Audiobiography: Why Do We Listen to Music?

Our research objective was to conduct an in-depth qualitative exploration into how people interact with audio listening.

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“Music is what feelings sound like.”

The above is one of many meaningful insights that emerged from my user research group’s diary study. Our assignment was to observe, explore and analyze the loaded relationship between users and audio listening. Our end goal? Finding out why we can’t stop listening to music.

Here was our scenario:

Company X provides a music streaming service to its customers. In recent years they’ve found the space is more crowded and harder to compete in.

You’ve been hired by the client to help them understand people’s current behaviour, emotions, and experiences listening to audio entertainment (e.g., music, podcasts, radio, audiobooks, etc.) so that they can identify gaps and/or improve the experience.

Beginning the Diary Study

Our UX class of forty-two students was split into even groups of five or six, with all groups acting as each other’s participant group. We were to conduct three-day diary studies using uniquely written prompts and questions that would then be submitted to our participant groups using Google Forms.

After collecting our user diary data, we would cluster it, analyze it, and present our key findings and reflections in a culminating, self-styled blog post, which is what you’re reading right now.

My group came up with themes that we wanted our audio diary study to address:

  • What do people listen to? And for what reasons?
  • What are they doing while listening?
  • How did they discover what they’re listening to?
  • In what ways are they identifying with their audio listening?

From these themes, we synthesized our research question:

What are users’ motivations and outcomes when listening to audio?

Now that we had defined our research goal, it was time to figure out how to pursue it.

Conducting the Diary Study

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Audio entertainment comes in countless forms and states of expressions from music, audiobooks, podcasts, and more.

To get the rich answers we wanted, we had to ask the right questions.

Our diary questions had to be carefully constructed yet simple and easily understood to extract the precious user responses to further fuel our discoveries.

The final draft of our diary study questionnaire was made up of multiple-choice questions and generous free-response sections.

Then, using the automatic emailing service, Boomerang, we sent our participant group early morning email prompts that kindly reminded them to record and submit diary entries to us via online Google Forms.

Our participants were prompted to do their diary entries whenever they noticed that they had an audio listening experience.

Over the next three days, the slow trickle of user data quickly turned into a landslide.

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Our work was cut out for us. We had over a hundred data points to look at and analyze. We used an affinity diagram to make visual sense of our data. After burning through two piles of stickies, we whittled down our mess of user data into sharp data points.

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Affinity diagramming

Five clear themes had emerged:

1.) Distraction

2.) Reflection

3.) Focus

4.) Emotional changes and enhancement

5.) Passive Learning

Our Key Findings and Themes

Here comes the fun part! All names have been changed to protect the identities of our participants.

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Distraction

Life is full of waiting, whether it’s waiting in traffic, waiting on the subway, or waiting to get food. Waiting is just a part of life.

Our older, Gen X participants, Frank and Lisa, alternated between news radio, indie rock, 80’s hits and classic rock radio stations to distract themselves from their drive to school.

Millennial participant, Buck reported that he enjoyed listening to the stand-up comedy of Aziz Ansari while travelling via subway. Additionally, millennial participants, Ophelia preferred to stream Spotify-generated playlists featuring XXXtentacion and Young Thug for her respective drive time commute.

“The music helps me generally focus on the road and driving.”

-Ophelia on listening to XXXTentacion, Young Thug and 6LACK

When faced with mundane, mechanical tasks such as washing the dishes or driving long distances, our participants resorted to audio entertainment as a convenient, safe, and effective way to distract themselves.

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Reflection

People always remember the audio experiences of their youth, whether it’s a favourite music album, a special concert they went to or even a memorable audiobook.

These audio experiences generate long and lasting emotional impressions and associations that remain perfectly preserved over a lifetime.

Like catching the scent of a longlost perfume, hearing a song can instantly transport you back in time.

Gen X diary participant, Frank, remarked at how often he enjoyed taking these deliberate trips back in time to special moments of his youth. Frank called The Beatles’ “The White Album” his own personal portal back to yesteryear.

“I find this album to be creatively inspiring, the released album is sprawling, overflowing with ideas and it’s a bit of a mess and still some of their greatest hits came out of this….Loved the Beatles since I was a kid…brings back happy memories.”

-Frank on listening to The Beatles’ 50th anniversary reissue of their “The White Album”

But these moments of reflection aren’t always happy. Some are bittersweet. Our second Gen X participant, Lisa, thinks of her dear mother, who passed away whenever she listens to an old, dusty Smurf Sing-a-long record — her young daughter notices and comforts her as they both relive and create memories both old and new.

“This was one of the records I used to listen to when I was a kid. When my mom passed away and my sister and I had to go through her stuff, we found it neatly stored and in perfect condition. She had kept it for more than 30 years, which is surprising because she only kept really sentimental things from our childhood. So I always remember that when I listen to it and it makes me really nostalgic and miss her a lot. My oldest knows I cry sometimes when I listen to it, so today she hugged me and said ‘Do you feel better?’, preemptively I guess.

-Lisa

In this case, we can see that nostalgia and memory are inextricably linked to certain forms of audio, especially music. It’s a powerful association that lies in the deep recesses of the mind and does not easily fade with time. When we become aware of these nostalgic time capsules, we can’t help but reflect.

“There’s a song about life being a carousel and how we all have to get off it but when…we’ll never know.” — Lisa

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Focus

At times, listening to audio can bring us into a “flow” state of mind that sees maximum productivity and lucid thinking.

