In 1979 Sony began selling the world’s “first” portable cassette player, the Sony Walkman (they had actually stolen the design from an inventor who couldn’t market his product.) Ever since, it has become commonplace to put on a pair of earphones or headphones, and disappear into a world of dancing melodies. Today we are living in the most “headphoned” generation since the beginning of time. There has never been more music created, distributed, listened to, or sold. Even discounting the increase in the volume of musicians and listeners, todays average person is listening to a much higher amount of music than the average person from every other generation. In my own home, there is a media system, three computers, two smartphones, and a few pairs of earphones that can all play music. I can get into my car, which has its own music system, wear headphones on the way up the stairs to the office, and the listen to Spotify (the best thing ever) on my office PC. There is music everywhere, but is that safe and good? Now, music is not inherently good or bad, the same way poetry, art, books, or other forms of sharing ideas and emotions are not bad or good. It all depends on the context. Usually. Yet in the case of music there are some special considerations. These things should make us very wary of what kind of music we listen to.
1. Music impacts your emotional state
I often get stressed at work. It usually happens halfway during the day, I start getting overwhelmed and frustrated by what I am working on (right now writing SQL). At that time I put in my headphones, and pull up some relaxing music on Spotify. I take some deep breaths, close my eyes, and I already feel like I am on a beach, relaxing, with no care in the world. It literally changes my mood, my heart rate, my stress level. This is great! Taking a break and using music to help you relax is grand, and my Biblical guess is that the God who created a Sabbath for relaxation is fond of such relaxing music. I am not doing bad when I relax by listening to calming music. However, if music can change my emotional state from stressed to relaxed, what else can it do? Psychologists stay a lot (1). The general idea is that music, even without lyrics, can change how you ‘feel.’ If I listen to a great deal of music that is written on a minor scale, I will feel a weighty sense of “sadness.” On the other hand, even though my life may need some serious self-reflection, by turning on upbeat and happy music, I can push everything away and adjust my mood to be “happier.”
2. Music can change your perception
Music can do so much that there is a whole academic journal devoted to the scientific study of music on our psychology (2). A recent study showed that people who have a mood altered by music also have a different perception of the world. In the study subjects were much better able to identify “smiley’s” on a paper if they were consistent with the music being played. This is not to make crazy statements (as were often made by fundamentalist anti-drum Christians) that “Rock music will get you possessed” or “make you become a serial killer.” Not at all. However, there are more subtle changes in your psyche. For example, if you listen to hours of romantic music (that you enjoy and think is beautiful) and you are single, you might start to “miss” a romance that you don’t have, causing you to feel empty. You may stop perceiving that life is normal, but instead, now you will see a sad lack of love everywhere you go. Conversely, listening to angry or violent music and lyrics will increase your emotional levels of aggression. Studies have shown that you will be quicker and more likely to get angry (or even violent) with others (3). For example, you might perceive a normal conversation as filled with tension, threats, and anger.
3. Music can glamorize bad ideas
In a more subtle way than the above, music can even influence your thoughts and feelings about an object or idea. This is a well-known fact in the marketing and filmmaking industry. Imagine the best scene from your favorite epic adventure film. The hero overcomes the greatest threat to the sound of “glorious” music. Instead of a majestic symphonic orchestra that fills you with a sense of awe, replace the music with childish version of “Jingle Bells” and everything changes. The ending just doesn’t feel so “epic” anymore, it feels “cheap” and “for children.” Advertisers know this and thus every ad is very carefully and meaningfully recorded to make the item be more pleasing (4). Take a very unappealing thing or idea, throw the world’s best music in the background, and it looks much better. Take a boring talk, put it to a great background track, and it stirs up an emotional connection with the speaker. The big danger here is that bad ideas can be put to very good music. Your brain will enjoy the music, and that will make the ideas or lyrics “less bad” and “more glamorous.” For example, listen to a man talking about murder, and you will be creeped out. Now play it with your favorite music and there is something “artsy” that makes an emotional connection with you. You won’t go kill anyone, but after eons of listening to that, your mind slowly adapts to appreciate the idea, instead of fearing it (3). Or as another example, take the slew of sexually provocative songs that have polluted the airwaves. Teenagers listen to perverted lyrics, loving the music and melody, in turn the combination makes perversion appear more appealing and less dehumanizing.
Control your music, don’t let it control you.