Music is somewhat of a universal language. A song can move us to tears, make us dance like buffoons, and steep us in long-lost memories. Whether you’re a casual listener or a full-on audiophile, here are a few ways to take your music habits to the next level.
1. Listen more than once
If you’re serious about expanding your appreciation for music, don’t give much weight to your first impressions of a song. Researchers know we tend to dislike new things at first, but grow fond of them with time and repeated exposure. This is called the mere-exposure effect, and you’ve no doubt experienced it firsthand. How many times have you re-listened to an album you weren’t crazy about at first, only to find you can’t stop grooving to it now? That’s because your brain likes repetition and knowing what’s coming next. “The brain is a pattern-seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear,” Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct, says.
So, with new music, ignore your initial reaction and listen again. And again. As American violinist Maud Powell wrote in 1917, “Familiarity with worthwhile music steadily increases one's enjoyment in it. New beauties are ever being revealed from time to time, and more and more pleasure comes from fuller appreciation and understanding. One never tires of good music.”
2. Listen to as many different kinds of music as possible
In contrast, listening to music you’ve never heard before also does good things for your brain. Last year, Canadian researchers demonstrated that listening to new tunes activates the brain’s reward center, which prompts the release of dopamine, a chemical also associated with feel-good activities. So, when it comes to music, do some exploring and reward your brain.
3. Learn an instrument
It hasn’t been confirmed by science, but anecdotally, musicians often say knowing how to play an instrument changes how they experience music. It seems that understanding the intricacies of how the music is made--the physical and mental skill that goes into it--creates a whole new dimension of appreciation for the sound itself.
4. Listen to each track individually
If you can’t or don’t want to learn an instrument, another good way to understand the layers of a song is to listen to each track individually. Musicians can do this naturally, according to Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. "A musician will be listening to the sound of his own instrument even though many other instruments are playing,” Kraus says. You can do this too with a little help from the Internet. Here’s a good YouTube playlist of isolated tracks found in popular songs. Another resource is MultitrackMaster.com, which has a good selection. Here’s the guitar track on Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”:
5. Choose an experience, not a song
When searching for the right tune, Tyler Gray, co-author of the book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy, suggests looking beyond the artist and title. “Instead of trying to think about what song you'd like to listen to, start by thinking about what kind of music best suits your situation,” he tells mental_floss. “We live in a pretty magical time when you can pretty much instantly access—through Spotify or Songza or iTunes—whatever music you want to hear. What's the perfect music for your commute, your road trip, your work day, your date? Start there, and you'll set yourself up for a better experience.”
6. Use Spotify’s “related artists” option to explore new stuff
One great way to find new tunes is through Spotify’s “related artists” feature. Can’t stop listening to The Decemberists’ new release? Spotify will recommend you check out a bunch of similar bands like Cloud Cult or The Mountain Goats. If you end up liking The Mountain Goats, you might also dig Neutral Milk Hotel, and so on. The farther down the rabbit hole you go, the more new music you’ll uncover. It’s only a matter of time before you land on a gem. Gray also suggests following the New Music Tuesday playlist there.
“You'll get new releases delivered to your app every Tuesday (and sometimes on other days). It's passive discovery in its best form.”
7. Try meditation
Bear with me here. In a recent study, Frank Diaz, professor in the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, reported that students who participated in 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation, bringing their consciousness to the present, were more focused on and engaged in an opera segment as a result. “We really found significant increases in the participants' aesthetic and flow experience,” he says. “Some were intense. They were really in the zone."
8. Understand the lyrics
One of the best ways to connect to a song is through its lyrics. For this, we used to rely on the little pamphlets that came inside a CD case. Now, there’s Genius. This tool was originally aimed at exposing the meaning in rap lyrics, but has expanded to include rock, pop, and R&B, and even goes beyond music to pull the meaning out of things like news and sports. For our purposes, Genius is a great resource for finding and understanding thousands of song lyrics. Annotations let you dig deep into their hidden meanings. To continue with The Decemberists, here’s Genius on "Calamity Song."
9. Use MusicSmasher to find great music quickly
This tool makes quick work of streaming your favorite songs online. Search for a song and MusicSmasher scans various services like Spotify, Soundcloud, and rdio to tell you where to find it. Press play, and enjoy.