Better to just LISTEN – Most of the time research is important, but sometimes it’s not. For instance, to fully enjoy your next trip to the symphony, you may want to listen to the music before you read the notes provided in the program. Research results suggest that reading program notes before hearing music can significantly lessen a listener’s enjoyment!

Music theorist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis explains: “Listeners are less likely to simply let the music wash over them if they have read a description–they are more likely to listen in terms of the concepts just encountered.” She says that struggling to listen conceptually may inhibit a sense of flow, which studies have shown to be critical to many types of musical enjoyment.

In an experiment, members of an audience listened to brief excerpts from Beethoven String Quartets. None of the participants were music majors or professional musicians. Immediately before listening to each excerpt, some of the participants read dramatic descriptions of the music, such as “the opening evokes a deeply-felt hymn.” Others read structural descriptions: “This piece begins with a series of slow, sustained chords.” A third group read no description at all.

Margulis discovered that participants consistently enjoyed the music more when they had not read a description of it in advance, a surprising finding given that program notes are written with the aim of enhancing enjoyment. She says, “Descriptions, especially dramatic descriptions, may interfere with the directness and intimacy with which listeners are able to experience a work. It may distance listeners or place them at a remove, as if they were listening through someone else’s ear. I think it’s sometimes OK to listen first.”

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