Music has always played an important role in world culture, judging from the ancient art of every continent and the discovery of 35,000-year-old instruments inSiberia. It draws its power from its most compelling aspect: the ability to go places that words can never go. Both communicating and churning emotion, music bypasses the higher brain centers and heads straight for the gut.
Music can affect us without our conscious cooperation, as the writers of film soundtracks are well award. Back when movie theaters played music before the show, I once sat in my seat and began getting nervous. Nothing particular was weighing on my mind, but as the minutes went by I felt increasingly queasy. It wasn’t a panic attack, or even a bad lunch – it turned out to be the soundtrack from Psycho, by the master composer Bernard Herrmann, who knew just how to manipulate sound for maximum scariness and suspense. I didn’t need to see Hitchcock’s visuals for the score to do its work, since it was designed to induce anxiety all by itself with its careful mix of disharmony, space, and unsetting rhythms.
We are physically affected by music – its patterns of tension and release impact our heart rate and breathing, which in turn affect our energy level and perception of well being. Most Western music is written at the range of the human heartbeat, about 70 to 80 beats per minute; when the music is faster, our own rhythms rise to meet the pace. Other influences include whether the music is choppy or smooth, major or minor, and how repetitious it is – Ravel’s Bolero is a good example of how music can become hypnotic and insistent.
Instrumentation and the tone of the instruments are also important, as is our past association with them. Sound is second only to smell in its ability to trigger memories – a song from time gone by can bring back all the imagery and emotion of that period.
Harmony is another powerful component: when the music resolves – or returns to the initial, “home” chord – there’s a feeling of safety and completion. When it doesn’t come back, or delays its return, it can be agitating. Some people enjoy styles that tend to wander off without leaving a forwarding address, like some modern classical music and free jazz. But while novelty and suspense can be interesting, not everyone had the same tolerance for auditory risk – the majority seems to prefer their music without too much dissonance or surprise, especially when they’re upset. That’s when the old familiars come out: those records with all the pops and hisses, the CD’s with all the smudges.
That’s also when music moves from being a source of entertainment or stimulation to providing a wellspring of comfort. Feelings that are blocked and need expression are coaxed out; the pain we often hide from other people is finally welcome. Autistic children who respond to nothing else will tiptoe into the world, however briefly, for music. Schizophrenics use it to distract themselves from the voices they hear. Sometimes the sheer beauty of sound reassures us that, no matter what terrible things have happened, the universe still has goodness and hope and angels.
Whether we melt into gentle flutesong, boogie around the kitchen to soul music, or glory in the thunder of Beethoven, music encourages our most natural, uncomplicated responses, taking us back to simpler days when there were fewer obstacles between ourselves and our emotions.
All emotions are valid in music: joy and anger, grief and despair – even the ones that embarrass us, like self-pity. With music, we can feel them all without having to disguise or label or explain them to anyone. Worries that were building up may drift away while the music plays; the tears that were gathering can finally fall. Music provides the setting, the inspiration, and the excuse for letting go.
It also supplies something else; the great comfort of recognizing that whoever wrote or played what you just heard probably knows exactly where you are. You are not alone.
Judith Schlesinger, Ph.D. * Psychologist, musician and author.