What Does Music Do to Us When We Listen Together? Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin Helps Sonos Find Out: Q&A

Peter Prato
Daniel Levitin

Our brains are programmed for music -- but is solitary listening keeping us from some of its benefits?

These days, outside of seeing it live, music is largely a solitary activity, one used to block out the white noise of the world and provide us some measure of self-sovereignty while tumulting through a dense existence. Turning the information spigot off -- fully disconnecting -- may no longer be a viable option for most of us, but at least we all can decide what the air around our brains sounds like. 

The sonic walls we've established in this way may, however, be robbing us of some important social benefits that come with listening collectively. Speaker company Sonos, which does not make headphones, recently undertook (on the occasion of its integration with streaming service Apple Music) a two-pronged study around the effects of listening to music out loud at home. First, the company conducted an online and global survey of 30,000 people -- all smartphone users between the ages of 18 and 79 who live with at least one other person -- and asked them how listening to music together effects their lives. The results claim that 71 percent of households with communal music listening see kids helping with cleaning (versus 38 percent without music), 59 percent of people reported finding others more attractive if they play music they themselves like, and couples reported having twice as much sex. So... so much for headphones?

Apple Music to Get Sonos Debut in December 

The second part of the study was much more full-on, taking place across two weeks in 30 different homes. For each, Sonos provided Apple Watches for all family members over five years old in order to measure biometrics like heart rate, as well as iPhones for playing through the Sonos speaker systems provided, as well as iBeacons to monitor family members' activity throughout the home.

The company enlisted Daniel Levitin, a leading neuroscientist and the best-selling author of This Is Your Brain on Music, to oversee the work and its subsequent analysis and interpretation. Levitin tells Billboard that 
"the holy grail for all of us is to be able to go into people's homes and interact with them in real-time, and collect data in the background as they go about their daily lives. There have been a few studies, only a few, that have done this in the last decade-and-half, and nowhere near with the scope and ambition as this Sonos study."

Billboard: Can you tell me about your involvement with the survey portion of this work?

Levitin: I was brought in as a third-party arms-length reviewer of the methodology and the statistics and to give guidance on what they could say and what they couldn't say from the data. So they wouldn't overstep the data. The 30,000 represent a remarkable cross-section of where they live, their age, gender, sexual orientation, relationship status, socio-economic status. So this is a correlational study, so what we're able to see is that people who listen to music out loud more tend to have certain characteristics that distinguish them from people that do so less. We don't know which is driving which in a correlational study. All that we know is that the two go together. That's why the in-the-home study was so important.

So you mean, for instance, if people listening to music out loud are happy is it happy people listen to music out loud or vice-versa?

That's exactly it. Or is there some third factor that causes both? Maybe they were neither happy nor inclined to listen to music out loud, but they happen to have a high red blood cell count and they are feeling really healthy and so that makes them feel happy and it makes them want to listen to music or something.

Or a genetic trigger?

Yes, exactly.

Many of these findings aren't surprising -- what did you find that did surprise you?

A lot of what science does is it takes observations and it tries to test them under controlled conditions to see if they hold up. It's true that some of what we find, you would of said, "well yeah, of course, you hit the forehead with the palm of your hand. We knew that." But we didn't know it for sure, we had seen it, but there are lot of things especially within alternative medicine and homeopathic stuff where people say, "My friend took echinacea and they got better," but then when you run a controlled study, the thing evaporates. Just a plug for the controlled experiment, because you don't know what you think you know. 

But yes beyond that, there were surprising things. What intrigued me most, I would say the findings clustered in three general areas having to do with intimacy, happiness, and helpfulness. On the intimacy front, people tended to spend more time and closer proximity when they had music out loud in the home compared to when they didn't. This showed up in a number of ways. So what you see, as one family says, a week when we had no music it seemed like everybody retreated to their own corners of the house and got absorbed in their own devices. 

Once the Sonos people moved in their equipment with Apple Music streaming and all the other stuff, people tended to stay in the room more often. To be closer to one another in when they were in the same room, actually 12 percent closer together when they were in the same room when there was music playing than when there wasn't. People spent more time in the bedroom awake, which turned out to correlate with 60 percent more sex when there was music out loud in the home. So that was the interesting thing to me. Because now you're talking about something that you can tie with our biology and genetics.

