Harman – The Art Of Listening
Harman – The Art Of Listening

Music: Conscious listening can improve wellbeing

Numerous scientific studies have shown that music has significant and beneficial physiological, psychological and cognitive effects. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic we need this more than ever, and research by Global Web Index has found that 58 per cent are listening to music while in lockdown.

But is there a way that we can gain more significant benefits from sound and Spotify? Audio company HARMAN – the name behind audio equipment brands Harman Kardon, JBL and AKG – believes that when used consciously, music can be used as a tool to help manage our emotions. We speak with Dr. Sean Olive, Acoustic Research at HARMAN, to find out more.

A recent study conducted by HARMAN and market research company FutureSource* found that 92 per cent of Brits believe music eases everyday pressures, while 81 per cent say music makes them feel happy. The study also discovered that a lack of time in today’s busy modern lifestyles was considered a major obstacle to music listening, but today’s easy access to audio streaming and lockdown regulations around the world mean that, for many, time is no longer a barrier.

“In lieu of going to concerts, communities severely affected and locked-down by the virus in Italy, Spain and New York are having music block parties from their balconies, and musica; artists are live streaming performances from their homes for fans to enjoy during their extra free time,” explains Dr. Sean Olive, Sr. Research Fellow at HARMAN.  “Meanwhile, in Marin County, California, residents go outside and howl like coyotes every evening at 8pm to show support for the virus first responders and medical workers saving lives. This is taking the form of clapping and saucepan banging in other regions. It may only seem like noise, but the expression of unity and love in creating an auditory experience together is uplifting and healing,” continued Dr. Olive.

Music stimulates the emotions and contributes to a sense of happiness and wellbeing. Music can modify our mood, reduce stress and anxiety, improve our productivity and sleep, and it can also enhance our memory and productivity.

Dr. Olive explains: “Our biorhythms, our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing for example, tend to synchronise with the beat of the music. Slower, softer, calm music tends to relax us whereas faster paced sounds arouse energy. Music produces neurochemicals in our brain including dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and rewards, much like food, sex and drugs, but less addictive and without negative side effects. Only about five per cent of the population do not derive pleasure specifically from music, a condition known as musical anhedonia.”

Deep listening

Dr. Olive and HARMAN want to promote a reinstating of active and ‘deep listening’ that will help us get the most out of the listening experience. But how do you achieve this deep listening?

“First, we encourage people to give music listening their full attention. This may seem obvious, but the majority of people listen to music in the background. It’s typically an accompaniment to what they’re doing in their busy lives; it’s become background noise,” explains Dr. Olive. “Imagine you’re at a performance – an announcement is made to turn off all electronic devices, the lights go down, the audience is hushed, and the music begins. You sit back in your chair with your eyes closed and really enjoy the experience. At home, turn off distractions like TVs, and phones and turn the volume to a moderate level – 75-80 dBA for the technical minded – not so loud to cause hearing fatigue or disturb neighbours, but not too soft to obscure details in the music. Then, sit back, relax, close your eyes and listen. ”

It’s not just about our focus when listening to music, it’s how we choose to listen to it. Today’s music consumption tends to take a ‘snacking’ approach. We typically play single tracks selected individually or in a compilation, quickly identifying tracks that we don’t enjoy and skipping them. This approach isn’t helping us get the most physical, mental and emotional health benefits from music.

“We encourage people to listen to full albums or complete musical works; this is really important. That way, the full musical structure, aesthetic and emotional ‘storyline’ can be appreciated. This is more fulfilling than an algorithmically-determined mishmash of tunes. Thirdly, we believe that the quality of the recording and the playback equipment are essential to deliver the correct timbre, dynamics and spatial richness of the performance,”

said Dr. Olive.

According to the aforementioned survey, good sound quality triggers positive emotions such as a sense of the music coming to life (60 per cent), feeling uplifted (49 per cent) or feeling relaxed (38 per cent), while bad sound quality triggers negative emotions such as dissatisfaction (45 per cent), annoyance (42 per cent), or disappointment (34 per cent). Setting up your speakers to ensure they have good interaction with the room acoustics is important and affects the quality and quantity of bass, but for those who lack space and budget, good headphones that fit around the ears are an excellent alternative.

Combined, these techniques can help to reach a deeper state of listening. You’ll know you’ve got there when your toes are tapping and you are losing yourself in the melody, singing along and feeling those music-induced chills down your back.

“Most importantly, you’ll forget what’s going on around you and be completely immersed. Todays thoughts about coronavirus and the difficulties we’re all facing will have disappeared for a few minutes,”

adds Dr. Olive.

Emotional effects

As for the emotional effect, that all comes down to the choice of music itself. Music and data scientists can predict the emotional effect of music on listeners by extracting andmodelling the acoustic features. “Tempo, melody, rhythm, dynamics, spectral characteristics and musical complexity, amongst others, will produce an emotion, but that of course may vary depending on the individual listener and their preferences and familiarity with the music,” explains Dr. Olive. “The emotions of the songs are often plotted on a three-dimensional scale with valence (happy/sad), arousal (high/low energy), and depth (high/low emotional range & intellectual complexity) defining the endpoints of the scale.”

For many, the new working-from-home situation means that improvements in productivity are sought after, and many studies generally agree that music can help us work or study better. By being in a more relaxed and positive frame of mind, we can boost our productivity and enhance both memory tasks and endurance.

“Instrumental music may be better than music with lyrics for tasks involving reading or writing,” suggests Dr. Olive. “However, for musicians, there is evidence that we tend to be less productive when the music features the same instruments we play. Perhaps it reminds us we should be practicing, or we’d rather be playing than studying! Loud, energetic music may be distracting so it’s important to set the right mood by choosing the right music.”

Productivity may be the goal for some, but most of us could do with a helping hand to feel positive against the background of the coronavirus pandemic. “When you feel down, often out of habit you’ll pick sad or melancholy music that reflects your mood,”

says Dr. Olive.

“This of course will mean that you continue along that avenue of thought and feeling. However, consciously choosing and actively listening to music that reflects how you’d like to feel can have a huge impact. It can be a hard task to pick upbeat music when you’re feeling off colour, but doing so will help you get back on track and reconnect with that positive frame of mind.”

To help, Dr. Olive has put together a playlist that includes a selection of music that will help us feel energised and calm, which you can listen to on Tidal here: https://tidal.com/browse/playlist/b453bf65-6346-4102-99cd-98ac6ebdfaa8

Dr. Olive explains: “This playlist combines some fantastic uplifting and positivity-inducing tracks thanks to their tempo and dynamics. Alongside, there are some smoother, more soothing and calming tracks to help any stresses ebb away.”

Dr. Sean Olive’s music to get you through coronavirus lockdown:

  • The Four Seasons – Vivaldi
  • I Hear Music – Ella Fitzgerald & Oscar Peterson
  • Shine on Your Shoes – Mel Tormé
  • Hey Ya! – OutKast
  • Happy (from Despicable Me 2) – Pharrell Williams
  • September – Earth, Wind & Fire
  • Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye
  • The Planets, Op. 32 – 4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity – Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal