The Science of Listening: How Brilliant Sound Makes for Better Living
Listening is the world’s most versatile drug. Administered in the right quantities—and at the right quality—music, podcasts and other forms of culture can supercharge our mood, productivity, fitness routine, and personal relationships—yes, even our sex lives. That’s not just marketing hype from a speaker company. It’s backed by data.
Imagine, if you dare, a week without listening. No music, no podcasts or audiobooks, no dinnertime chatter with loved ones—Not even a movie or your nightly TV binge. If that sounds cringeworthy, the reasons may run deeper than you realize. As a growing body of scientific research suggests, consuming culture with our ears is an essential element of the human experience—one that naturally enhances many aspects of our daily lives.
Put another way, listening is the world’s most versatile drug. Not only does it help us feel less stressed and more productive, but the sound of music, podcasts, and other types of culture can motivate us to exercise more, supercharge our sex lives, spark new ideas, and even strengthen our bonds with family and friends. This isn’t just hype of the sort you might expect from a sound experience brand. It’s backed by science.
“Scientists have found evidence that we are wired to perceive and enjoy music as well as to bond with each other through music,” says Daniel Müllensiefen, a professor of music psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. “This explains why music is a ubiquitous part of the human experience, supporting the theory that music has a special, important function in our lives.”
The Brilliant Sound Survey is a new round of research that helps bolster the case for better living through listening. In an online survey of 12,000 listeners in 12 countries around the world, Sonos and its research partners found that listening, particularly to music, is reported by participants to have a significant positive effect on four key areas of life: mood, fitness, relationships, and productivity.
“Music is unique in that it appeals to different psychological functions,” says Dr. Müllensiefen. “It can trigger exactly the same areas in the brain that food and sex and other recreational activities and drugs can trigger. It can also be physical in terms of participating, like dancing along or playing drums.”
If sound matters, so too does its fidelity. According to some research, the transformative effects of listening may well be amplified when the sound quality is higher.
“It’s perfectly plausible that sound quality makes a difference, because it’s often small and subtle cues that trigger emotions, like the breath of the singer or the squeak of the guitar strings,” explains Dr. Müllensiefen. “If the sound is blurred or muffled, then it doesn’t have the same effect.”
Of Sound Mind: Listen Better to Feel Better
It hardly comes as a shock that listening has an impact on our moods. But the Brilliant Sound Survey results illustrate just how deep and multifaceted that connection between music and mood is perceived to be by listeners. Seventy-four percent of participants said listening to music helps reduce stress. Another 42% said that podcasts had a relaxing effect. Of course, the genre makes a difference. More than half (55%) of comedy podcast listeners said that those more humor-oriented shows helped relax them.
In the survey, majorities of listeners said they’re happier when listening to a favorite song (52%) and that music helps boost their mood at work (58%). More on that below.
Well sure, you might say, of course listening to one’s favorite music makes them feel happy. The connection between mood and music isn’t always predictable, however. In the survey, 36% of respondents said music has made them laugh unexpectedly. Even more (40%) said it’s made them cry unexpectedly.
“Many people probably aren’t aware of how much they rely on music to regulate their moods throughout the day,” says Dr. Müllensiefen. “We take it for granted because music is so much more available than it used to be. You can virtually listen to anything at any point in time these days.”
Once again, the quality of the sound appears to make a difference. A large majority (82%) of listeners said that a great sound system can make a party more fun.
Fitness Tune-up: The Power of Performance-enhancing Sound
Does getting yourself to the gym turn into an epic internal struggle? Next time, try putting on an uptempo playlist. According to the Brilliant Sound Survey, 68% of respondents say that music helps motivate them to workout when they’re tempted to skip it. The motivational role of sound and listening doesn’t stop when the workout gets going. Majorities of listeners say that music helps encourage them to workout longer (52%), push themselves further (55%) and exercise with greater intensity (51%).
When we’re exercising, music seems to play at least two distinct and important roles, according to Dr. Mullenfiesen: Distraction and stimulation.
“It basically distracts you from how hard you’re working out and takes your mind off how many more miles you have to run,” he says. “But you focus on something else, which is really important.”
Music also helps to stimulate us while we’re working out. “High paced, dynamic, loud music would cue to your physiology that you need to be in an alert state, keep going, and to keep the adrenaline flowing,” he says. “And if strong emotions are expressed, this can also boost your physiological system because strong emotions signal that there’s something important going on.”
If music operates somewhat like a drug when it comes to physical fitness and motivation, it appears to be a potent one. Three quarters of listeners say that music has a bigger impact on their workout regimen than any supplement does.
Sound quality can boost the impact of listening on fitness performance, according to one recent experiment conducted in the United States by Sonos and its research partners. The three-day experiment measured the physical and mental responses people had while working out in a high-intensity interval training in three scenarios: Listening on low-quality wireless speakers, listening on a pair of Sonos Ones, and working out in silence. When exposed to high-quality sound, participants reported a 26% increase in positive feelings about their workout and 34% increase in feelings of connection with their workout partners (despite a 3.5% increase in average heart rate and 2% rise in energy exerted). In other words, great sound enabled people to work out harder without feeling like they were doing extra work.
Sound & Relationships: Listen, Live, Laugh, Love
Listening also has a major effect on our connections with other people, from friends and family to lovers and long-term partners. Indeed, scientific research over the years has shown that musical taste and ability can play a role in our sexual attraction to one another. That finding is backed up by the Brilliant Sound Survey, in which 70% of respondents said they find others more attractive when they have similar taste in music. Even more people (76%) said they feel an instant connection with others when they realize the have similar taste in music.
“We seem to be hardwired to music,” says Dr. Müllensiefen. “It’s part of our evolution as a species that music has played a part of in social bonding, as a function of grooming within larger groups. It might have been useful for sexual mating as well, for example.”
The lust-fueling characteristics of music don’t just dissolve once that initial connection is made. According to the survey, most people say that music makes sex much better (59%) and that it can even make them more adventurous in bed (56%). It may come as a surprise, given how sexually-charged our relationship with music can be, that only 20% of listeners said they have a dedicated playlist for having sex.
Listening doesn’t just tighten our bonds with others in the bedroom. As the 2016 Music Makes It Home study commissioned by Sonos and Apple Music helped demonstrate, it can have all kinds of effects on our interactions with the people in our lives. In this new survey, 64% of people said that music helps them feel connected with family, while 69% said it can ease tensions at home.
“Listening to music and singing together has been shown in several studies to directly impact neuro-chemicals in the brain, many of which play a role in pleasure, closeness, and connection,” says Dr. Müllensiefen.
Your Brain on Listening: Productivity and Creativity
The notion that listening to music can help us focus and be more productive isn’t exactly breaking news. But would you believe that music is more potent than coffee? Sixty-seven percent of listeners say exactly that, according to the Brilliant Sound Survey. And just as many say music helps spark new ideas when they’re feeling stuck.
When it comes to listening and work performance, the survey results offer some pretty glowing endorsements. More than half (52%) of listeners say they wouldn’t be successful at work if they didn’t listen to music. Aiming for a promotion? Curating a playlist of your favorite focus-friendly music isn’t a bad place to start; A staggering 76% of respondents to the survey said that listening to music helps them produce their best work.
“Generally, music can have a strong stimulating effect that makes us alert and focused,” says Mullensiefen. But as with any other mind-altering substance, the results may vary based on the person and their circumstances. “There are several studies in the scientific literature that show that the right kind of music can enhance the performance on the right kind of task for the right kind of people.”