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Science and Music

The ear of the beholder

In the last of nine Essays on science and music, John Sloboda argues that researchers must study music as people actually experience it, if they are to understand how it affects thoughts and feelings.

Thanks to technology, we have an unprecedented choice of music to listen to, and places and times to hear it. Music has never been more accessible. But never has it been more mysterious and inscrutable. Many people say they lack musical skills such as singing, playing an instrument or composing. A fifth of adults believe they are 'tone deaf', so they don't see music as something they do; rather, they experience music as something that is done to them, something that, at a very deep level, they don't fully understand.

Credit: D. PARKINS

This contemporary disconnection may be limiting the scientific study of music. If research is to provide a satisfying account of how music and mind interact, it must embrace the full variety of musical experiences and contexts. Music science is now mature enough to take more risks in the scope of its investigations. If science is to demystify music and explain its power to affect us, it must investigate music as it is actually experienced.

The vitamin model

The musically disempowered view music as something that is provided for 'consumers' or 'patients' by a range of professionals: composers, producers, performers, even health workers. People have lost confidence in their own judgements and intuitions about it.

This disconnection has really only occurred in the past 50 years and is most common in prosperous industrialized nations. In other times and places, people have had a much deeper relationship with music, because they helped to make most of the music in their lives, through community activities involving singing and dancing, and the passing down of an oral tradition. The modern perplexity with music may be a symptom of the loss of this natural connection to making music. People can surround themselves with highly polished professional performances at the press of a button, so there is less incentive to sing or play.

This cultural change means that the musical repertoire is seen as a box of pills, with different pieces having different active properties, such as sedation or aphrodisia. This 'vitamin model' lies behind misleading commercial initiatives that package selections of music as stress busters, relaxation aids or even music to make your baby more intelligent.

But music cannot achieve a prescribed psychological outcome because it is impossible to understand or predict its effects without accounting for two other significant areas of influence. The first relates to the listener: his moods, memories, intentions, attitudes, choices and experiences. The second is the social context in which the music is experienced: who else is there, what is going on, and the social or personal significance of the event.

Experimental science often inadvertently promotes the vitamin model. Scientists who study music are not, as a body, skilled in musical performance or composition. Our relationship to music is, like much of society, generally that of an outsider looking in, a consumer rather than producer.

Additionally, research methods regularly minimize the role of the listener in the construction of a response. We give research participants little choice in how to respond, and we tend to draw our conclusions from sample averages rather than individual data. The role of social context is also reduced in the laboratory, where the subject is removed from the usual situations where they would engage with music. Such simplification may be needed to kick-start early explorations of a complex topic, but research must not get stuck at this level. It needs to encompass the experienced reality of the phenomenon.

Consider two situations in which music is heard. In the first, an experimental subject lies with her head clamped inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging chamber. Surrounded by strangers in white coats, she is played short pairs of synthesized chord sequences and asked whether the two sequences are identical or not. She finds it boring and rather uncomfortable.

In the second situation, a parent sits in a school hall with other parents, watching her six-year-old daughter give her first public musical performance. She is totally absorbed in the event. Her heart swells with tearful pride and relief as her daughter plays Pachelbel's Canon without serious mishap.

Context is king

Even if the same musical stimulus were heard in both situations, the lab study would provide little insight into the school-concert situation. This inability to make direct mappings from a musical stimulus to a predictable psychological effect is not just an inconvenient difficulty. Rather, it points to a profound reality: music is a constantly evolving product of human culture, whose forms, functions and discourses are not fixed. It is what we decide to make it. Music originally written as a profound statement of religious belief can be used as background music for domestic chores, or as a stimulus for a laboratory experiment. And its effects in these different contexts can be quite different.

We must also avoid the trap of asserting that music is so complex and ineffable that a detailed scientific understanding of it is impossible, and that it must remain shrouded in mystery. On this issue, musicians and scientists often line up on opposite sides, with musicians seeing scientists as naive over-simplifiers, and scientists regarding musicians as defensive 'obscurantists'.

Some scientific research has already begun to provide systematic accounts of why our response to music is so variable. Our responses are hugely influenced by our attitudes to particular musical styles, and whether we approve of or identify with them. They are equally influenced by our sense of whether the music is appropriate to the situation. Some people find music in shops and restaurants aggravating; others find its absence disconcerting.

Research that takes us beyond the vitamin model is likely to have one or more of the following characteristics. It studies music in real-life, non-laboratory settings. It studies music across a range of contexts, from music in public places that is barely attended to, through to deliberately chosen music that is given full attention. It studies the nature of musical choices that individuals make. It uses a combination of observation, experience-sampling and post-event interviewing to draw out the personal and social meanings of the musical events for the listener. It uses complete, authentic musical objects, such as whole songs, rather than impoverished or machine-constructed stimulus segments. Finally, it studies effects of musical stimuli that are time sensitive and linked to the detailed unfolding pattern of events, rather than studying unspecific effects of entire pieces. The first few seconds of a piece may fill a listener with excited expectation, and the end with a sense of relief or homecoming. You cannot get at this from a global measure of how 'happy' a piece is.

A growing body of research is exploring the richness of the human musical experience without trying to control or limit it. For example, Tia De Nora at the University of Exeter has carried out pioneering research through in-depth interviews with women about their complex experiences of music in such contexts as shops, gyms and the home. Key to these studies was her extensive probing of the different factors at work in each situation, and the self-conscious decisions about what to listen to, and how to listen to it.

Building on this work, several investigators, including my group, have started charting individual musical experiences over extended time periods. By having frequent telephone conversations with participants over about a week, say, we have shown that musically untrained individuals interact with music a dozen times a day or more with varying attention and engagement. One important result is that the people we studied mainly use music as an accompaniment or enhancement to some other activity, and use it for a variety of functions, including to regulate their mood or attention, and as a signal of cultural identity.

Listen and learn

Such studies point to a way forward for music science that takes seriously listeners' beliefs, feelings and situations.

One beneficial effect of the careful scientific probing of listeners' experiences is that it often demonstrates their hidden musical competence. Studies of encoding and memory reveal musical intelligence in people's recall errors: they tend to substitute a note or chord that serves a similar musical function. This shows that they have subconsciously internalized the rules of musical grammar. Other studies show that the ability to sing in tune can be dramatically improved by simple well-targeted feedback, suggesting that many abilities are already in place but are masked by the absence of one simple cognitive component.

Experiments also show that listeners can acquire a complex and fine-grained appreciation of the link between the choices they make about what to listen to and the resultant psychological outcomes. They come to know which pieces of music reliably uplift or calm them, or remind them of a valued truth. This ability, even if idiosyncratic and unschooled, is the foundation of the nuanced internal representations of music that are prerequisite for the development of skilled performance.

Careful scientific research is beginning to chart the complex nature of everyday musical expertise. It shows that music is neither an unfathomable mystery nor a magic pill, but a human construction that can be used self-consciously and skilfully by anyone for a variety of cognitive and emotional purposes, mundane and profound.


DeNora, T. Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000).

Hektner, J. M., Schmidt, J. A. & Czikszentmihalyi, M. Experience Sampling Methodology: Measuring the Quality of Everyday Life (Sage, London, 2007).

North, A. & Hargreaves, D. The Social and Applied Psychology of Music (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008).

Sloboda, J. A. Exploring the Musical Mind: Cognition; Emotion; Ability; Function (Oxford Univ. Press, 2005).

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Sloboda, J. The ear of the beholder. Nature 454, 32–33 (2008).

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