How music comforts us: ‘Music is like a trusted friend’

How music comforts us: ‘Music is like a trusted friend’

Music psychologist Waldie Hanser recently earned his PhD on the comforting power of music. ‘Music provides more comfort than crying, eating, or seeking comfort from another person.’

Waldie Hanser Image: Tonnie Westerbeke

Music plays an essential role in our daily lives, says Waldie Hanser (1980), himself a lover of heavy metal, hard rock, and classical music. ‘Music is not just entertainment; we listen to it for many more reasons.’ Hanser focused on the comforting effects of music in his thesis, The Consoling Power of Music: The Role of Emotions and Musical Aspects.

Why do we like to listen to music in the first place?

‘Music sounds pleasant to our ears, we like it, and it connects us. We also use music in almost all our rituals, think of weddings and funerals. It touches us and is very deeply embedded in our system.

‘For example, research shows that almost all of us are born with a sense of rhythm. So there are few people who have no sense of rhythm at all. Whistling along with music, clapping, or tapping your foot: that is all musical behavior. Contrary to what we in the Western world often think, you don’t have to play an instrument professionally or at a high level to be musical.’

And why does music affect us so much?

‘Music activates brain areas related to our reward system. These brain areas also light up when you eat good food or satisfy other physical needs. That’s why listening to music is so pleasurable. There are also many psychological applications of music because music says something about your identity, for example: who are you and what (social) group do you belong to?

‘Music also creates connection. Suppose you attend a concert with many people, and everyone is roaring along with that one sensitive song, it touches you: you get goose bumps, or it moves you. Or look what happens when a packed Kuip sings You’ll Never Walk Alone. Another property of music is that it can influence or amplify emotions. All these factors are strongly interrelated, which makes music a very strong stimulus.’

Does the type of music or genre matter in this?

‘When we seek solace we do so mostly in quiet music. But rock lovers can also feel very comforted by exuberant music. So it is something very personal. With pop music we pay attention not only to the music itself, but also to the lyrics and the memories it evokes. With classical music, on the other hand, we pay attention to the aesthetics of a piece.’

Does our musical taste say much about us at all, for example, about what type of person you are?

‘I can tell a few things about a person based on his/her music preferences, but I can’t link an entire personality type on that. That would be a little too short-sighted.’

Your research shows that people cite music as most comforting compared to other comforting behaviors, such as crying, eating, warm clothing, drinking and using drugs, and seeking comfort from others. How exactly is that?

‘This particular study took place among radio listeners, in the period around the Top2000. Listeners found the music, the lyrics and the memories evoked by music very comforting.

‘With the advent of cell phones and services like Spotify, music is available to us anytime, anywhere. People you seek comfort from, such as friends, loved ones or a loved one, may not always be available, due to circumstances.

‘Moreover, unlike a comforting conversation with a friend, with music you know exactly what’s coming next, which feels very familiar. You may even be waiting for one particular word or phrase. A friend may suddenly say something in a conversation that you don’t expect or may find difficult. That’s why listening to music can be more pleasant.’

The music we use at funerals is usually also comforting. What else characterizes funeral music?

‘Funeral songs are often solemn, serene, and tender and sound sadder and less energetic but are not extremely dramatic. Moreover, funeral songs are more often acoustic, which allows you to focus better on the lyrics.

‘The study looked at emotion words in the lyrics. Very surprisingly, there are more positive than negative words in these songs. The negative emotion words express sadness more often, such as waiting, loss, dark, cold, and lonely.

‘Funeral music very often contains the word you. There also appear to be forward-looking lyrics. With I Will Always Love You, for example. There is an extension of the relationship in this. Continuing bonds, they call it in grief theory. With that, you actually want to say: it’s over, but it remains anyway. It’s a kind of beacon.

‘The last characteristic you have is memory. People always talk about the soundtrack of their lives. That is music marked by certain events. With music, you are constantly creating new memories; you can take comfort from that too.’

Monuta’s top ten funeral songs include one non-Dutch artist, Dela’s includes two. What does that say about us?

‘Dutch lyrics seem sadder than English ones. Presumably because emotions hit harder in your own language. But also because you are more familiar with your own language, and you can express yourself better in it than in English. Anyway, at the end of the day, we live in the Netherlands. So when Danny Vera has a hit with Roller Coaster here, you hear that song everywhere. The same goes for Mag ik dan bij jou? It’s music you know.

‘André Rieu also scores high on the funeral lists. He has recorded so much music and is so well known that you quickly end up with him. Sometimes funeral music is regional because you grew up in a certain region. So the cultural aspect is also very important.’

For which song can you yourself not hold back your tears?

‘I don’t cry very easily, but I’m Going Home from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Perotin’s piece Beata Viscera I really love.

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel


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