We choose to listen to music for a number of reasons. Music can engage us deeply, taking us out of the world of our everyday cares and concerns. Of the variety of psychological states that music can arouse, perhaps two of the most highly prized are absorption (a kind of “effortless involvement”) and dissociation or detachment. These states are similar. In both, attention is narrowed, and aspects of our surroundings recede from awareness. The differences between them arise from the interplay between our state of mind, our motivation for listening, and our habitual ways of responding to music. Speaking very generally, listeners who focus closely on the music are more likely to experience absorption than listeners who use the music to accompany some activity or as a means to some other end
Music psychologists have studied absorption in music. (See my earlier post on Musical Thrills and Chills.) But they have shown less interest in detached or disengaged experiences of music. A recent study by Ruth Herbert at the U.K.’s Open University (Herbert, 2011) is one of the few to examine the psychological characteristics of normative dissociation facilitated by music in “real world” settings. Normative or “nonpathological” dissociative states are defined as temporary alteration or separation of normally integrated mental processes, which are not organically induced and not part of a mental disorder. Such states are widespread and are basic aspects of everyday psychological functioning. They are often described as natural defense mechanisms against pain and anxiety (Cardeña, 1994), and some believe that they are an innate adaptive response (DeRuiter et. al. 2006; Ludwig 1983).
Herbert’s goal was to explore the psychological qualities of listeners’ subjective experiences. Twenty volunteers agreed to keep a diary for two weeks, where they described “involving experiences of any kind” (that is, whether or not music played a role) as soon as possible after occurrence. The participants were men and women of various ages and occupations. (Since all were white Britons, let’s hope that research participants in future studies will be more ethnically and culturally diverse.)
The participants recorded a total of 151 experiences, with over half featuring music or sound. Of these, about 40 exhibited “markedly dissociative qualities” and music played a role in 25 of these. In some of these, listeners deliberately sought an experience that would take them out of themselves, and in others, the experience was unanticipated and spontaneous. When Herbert analyzed the reports, five thematic categories emerged:
Escape from the self: Listeners sought out music as a defensive technique to escape current anxieties and concerns or to drown out unwanted thoughts.
Enabling technology or activity: In some experiences, listeners used portable technology (ipod and headphones) or engaged in an activity (exercise, gardening) to enhance the music’s power of distraction.
Change in sensory awareness: Listeners experienced multi-sensory engagement and sense of “derealization.” Some found that their senses were sharpened with hyper-awareness; others felt that their experience were muted, as if things were happening in slow motion or under water. (One participant wrote that listening to the work of minimalist composer Steve Reich in his car, “feels risky, like driving on a glass of wine.”)
Some listeners found that the changes in their awareness occurred together with imaginative involvement. Their own memories, associations and fantasies affected how they experienced the music and their surroundings.
Finally, some listeners reported a spontaneous vacancy or absence. Their sense of self and of their surroundings spontaneously receded from awareness.
Herbert has some ideas as to why music facilitates dissociation and detachment. Music (especially music without lyrics) does not have a fixed meaning. It is ambiguous and listeners can (within limits) assign it meanings that they choose. Music (in the form of recordings) is portable. We can take it with us in our daily lives and into public and private spaces. (In the time before sound recordings, perhaps musical memories and imaginings played a similar role.) Finally, music provides a wide variety of “distractors.” We can focus on the sound of what we hear, or on associations prompted by those sounds, whether these are private or shared.
For me, one of the most interesting things about Herbert’s research is that it indicates the ways in which music mediates or changes other sensory and internal experiences. According to the listeners’ reports, music does not merely “accompany” experiences like a kind of aural wallpaper, but plays an active part in shaping those experiences. I look forward to more extensive research in this area, perhaps combining self-reports with other investigative techniques.
Cardeña, E. (1994). The domain of dissociation. In J.S. Lynn & J.W. Rhue (Eds.), Dissociation (pp. 1–31). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.
De Ruiter, M.B., Elzinga, B.M., & Phaf, R.H. (2006). Dissociation: Cognitive capacity or dysfunction? Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 7(4), 115–134.
Herbert, R. (2011). An empirical study of normative dissociation in musical and non-musical everyday life experiences. Psychology of Music, 1-23.
Ludwig, A.M. (1983). The psychobiological functions of dissociation. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 26, 93–99.