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Listening to Music

Why listen to music?

Psychological Benefits

- music that matches your mood helps you to feel understood and validate your emotions

- the right music can also positively alter your mood

- relieves the physiological and psychological symptoms of stress

- improves emotional regulation & control

- promotes mindfulness & facilitates flow

Musical Benefits

- Gain an understanding of how music functions in various contexts

- Learn what you like and don't like in a piece of music (and why)

- Helps you to develop your own voice as a musician and composer

- Hear how the musical skills you learn are applied in real music

- Broaden your musical vocabulary

Activity #1 - Song Analysis

1. Start by just listening to music, preferably music that you have not heard before, so that you can hear each element of the song/piece with a fresh ear. 

The playlists to the right can get you started. Put the playlists on shuffle and as you listen, pay attention to how each song conveys its message. It's okay if you don't have the technical musical vocabulary to explain it yet, just pay attention to how certain elements of the music resonate with you.

This is a non-comprehensive list of great songs. Head to the forum to suggest some of your all-time favorite songs to be added to the playlist!

2. Choose one (or more) of the songs on the playlist that you heard for the first time and that stuck out to you. Listen to it a few more times, then complete an analysis of the song by answering the following questions:

1. What attracted you to this particular song? This can be simple. Maybe it was the opening guitar riff or the tone of the singer's voice. Perhaps a particular lyric stood out to you. Perhaps you found the melody catchy or liked the instruments that were used (even if you don't know exactly what they are). Whatever it is, write it down in whatever way makes sense to you. 

2. In your interpretation, what is the overarching theme of the song?  What do you think the artist was trying to say? What is this song about, and who are they talking to? What might the artist had been thinking/feeling when they wrote this song? Again, this is your interpretation of the artist's intentions. Ultimately, no one but the artist themselves knows the true answers to these questions. As best as you can, provide examples from the music and/or lyrics that support your ideas.

3. How does the song make you feel?  Does it make you happy, sad, hopeful, nostalgic, angry, etc.? Maybe your feelings change over the course of the song. Note what moments in the music provoke certain feelings, and why you think that is.


One thing that makes music function is the use of both tension and release. How does this particular song build tension and release that tension, and how might that influence your emotions while listening?

Finally, note your physical reactions to the music. Are there moments that make your heart race, make your chest feel heavy, or make you hold your breath? Are there moments where you can't help but dance or tap your feet? Remember that the ways in which music interacts with our bodies is an important aspect of its function in our lives. 

Further Listening: Essential Albums

Below is another non-comprehensive and in-progress list of suggested music to listen to. Listening to a complete album can help you to understand the relationships between songs and how artists compile them to create a larger narrative.

(scroll to the end of the list for Activity #2)

 [ album - artist ]

Classical Music (not quite "albums," but a list of long-form classical/art music works)

The Messiah - George Frederic Handel

Symphony No. 9 - Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata No. 2 in Bb Minor, Op. 35 - Frederic Chopin

Nocturnes (Trois Nocturnes) - Claude Debussy

The Rite of Spring - Igor Stravinsky

The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-893 - Johann Sebastian Bach

St. John Passion - Johann Sebastian Bach

Requiem - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Tod und Verklarung - Richard Strauss

Op. 16 (6 Lieder) - Clara Schumann

Symphony No. 4 in D minor - Florence Price

Appalachian Spring - Aaron Copland

Afro-American Symphony - William Grant Still

Symphony No. 1 - Gustav Mahler

The Nutcracker - Tchaikovsky 

Pierrot Lunaire - Arnold Schoenberg



Kind of Blue - Miles Davis

Brilliant Corners - Thelonious Monk

In the Wee Small Hours - Frank Sinatra

Billie Holiday - Billie Holiday

At Last! - Etta James

The Complete Ella and Louis on Verve - Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong


Oldies/ Classics


Abbey Road - The Beatles

What’s Going On - Marvin Gaye

Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones

Thriller - Michael Jackson

Bad - Michael Jackson

Blue - Joni Mitchel

The Wall - Pink Floyd

Innervisions - Stevie Wonder

Purple Rain - Prince

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - Elton John

Sounds of Silence - Simon & Garfunkel

Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys

Rumors - Fleetwood Mac

Listen Without Prejudice - George Michael

The Doors - The Doors

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars - David Bowie




The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill - Lauryn Hill

Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan - Chaka Khan

Trilogy - The Weeknd

To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar

Damn - Kendrick Lamar

Confessions - Usher

Stoney - Post Malone

The Chronic - Dr. Dre

Illmatic - Nas

ATLiens - Outkast


Pop & Alternative


Vespertine - Bjork

Nevermind - Nirvana

In Utero - Nirvana

Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not - Arctic Monkeys

OK Computer - Radiohead

Back to Black - Amy Winehouse

Illinois - Sufjan Stevens

Jagged Little Pill - Alanis Morisette 

A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships - The 1975

Yourself or Someone Like You - Matchbox 20

American Idiot - Green Day

Pinkerton - Weezer

A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out - Panic! at the Disco

The Black Parade - My Chemical Romance

Transatlanticism - Death Cab for Cutie

Ceremonials - Florence + the Machine

21 - Adele

Born to Die (the Paradise Edition) - Lana Del Rey

Hot Fuss - The Killers

A Flair for the Dramatic - Pierce the Veil

(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? - Oasis

Deja Entendu - Brand New

Activity #2 - Playlist Assignment

Create a playlist of at least 10-15 songs. The songs toward the beginning should represent how you currently feel, then gradually transition to songs that portray how you want to feel. Alternatively, the playlist may start with songs that represent your current situation, then shift toward songs that symbolize where you hope to be in the future. 

Have fun and get creative, and if you choose, make multiple playlists that focus on different aspects of your desired change. Ultimately, these playlists should serve as a tool that you use to alter your outlook when you're feeling down. If you wish, share your playlists in the forum (with a few words about what they represent) to inspire others in the course!

Below is an example playlist that follows a clear theme: moving on from a break-up. Your playlist may not (likely will not) appear as straightforward, and that's okay! Self-selecting music to listen to is all about considering your personal associations with the music. What's important is that the songs on your playlist empathize with you in the beginning, then take you to a more positive place by the end. 

Great work!

That brings us to the end of the music listening module, but be sure to continue listening to music throughout the course and beyond. Listen to plenty of the music that you know and love, and make an effort to explore new music often to broaden your perspective and musical vocabulary.

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