jo-michael scheibe music listeningIf you work at a school, you know how frustrating it can sometimes be to get students to take out their earbuds and listen to their teachers instead of their iTunes or Spotify music. In order to teach music, students must listen. Communal musical experience is gained from serious observation of your surroundings to tune into the people around you.

Well…not always.

Research shows that plugging into personal music devices actually makes us feel more social, even when we are alone.

Music (and dancing along) has transformed society through the ages. In the Middle Ages, villages would be swept up in manic dance crazes that would sometimes end in tragic death. In Popular Music: Music and Society by Simon Frith, Lewis A. Frenberg speaks of the change of dance culture in pre-war American society. The emergence of dancing in the public spaces not only transformed the art of dance and trends in popular music, but heralded transformations within society; between blacks and whites, lower and upper class, and most notably, for women.

If music brings us together through dance, many of us have noticed a chasm in the togethernress of music since the introduction of the headphone. As jazz musician and writer Eric Felten bemoaned in the Wall Street Journal,“Headphones have been creeping into musical activities that once were social.”

This doesn’t mean using our headphones to listen to music makes us feel more antisocial. In fact, it has exactly the opposite effect. Music is as fundamental to human evolution as language, tool-making, and cognitive development. Neuroscientists Jay Schulkin and Greta Raglan report on neurological research on the connection between music and our social connections in the Nautilus piece, “When You Listen to Music, You’re Never Alone.” They emphasize that music is a bridge. In fact, “Music is typically something shared, something social; we may sing in the shower or on a solitary walk, but music is most of the time social, communicative, expressive, and oriented toward others.”

It’s not that we turn off the world to be alone, it’s that we can isolate those parts of society and culture we desire to connect with on a deeper level. Through the technology of individual listening, and now, with social media sharing platforms, we can adapt technology to enhance this connection through music.

Jonathan Sterne is the James McGill Chair at the Culture and Technology at McGill University. He reminds us that activities that we think of alienating and individualistic, such as making playlists of favorite songs or dancing on the street to your own music, “are completely consistent with the history of music as a collective practice.” When we understand music as a powerful tool to use to connect with each other, we have to respect every individual’s path to this connection; even if sometimes it appears incongruous to the art itself.