Music has been with us since the earliest days. Ever since the first tribesmen decided to gather in larger groups, ritualistic dances have been accompanied by some form of music, ranging from drum beats only to voice-based tunes and then various combinations of other instruments. Given this rich history that we share with this art form, I think that it must have some positive effects on our brains and bodies, other than the obvious feel-good sensation you experience when you listen to your favorite track.
Scientists have conducted countless studies on the influence of music on our species, and on other species as well, but their studies have been focused on which regions of the brain are activated when certain sounds or beats are played. What I'm talking about is the way people feel when listening to songs actively, as in when they can actually make sense of what they hear, and are able to select the tracks to play on their own. As (young) adults, we are capable of accomplishing great things through music, if we design our own playlist.
For example, picture the following scenario. You are getting ready for a night out with your friends, and are already in the final couple of hours before going to the club. As you get ready, you listen to music on your speakers, which are turned up higher than usual. You make a selection of tracks to boost your energy, because other, softer songs you normally listen to just don't cut it. You feel the excitement and the expectation of going out, and feel instinctively that you need to listen to certain songs to match that state. In my case, when this happens, I even listen at times to songs I don't normally like, just because they are upbeat and up-tempo, and therefore suited for the occasion.
On the other hand, when returning home from a party or club, you put some down-tempo music on. This is because you need to calm down, and tunes that are filled with energy are the last thing you want to hear. The songs you sought for and played just hours before now have the ability to make you nervous, and even annoy you. This shift does not actually reflect a sudden change in musical preferences that you may have experienced over those few hours, but a change in the expectations you have of the music you hear. Tired and sleepy, you want to hear tunes that calm you down even further, easing your way into a deep sleep.
The same can be said about people who create special nighttime playlists on their computers. The listening habits they have during the day are seldom kept during the night, at least in most cases. Even people who listen to hardcore forms of rock tend to include less violent songs in their playlists at night. Most people go for comfortable music, that has no sudden spikes and variations in intensity, and these playlists generally include artists that play similarly sounding tunes. A large portion of those who sleep with their computers on also like to listen to a single track, set on “repeat.”
As one of those people, I think I can explain why. My favorite nighttime song (Soft Sculpture
by Incubus) is tremendously calm, but exhales a state of anticipation at the same time. Over the years, I subconsciously developed numerous interpretations for it, as well as various story lines around its instruments. In fact, one of my favorite things to do when going to sleep is imaging various scenarios around this tune, and then finally nap with those thoughts in mind.
But the main reason I listen to this track is because I find it creates a certain atmosphere, and this is, I think, perhaps that thing that people look for the most in a “nighttime” song. If, say, I sort of wake up during the night, you know, like in those moments you only become aware of the things around you for a few seconds before falling back to sleep, I feel like the room is filled with this tune. I like the eerie sensation that I get when hearing the beautiful sounds the tune has. Granted, waking up in the morning becomes very difficult. The music is so peaceful and calm, that it makes you want to sleep for a long time, and then stay in bed for at least a couple more hours. Getting up to go to work then becomes an exercise of will, at least in my case.
Which brings me to the next thing I wanted to say. Music at the workplace is something that many (me included) find indispensable. I work most efficiently, with the smallest number of errors, and the highest speed when listening to the music I like, at the volume I like. Any type of constraints, such as a reduced volume, or the various sites I listen to music from being down that day, make me very cranky and inefficient. My fingers begin to stumble over the keyboard, and I am generally not a pleasant person to be around. That changes in an instant when I can again listen to music on my own terms.
I know may people who have the exact same behavior, so I am beginning to wonder whether this is a generalized phenomenon. If so, then it could be that music really influences our behavior to a deeper extent than anyone thought. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that we listen to a lot more music when compared with our parents, or our grandparents, for example. In the old days, music was something reserved for special occasions, but now it's an everyday necessity. We have it in malls, elevators, cars, and of course on personal mp3 players. All you need to be surrounded by it at all times is money to buy batteries, or patience to charge them.
This wide availability of music sources that you can customize to your liking may theoretically be linked to people becoming cranky and unsettled when faced with unfamiliar or different listening conditions. Similar to any other habit, listening to music becomes a highly personal affair, and one that doesn't suffer intervention from external sources. I like to compare this to the way people shower. Each individual has his or her own way of doing it. The same goes for morning rituals, when people do their routines in a specific order. Take them out of it by distracting them, and they'll be uneasy throughout the rest of the day. Maybe this is where the expression “creature of habit” draws its roots from.
Over time, as music becomes addictive, and you begin to see it as a necessity to function properly, you begin to develop various secondary rituals associated with it. Some tend to light up a cigarette to a certain tune, drink some coffee on another, or remember stuff from the past. This is another thing I've noticed people do quite often. When groups of friends get together, oftentimes there are several “taboo” songs, which are not played if those individuals know each other well. One good example can be songs that one of the people in the group shared with his or her former boyfriend or girlfriend.
In other instances, some tracks can be associated with unfortunate events, such as the passing of a loved one, or with positive ones, such as that one time when you received good news. By using them as “anchors,” some have learned to put themselves back into those states of mind, and associate certain songs/bands/artists with a trip that's worth remembering, or with a period when all things were running smoothly, and everyone was getting along fine. Naturally, there are some feelings of nostalgia and regret, but the overall feeling is a good one, and some people look for it without even knowing.
Returning to the rituals associated with listening to music, I have a very simple one. All I need is for the speakers/headphones I use to sound good. I hate clips in the sounds, or distortions, or any other interferences, especially if I know the song, and how it should actually sound like. In such cases, I often choose not to listen to the songs at all, rather than hear them at a very low quality. For this exact reason, I avoided listening to stuff on sites such as YouTube, as well as on other services streaming music online. The sounds were fuzzy, had a low encryption rate, and sounded very poorly overall. Over the past couple of years, things began to change, and now it's a pleasure to hear new tunes before they hit the stores. It's all in the quality of the sound, I always say, as it's very easy to form a negative opinion of a good tune if you can't actually hear what's going on inside it.
With these things in mind, I can honestly say that I don't understand people who don't like music. I've met some of these individuals, and to this day I haven’t been able to make sense of their preferences. I'm not talking about men and women who don't enjoy a certain artist/genre, but about those who don't listen to music at all, except on occasions. In some cases, I was blabbing on about some new tune or artist I'd just discovered, and they would simply say, “You know, I'm really not that much into music.” This are the instances in which I make the perfect blank expression, and subtly drop my jaw.
They too become perplexed and then they try to explain that music simply doesn't cut it for them, that they find nothing to relate to in it. I would honestly be very curious to have brain scans of my brain and their brain for comparison. I am convinced that some portions of the cortex must be wired differently in people who like and those who don't like music, otherwise I have no way of explaining this peculiarity. Plus, evolution is on the side of those who do listen to it, provided that we had thousands, or perhaps millions, of years to get accustomed to it, and develop an adequate response. If even whales and dolphins use music to communicate, you would expect that humans, with their massive brains, would at least relate to one of the thousands of genres out there today. If someone can explain this mystery, please be my guest.
To sum up, I would be very curious to learn what types of music you listen to. Please list some of the artists or tracks you listen to most often, especially those that play in nighttime playlists. I believe you can learn a lot about a person without even knowing it, by asking about their musical preferences. In my city, one of the first and foremost questions people ask you when they make your acquaintance is, “What music do you listen to?” Groups who dig one genre over the other tend to clump together, and the community is very fragmented in this regard. And instances in which people get to fighting over which style is better are unfortunately not rare. As such, I want to make sense of it all, with your help.