The Relationship Between Social Circumstances and Recounted

Naomi Ziv
Yizre’el Valley College, Israel
The subjective perception of music and its effect on the individual
depend not only on musical structure, but on the specific
circumstances and the social situation in which it is heard. Music is
integrated into an on-going construction of a personal narrative and
receives meaning through its combination with other situational
factors. The present study examined narratives of events in which
music played an integral part. Participants were divided into three
groups, according to the circumstances under which music was
heard: alone, with one close person, and with a larger group of
people. Results show differences between the subjective quality of
experience with music in the three situations. When listening to
music alone, participants were concentrated on themselves and
their emotions. When listening with a close person, attention was
turned to the relationship and communication with the other. When
listening with a group of people, participants felt an enhancement
of the self. Although results suggest the situation determined
perception of the music, in participants’ narratives, the relationship
was reversed, and music was seen as the cause of subjective
experience of the situation
Although much of the time music is part of the background and
does not receive our full attention, it sometimes has the power to
affect our sensations and perceptions very strongly. After a
relatively long period in which music psychology was mainly
interested in cognitive aspects of perception of the musical form,
research seems to have shifted today towards more subjective
aspects of the individual’s experience with music.
Numerous studies have been conducted in an attempt to understand
the way music influences the individual. On the one hand, there are
those that search for a relationship between musical structures or
styles and various stable personality traits (e.g.: Litle & Zuckerman,
1986; Rawlings et al., 1995; & Gosling, 2003), types of activities
(North & Hargreaves, 1996; Kellaris & Robert, 1992), and
physiological effects (Krumhansl, 1997; Sloboda, 1992; Panksepp,
1995). These studies seem to suggest generalizations about what
music creates the various effects. A second group of studies look
more closely at the subjective nature of personal experience with
music, beyond specific styles. In this category are studies on
reasons for listening to music (Sloboda et al. 2001), the role music
plays at adolescence (Arnett, 1995; Frith, 1983), and the effect of
music on self-development and identity (Macdonald et al., 2002).
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Several studies analyze personal emotional reactions to or uses of
music in real life (Sloboda et al., 2001; De Nora, 1999, 2000) or
different factors of emotional reaction to music in peak experience
(Gabrielson, 2001). These aim at generalization concerning the
how of musical effect.
While the above studies reveal the complex interaction participants
have with music, and the various roles music plays in people’s lives,
they do not tell us when particular aspects of the subjective
experience are dominant. It seems logical to suppose that the nature
of the interaction with music is not determined solely by listener
characteristics or type of music, but is also influenced by other
external variables, such as the particular social circumstances.
Depending on whom we are with, we are more open to some effects
and more closed to others.
The aim of the present study was to examine personal narratives
about experiences with music and compare three types of situations:
alone, with one other person in an intimate relationship, and in a
larger group. It was hypothesized that each circumstance would
give rise to a qualitatively different experience. More specifically,
it was thought that music would serve to accentuate, or allow the
expression and communication of, different emotional aspects in
the three situations. Looking at narratives of personal events
involving music, it should be possible to characterize the dominant
aspects of each type of situation.
Fifty-four participants took part in the study (13 males, 41 females,
mean age: 27.4). All were first year students of psychology
participating in obligatory research. None of the participants were
musicians (i.e., all had less than eight years formal musical
Three questionnaires were used.
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A. A Musical Preferences and Listening Habits questionnaire
was developed for the study. Participants were asked yes/no
questions regarding their liking for four categories of music
(rock/pop, classical, world, techno).They were also asked questions
on Likert-type scales regarding their listening habits: the frequency
they listen to music alone, with other people, in the background, or
as a main activity. Yes/ no questions were also asked regarding the
general effect which music has on them (‘calms me’, ‘affects my
mood’, ‘has a spiritual effect’).
B. An Experience With Music questionnaire was also developed
for the study. Participants were asked to recount an event in which
music played an integral part, and were asked yes/no questions
about their feelings: whether they felt love, excitement, elation,
depression. They also indicated whether they felt ‘connected’,
which they could answer ‘No’, ‘To myself’, or ‘To someone else’.
C. A shortened version of the Eysenck Personality Inventory,
measuring extraversion-introversion and neuroticism-stability (Ziv,
1986), was also administered.
Participants were individually interviewed on general listening
habits and musical preferences. They were asked to recount an
event they remembered, in which music played an integral part.
They were then asked to fill out the shortened Eysenck
questionnaire. Interviews were recorded on tape. The
questionnaires were completed by the experimenter as the
participants talked. Thus, data included both quantitative material
and a personal narrative.
Participants were divided into three groups. Group 1 comprised
participants who talked about an experience with music in which
they were by themselves (7 males, 14 females); Group 2 comprised
participants who talked about an experience in which they were
with one partner (boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife) (2 males, 13
females); Group 3 comprised participants who talked about an
experience in which they were with a group of people (a group of
friends, at a concert, a wedding, etc.) (4 males, 14 females). This
differentiation became the main independent variable in subsequent
Chi-square tests were carried out to investigate differences in the
three groups on the various quantitative measures. No differences
were found between the three groups regarding listening habits,
musical preferences and reasons for listening to music, or
personality. However, in regards to the experience of music, two
significant differences were found. Participants who talked about
an experience in which they were by themselves tended to talk
more about negative events, and felt more depressed than subjects
in the other two groups (chi square=11.976, p=0.26). Eight of the
21 participants in this group felt very depressed, and two a little.
Another significant difference was in relation to feeling
“connected” to someone or to oneself (chi square=30.941, p<.001).
