Music, the beautiful disturber; whether it’s Bach , Beatles, ‘The Boss,’ blues or ballads, chances are that music speaks to your emotions, and it’s no accident

Music, the beautiful disturber; whether it’s Bach , Beatles, ‘The Boss,’ blues or ballads, chances are that music speaks to your emotions, and it’s no accident – includes 2 related articles on music therapy and music in selling

Anne H. Rosenfeld

Why, when I first saw the Grand Canyon and the Piazza San Marco and the Alps, did I feel that these things had all been more moving in Cinerama? Why? Because both God and man forgt to put in the music.” Psychologist Roger Brown of Harvard University, pondering music’s effects on our emotions, has captured its essence in noting its absence.

What Brown was missing was exactly what one Hollywood composer put in the film socre he enclosed with this cover letter: “Here is a copy of the score which I tried to make bright, disonant, elegant, entertaining, full, rich and sonorous, historic, spooky, hollow, informational, intellectual, light-hearted, lush, lyric, mocking, mysterious, powerful, questioning, romantic, unorthodox, unsettling and occasionally upbeat….”

Music can move us to tears or to dance, to fight or to make love. It can inspire our most exalted religious feelings and ease our anxious and lonely moments. Its pleasures are many, but it can also be alien, irksome, almost maddening. It is created by people to affect and communicate with other people. In one sense, it’s no surprise that music grabs us–it’s supposed to. But once you look at the process, it seems quite miraculous that people can bowl one another over just by jiggling sound waves. It’s a miracle akin to that of language, and there are sufficient resemblances to have provoked serious study of their similarities. But music is more than a language.

Psychologists, philosophers, musicians and musicologists have been trying to understand music’s emotional power for some time. Nonetheless, there’s still no neat, complete theory or body of data that can explain how it works. (For that matter, the nature of emotion is still one of psychology’s most controversial areas.) No matter how meticulously people analyze music and its power over our emotions, it remains elusive, evading verbalization and–like other arts, humor and love–largely slipping through the net of scientific inquiry. But for those willing to consider provocative fragments of information, there are a number of interesting clues.

Composer Roger Sessions has described music as “controlled movement of sound in time.” The notion of control in music is important. Music is rarely the spontaneous outpouring of whatever sounds someone happens to be moved to make. It is highly patterned sound, chosen and shaped, consciously or not, in quite logical ways that often follow rigid rules. This may seem a strange way to elicit emotions, until you think about what goes on in the listener, too.

Both the people who produce music and those who listen to it grow up in a cultural environment that dictates in large measure what music is and how it is to be structured. We all learn certain rules intuitively, simply by exposure, and if we go on with formal musicial training, we learn still more. The rules provide a common framework of expectation that helps composers to organize their musical thoughts and listeners to track them. One such rule in much of Western music is that a piece of music should be in a particular key, with notes selected in accord with that key; further, the piece should end on the key’s main note.

In his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music, musicologist Leonard Meyer argues that while listening to music (as when we listen to language), we spin out certain expectations about how things will proceed, based on our cultural learnings. When the music conforms to our expectations, we relax, but if it deviates somewhat, we become tense. It is the artful succession of tiny expectations, frustrated and fulfilled, and the related tension and release that form the basis for our emotional responses to music.

We become bored with the regularity of a piece that’s too predictable, and uncomfortable with one that deviates too much from what’s known and expected. If it’s mostly predictable but has occasional quite strange deviations, we’e surprised or amused.

Meyer points out, too, that music is generally arranged so that certain themes or melodies are introduced, repeated and alternated with other themes. But the original ones eventually return and give us a comforting sense of completion when they do. This journey can be a complex perambulation in a classical symphony but occurs even in folk or popular music as the chorus and verses alternate but always return to end with the familiar refrain.

Within the context of established regularities, composers can and do play with us, sometimes breaking out of the mold or creating ambiguous musical structures that leave us wondering where the music is headed and whether it will ever reach its psychological “home.” Sometimes there’s an unexpected pause, or a dissnant chord, or a shift in key or rhythm–subtle tricks that keep us interested and on our mental toes until the music comes home.

Composers can surprise us at will by establishing certain regularities within the piece and then failing to follow them, as Haydn did in his “Surprise” Symphony, with its inappropriately loud chord at the end of a theme. In movie music, composers can also play with the expected relation between image and sound, as composer john Williams did in the score for Jaws. Williams wrote a jagged, nervous shark theme that warned audiences whenever a shark was coming. But in a key scene, the shark appeared without the musical cue, thus intensifying the audience’s shock and horror.

Meyer’s notion that music’s emotional impact stems from past associations concerning particular musical styles has been challenged by psychologist Julian Thayer of Pennsylvania State University. According to Thayer, our responses to music “may have innate, universal underpinnings directly related to certain elements of sound, in general, and music, in particular.”

