Why the Best 'Good Listener' Might Be A Musician

Did you hear? Chances are, if you are a musician, you have the unique ability to tune into another dimension of sound that may otherwise go undetected.

This sets up an interesting set of questions. Is it coincidence or are musicians of a different breed? Neither questions are exactly right on, though they aren’t too far off either.

After all, sound may come in through the ear, but it travels through the nervous system and is then decoded by the brain – meaning the way an individual hears something doesn’t necessarily have to do with the quality of their ears per se, but can equally have to do with their hearing experience and their overall relationship to sound, both of which shape the individual’s complex hearing system. This is also why a musician can hear their instrument in a noisy room where everyone else in the band is tuning. It seems that a musician’s ears are simply trained to tune in.

A 2009 study by Northwestern University found that musicians are more capable than non-musicians in picking up on subtle emotional cues in speech. This is because a musician’s brain is trained to sift through the acoustic textures of sound on an everyday basis, and this translates to a super-powered focus on pitch and timbre in emotional sound. These results leave much to be unpackaged, however.

Could this mean that musicians are more empathetic, which is to say, more emotionally aware? Yes, to an extent; but it is important that we don’t conflate empathy with such things as maturity, humility, or responsibility - for just because someone can read your emotions doesn’t mean they’re going to respect you, a common misconception about empathy. Still, the findings are significant because they suggest we could build a more empathetic future by encouraging people to learn an instrument.

Consider the potential benefits of this musically informed empathy, for, say, a high-school counselor. Such a figure is adept in the ways of emotional speech via a background in music could, to a deeper degree, understand their students.

For example, when asking a student how they are doing in school or life, the counselor could be able to more meaningfully tune into how the student responds rather than focusing solely on what they respond with. Thus music-training could have far-reaching and empathically based effects in our society.

Additionally, numerous studies have found that learning music at a young age is proven to have long-lasting effects on the child’s brain development. What is most interesting, however, is how these findings could mean that certain under-privileged children could stand to benefit uniquely. Specifically, children with learning disabilities and/or who struggle with learning a language could benefit socially through a musical education because sound, as opposed to the jargon of language, is easier to interpret. The child is then, supposedly, able to apply these skills developed from such a sound-centric pedagogy into other facets of learning. However, even the author of the Northwestern study, Dana Strait, admits more proof is needed before championing the methodology. Still, learning how to hear better may also translate into hearing our way to better learning, and many are excited to dig for more in research-based developments.

Learning an instrument, and as a result, how music works more broadly, could greatly benefit the world in a variety of ways. Although there remains more work to be done in uncovering to what extent a musician’s super ear can accomplish greatness in a kaleidoscopic world of sounds what we do know seems promising. Being a good listener by a musician’s standard could mean hearing one’s way through a universe of meaning - from the quiet conflicts in the workplace to the loaded halls of a troubled school. For, although musicians may not be the best at something like showing up on time for a gig, they generally know how to hear their way through the doorman’s frustration – a valuable skill that doesn’t have to remain niche any longer.

This article was kindly written and contributed by Ellie Mckinsey.

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