How much of these findings dovetail with research you had done in the past as far as the emotional affect of music on people's behavior?

In my laboratory we had a number of findings that were sort of leading up to this, or circling around it. We published a paper about ten years ago that showed that listening to music can increase dopamine in the brain, which is the "feel-good hormone." So we knew that listening to music that you like can make you feel good. We also knew, again from studies in my lab, that listening to music out loud together can enhance empathy. We published a paper May of 2015 about this. It can enhance empathy to the point that if you listen to music out loud with somebody for fifteen or twenty minutes it can have the same effect as actually being their friend, even if they were a stranger. There's this binding force. And what we think is going on there is another interesting chemical is released called oxytocin -- which the press has simplistically labeled the "love drug," but what it really is is the social salience drug, it tells you what is salient or relevant in your social environment. And if you're listening to music out loud with somebody and oxytocin is released it causes you to feel more trustful toward them and more bonded with them.

How much does genre effect emotional affect?

So in general, what we find in my lab is that it doesn't make sense to start breaking out data by genre because musical taste is so subjective. We did a study about 10 years ago where we asked several thousand people how they used music in their daily lives. And one of the questions was, "What music do you use to relax to?" and "What music do you use to get pumped up with?" And predictably a lot of people said, "I get pumped up to AC/DC or Metallica." But we had a cluster of people who said that they relaxed with AC/DC and Metallica. And then what you looked at what they were using to pump themselves up with it was like Swedish speed metal. [Laughs] It's all relative, right? And we have people who dance to Vivaldi and people who dance to James Brown and they're not the same people. So I think genre is a red-herring and as you look at the videos and the data more closely what I saw is that people were listening to everything. 

One man's Mozart is another man's Madonna. And one person's Grieg is another person's Gaga. So it's the whole scope of all the music that's ever been recorded that's effectively available now through Apple Music and the other streaming services, although in the study people tended to use Apple Music but they could've used Spotify or their iPods and as you'll see they often did or they'll use their home collections. The main point is that listening to music you like is what give the effects, regardless of the genre. 

So the next question would have to be, what does someone's taste say about who they are?

We have some work on this. The Sonos study didn't address this so much, although we may be able to pull that out with a little more time. My collaborator Jason Rentfrow and I are working on a series of studies where we try to correlate musical tastes -- we call it musical preferences just because that's the term the journals use for it -- with things like your personality traits, your propensity for being generous or misanthropic or argumentative or easy-to-get-along with or punctual, conscientious, introverted. All of these personality traits have a genetic basis, your genes don't determine them completely but they give you a predisposition. We find very strong correlations between these genetic traits and musical preferences. Some of them, like you said, were a little obvious, as a general thing if somebody tends to be introverted and well-educated and enjoys order and precision, they tend to like jazz not heavy metal.

No grindcore.

Right, and not just any jazz. Not like acid jazz, they like cool jazz of the '50s. But that can flip, 'cause if you're introverted and somewhat disaffected and somewhat disagreeable, then you tend to like heavy metal. If you hold traditional family values and you're somewhat conservative politically and you like drinking beers, you tend to like country music. 

Or the recordings of John Ashcroft.

Exactly.

If you're in a family setting where you presumably have shared genetics, would that give some glue to this taste and emotional affect?

Yes... I think the subhead here is that musical tastes are, in part, determined by genetics. So members of a family are going to be predisposed to some extent to like some of the same music. Another thing that really surprised me from the study and delighted me: once people turned on the music in the home out loud, as opposed to in private listening, they really started talking about music more and sharing music more. You'll see it on the faces of the children and the parents. The utter delight in a piece of music coming on and one of them knowing it and the other not. This idea that I'm opening up my personal private aesthetic world to you as a way of sharing. 

