As I sit at my desk in my apartment, I can faintly hear “Unchained Melody” through the walls of my building. It’s so richly evocative as a far-off song.

What is it about hearing music faintly and from a distance that makes it seem more moody? What is it about certain songs that lend themselves to being experienced best as someone else’s music overheard?

It probably works best with older songs — songs we associate with parents or formative experiences. It probably works best with songs that have melodic motifs, so the variance in tones is more discernible from far away. And it probably works best with songs that have strong emotional content — where you might not have to hear very much of the song to be reminded of its yearning or sweetness.

The experience of music as a listener isn’t so different from the “user experience” of software or a smartphone or anything else. Some of the characteristics are always intentional, but when time or place change the context, the way we experience those characteristics can change drastically. That may usually yield frustrating results, but sometimes, like now, it yields an unexpected moment of pleasure.

The UX of Music

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