Research has highlighted mood regulation to be the most important function of music listening, but people also listen to music for its cognitive benefits, such as increased focus and attention, the experience of cognitive complexity, to facilitate social interaction and bonding, and reinforce social identity. More recently, research has started to focus on how music promotes wellbeing, which we can think of as simply the hedonic balance of positive and negative emotions, or more broadly in terms of our life engagement, meaning, and overall psychological and social well-being. It seems that beyond hedonic well-being, the broader, so-called “eudaimonic” aspects of wellbeing become more important as we age, but we know very little about how music interacts with these aspects of wellbeing. Research does suggest, however, that music brings about not only pleasure but also absorption and transcendence in listeners, so it is worth considering how music enhances wellbeing in the fullest possible sense, drawing upon the rich collective intelligence of experienced listeners.
Referencing his research with Jenny Groarke, he writes:
While both younger and older adults emphasized the importance of music in bringing about strong emotions, these emotions had a more positive, transcendent quality for older adults, who consistently spoke about music taking them to “another world”, “a different dimension”, and “transcending the mundane”. Transcendent experiences are functionally significant and have been related to benefits such as increased happiness and meaning in life, higher life satisfaction, and reduced loneliness in older adults. Indeed, for the older adults in our study it seems that listening to music plays an important role in easing feelings of loneliness. At the same time, while older adults spoke about using music to reduce feelings of isolation, younger adults spoke about how music allowed them to carve out a personal space where they could limit social connection. As one young woman described it, “When I’m listening to music, I can escape sort of, even though there’s people around… I can escape that stress,” (Female, 24). It seems that while younger adults may be using music to ease the stresses associated with their active social lives, older adults may listen to music to compensate for their feelings of social isolation.
Both age groups discussed using music to aid reminiscence. Analysis of the collective intelligence transcripts revealed that reminiscence is linked to personal growth and empathy for older adults, whereas for younger adults reminiscence may serve self-regulatory functions that facilitate coping with life. For example, while older adults spoke about listening to music to bring back fond memories such as “lovely memories of a particular person that may have passed on” (Female, 65), younger adults described using music to consciously remember significant others, for example when feeling homesick, and even for less adaptive reasons such as “break-up songs, just to torture yourself” (Female, 22). In relation to personal growth, older adults described music as enhancing reflection which, in turn, helped them to foster feelings of compassion for themselves and others.
Our study was the first to use Interactive Management to explore the connections between music listening and wellbeing, and consider how the functions of music listening may differ between younger and older adults. It appears that both older and younger adults believe that music has an effect on their wellbeing. A meta-analysis of the systems thinking of younger and older adults highlighted the importance of intense emotional experiences, reminiscence, and eudaimonic experiences such as meaning and transcendence in driving all other adaptive functions of music listening. These aspects of music listening function adaptively to enhance feelings of wellbeing across the lifespan, in old and young alike.