Let's face it, for people like you and me in particular, music is very personal. We wouldn't have gone into music as a profession if it wasn't. And the average person feels that, too. They feel that the music is speaking to them because it moves their emotions. And emotions are very private and to be able to share your emotions with another person often feels awkward. So a kind of proxy for sharing your emotions is to share art, to share paintings and films and music. And that creates more intimacy. And I mentioned the other surprising finding was helpfulness. From intimacy grows an increase in caring for others, getting outside yourself and thinking of others. We found people were more likely to help with the dishes if there was music out loud playing.

What about the possible "shiny toy" bias in the study -- that people were more engaged with music during the course of your observation because they had all these new things to play with?

That’s certainly possible, and something we thought about. Science advances one experiment at a time, brick by brick -- no single experiment tells you everything you want to know. 

Future experiments would come back after a few months and see if the effect is still there, which would indicate that it’s not just the novelty of the new devices. In fact, pilot work and unpublished observations suggest that would be the case. Next, you’d also want to look at the effect of Apple TV, books-on-tape, video games, and other forms of entertainment to see what (if anything) is unique to music and what is the effect of having shared group entertainment in the home.

Up until very recently music was not a personal activity -- you could play guitar to yourself, but if people were playing music it was generally in public or a group setting. So is there an evolutionary purpose for this communal connection through music?

Absolutely, and I would go back even further. Human beings have been around between 50 to 150 thousand years, depending on when you count the beginning of homo sapiens sapiens. For almost all that time, music has been a shared communal activity. Look, I love headphones and earbuds. They've been an important part of my aesthetic life. But it's a different listening environment; it goes against our evolutionary heritage of sharing music and experiencing it together. The fact that oxytocin is released when people listen to music together suggests to me and to many others in the field that music serves some evolutionary purpose in history, probably to bind us together in to tight family units so that we would look after one another, care for one another, ward of predators and enemy tribes, things like that. 

I think, then, we have this drive to want to get that back. It's interesting because in the height of the personal listening age, when everybody on the subway is on earbuds, an interesting thing happened. User groups and websites started to appear where people could share music, because they weren't able to do it in the way they had for tens of thousands of years, so you would find people that you didn't know  who lived somewhere else and you would read what they were recommending and you'd recommend stuff and this whole sharing and recommending thing took off for just the reason that you point out: that it was very artificial to be listening alone. 

Why do people go to clubs and concerts? You can hear music at home. You go there to hear it with other people. The idea of going to a club, it couldn't just be the great sound system. Would you go to a club if you knew that you were going to be the only one there? Maybe, but not so likely. Although it might be special to go to an Adele concert in a stadium and have you be the only one there, and she's singing just to you, somehow less appealing. So once the music came on in the home, even if people didn't realize it consciously, there was this ancient evolutionary echo of "Yeah, this is what we do as humans. We listen to music together."

Your recent work has been on information overload, I was wondering about aesthetic overload.

Oh, interesting. That happens. People who binge watch TV shows or movies, I just got back from the Sundance Film Festival and we were seeing three films a day. When I was in the music business working for 415 Columbia Records and listening to demo tapes all day, absolutely you can experience aesthetic overload. But it's sort of self-regulating, you just turn it off when it's been enough. If you don't notice it, you might notice that you are feeling tired and depleted or that you want a break. I think too much of anything is a bad idea.

So our access to all this culture is basically endless now, and driven by technology -- is there a technological fix to that overload?

I think there's a non-technological fix. And what I've been recommending is that people structure their time to spend a couple of hours on an activity and then take a 15 minute break no matter what the activity is. To do something different and to give your mind a reset. There's a neurological basis for this, the mind has a reset button in the brain. I wrote about this in The New York Times a couple of Labor Days back. I think the article was called something like, "The Reset Button in Your Brain." [Laughs] And so that's I think a good rule of thumb.

Last question, the study found that 76 percent of Americans are convinced that they have the best taste in music in their household? Do you feel the same way?

[Laughs] No. I actually don't. One of the things I like the most is bringing friends over or even people I don't know -- the reason I wrote music journalism and the reason that I worked for a record company was just because I wanted to share music I liked. But I never thought my taste in music was better than anyone else's. It's just my taste.