This is obvious but so much a part of everyday life that I suspect we ignore it. We certainly don’t use it to our best advantage. In fact, it may be used to influence our behaviour without our awareness. Have you ever noticed the background music in restaurants or grocery stores? You might wonder, actually, why on earth anyone bothers to have music in the grocery store. But it is for a very clear reason: people’s behavioural tempos are affected by the music in the background, even, or maybe especially, when you are not fully aware of what you are hearing.
I play music in my waiting room, and it is a particular, carefully chosen type of music. I choose relaxing, non-challenging music for that space. I don’t want music that is too hard to listen to, so I don’t include jazz or (much) classical music, because most people don’t feel comfortable with that music. And because the trajectory lines in that music are long…that is, in order to feel the whole pattern, you have to listen for several minutes, and that’s not always available in the waiting room. Even with that, I don’t put Top 40 pop on my playlist because going to the therapist is NOT like going to the mall. It is not a casual, no-big-deal sort of experience. I look for fairly attractive, innocuous, relaxing music without obvious repetitive patterns. In other words, New Age music which is often actually marketed for relaxation or to accompany massage, Reiki, or other calming modalities.
All of this actually is peripheral to my point, which I promise to get to…..we are affected, sometimes quite deeply, by the music and sounds around us, but we are often not mindful of these effects. When you tune in to what you are hearing, you become part of the moment, part of what is going on. You get to experience your own experience! In a very clear way, you see yourself responding to the music, which otherwise you might consider background. But background becomes foreground when we take a moment, breathe, listen, and feel.
This question of how music affects you can be an entire area for self-inquiry. What kinds of music do you find energizing? Enlivening? Relaxing and soothing? What challenges you to pay attention? What do you notice about yourself when you are challenged that way? And of course, music will tap into memory systems. So you might notice that songs from your youth generate some feelings that are like you might have felt years ago. How can you put those bits together?
As you begin this practice, you may begin also to understand how you might have been triggered into a different mood state in the past. Perhaps you came home from the store feeling really wonderful, bright, cheerful, alive….maybe you heard a song on the “background music” that reminded you of a wonderful memory. Or perhaps you suddenly develop a dark, somber mood….what have you just been hearing?
If music can affect our mood without our awareness, can we harness that power to influence our moods purposefully? I know that Bach has gotten me through some very difficult times. When everything else in my life seems like it is falling apart, I can put on the some of the piano works and feel a shift. Even though listening to Bach won’t fix my life, it can remind me that some things maintain their integrity and will stay stable even if I feel like I am coming unglued. I also know that I have run some pretty long distances listening to even cheesy music like Tom Petty singing “I Won’t Back Down.” Having a sound track for parts of your life can shift mood, support memory, and remind you that your life is bigger than the story you tell yourself. Check it out: notice music in your everyday world and see what it is doing to your inner space. Then see how you can use that information consciously.