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Music, Meaning and Health

Listening to music is one of the most common and appreciated activities in today’s society. The conditions and possibilities for listening to music almost anytime and anywhere have changed dramatically in the latest 20 years through the development of digital technology, the Internet and mobile listening devices such as the Ipod, cell phones and car stereos.

Music is not just an innocent pleasure but a tool that people use to shape identities and biographies, community and unity, to affect a person’s mood and state of mind, and to create mental energy and affect health.

The aim of the project Music Listening, Meaning and Health (in Swedish: Musiklyssning, meningsskapande och hälsa) is to, by way of semi-structured deep interviews, investigate the effects of everyday music listening on people’s mood, well-being and health, why they say they experience music the way they do and what they listen for or claim to perceive in the music they listen to. These two aspects, one psychological and the other phenomenological, intimately interlink.

The object for analysis, then, is people’s statements about music, descriptions of their ways of listening to music and musical experiences and of how they claim that they are affected by the music.

The interviews are based on a semi-structured questionnaire with the following questions:

  • What do you focus on when listening to music: structures, melodies, chords, lyrics, musical form, voice quality, sound, groove?
  • What in a particular piece of music do you find attractive, beautiful, enjoyable or expressive? Alternatively ugly, objectionable or ”bad”? Why?
  • How do you feel when you listen to music: How is your mood or well-being affected? Do you have bodily sensations?
  • Why do you want to listen to a particular kind of music or piece of music? Which kind of effects do you expect? How do you choose the right music for a particular intent, need or situation?
  • What kind of experiences do you have: emotional, associative, awakened memories?

Methodically the idea is to let each interviewee play three self-chosen pieces of music and then make an interview (or a conversation) with the questionnaire as a starting point. The number of interviewees should be 10 to 15, and they should not have any formal musical schooling or music as their profession. Through long and/or recurring conversations the interviewees are given opportunities to contemplate, develop, deepen and define their statements.

Too seldom the question has been asked: do people with formal schooling in music analysis and music theory hear and perceive music in the same ways as people without such schooling? Musicological analyses usually focus much more on the sounding (or notated) musical structures, the way the music is constructed and made, than on the experience or feeling of the music. When people in their everyday lives listen to or talk about music they rather focus on experiences, emotions, associations and memories connected to the music or the performer in question – while the musical structures are hardly mentioned or touched upon.

Music-analytical jargon is mastered by a minority, and it does not work well to describe everyday uses and experiences of music. On top of that, musical experiences, affects and structures are in general hard to verbalize, which in turn has to do with the fact that they are sensuous, emotional or associative experiences. No matter how blunt, verbal language is the available tool to describe musical experiences.

It has been common within musicology to try to distinguish and characterize listener types or listening strategies. Researchers have used terms like “expert listeners” and “unmusical people”, or spoken of differences between “active” and “passive”, “concentrated” and “unobservant”, “structural” and “emotional” listening – or simply between “hearing” and “listening”. These categories are, however, in most cases neither clearly defined nor based on empirical investigations of living people but rather speculative and grounded in (mostly) implicit value judgements and vague notions of good and bad ways of listening. Listening to music is a very complex activity that is not easily described in these rather simple terms. Most people today listen to music simultaneously with other activities, presumably using various listening strategies depending on their taste, preferences and needs, what the situation requires and what functions the music is supposed or expected to fill.

It is well proven that music is important as a self-therapeutic tool to regulate a person’s mood or frame of mind in the everyday. Music is also an effective tool to create and sustain a personal identity or biography. By using mobile listening devices you can create your own “sonic bubble” in order to block out the noisy outer world or to draw back, relax and lessen stress and mental strains. Note that it is useful to distinguish between this everyday self-therapy and clinical music therapy that takes place in medical institutions – even if there may be parallels and similarities.

Present-day research suggests strong connections between music and health and/or well-being. Health in this context should not be understood as “absence of illness” in a biological sense, a diagnosis, but as a broader, complex and relativistic concept that may include well-being, existential health, sense of coherence and purpose in life. You may, in clinical terms, suffer from some kind of malady but nevertheless experience satisfaction and that life is good and meaningful. The expression “health and well-being” has in contemporary research often become a standing phrase, which in turn implies this broad and complex view of health. The focus of this project is on music and well-being and everyday self- therapy – and not on physical illnesses.

Research on music and health is rapidly growing, but in Sweden it is much smaller than in our neighbouring countries or in Great Britain and the USA. The Nordic research network MUCH, Music, Culture and Health, which was active between 2011 and 2013, and the founding of The Centre for Culture and Health at the University of Gothenburg in 2008, are signs of the times. I have been active in both.

The research on music and health has so far been dominated by music therapists, psychologists, medics and neurologists, but it is important to apply a musicological and humanistic perspective as well to get a comprehensive picture.

The project Music Listening, Meaning and Health is expected to:
1. Produce an extended understanding of the effects of music listening and music’s significance for health and well-being. This is the main purpose of the project.
2. Produce a more realistic and less biased view of music listening than in previous models.
3. Produce a better understanding of the way language works as a carrier and mediator of descriptions of musical structure and experiences.

The result of the project will be published in Swedish and English in a monograph as well as in articles in 2016 and 2017.

Project leader: Professor Lars Lilliestam
Project time: 2014–2018
Funding: The Faculty of Arts



Contact Information

Lars Lilliestam

PO Box 200, 405 30 Gothenburg, Sweden

Visiting Address:
Vera Sandbergs Allé 8, room 3244B

+46-(0)31-786 4088

Page Manager: Felicia Bigot Klinteberg|Last update: 2/12/2018

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