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Music Enjoyment Tips Based on Research

For Your Musical Pleasure -- Engage!

My mother worked for William Fulbright when he was president of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville -- many decades ago! His legacy was a rich contributor to my childhood...so it was intriguing to me that this story about music appreciation research came at the same time that I'm in the process of publishing a teen/tween novel about music exploration (Music Magic). My mother must be chuckling up there somewhere!

For Listening Pleasure, Skip the Program Notes

To fully enjoy your next trip to the symphony, you may want to listen to the music before you read the notes provided in the program. Research results suggest that reading program notes before hearing music can significantly lessen a listener’s enjoyment, according to University of Arkansas music theorist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis.

“Listeners are less likely to simply let the music wash over them if they have read a description: they are more likely to listen in terms of the concepts just encountered,” Margulis wrote in results published in Psychology of Music online. Struggling to listen conceptually may inhibit a sense of flow, which studies have shown to be critical to many types of musical enjoyment.

In the experiment, members of the University of Arkansas community to listened to brief excerpts from Beethoven String Quartets. None of the participants were music majors or professional musicians.

Immediately before listening to each excerpt, some of the participants read dramatic descriptions of the music, such as “the opening evokes a deeply-felt hymn.” Others read structural descriptions: “This piece begins with a series of slow, sustained chords.” A third group read no description at all.

Margulis reported that participants consistently enjoyed the music more when they had not read a description of it in advance, a surprising finding given that program notes are written with the aim of enhancing enjoyment.

“Descriptions – especially dramatic descriptions – may interfere with the directness and intimacy with which listeners are able to experience a work,” Margulis wrote. “It may distance listeners or place them at a remove – as if they were listening through someone else’s ear.”

The assumption has been that the conceptualization offered by program notes enhances pleasure in listening to music. Yet, Margulis said, “Little research has examined the basic psychological processes involved in applying conceptual information to music on a first pass, the way you might if you read a description just before hearing a piece. Despite this lack of research, program notes are a nearly ubiquitous feature at concert halls across the United States.”

Margulis, who has written program notes herself, says the results of her study suggest that arts presenters might consider the possibility that the effect of program notes is not always positive. Her findings suggest some interesting lines of research. For example, it is possible that as musical concepts are internalized over time, they aid enjoyment by enriching the experience of listening to music without interfering with the directness and intimacy that are part of the pleasure.

“While conceptualization might reduce enjoyment in the short term, as people work to reshape their hearing, it might ultimately enrich and augment the experience, once the concepts have been sufficiently internalized” she said.

Margulis sees several angles for future experimental studies, including asking participants to write their own descriptions of musical excerpts, providing a different form of program note that simply offers historical context rather than tells people what is going on in the excerpt, or using videos of performers talking about a piece before it is played.

“Most research about listeners is done with people who have had specialized training in music,” Margulis said. “I’m especially interested in what happens when people encounter music armed with less information. In my own case, I started with enjoying music, and went from there to wanting to know more about it. I think it’s sometimes OK to listen first.”

Margulis is an associate professor of music in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas.