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Why Do We Listen to Music?

Music is part of our daily lives. With the advent of smartphones, music streaming subscriptions, and YouTube, everybody has access the millions of pieces of diverse music spanning decades. While recent technological advances have given everyone access to a constant stream of music, the obsession with music is not a new fascination for our species. Humans have been connected to music for over 250,000 years. Music is played around the world by different cultures no matter how isolated they are. But Why? Why do we spend time, money and so much energy on music? Schäfer, Sedlmeier, Städtler and Huron (2013) attempted to answer this existential question by reviewing the literature on the functions that music serves to people.

Schäfer and associates (2013) reviewed the literature over the past 50 years on music and psychology and found over 500 reported functions of music. They also found that many researchers suggested breaking up the distinct functions of music into four different dimensions: cognitive, emotional, social/cultural, and physiological/arousal. Schäfer and associates (2013) took the 500 different functions of music the found in the literature and whittled them down to 129 functions by removing any functions they believed were redundant.

Since the researcher found so many distinct functions of music, they hypothesized that they could potentially break them down into distinct categories and see what individuals report as their main reasons for listening to music. They created a survey of 129 items that began with “I listen to music because…” and included each of the 129 functions of music they found. Respondents answered on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 6 (fully agree). Eight hundred and thirty-four individuals completed the survey, and their ages ranged from 8-85 years old.

Upon analyzing their results, the researchers found three distinct categories for why people listen to music:

  • Self-Awareness: Self-awareness includes functions about self-related thoughts such as emotion, coping, and meaning. It expresses a person’s private relationship with music, how they think they are and how they think they should be.

  • Social Relatedness: Self-relatedness includes functions on social bonding such as feeling connected to family and friends. It also helps to identify other values and gather information about the social environment.

  • Arousal and Mood: Music can act as a diversion and entertainment, it can help us regulate psychological arousal by making us relax or even become more alert.

The researchers found that by averaging the rating in each dimension, the most frequent dimension of why people listen to music was for arousal and mood followed by self-awareness. This pattern stayed the same no matter the gender, socioeconomic status, background or age. The reason why these results are important is it tells us that people in western societies listen to music primarily for entertainment, to maintain a pleasant mood and create a comfortable living space. What is less important to the respondents of the survey was is listening to music for social reasons or fitting in. So in short, people listen to music not to be cool or fit in but because it helps of feel good and cope with our daily lives.

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