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The Lost Art of Listening to Music Together

Personal Perspective: In an earbud world, listening to music has changed.

Raymond Leone
Source: Raymond Leone

The scene: A living room in any suburb or city. The year: 1938. It's Saturday night and friends and family visit for a weekend gathering. After dinner, everyone meanders over to the piano with Uncle Bob plunking out some favorite songs of the day. As the music takes over, everyone sings. Everyone smiles. Everyone is together.

The scene: A teenage bedroom in any suburb or city. The year: 1956. It's Saturday night and five of Sandy’s friends arrive for a slumber party. After her parents go to sleep, Sandy and her friends gather around the radio. Elvis’s velvety baritone fills up the room’s airways with "Don’t Be Cruel." All the girls swoon while Betty holds a photo of Elvis close to her heart. Everyone is together.

The scene: Many living rooms in any suburb or city. February 9, 1964. Extended families gather around black and white television sets with rabbit ears for "The Ed Sullivan Show." Suddenly, a foursome of mop-top lads from Liverpool appear with guitars. For a moment, many hearts stop. Popular music as we knew it was about to change forever. Young girls scream. Boys suddenly feel empowered. Adults are somewhat appalled by the changing cultural milieu happening before their eyes but are also intrigued by the built-up feelings of a sudden desire inside that they haven’t felt in years. Everyone is together.

How We Listen Now

The scene: Any schoolyard, park, subway car, city street, mall, minivan, playground, basement, family room, dinner table. Everyone is wearing earbuds, lost in the isolation of listening to their current playlist of whatever seems to be fashionable for the next 18 hours. No one is connecting.

Listening to music together used to be a social event. I distinctly remember sitting in my friend’s car when we were in high school, in the parking lot of Record & Tape Traders after school. We just bought the new Rush cassette, "Moving Pictures." We just sat together and listened. Our teenage self-consciousness suddenly didn’t matter. And we were better for it. We bonded over the power of what we had collectively heard on a human level. We were no longer "alone." Together we were Rush fans. But now? Listening to music has become personal. Solitary. Even isolating.

Yes, I do preach how music is subjective and that we all have our preferences. No one can tell you what you "should" listen to or what you "should" like.

But music was always meant to be social. Playing or listening to music together was a family pastime; teens bonded over sharing and listening to favorite records together; friends would form a band. What they were also doing was forming a social bond through shared interests. And yes, we still go to concerts with friends, and still form bands, but what we are not doing is sitting in a car, bedroom, or family room together listening to a new album, or "educating" others on the mastery of John Coltrane. (Or gathering to listen to the top 40 songs on AM radio. Remember American Top 40?) We're not often bonding over a shared music experience.

Music’s Role in Social Bonding

Researchers have worked to understand why musicality exists in us. A growing body of research suggests that music plays an integral role in social bonding. One way social bonding forms is through "identity fusion." Sachs, FeldmanHall, & Tamar (2021) define identity fusion as "the feeling of oneness with others through alignment of actions, affect, and/or preferences.” This "oneness" comes from a sense of belonging to a particular social group and can be created through shared musical activities. With this knowledge, we again try to incorporate music choices and experiences in our families or friend groups to create deeper social connections (Stern, 2014). Music listening today is mainly passive: Music "in the background" of a dinner party, or playing overhead in a restaurant. But there is, or should be, a place for social music listening. The way it was. The way it was meant to be.

Have a Listening Gathering

Here’s an idea: Have a social music listening gathering. Invite some friends over, even acquaintances; music is a great way to connect and learn about others. Make some food, and open some wine, but the main focus is listening to music together. Here is a way to have everyone participate, and also learn and discover music that may be outside of your 80s or 90s playlist. (Not to mention that music is a great paradigm to learn—and perhaps help accept and understand—other cultures.) Start with the letter ‘A’. Person #1 picks an artist (band, singer) of their choice that begins with A (Adele, Aerosmith, Cannonball Adderley), chooses a song, and everyone listens. Together. Then the next person has ‘B’ (Bad Bunny, Backstreet Boys, Bach), you get the idea. And hopefully, as they did in 1938, 1956, and 1964, everyone smiles. Everyone laughs. And everyone is together.

You may even discover something new about someone. It can be hard to find social connections in a social-media/earbud world. But we still have music.

References

Sachs, E., FeldmanHall, O., & Tamir, D. (2021). Clarifying the link between music and social bonding by measuring prosociality in context. Cambridge University Press.

Stern, M.J. (2014). Neural nostalgia: Why do we love music we heard as teenagers? The Slate Group. https://slate.com/technology/2014/08/musical-nostalgia-the-psychology-a…

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