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We’re all familiar with the sense of wonder and joy we experience when we hear a song or piece of music we love, but there’s something even more magical about hearing that song performed live. Although many artists offered streamed performances online during the pandemic, these didn’t quite leave us with the same enchanted feelings as concerts. So what makes live music different? Columbia associate music professor Mariusz Kozak explains why live music is so powerful.
Live music allows us to experience what philosopher Alfred Schütz called a “mutual tuning-in.” This term refers to the phenomenon where we experience the passage of time and emotions with others. This is part of the reason humans need social interaction to thrive. When we attend a concert, we’re experiencing the tone of the music—fast, slow, happy, sad—with others around us. This creates a sense of intimacy with the crowd around us. This is also why research shows that babies who are bounced in time to music with an adult display more altruism towards that person.
This pleasurable effect gained from synchronizing with those around us is what makes live music and dance so powerful. Although most people probably relate to this feeling when remembering their favorite concert, this feeling is not limited to conventional music. It can also be experienced through collective visual synchronization. In the deaf community, facial gestures and movements are to convey emotions in music performance. The collective interpretation of the emotions behind these facial gestures also promotes a sense of unity.
The Blackfeet in North America use the same word to refer to music, dance, and ceremony, indicating the essential role of gathering to fully appreciate the benefits of music. Close friends can even experience this synchronization when walking or talking together.
Experiencing music in the presence of others cultivates a feeling of unity and empathy within us which exceeds anything we could experience by ourselves. As we head back to in-person concerts and relish this feeling once again, know that the true power of the music you’re hearing might not come from the artist, but in fact your fellow concert goers.
– Mariusz Kozak, Associate Professor of Music and Music Theory, Columbia University