social Contract to Social Cohesion -- The 7 Cs," Koelsch draws on his own and others' research to demonstrate that when people make or listen to music together, they have contact with each other, engage in social cognition, participate in co-pathy (the social function of empathy), communicate, coordinate their actions, and cooperate with each other -- leading to increased social cohesion.
Research has shown that the act of playing or listening to music in a group can generate feelings of trust, empathy, and cooperation.
4) Live music takes it to another level
If you've had the pleasure of attending a live concert or two or a hundred, then you know there's more to it than just enjoying the music, the sound vibrations coming from the stage. You're soaking up the energy and vibration of the crowd itself. You're alive with the glow of knowing that the multitudes around you are experiencing the same buzz of being in the presence of some beloved performer. There you are, tens of thousands of you, basking in the electric anticipation of the set list, losing your collective minds (in a good way) when those opening notes hit. It reminds you of your shared humanity. It's intoxicating.
There has even been research showing that the act of synchronized movements (think head bopping or tapping your hand against your leg) to a beat with other individuals can foster feelings of trust and communication. Nowhere does this happen more than at a live performance.
Another aspect of the live experience is that you're hearing music in a way you can forget exists when listening on headphones or speakers. No matter how good your audio system, it can never 100% capture the experience of live music.
5) Music encapsulates historical moments
One need only spend a couple of hours listening to music from the '60s and '70s to understand the central role that music plays in social movements. Forget everything you learned in school about social unrest in the era of the Vietnam War or Women's Lib? Listen to the music from those years. It's all encapsulated there.
As the historian Nicolette Rohr wrote, "Live music became one of the integral shared experiences of the counterculture." Music festivals became venues for masses of people to gather as part of an effort to reject political and social norms of the time, with Woodstock being an immediately recognizable such gathering. Such events allowed attendees to let their hair down -- literally and figuratively -- by offering a means to express their collective cultural angst. Could such movements happen without music? Sure. Would they be the same? Certainly not. After all, hundreds of thousands of idealistic young Woodstock-goers didn't road trip to Yasgur's Farm in August 1969 to sit in a silent field. One thing is for certain: The music that defines historical eras serves as a powerful reminder for those who were part of them as well as a window into history for those who weren't.
6) Music is a generational bridge
I scavenged my father's record collection when I was a teenager. Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, and Credence Clearwater Revival are among the artists that comprised his stash. He didn't listen to them anymore -- at least not on vinyl -- but I did. Now, I enjoyed this music on its own merits. But knowing that it was my father's music added a dimension to that enjoyment. This is what he was listening to when he was younger. I understood my father's New York through Simon & Garfunkel. Years later, my father took a brief but powerful liking to the song "November Rain" by Guns N' Roses, a band whose music my father teasingly called "light classical" when I was in high school. But he liked this song, and I liked that he liked this song. I remember him listening to it on a loop in the car with a smile on my face. Like many fathers and daughters, we had more than our share of conflict and misunderstanding. But music was and continues to be a bridge where we find common ground.
7) Music fandom sparks communities
Music fandom fosters community. From online chat rooms to parking lot culture at shows to window stickers that have us honking and waving as we pass each other on the road, music connects us. In some cases, it fosters entire lifestyles. One need only think of the Grateful Dead for a taste of a community that encompassed life on the road and all that came with it, from artwork to food to fashion.
Of course, this ties in very much with the identity and the live music aspect. But it's more than that. The feeling that we get when we are surrounded by people who share our love of a particular band or artist is second to none. It's a feeling of "I am home." Even if we don't really know much about each other -- even if we are really just a sea of veritable strangers -- we know this: We love this music. And that collective love is a powerful force.
8) Music as a metaphorical campfire
If you've ever been camping, then you know that everything happens around the fire (well, maybe not everything). Imagine sitting in a semi-circle in the woods just staring at each other. The fire provides warmth and light, yes, as well as a heat source for cooking and roasting marshmallows. But it's also the thing that draws us together. The fire gives us somewhere to direct our gaze, and allows us to feel relaxed and cozy and arguably more likely to engage with one another. It's like that with music, on special occasions and in everyday life. When human gather, music can be the glue that sparks conversation and reminiscence. Music gets the party started, as it were.
"You were at that concert? Me too!"
"You met [insert lead singer's name]? I met [insert drummer's name] two summers ago!"
"Of course I know that song. It was the first dance at our wedding!"
It goes back to those Floyd Fests from so many years ago. The music provided the backdrop for our evenings and a powerful force for bonding. On one level, we just liked the music. On quite another level, the music drew us closer together. And that's some pretty powerful stuff.