Isolation, quarantine, social distancing… all of these terms have two things in common:
1.) they are necessary and powerful tools that are saving lives in the global battle against Covid-19.
2.) they are cutting people off from one another and generating a sentiment of anxiety and loneliness we cannot ignore.
There is no doubt that staying at home is of the utmost importance as together we begin to turn the tide of the Coronavirus pandemic. But as silence continues to rein in the streets and an eerie calm has replaced the hustle and bustle of our once-frenzied towns and cities, the soul yearns for sound. For connection. For hope.
In this sense, music can be an incredibly potent medicine in this time.
Music’s profound and universal benefits have been demonstrated time and again. But there is one caveat: according to 7x Grammy-winning music producer and engineer Frank Filipetti, listening to music provides the listener considerable emotional contentment and insight, provided it is engaged, focused, active listening.
If active listening is the key to reaping music’s full benefits, then there has never been a better opportunity to hone our active listening skills. Lockdown obliges us to wipe our social calendars clean and prevents us from planning for the future. In short, it forces us to live in the present. And there is no place like the present for learning the art of active listening.
Below, Dr. Sean Olive, Acoustic Research Fellow at HARMAN, shares a few practical tips and his favorite songs on how to tap into the powerhouse of positive emotion that music offers us all.
Discover New Ways to Listen
1) You don’t need to leave your home to enjoy a recorded music concert on Blu-ray, TV, or a streaming service. And for those who are separated from friends and loved ones, video conferencing technologies like Zoom and Facetime reach around the world, allowing people to share or play music together. In lieu of going to concerts, many musicians are giving concerts in their homes and sharing the live streams online for all to enjoy. Communities severely affected by the virus in Italy, Spain and New York are holding musical block parties on their balconies. In Marin County, California, residents go outside and howl like coyotes every evening at 8 p.m. to show support for the first responders and medical workers saving lives. It may only seem like music to a coyote, but the expression of unity and love is uplifting and healing.
Choose the Right Music to Set the Mood
2) Music can evoke a range and intensity of emotions that can be reduced to just three dimensions, regardless of genre: valence (happy/sad), arousal (energetic/calm) and depth (the spectrum of emotion and intellectual depth). Fig.1 below gives some examples of songs at opposite ends of the dimensions. You are what you listen to, i.e. your inner music preferences are highly predictive of your Big Five personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Emotional Stability), as well as your E-S cognitive style (Empathizers versus Systemizers). Individuals with high Openness tend to have greater music aptitude, more varied playlists, and prefer more sophisticated complex music like classical and jazz. Extraverts tend to prefer more music that has high arousal like aggressive hard rock and metal. Incidentally, you can take a free online test to find out your inner musical preferences and personality traits to find out how much your music defines you. Check out this curated playlist of happy songs to help you live these demanding times during the COVID-19 epidemic.
3) Your emotional and aesthetic appreciation of music can be greatly enhanced by listening to complete albums and musical works (e.g. a Beethoven symphony or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring) that tell a musical narrative. Avoid listening to playlists comprised of a mishmash of unrelated songs. Would you watch a sequence of three-minute scenes from 40 different movies? Probably not.
The Quality of the Recording Matters
4) Recorded music only sounds as good as the sound quality of the recording and the playback system through which it is reproduced. A badly engineered and produced recording will make a good audio system sound bad, and be a disservice to the music and your experience. Ideal recordings capture all the nuances, emotion and excitement of the music including its full spectrum and dynamics, as well as spatial locations of the musicians and the acoustic properties of their space. If the recording fails in one or more of these aspects, the illusion of being transported to the concert hall, or having a private performance in your living room, is lost.
5) Finding well-engineered and produced recordings requires some research and trial-and-error. Streaming services are your best friend here. You can sample dozens of recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons without having to purchase them or return them to the record store. Usually, only a few bars of music are needed to discern whether the recording is high-fidelity or not. Excessive dynamic range compression is a common artifact with commercial pop recordings on the Billboard Top 100 (see loudness wars), losing the emotion, space, and life from the music for the sake of maximum loudness. For introverted empathizers looking for calm, this can be a real mood killer. For extraverted systemizers looking for arousal, it could be your cure. Classical, jazz, and less commercial music is generally spared from this. With some experience, you will find that certain artists, record labels, and recording engineers/producers consistently make good sound recordings, and often find their way onto audiophile playlists.
6) When choosing a streaming service, consider ones that offer higher quality, lossless audio formats, CD-quality or higher (e.g. Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon Music HD, Deezer). They cost a bit more, but I think they are worth it. If you choose a lossy audio format, make sure the bit-rate is at least 256 kbps or higher.