Four out of our six participants reported using audio to help focus on activities like completing homework or concentration tasks like counting change.

Participant Ophelia opted for Spotify-themed music playlists that contained no lyrics so she could focus on counting her loose change.

“The music is really relaxing and has no words, so it’s easier to focus on numbers.”

— Ophelia on listening to “chill beats” via Spotify while counting change

Frank, Lisa, and millennial participant, Francine all chose to listen to various music while studying. Lisa created her own custom playlist entitled “Sad Bastard Music” specifically used for studying, containing music groups like Joy Division, The National, The Cure and Elliot Smith.

Our diary study shows us that people use different audio forms to achieve the common goal of maintaining and improving concentration.

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Emotion Changers and Enhancers

There are times when people put on audio to feel something. To evoke or change an emotion. To escape stress or to feel inspired.

Audio listening can be a form of mood management. All of our participant users listened to music, podcasts and radio stations to feel some form of emotional enjoyment or improvement.

So effective is this technique that audio listening can be woven into people’s daily routines. Gen X participants, Frank and Lisa, enjoyed listening to uplifting music and morning radio shows, respectively, to pump them up in the morning and get them ready for their day.

“I love waking up to Metro morning…I’ve been listening and waking up like this for more than a decade…feel nice and calm when slowly waking up to Metro morning, drifting in and out of sleep.” — Lisa

“Music makes me feel energized” — Frank

However, audio can also be used to tap into more dour but not necessarily negative thoughts. Millennial participant, Rupert reported that he listened to a “moody” music playlist that he created while he was “brooding and biking home in the snow.”

This is an interesting insight because Rupert uses a certain style of music to consciously sort things out in his head. This particular “brooding” audio experience also can be categorized under the “Reflection” theme above.

Audio listening can also trigger unexpected moments of emotional change that the user didn’t anticipate or plan for. In the case of Lisa, while she was at home lying in bed, she heard her young daughter spontaneously singing the words to “The Ants Go Marching One by One (Hurrah, Hurrah).” Her emotions immediately changed to “very happy and content.”

“I’m amazed by how much my daughter can remember now and how she chooses to express herself. Watching kids develop and shape their personalities is one of the most beautiful experiences in life.” — Lisa

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Passive Learning

In recent years, podcast listening has skyrocketed from 37 million users in 2013 to 68 million users in 2017. That’s roughly 24 percent of the entire American population who are regularly listening to podcasts every month.

So why the sudden popularity with podcasts and audiobooks?

Simply put, people enjoy being read to. Also, a lot has to do with the fact that people can multitask while listening to podcasts and audiobooks. They can listen to them on the long drive to work. They can listen while doing mechanical tasks, and so on. They’re a great way to pass the time, increase productivity, and passively learn about a topic they’re interested in.

Studies also indicate that knowledge retention through audio means is twice as high as reading and four times more effective than attending a lecture. Given that podcasts and audiobooks have a level of near-total accessibility and availability, it’s no surprise to see the recent surge in user adoption.

Participant Lisa noted that she “loved learning” new things through listening to podcasts, especially tech podcasts such as “Reply All.”

“I LOVE podcasts. This episode [Snapchat] was the best of the entire series… so crazy. I felt pretty amazed and like I couldn’t believe it. It was one of the highlights of my day — probably even of my week. — Lisa

Passive learning through audio listening underscores our desire to learn more about our world. There’s an old saying that loosely goes like, “Not all knowledge is found in books but conversations.” At the end of the day, podcasts and audiobooks are a modern way of carrying on the age-old tradition of storytelling.

Outro

Nowadays, music streaming giant, Spotify alone has over 30 million songs, meaning it would take you 228 years of non-stop listening to get through every song. Apple features over half a million podcasts in over 100 different languages and not to mention hundreds and thousands of audiobooks. Thanks to technological marvels like our computers, tablets and phones — we have god-like access to a near-limitless spectrum of audio expression at any given moment.

With this audio omnipotence, we can delight our senses in a myriad of ways, mull over our thoughts and feelings, reminisce, be inspired about the future, challenge our views, discover peace of mind, learn and educate ourselves about the world and its mysteries.

We can also beam any audio experience that we wish into our homes, our cars, through our phones, stereos, smart speakers, and from nearly anywhere in the world. The power of communication through the spoken word has never seen such crazed heights and global reach. Audio experiences bridge us to our humanity and allow us to feel the thoughts we cannot put into words.

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Like a beautiful poem nourishes the soul, so does a memorable melody soothe the heart. It has been said that “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

This diary study observed a very small sampling of participants harnessing their audio listening experiences in unique yet familiar and relatable ways. To them and all of us, audio experiences are the master skeleton key that unlocks countless doors to countless dimensions of expression and emotion.

There are things that keep us alive, and there are things that make life worth living.

Key Takeaways

Based on these insights, streaming music services would be smart to incorporate mood-based playlists that anticipate and address the user’s emotional state. More and more apps go beyond providing straight-forward services and are taking an intuitive-based approach to really appeal to their users on a human level.

Personalized music suggestions and playlists will promote user satisfaction and build brand trust while introducing them to content they will most likely enjoy. Whether users are listening to be informed, entertained or distracted, the insights learned from audio listening are loud and clear.

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Hi kind stranger! Thanks for stopping by. Check out my articles that span from vulnerable self-analysis, UX research and technology trends.

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