Participants who were alone felt mostly connected to themselves,
participants who were with one other person felt connected to that
person, and participants who were with a group of people were
distributed more or less equally between the categories.
Table 1. Group differences in feeling “connected” in the recounted
Group 1 (alone)
Group 2
(with someone)
Group 3
(with a group)
To myself
To someone
On the basis of recurrent themes within the narratives, eight new
variables were created, within three major categories. Three
independent judges rated the stories on yes/no scales on these
variables. The first category was called ’Mental Changes’ and
included 1. Improvement of mood: whether the participant felt his
mood got better through listening to music; 2. Change of state of
mind: whether there was a change in awareness; 3. Reminiscence:
whether the event elicited memories of someone from the past, or
some situation from the past, and 4. Emotional release: whether
through listening to music, the participant felt he expressed his own
emotions. The second category was labeled ‘Relationships’, and
included 1. Communication of emotion: whether the music allowed
the expression or communication of emotions to someone else; 2.
Intensification of emotion: whether the music intensified a
relationship; and 3. Symbolization of relationship: whether the
music served to symbolize a relationship. The third category,
‘Enhancement of Self’, included 1. Part of something big: whether
the participant felt through the music that he was a part of a larger
scene or event. (Examples of excerpts for each variable are shown
in appendix 1).
Again using chi-square, all new variables produced significant
differences between the three groups, as described below, and
summarized in Table 2.
Improvement of mood (chi square=7.644, p=.022). Music
improved the mood of 6 out of the 21 participants who were alone.
Of the other groups, music improved mood for only one participant
from the group describing an event in which they were with a group
of people.
Change of state of mind (chi square=15.464, p<.001). The strongest
change was in participants in the group which was alone in the
event. In the group with one other person, no one felt such a change,
and in the group with a group of people, only three participants felt
this effect.
Reminiscence: Participants who talked about an experience in
which they were by themselves most strongly felt the effect of
music in evoking past memories (chi square=7.347, p=.025). This
effect was not found at all in subjects who talked about an
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experience in which they were with one other person, and only in
three participants who were in a group.
about. However, the subjective impression was that music was the
means through which these elements were best expressed.
Emotion release: Participants who were alone in the recounted
event felt the music helped them express the emotion they were
feeling at the time, more than participant in the other two groups
(chi square=10.389, p<.001).
It is significant that personality and listening habits or musical taste
were not related to the various recounted memories. This tends to
suggest that in principle we may all experience a large variety of
effects through music, and it is the particular circumstances, and
our particular needs and emotional states, which influence the
events’ shades and colors.
Communication of emotion: Was music a means of communicating
to someone? Participants in the group who talked about an
experience with a boyfriend or girlfriend experienced this effect the
most (chi square=17.476 p=.<.001)
Intensification of emotion: Did music intensify the emotion felt?
This effect was strongest in Group 2, who talked about an
experience with one close person (chi square=22.612,p<.001).
Part of something big: the feeling of being a part of something
larger than oneself (chi square=20.28 p<.001). This effect was
strongest for participants who were with a group of people.
Table 2.Group differences in eight new variables
of mood
Change of
state of mind
Emotional release
Intensify emotion
Part of
something big
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Group 1
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The study shows that the perceived dominant effect of music
changes with the social circumstances in which individuals find
themselves, at least as the events are recalled and recounted. The
data suggest that, when alone, music allows us to enter more deeply
into our idiosyncratic world, to explore our emotions and feelings,
to deal with and cope with our problems, and perhaps to arrive at a
better understanding of ourselves. In intimate relationships, music
facilitates emotional communication, and may help us clarify our
feelings towards the other person. When we are with a larger group
of people, music may allow us to transcend ourselves, and to
assume an enlarged perspective in which we are part of something
bigger than ourselves. We may presume that it is not necessarily the
music subjects listened to in the recounted events that produced
these different effects, but the particular state of mind subjects were
in at the time, which made them prone to feel the effects they talked
9. Macdonald, R.A.R.., Hargreaves, D.J. & Miell, D. (eds.),
(2002), Musical Identities, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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aerobic exercise and yogic relaxation classes, British Journal of
Psychology, 87, 535-547.
11. Panksepp, J. (1995): The emotional sources of “chills” induced
by music, Music Perception, 13(2), 171-207.
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August 3-7, 2004
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Examples of new variables
Change in state of
Being part of
something big
s.22: “this song helped me…it helped me concentrate on how to get out of this situation”, s.53: “I
felt calmer, like things got back into proportion”.
s.30: “I felt like I was in a picture, it’s really not like me…it gets you out of the daily life”. s.18:
“… it was kind of amusing, it’s like you’re looking at yourself from the outside, and the rain, and
the music…”.
s.33: “I connect to the memory of her. For a moment it’s like I’m with her”. s.91: “It like takes me
back to the long-gone days…”
“Music helped me liberate my feelings, the words say what I want to and can’t”; “It like brings
everything out. It makes it easy for me to write”.
s.13: “Music passes currents that are expressed by touch.” s.23: “It like expressed how we were in
the same ‘groove’ somehow”.
s.16: “We would combine the music with what we were doing…and it connected us”. s.66:
“There was a piano solo that both me and my girlfriend connected to together.”
s.3: Her wedding song: “The song really spoke to me. It’s our song”. s.23: at a club: “I watched
her while we danced… and thought this really symbolizes our connection”.
s.46: “The combination of the scenery, all those people who smoke all those things…and what
connected people coming together.” s.57: “everyone who was there identified with everyone, got
into the music”.