Choose Accurate Loudspeakers and Headphones
7) HARMAN has conducted hundreds of controlled listening tests over the past 30 years involving thousands of listeners of different ages, cultures, genders, and degrees of listening expertise. The vast majority prefer good sound and can easily discern it regardless of demographic differences [4, 5]. How good a loudspeaker or headphone sounds to listeners can be quantified and predicted on a 100-point scale based on a set of acoustic measurements. Manufacturers don’t generally make these measurements available, so consumers are left on their own to decide. Fortunately, some reviewers are making loudspeaker [6, 7, 8] and headphone [9, 10, 11] measurements available so that consumers can make more informed decisions. These measurements are largely based on HARMAN’s published scientific research.
8) Your loudspeakers are the most important, and usually the weakest, component in the audio chain. The best indicator of its sound quality is its frequency response: it should be flat across the audible range from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, and well-maintained off-axis to ensure the direct and reflected sounds you hear are neutral across a wide seating area. The loudspeaker and amplifier should be capable of producing full dynamic range of music (100+ dB) without audible distortion. The quality and quantity of bass produced by a loudspeaker accounts for 30% of a listener’s preference. This means your laptop computer, TV, and most portable speakers are not going to cut it.
9) Headphones provide a good mobile or home solution if you lack the space, budget or privacy for loudspeakers. Good headphones can be found for less than $300. Our survey of 156 headphones found little correlation between price and sound quality, so choose carefully. Consult the review sites mentioned above, and audition some candidates to make sure they are comfortable and fit without gaps or air leaks around your ears that compromise the sound isolation and bass. Closed back headphones that fit around your ears or in-ear headphones provide the most extended bass and isolation from background noise. Many models include active noise control (ANC) useful in noisy environments like subways and airplanes (remember those?).
Don’t Forget the Room Acoustics
10) Your room acoustics interact with loudspeakers, affecting the quality of timbre (particularly bass), stereo imaging and spaciousness, and the clarity of music. For optimal stereo imaging and bass control, place the loudspeakers in a symmetrical arrangement with respect to the side walls, at least three feet from the walls. Avoid corner placements that can produce excessive reinforcement of bass. The speakers should be separated so the distance between them is roughly the same distance to your listening chair, forming an equilateral triangle. When properly set up, you should hear the main vocalist in the center between the two speakers when sitting in your chair. If there is no center vocalist, no bass and the image is outside the loudspeakers, check the wiring of your loudspeakers: they are probably out of phase with each other.
11) Highly reflective listening rooms can make music sound too bright, muddy and lacking in clarity. Normal furnishings like carpet, drapes and fabric chairs usually provide sufficient absorption to take care of it. Acoustic panels added to the walls and ceiling can provide additional absorption. Make sure they are 3-4 inches thick in order to provide broadband absorption down to 100-200 Hz.
12) Choose a comfortable listening level (e.g. average 75-80 dB) allowing you to hear low level details but not so loud that you become fatigued. To focus your attention on the music and the sound, lower the lighting and silence your phone and other electronic devices. Find a comfortable spot in front of your loudspeakers (preferably with a glass of your favorite relaxing beverage in your hand).
13) Different styles of listening exist depending on the situation and the listener’s style. Analytical listeners focus on the structure of the music (melody, harmony, etc.), while emotional listeners are tuned in to how the music affects their mood. Physical listeners want to move their bodies and tap their feet to the music, and narrative listeners listen to storyline looking for symbols and meaning in the lyrics and sound relating to their own experiences. Social listeners tend to empathize with the musicians and audience around them. Recording and audio engineers like myself tend to be analytical listeners focusing on both the music but also the technical aspects of the recording and sound system in terms of spectral, dynamic and spatial weakness. For us, it’s sometimes difficult to fully enjoy music unless the sound is perfect. Active listening can involve one or more of these styles depending on the individual, the situation, and their listening style.
14) Active listening is happening if your heart rate and breathing are synchronized to the beat of the music. You’re unconsciously tapping your feet and moving to the music. You’re singing the melody, anticipating the next chord changes, and recognizing the structure of the narrative. Perhaps the music and lyrics trigger a memory of your childhood, and you feel happy and nostalgic. You are deeply relaxed, happy and feel chills down the back of your neck. Hopefully, the latest Coronavirus news today has faded into the distant past. Welcome to the joy and pleasure of active listening.
Fig 1. The three emotional dimensions of music and some examples of songs that have high and low values for arousal, valence and depth. From http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/can-your-personality-explain-your-itunes-playlist