Listening to Music Ain't a Simple Thing

The oft-misunderstood complexity of music, humans, and their interactions

Posted Feb 12, 2013

You loved it. Or you hated it.

You simply need to read the headlines to get a sense of the extreme reactions people had to her performance. Some called it electric and thrilling. Others watched it with raised eyebrows, concerned about the sexual undertones—or overtness?—of her outfit and dancing.

Everyone listened to the same performance, yet there were highly diverse reactions to what we heard and saw. Why is that? The answer can be summed up in a single word . . . complexity. Music is a complex stimulus. Humans are complex beings. The interactions between humans and music is thus a highly complex phenomenon. This isn't a novel concept—I've heard it from my mentor and friend, Dr. Deanna Hanson-Abromeit, and recently read about it in a chapter from the Handbook of Music and Emotion (Sloboda & Juslin, 2011).

It's not a new idea, but the concept that listening to music is a complex phenomenon is an idea that is not commonly acknowledged.

Music is a complex stimulus.

Do you believe me when I claim that music is a complex stimulus? If not, then I encourage you to try and answer a single question:

What is music?

One answer may be that music is organized sound. But that's a rather simplistic view, don't you think? Music is composed of many different elements that come together to form that organized sound. Rhythm, pitch, timbre, melody, form, style, genre, dynamics, harmony—all of these are added in various doses and intensity levels to create the complex acoustic sound wave that we hear and interpret.

To make things more complex, each presentation of live music sounds a little different (recorded music being a different story). Even if it's the same performer playing in the same venue, there other other mediating factors that influence how the music sounds that day, such as room temperature, outside temperature, and time of day. Unlike a piece of sculputure or a painting—who's aesthetic beauty is captured in a timeless presentation—music is temporal and is only "captured" in our memory and feeling of it. Every complex organized acoustic sound wave that enters our ear is different.

Humans are complex beings.

When I was a child, I remember riding in the backseat of the car, looking at all the other cars, and thinking about how each person in that car is doing something different that day. Each person is worried about something, each person is happy about something, each person has a different story to tell.

The elements that go into who we are and how we experience things are varied and diverse. They include our experiences, individual preferences, previous and current relationships, and cultural values. The combination of these elements influence and color how we perceive, process, and interpret...well, everything! For example, some people who watched Beyonce's halftime show viewed it through the lens of a parent, a perspective that influenced their interpretation and judgment of her performance. But what if that same person watched the same performance 10 years earlier, before he or she had kids? That parentel lens wouldn't be there anymore . . . which might have changed that person's perception, interpretation, and judgement of the entire performance.

Humans + Music = A Complex Interaction

Taken together, the experience that happens when you listen to a piece of music is like a snowflake—each one is it's own unique phenomenon. Even if you listen to the same piece by the same performer, you and the performer come into the experience having "lived life" and maybe even learned something. It's a highly complex interaction that occurs between a complex stimulus—music— and us as complex beings. No two interactions, no two experiences are the same.

This is what happened when we watched Beyonce's Superbowl performance last week. Our experience of the performance was colored by our experiences, our values, and our individual preferences. Some people loved it, some were alarmed by it.

What about you?

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.


Slodoba, J. A. & Juslin, P. N. (2011). At the interface between the inner and outer world:  Psychological perspectives. In P. N. Juslin & J. A. Sloboda (Eds.) Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications (pgs. 73-97). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.