Music Psychology

Thoughts on listening to new music, emotion and memory

Huffington Post asked me to comment on the idea that we tend to listen to only familiar music. What may be the benefits of listening to new music instead and how might we approach this challenge?

The questions I received from the Huffington Post are in bold text below and my full, original answers are underneath.

How might we retrain our brains to appreciate and take in more new sounds, when many of us become more accustomed to nostalgic sounds as we grow older?

Lamont and Loveday (2020) conducted most recent review on the importance of music in our lives; the power of music in our memories and how that drives our listening preferences and emotions. The brain circuitry that connects music, memories and emotions is also hardwired to our pleasure responses, driven by the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine.

Studies suggest that most people form their music listening preferences between the ages of 17-23 using this neural system and go on to utilise it for the purpose of wellbeing throughout their adult life.

To appreciate ‘new’ music in the same way is likely to be impossible since we cannot recreate early unique life circumstances or teenage biology. Hence the key to learning to appreciate new music as an adult is not expecting it to take on that same role in our lives or to have the same impact.

We may learn to love new music equally, but that would be a bonus and would only ever happen after many exposures. Scientists have demonstrated that we have to do a lot of listening in order to create strong musical memories (see classic studies by Professor Andrea Halpern, for example)

Listening to new music is a challenge. It is like driving in a new area without a map – our attention is all over the place, faced with unfamiliar input, and we struggle to appreciate our surroundings when faced with the challenge of constantly unfolding novelty. It can be overwhelming to our brain since it cannot rely on memory, a familiar map, to the same extent as with our favourite songs and playlists. But it is a perfect challenge for the frontal areas of the brain, which are activated when we are exposed to complex new patterns in our environment and try to understand them. So listen with intent. Give the task of listening to new music the attention it needs.

That is not to say you can only hope to listen to new music in a devoted manner. If background listening works in your life you could try to engage with new music as part of new habits to create a paired associated for the benefit of both experiences. Consider new music if restarting an old exercise routine, exploring the possibilities of a new music listening device, or as part a new element of the daily routine. But remember, new music, especially if it has lyrics, will demand more of your limited cognitive capacity. It will take up processing power from your frontal lobes, so avoid including it as part of cognitively demanding tasks such as written work or driving. 

– What could be the benefits of listening to more new music and discovering more new music as we grow older, anything from 30 and above?

Listening to new music as we age provides the brain with a cognitive challenge that activates multiple, simultaneous neural systems. The benefits of music listening will never compare to the enhancements we get from actively performing music, but nevertheless, new music listening activates areas of the brain from root to tip, from the early auditory processing centres through to the outer reaches of our cortex. 

Creating memories with new music across the lifespan has the potential to add to our valuable music memory bank. Most people attach a single strong life memory to a single piece of music which is hard to ‘overwrite’ with later memories. New music affords the opportunity for a greater library of options by which to associate our experiences throughout life, for later reflection in our imaginations. Music is one of the fastest and most reliable life memory triggers and there is no evidence that this system recedes as we age, the potential is always there to create pathways in the mind between important life events and music.  

– If we open our minds to more new music by taking some practical steps, will it likely mean we also open our minds to discovering more newness in life and not relying heavily on nostalgia?

Nostalgia from music listening experiences is an important part of most people’s lives and wellbeing, there is no shame in relying on it on a regular basis. Music at a safe volume has no known side effects so go ahead and enjoy the feel good factor it provides.

Musical memories are also known to survive longer than other memories in cases of people living with dementia-related conditions. For them, music can provide a sense of belonging, freedom and connection, all vital aspects of humanity that can seem increasingly remote as dementia progresses. The music memory library already in our minds is a strong survivor and support system.

New music affords the opportunity to open our minds not only to new sounds but to new worlds. Music is a universal way to better understand other people since there has never been a human culture found on earth that has not produced music for some purpose. New music provides a language-barrier free way to explore alternative social circumstances, cultures and concepts. 

Click here to read the final Huffington Post published article by Adam Bloodworth. This contains comments by Professor Alex Lamont and other experts in the field.

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