Music brings us joy. That’s the simplest explanation, right? We listen to music because it awakens something inside of us. Something exuberant. Or thoughtful. Or something sorrowful. Music is spiritual like that.
However, if you look a little deeper, the question of what motivates us to listen to music is one that defies simple explanation. Yes, music brings us joy, but why? Music definitely “activates” something inside of us, but how? And what is that “something,” anyway? These are big questions.
In one sense, subjective experience is the only way to address the problem. The reason you listen to music (and the reason you listen to the specific music you listen to) is your reason alone. Mine might be different. But there’s also another approach to the problem – a more academic approach.
Scholars have sought to discover the reasons behind our shared joy of music. Their findings, though far from definitive, are nonetheless insightful. From escapism to health to social cohesion, the reasons behind our shared love of music are as numerous as the genres in your local record shop.
And at least one of them probably aligns with your own reasons for listening.
Strong storytelling creates strong communities
What makes your community a community? Maybe your community has a shared identity based on common professions, religions, recreational pursuits, or politics. Music, at varying levels, supports those identities and helps us define our communities. Put more simply, it enables social cohesion.
There are many reasons to believe this is true:
- Human civilizations have engaged in musical activities for at least the last 40,000 years. Though we know less about the functions of music in early human societies than during, say… the last two millennia, music certainly mattered to ancient civilizations. In an age when the survival of the hunter-gatherer band was paramount, it’s reasonable to conclude that music somehow contributed to the strength of the group. Otherwise, why create it?
- As scholars have noted, national anthems bind countries together; work songs bind laborers together; lullabies bind families together – people create music to build and strengthen ties to one another.
- Music plays a key role in celebrations. It’s an integral part of religious and community rituals, not to mention small, informal social gatherings among friends and neighbors.
For example, you’ve probably enjoyed live music at community events – 4th of July parades, anyone? – or at family gatherings. Maybe you even participated by playing an instrument, singing, or just clapping your hands along with the rhythm. These are common experiences that help bind us to our surrounding community. Music brings people together, and the stories that we tell through music reinforce our sense of shared identity.
The same holds true for private social gatherings. We’ve all put on music to provide ambiance and enhance the feeling of togetherness we feel when we’re among friends and family. And for many of us, music itself is the reason for getting together with others! We put on an LP or dive into a playlist together and talk about what we hear. It’s a bonding experience.
A feeling of community is also why you scream at the top of your lungs and pump your fists with friends at concerts. It’s why you curate playlists to please everyone’s tastes during long road trips. It’s why you may feel connected to something bigger than yourself at a religious ceremony. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, a sense of community is important to us as humans. Music helps us create and maintain our communities.
We don’t just listen to music to strengthen communities, though. Music, as we’re about to explore, is also an ideal companion for our solitude.