Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


With Music, Ignorance May Be Bliss

• March 25, 2010 • 12:38 PM

Put down those program notes: New research suggests describing a piece of classical music may diminish the pleasure of listening.

Last month, we reported that providing contextual information may diminish viewers’ enjoyment of modern art. A commenter suggested that dynamic may apply to music as well, noting that a class he took on the music of Aaron Copland “lessened my appreciation of the composer’s work.”

A study just published in the journal Psychology of Music suggests his experience was far from unique. It finds that reading a what-to-listen-for guide before hearing a piece of music seems to make the actual aesthetic experience less pleasurable.

“Descriptions may interfere with the directness and intimacy with which listeners are able to experience a work,” writes Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis of the University of Arkansas. “It may distance listeners, or place them at a remove — as if they were listening through someone else’s ear.”

Margulis, whose research on musicians’ brains was described on Miller-McCune.com in 2008, selected 24 excerpts from Beethoven string quartets. For each of these 45-second snatches of music, she wrote two brief descriptions: One labeled “dramatic” (“The opening evokes a deeply felt hymn”), the other “structural” (“This piece begins with a series of slow, sustained chords”).

The 16 non-musicians who participated in the experiment listened to all 24 excerpts. For eight of the pieces, they first read the dramatic description of what it was they were about to hear. For another eight, they read the structural description. The remaining eight were presented without any preparation. Afterward, the participants rated their enjoyment of each excerpt.

“Excerpts without descriptions were enjoyed more than excerpts with them,” Margulis writes. “Dramatic descriptions seemed to reduce enjoyment more than structural descriptions, but this effect did not rise to significance.”

Is it possible the test participants were simply annoyed by the instruction to read the description, which influenced how they perceived the piece? Possibly, but a follow-up experiment determined any such effect did not account for the difference in enjoyment levels.

So what does explain it?

“Music has been associated with the pleasure of ‘flow,’ a state that may be harder to achieve when conceptual knowledge intervenes,” Margulis notes. “Listeners are less likely to let the music wash over them if they have just read a description.

“When people without extensive formal training listen to music in terms of verbal descriptions, they may work so hard at connecting the notes into label-able phenomena that they lose the ability … to hear the subtle interconnections among the sounds. These interconnections may be fundamental to music enjoyment.”

So should program notes and pre-concert lectures be abandoned? Not necessarily, says Margulis, who cautions her study is preliminary and “raises more questions than it answers.”

“It is plausible,” she writes, “that program notes with other types of information — composer background, for example — may enhance enjoyment in a way that descriptive notes appear not to.” (This is the approach of many classical music stations, including KUSC Los Angeles, where announcers often discuss the circumstances of a work’s composition but seldom address specifics of structure.) She adds that “even if descriptive notes don’t increase enjoyment in the short term, they might over the longer term.”

Then again, perhaps our entire impulse to translate music into words is misguided. Composer and musical theorist Leonard Meyer implied as much when he wrote (in a passage Margulis includes in her paper): “Listening to music intelligently is more like knowing how to ride a bicycle than knowing why a bicycle is ridable.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.