Athletes preparing for the big race, commuters on trains and buses and patients waiting in medical receptions can often have something in common. Many of them are encased in a musical bubble. A musical bubble is a psychological concept, a sense of privacy within a public space that results from listening to music. The invisible sound cocoon created by well-chosen music allows us to feel more at peace than we would if we were at the mercy of all the changing sounds around us.

A well-crafted musical bubble has huge potential to soothe understandable anxieties as we re-enter busier public spaces post-lockdown. The power and appeal of a musical bubble on our minds is evidenced by our near 70 year love affair with headphones.

Our obsession with musical bubbles

The invention of headphones is credited to Utah native Nathaniel Baldwin, who sought a solution to his difficulty in hearing public speeches. Use of headphones gathered mass appeal in the 1950s thanks to the blossoming of the recorded music industry. The 1958 copyright of the “private listening system” by John Koss marked the first commercial headphones made purely for music listening.

The headphone industry has since boomed. In 2022 it is worth nearly $22.3bilion, a figure that is expected to grow to over $35 by 2028. It is clear that the personal and private experience of music continues to captivate us. This is despite the fact that few headphones are capable of recreating anything like the live music listening experiences that can have an such a powerful positive impact on our state of being. So why do we love them?

The five tricks of the musical bubble

Beginning with the Walkman, through to the Sony ’Street Style’ and now Earbuds, we are addicted to taking music with us as we go about our lives. Research by Mia Kuch and Clemens Wöllner in 2021 found that music listening on the move supports five critical aspects of a musical bubble:

1. Music engages – reduces creeping boredom and associated negative emotions
2. Music absorbs – blocks disruption and anxiety triggers
3. Music stabilises mood – encouraging relaxation and associated positive evaluations
4. Music beautifies – the aestheticization of our surroundings
5. Music protects – in a social setting we feel less lonely and also less ‘watched’.

The right music can create a valuable sense of stability, positivity, and liberty that generates feelings of serenity and comfort. This is especially true if an environment is new to us, a situation we are massively vulnerable to distraction. So how does it work?

How does a musical bubble impact my brain?

One reason why we love a musical bubble is the reticular activating system (RAS); this complex network of neurons is located near the base of our brain and project upwards allowing RAS to mediate our awareness and behaviour. Higher parts of our brain can really struggle to focus when faced with our complex multisensory world. In these circumstances the RAS functions as a guiding light.

A musical bubble supports RAS by giving steady, calm input to the brain. A stream of musical consciousness helps prevent the brain from descending into sensory flipping between all the different sights, sounds, smells and sensations that surround us, which can feel a bit like flicking through TV channels too quickly. It can leave us disorientated and stressed. In these circumstances, most of us would leave the room as soon as possible.

Musical bubble for happy consumers

When we are in a musical bubble we are not only protected at the brain level from over- stimulation, but we can also still take in information. We don’t become musical zombies in our bubble. Rather we are settled enough to engage with our surroundings in a positive way. This will happen as long as the music is carefully curated so that it becomes part of the solution to overstimulation and not the problem. In this way, well-selected music allows commuters to continue working and athletes to effectively prepare their body and mind. My own research has shown how it can even help us learn a new language.

The music in our environment has the power to lead the brain gently through space, minimising unnecessary distraction and allowing us to feel in control. A musical bubble can provide an optimum state of composure and enjoyment balanced with mindful intent.