How to Make Music So That People Want to Listen

How to Make Music So That People Want to Listen

Do you believe in Steinways– legendary hand-made pianos?

Whatever type of instrument you love, there’s a way to make music so that people want to listen.

This summer, I am taking intensive ballet classes. During a break, I step into a Tom Lee music store in downtown Vancouver. I ask the saleslady to tell me about the grand pianos–because, why not?

She sits me at seven grand pianos where I play the same Un Sospiro phrase. None of these sounds repulse me anymore— although some are more favourable, nothing feels perfect.

“Come,” she says. “I want to show you the Steinway room.”

Outside, spotlights shine in the main showroom and my ballet bodysuit-shorts combo feels chilly. Inside, the Steinway room is saturated with spotlight-light.

At the first piano, a Boston, two of the keys are a smidge out of tune and most of them feel sticky with something that is, the saleslady suggests, ice cream.

Some of the pianos sound alright. I love white grand pianos, although it’s a rule that white grand pianos in display rooms sound weak.

The Steinway with the touch I like best is a wood-finished concert grand that costs 1/3rd of a small Vancouver condo. I’d rather have the condo, but this reminds me of a study I read last year.

Why we love the songs we do

Let’s look at one factor that makes music sound better– and how you can use this factor in your music-making as well.

In one study, Anders C. Green and his team played 30 single-line melodies for their participants once. They asked the participants to rate each melody, on a scale of 1 – 5.

Then, they shuffled the 30 melodies and participants listened to these for an hour; some melodies were played more often than others.

Afterwards, participants rated each melody again. It turns out that the highest-rated (favourite) melodies were the ones they heard the most often.

When people listen to music they enjoy, their “deeper brain structures,” related to emotions, light up on brain scans.

We call this the mere exposure effect, meaning the more often you hear a sound, the more you’re likely to enjoy it.

Perhaps you remember the pop song that everyone “hates,” but which seems to get requested so often on the radio that it plays on repeat. The cycle likely goes: you learn to enjoy the song > period of enjoyment > you’ve heard it so many times that it’s become annoying. When you dislike a song or sound, you’re probably stuck trying to learn the enjoyment.

Make music so that people want to listen

In a different study conducted at the Imperial College London and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, a trio (flute/harp/viola) played five different Classical pieces, two times each.

For the first time, they played as if they were in an international competition, perfection with zero risk. The second, they played spontaneously, in a flexible, improvised manner.

Most listeners preferred the improvised performance; their EEG brain signals showed more engagement and attention during the latter as well.

What this suggests, is that there’s always room to be human; your listeners are human, and humans connect with other humans. Perhaps the key to connecting with people through music, is to show clear human quality.

What does this mean for you?

We love the sounds and experiences that we do, simply because they are familiar.

The mere exposure effect applies to other aspects of life as well. For example, this study shows that we prefer people who look familiar. That’s why music teachers who have good websites will gain music students more easily– they seem more trustworthy and likeable, which comes down to how the website is designed.

Before we seek quality, we crave human connection. Making music so that people want to listen means establishing a connection. Our stiffest genre of music, Classical, even strives to stay relevant through human connection.

Adding bits of improvisation into your music is one way to start a conversation (and avoid the trained monkey show). If improvising ain’t your thing, just loosen up.

Lastly, even if you have a favourite brand of instrument, I encourage you to train on different pianos; perhaps pick up a used instrument to play for a bit. And give new music a chance.

How can you use this technique in ONE area of your life? Leave a comment below to join the conversation!

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John Al
John Al
9 years ago

I like your comments which are quite refreshing. I have been under a teacher for several years learning classical piano. Chopin Liszt etc and have played in several concerts but I haven’t a clue how to improvise or to play a melody without the music. Seems sad and I am becoming disillusioned , perhaps time to move on and try something else?

Toiia L. Rukuni
9 years ago

I really love this article, for the past couple of years I have had a desire to play the acoustic guitar. I have been searching for a music teacher to teach me for a couple hours a day. Hopefully, I will learn how to play and read music beyond my eighth grade music class.

6 years ago

Its so weird. A few years ago I tried to teach myself to play the guitar – I was doing well but I stopped. The thing is I have thought about trying again and your post has just reminded me to do just that. I need to find all the books and stuff to go with it, oh and retune the old gal – but I will get there. – See more at:

Michael Knouse
9 years ago

This is such a powerful insight. I think the key to any great endeavor is the ability to connect with people authentically. It’s so true that we all crave the human connection and I believe this is more true now than ever. Technology has connected more of us but in a superficial way so this makes the need for human connection even stronger. I always strive to connect more deeply with people through my work and my business and your article has encouraged me to keep at it, even though it takes more time and commitment. Thank you for sharing… Read more »

9 years ago

Its so weird. A few years ago I tried to teach myself to play the guitar – I was doing well but I stopped. The thing is I have thought about trying again and your post has just reminded me to do just that. I need to find all the books and stuff to go with it, oh and retune the old gal – but I will get there. I love music and yes there is nothing better than sharing that with someone – there’s a real sense of connection like no other. Thank you for this. p.s always loved… Read more »

Laurie McLean
9 years ago

It’s interesting, Grace, thinking about this. I love music, or so I say I do, yet, I rarely put it on. I have no musical background so I don’t connect on that “knowing” level. I tend to like music if I know the person, either personally, or if I’ve seen them interviewed and feel a deeper connection or understanding of them as a person. And I find I ‘hear’ more clearly if I feel I know them. I feel the same in my business, the human connection runs pretty deep for me and I’m realizing more and more how much… Read more »