The Situation Hypothesis

1 October, 2019
The primary effect of music is that there is a situation, and the music changes how you think about that situation. Or it changes how you want to think about that situation.

Listening to Music, and Thinking About a Situation

The Situation Hypothesis is a hypothesis about the action of music on the mind/brain of the music listener.

It states that the effect of music is always associated with a situation that the music listener is thinking about, and the effect of the music is that it somehow motivates the listener to think differently, in some manner, about the situation.

By itself, this hypothesis is incomplete, because it does not specify exactly what it is that is different about a listener's thinking processes as a result of listening to music.

But, the hypothesis can be used as a starting point for a program of research to determine more precisely what this difference is, and therefore, what the meaning of music is.

What Determines the Situation?

Music motivates how the listener thinks about a situation, but it does not necessarily motivate the listener to search for the ideal situation that the music could act on.

In most cases:

The following is a list of different ways that the situation can be determined:

In all of these cases the listener has not made the effort to imagine, from scratch, a suitable situation to think about while listening to the music.

To put it another way, someone other than the listener has done the work of deciding which situation the listener should think about while listening to the music.


However, there are some people who will listen to music, and then imagine fantasy scenarios to accompany the music. Often they compulsively imagine such scenarios for extended periods of time. These people are called maladaptive daydreamers.

The very existence of maladaptive daydreamers is a clue that the Situation Hypothesis is worth investigating further.

(Not all maladaptive daydreamers are music-driven, but many of them are.)

Research Program 1: Listening and Imagining

Most people are not motivated to invent extended fantasies to match the music that they are listening to.

However, to fully understand the meaning of music, a program of active and exploratory imagination may be exactly what is needed.

That is, the program of research would follow these steps:

Ideally the chosen music should not come with any pre-determined situation that is already strongly associated with the music, as this is likely to be overly distracting when trying to determine how the music might interact with other situations.

It can unfortunately be rather difficult to find strong music that doesn't come with pre-existing associations, because the most popular forms of music are songs, and songs come with lyrics, the very purpose of which is to specify what the listener should think about while listening to the music.

Here are a few ways to avoid this difficulty:

Research Program 2: Understand the Best Matches

An alternative approach is to search out those strong musical items where the suggested or determined situation is an unusually good fit.

An example could be a strong song that has lyrics that totally "make sense", and which have a powerful emotional effect.

Or a film scene, where the accompanying sound track has a powerful effect on your emotional reaction to that scene.

In these cases the provided situation may be close to optimal, and there is less need to search for some other situation that makes a better fit.

These examples of extra "good fit" may give good clues as to what the underlying meaning is of the music in each case.

General vs Specific

The Deletion Hypothesis is a specific hypothesis that I have developed, partly as a result of following research programs like what I have just described.

With the Deletion Hypothesis, I am proposing a specific meaning of music, which is that the listener is motivated to delete certain considerations from their thinking about a situation.

With the Situation Hypothesis, I am being less ambitious, because it is a general hypothesis that stops short of specifying a specific meaning.

However, the Situation Hypothesis is still quite ambitious, because it effectively states that music does have a meaning.

If music has a meaning, then it might not be that hard to work out what the meaning is. Maybe all we have to do is listen to music that we like (especially music that we really, really like), and pay close attention to how that music affects our thoughts.

My Final Request

At this point, I finish by requesting you, my readers, to take part in this research program.

Listen to the music. Listen to the music that affects you most strongly. Think the thoughts that are most strongly affected by the music. Imagine the scenarios that the music seems to be telling you that you want to imagine. Observe how those scenarios are different from the things you might think about when you are not listening to music.

With this research program, every item of music you hear is an opportunity.

Every strong item of music is a puzzle to be solved. Every song with "strong" lyrics that just "work" is a puzzle to be solved. Every musical item used in a movie is a puzzle, and you can ask yourself why it makes sense for different items of music to be used in different parts of a movie.

And if you think you have found the answers to some of these puzzles, ask other people if it matches their experience of those same musical items.

Because music is something that affects almost all of us, and whatever it is that music does, at some level of description, it is probably going to be the same for everyone.