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Music Is a Potent Source of Meaning - Pacific Standard

Music Is a Potent Source of Meaning

But new research finds younger and older people largely listen for different reasons.
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(Photo: Jose Oller/Flickr)

(Photo: Jose Oller/Flickr)

"Music," wrote Ludwig van Beethoven, "is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." Granted, as a composer, Beethoven wasn't exactly an objective observer. But for most of us, music is still the art form we turn to most frequently, and the one that gives us the greatest satisfaction.

The source of music's power has long been debated, with many psychologists concluding its primary benefit is emotional regulation (that is, stress reduction or relaxation). For many of us, that has always seemed awfully reductive—Beethoven would no doubt respond with some dissonant, dissenting chords—and recently published research suggests we may be right.

An exploratory study finds emotion regulation may be "a secondary outcome of music listening," write psychologists Jenny Groarke and Michael Hogan of the National University of Ireland in Galway. Rather, the "fundamental drivers" of our thirst for music appear to be the intense emotions a given melody produces, the way it facilitates reminiscing, and—as we age—its ability to produce transcendent experiences.

Older people are more interested in music as an intense, inner experience, while younger ones view it as a way of escaping bad moods and connecting with friends.

In the journal Psychology of Music, Groarke and Hogan report older and younger people tend to express different ideas when asked why they listen to music. While the responses of four groups of participants—two featuring people under 30, and two composed of those over 60—were predictably wide-ranging, the researchers found some distinct patterns.

For younger adults, social connection is a strong component of music listening; you bond with your peers over your choice in tunes. By one measure, this consideration placed second only to "mood improvement." (This finding aligns nicely with the theory that music originally developed as a source of social cohesion.)

But that aspect of listening was far less important to older adults, who largely looked at music as therapeutic—a source of meaning and personal growth. While some younger participants did refer to music's ability to provide them with a private "personal space," the bulk of the responses suggest older people are more interested in music as an intense, inner experience, while younger ones view it as a way of escaping bad moods and connecting with friends.

Using advertisements, Groarke and Hogan recruited volunteers to participate in four discussion groups, two of which featured music lovers between the age of 18 and 30 (24 in total), while the other two consisted of seniors ages 60 to 85 (19 in total).

The sessions began with the question "Why do you listen to music?," which was followed by a period of reflection, a detailed discussion of the ideas it generated, and a voting process in which participants selected five benefits of music listening that "they believed were most significant for enhancing well-being." The winners were then analyzed by a computer program that determined how they related to one another, and clarified the responses by folding them into a structural model.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found "affect regulation"—that is, relaxation or stress reduction—was "a common and highly endorsed function of music listening by both older and younger adults." However, rather than a primary reason for turning on that CD player or streaming service, affect regulation was largely seen as a side benefit that was "enhanced by other music listening functions."

"A greater proportion of younger adults considered social connection through music listening as significant for their well-being," the researchers write. "Younger adults considered social connection an important antecedent of (emotion) regulation and mood improvement."

The idea that music can inspire personal growth or be otherwise therapeutic was endorsed far more among the study's older participants.

"Paradoxically, younger adults also endorsed the use of music to avoid social connection, highlighting how music can be used to create a private space," they add. "It may be that young adults are using music to counteract the stresses of their more active social lives, while older adults are using music to compensate for and regulate feelings of social isolation."

Both groups felt the power of music to evoke reminiscing was important, but for somewhat different reasons. Younger adults saw it as a double-edged sword, distinguishing between "spontaneous, purposeful, positive, and less-adaptive reminiscing, such as reliving painful memories by listening to 'break-up' songs." Older adults, in contrast, viewed music-inspired reminiscing as a positive influencer on personal growth.

Indeed, the idea that music can inspire personal growth or be otherwise therapeutic was endorsed far more among the study's older participants. Many also spoke of music in terms of transcendence, and as meditative—ideas that did not reach the younger participants' radar screens.

This all suggests music retains its importance as we move through life, but the benefits it provides shift somewhat as we age. To again quote Beethoven, "Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life"—the sensual life of the young, and the spiritual concerns of those who are facing the fact that their days are limited.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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