9 Ways to Enhance Your Music-Listening Experiences


Music is somewhat of a universal language. A song can move us to tears, make us dance like buffoons, and steep us in long-lost memories. Whether you’re a casual listener or a full-on audiophile, here are a few ways to take your music habits to the next level.

1. Listen more than once

If you’re serious about expanding your appreciation for music, don’t give much weight to your first impressions of a song. Researchers know we tend to dislike new things at first, but grow fond of them with time and repeated exposure. This is called the mere-exposure effect, and you’ve no doubt experienced it firsthand. How many times have you re-listened to an album you weren’t crazy about at first, only to find you can’t stop grooving to it now? That’s because your brain likes repetition and knowing what’s coming next. “The brain is a pattern-seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear,” Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct, says.

So, with new music, ignore your initial reaction and listen again. And again. As American violinist Maud Powell wrote in 1917, “Familiarity with worthwhile music steadily increases one's enjoyment in it. New beauties are ever being revealed from time to time, and more and more pleasure comes from fuller appreciation and understanding. One never tires of good music.”

2. Listen to as many different kinds of music as possible

In contrast, listening to music you’ve never heard before also does good things for your brain. Last year, Canadian researchers demonstrated that listening to new tunes activates the brain’s reward center, which prompts the release of dopamine, a chemical also associated with feel-good activities. So, when it comes to music, do some exploring and reward your brain.

3. Learn an instrument

It hasn’t been confirmed by science, but anecdotally, musicians often say knowing how to play an instrument changes how they experience music. It seems that understanding the intricacies of how the music is made--the physical and mental skill that goes into it--creates a whole new dimension of appreciation for the sound itself.

4. Listen to each track individually

If you can’t or don’t want to learn an instrument, another good way to understand the layers of a song is to listen to each track individually. Musicians can do this naturally, according to Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. "A musician will be listening to the sound of his own instrument even though many other instruments are playing,” Kraus says. You can do this too with a little help from the Internet. Here’s a good YouTube playlist of isolated tracks found in popular songs. Another resource is, which has a good selection. Here’s the guitar track on Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”:

5. Choose an experience, not a song

When searching for the right tune, Tyler Gray, co-author of the book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy, suggests looking beyond the artist and title. “Instead of trying to think about what song you'd like to listen to, start by thinking about what kind of music best suits your situation,” he tells mental_floss. “We live in a pretty magical time when you can pretty much instantly access—through Spotify or Songza or iTunes—whatever music you want to hear. What's the perfect music for your commute, your road trip, your work day, your date? Start there, and you'll set yourself up for a better experience.”

6. Use Spotify’s “related artists” option to explore new stuff

One great way to find new tunes is through Spotify’s “related artists” feature. Can’t stop listening to The Decemberists’ new release? Spotify will recommend you check out a bunch of similar bands like Cloud Cult or The Mountain Goats. If you end up liking The Mountain Goats, you might also dig Neutral Milk Hotel, and so on. The farther down the rabbit hole you go, the more new music you’ll uncover. It’s only a matter of time before you land on a gem. Gray also suggests following the New Music Tuesday playlist there.

“You'll get new releases delivered to your app every Tuesday (and sometimes on other days). It's passive discovery in its best form.”

7. Try meditation

Bear with me here. In a recent study, Frank Diaz, professor in the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, reported that students who participated in 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation, bringing their consciousness to the present, were more focused on and engaged in an opera segment as a result. “We really found significant increases in the participants' aesthetic and flow experience,” he says. “Some were intense. They were really in the zone."

8. Understand the lyrics

One of the best ways to connect to a song is through its lyrics. For this, we used to rely on the little pamphlets that came inside a CD case. Now, there’s Genius. This tool was originally aimed at exposing the meaning in rap lyrics, but has expanded to include rock, pop, and R&B, and even goes beyond music to pull the meaning out of things like news and sports. For our purposes, Genius is a great resource for finding and understanding thousands of song lyrics. Annotations let you dig deep into their hidden meanings. To continue with The Decemberists, here’s Genius on "Calamity Song."

9. Use MusicSmasher to find great music quickly

This tool makes quick work of streaming your favorite songs online. Search for a song and MusicSmasher scans various services like Spotify, Soundcloud, and rdio to tell you where to find it. Press play, and enjoy.


Samir Hussein, Getty Images
One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

Getty Images
The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
Getty Images
Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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