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By Michelle Phillips on

Can music make your life feel longer?

Lecturer and researcher Michelle Phillips writes about the curious ways that music affects our sense of time.

I am fascinated by the nature of time. Time is an important currency in our lives – we spend time on things, and it often feels likes it is running out or dragging. Time is not a constant. How quickly or slowly time passes depends on many factors. The old sayings ‘a watched pot never boils’ and ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ are true – if you pay attention to time passing (whilst waiting for a kettle) then it seems to go slowly, and if you’re immersed in an enjoyable moment and not watching the clock then it feels like it’s passed very quickly.

If we know that time passes at different rates depending on what we’re doing and how we feel, can we intentionally manipulate how time passes for us? My research centres around one daily activity which seems to warp our sense of time – listening to music.

Photo courtesy of the Royal Northern College of Music
Photo courtesy of the Royal Northern College of Music

Research over the last 30 years has shown us that time passes differently depending on the qualities of a piece of music, including its tempo, chord changes, and volume. Our reactions to music and our personal characteristics also have an effect. My own research has shown that music seems to last longer if you feel that there have been more things happening in it. I have also found that if people are trying to remember something while they listen to music (e.g. a list), they think that the music was shorter.

Music has a quality that many events in our daily lives do not – it has an organised structure. This means that while we listen, we can anticipate the beat and when the music is coming to an end. My research centres on this quality in music: I want to know whether music shapes our experience of time in special ways, because it is what has been called ‘structurally coherent’.

Photo courtesy of the Royal Northern College of Music
Photo courtesy of the Royal Northern College of Music

At the Sound and Music Late, myself and my colleague Dr Luke Jones will be asking visitors to listen to one of three pieces of music (recorded at the Royal Northern College of Music for this experiment), which have different levels of structural coherence. Hopefully, with the help of the visitors, we’ll be able to find out if music shapes our perception of time. Could life feel longer or shorter depending on your playlist?

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