On the University of Oregon campus, an a cappella ensemble called On the Rocks performs live every Friday afternoon in the Erb Memorial Union Amphitheater. This gregarious group sings tunes from many different genres; like a music device set on shuffle, these choral men flip from country to R&B to 80s pop. On one warm but breezy Friday afternoon in April, the crowd of onlookers grows like a gradual crescendo as curious spectators gather to enjoy the live music, but many students pass by the performance encased in their own music bubbles. Some pull out their earbuds or slide off their headphones to take in the rich vocal melodies, but others don’t stop for even a measure.
When students are enclosed in their own music bubbles they often tune-out their surroundings. Michael Wehr, an assistant professor of psychology and a researcher in the Institute of Neuroscience here at the University of Oregon, teaches a course about music and the brain. Using music as a framework, Wehr and his students examine such fundamental neuroscience and psychology concepts as how the brain processes music and forms the listener’s music experience. Certain brain mechanisms are activated when we hear sounds. These same areas are used to process music. Researchers and theorists examine these processes in an effort to understand what makes music different. “It has a very special structure that we find appealing for some reason,” Wehr says.
For listeners some certain musical patterns sound better than others. There are many possible reasons why listeners select certain types of music. “Music potentially can be a pretty strong elicitor of emotions,” says Sanjay Srivastava, a University of Oregon assistant professor of psychology. Srivastava studies interpersonal perceptions, “how people form impressions of one another,” and the functions emotions play during these types of social interactions. When studying emotions, researchers can use music to elicit emotions in research subjects—a slow funeral dirge can evoke gloomy emotions, while a lively dance number can generate cheerful emotions. In the outside world, listeners can plug in their headphones and turn on music which either fits or alters their current emotional state. “There’s something about peoples’ personalities that seems to be part of the story of what they listen to; probably part of that is emotional responses that music elicits,” Srivastava says. Music is part of the listeners’ identities. They choose music and use it to personalize an environment.
Michael Bull, a media and film studies professor at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, studies the relationship between listeners and their personal music devices. Bull discusses in-depth how listeners use devices like the iPod to create personal auditory environments in public spaces. Srivastava relates this concept to interior design: we tend to feather our nests and make living spaces personal and comfortable. “When you move out into the world, music and portable music players could be one way of bringing that niche with you,” he says. In these individual bubbles, listeners can also block-out unwanted interactions and sounds. Whether or not they are interested in campus performances like On the Rock’s live event, many students walk by unaware of the show. Students miss out on spontaneous experiences when they walk around with headphones on and earbuds in. “I think that’s a side-effect,” Wehr says, “but it seems to me that the payoff—in terms of enriching our everyday experience—greatly outweighs the change in spontaneous social interactions that would otherwise happen.”
This is not the first time listeners have had the chance to take their music with them. Before the iPod there was the Discman, and before the Discman there was the Walkman, and before personal cassette players rolled out listeners used portable radios. Wehr thinks listeners plug into their music libraries so often because they can; it’s easy and always accessible. He and his research team study the impacts that hearing loss has on the brain’s sensory processing. Music heard via headphones sounds different, even though the brain uses the same mechanisms to process the sound, because listeners hear more of the musical details. “In many ways, it sounds like the music is coming from inside your head and from all around you,” he says. “Headphones, I think, are really popular for that reason—because they can create such a rich experience.”
While On the Rocks performs in the amphitheater, some passersby pull off their headphones, step out of their personal bubbles and answer a few questions about their music consumption. These students are listening to an array of tunes, from Lady Gaga to a Hawaiin-based duo called Keahiwai. Each interviewee thinks long and hard about which tunes rank highest on their most-played songs list, and only a few listeners acknowledge that they’re plugged into their device for more than two hours per day. Yet students find it difficult to pin-point why they listen to music when they walk to class or while they work. They give thought to which songs they like, which songs define their music preferences, but find it hard to explain why they plug into their personal music devices when they do.
Julia Whisenant enjoys listening to music but does not want it to disturb others, and Aaron Skinner finds the combination of music and natural scenery soothing. Whether students want to shut out petition-hawkers or to make their walks more interesting, they use their personal music devices to satisfy these requirements. But there are some music lovers who still prefer to use speakers instead of headphones. Justin Kacir, known to his friends as Jutty K, connects his personal music device to a set of portable, external speakers; he says this set-up makes music a more social experience. “Now with the invent of the MP3 player and the iPod it seems almost that everyone being contained with their headphones is isolating themselves from the rest of society,” Kacir says. Not all listeners are as a verbal or aware of the motivations behind their music use, but they do recognize that portable music devices make it easy for them to personalize their daily experiences.
It doesn’t matter if students use portable speakers or noise-canceling headphones because their music can be both personal and social. Srivastava explains that even if students wear headphones in a public space they are not necessarily isolating themselves from society because music also connects people. “Listening to new music that’s important to a group of people that you care about, your social group or your family, it gives you something to talk about,” he says. When On the Rocks completes their performance, some onlookers chat with one another about the show. Some put their headphones on and drift back into their music bubbles, but the headphone-adorned students who didn’t stop for the performance may have missed a live music experience yet they are taking advantage of a different type of music experience. Wehr emphasizes how simple it is to take his music library with him wherever he goes, to experience the same music in new settings. “I think it’s fascinating and exciting and everybody is taking advantage of it,” says Wehr. “I mean, why shouldn’t they?”