Thayer cites the pioneering work of psychologist Kate Hevner, who found in the 1930s that listeners usually judged the mood of various short musical excerpts similarly, and that their judgments depended on specific elements in the music. For example, people described the mood of high-pitched music as happy and playful, while low-pitched music was seen as sad and serious. These results have been duplicated in other studies, including Thayer’s. Hevner looked at the effects of many musical elements but found temp to be the single most important factor.

In his own very recent research, Thayer has looked especially at how both tempo and pitch affect emotional reactions. In one study, Thayer, working with Jeffrey S. Tanaka and Wayne Winborne of New York University, found that, in keeping with many studies on emotion, people’s reactions to music could be described across the spectrums of “pleasantness” (ranging from happiness and amusement to disgust and sadness) and “activation” (ranging from tension and excitement to relaxation and sadness). Further, people’s reactions to music were related consistently to its pitch and tempo, with pitch affecting pleasantness ratings and tempo affecting activation ratings.

Our responses to musical tempo may be linked to our body’s own rhythms. Human hearts normally tick away at a rhythm of about 70 to 80 beats a minute. By some strange intuition, most Western music is paced at this tempo, which we tend to perceive as moderate (“fast” music has a higher rate of beats and “slow” music a lower rate).

It seems intuitively right that sedative music should slow down heart rate and pulse, and that stimulating music should speed them up. But this has not always been the case in laboratory studies. However, music therapist Helen Bonny did find the expected and desired results when she played sedative music tapes to patients in a hospital’s coronary-care unit (see “Music Hath Charms” box).

Musical rhythms affect both our hearts and our brains. One road to rousing a range of agitated feelings–tense, excited, sometimes sexual–is through pronounced and insistent rhythms, such as those of Ravel’s Bolero, artfully used to heighten the sexual tension of the movie 10. In primitive cultures, people use extended sessions of singing, chanting, dancing and drumming to induce altered states of consciousness such as frenzies and trances. Psychological anthropologist Ralph G. Locke and experimental psychologist Edward F. Kelly at Spring Creek Institute, Durham, North Carolina, have suggested that certain types of drumming may produce these powerful effects by actually driving the brain’s electrical rhythms. One neurological study has shown that rhythmic drumming at certain frequencies can make the brain’s rhythms, as measured by electroencephalographs (EEG’s), become synchronized to them. This is similar to the better-known “photic driving,” in which rhythmically flashing strobe lights can impose their rhythm on the brain.

Where in the brain do we experience music? This question has been studied extensively using the technique of “dichotic listening” developed in the 1960s by Doreen Kimura of the University of Western Ontario (see “Male Brain Female Brain: The Hidden Difference,” Psychology Today, November 1985). Different sounds or sound patterns are presented to the two ears through earphones. By studying which ear’s signals are better discriminated, researchers can tell which hemisphere is dominant for that task.

Such studies have revealed that, unlike the way we handle listening to language (the left hemisphere is usually dominant), our right hemisphere is usually dominant in processing music, especially for such functions as remembering tones and discriminating their duration and loudness, as well as recognizing chords and instruments. But in some aspects of music perception, such as recognizing familiar songs with words and perhaps in processing rhythms, the left hemisphere seems most involved.

The general right-hemisphere preference for music appears to be present from birth. Using EEG measures of brain waves, psychologist Dennis Molfese of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale has shown that the right hemisphere in newborns is more responsive to musical chords and the left to speech.

Musical training may alter the way the brain deals with music. Some evidence suggests that musicians and nonmusicians have different hemispheric dominance patterns, but this issue is far from settled.

The tasks used in dichotic listening and other perceptual experiments usually require people to discriminate among different sounds–abilities that primarily involve the cortex. But is this where our emotional reactions to music arise? Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner speculates, based on his studies of brain-damaged people, that the cortex does play a role, joined by lower, subcortical structures that are “deemed central to feeling and to motivation.” Gardner observes that patients whose subcortical areas are damaged, or disconnected from cortical areas, often seem to be very unemotional. Further, they rarely care about music.

Neurologist John C. Mazziotta of the University of California at Los Angeles has sh own through PET scans that even in discriminating musical tones or chords, many brain areas are involved in both hemispheres, including cortical and subcortical areas. Consistent with other studies, the right hemisphere is usually dominant for music and the left for verbal stimuli. Still to be revealed is the pattern of brain activation when people listen and react emotionally to musical passages or whole pieces.

Research on music and the emotions usually relies on playing tiny snippets of notes, rhythms, chords or short sections of whole pieces chosen by the experimenters. Rarely do researchers study how people react when listening to large sections of their favorite music. But this was done in an unusual study conducted by pharmacologist Avram Goldstein of Stanford University, which has revealed that brain chemicals may be involved in people’s intense enjoyment of music. Goldstein has studied what gives people “thrills,” those special feelings that occur when people experience sudden changes in emotion. He reports that people describe the sensation as feeling like a chill, shudder, tingling or tickling, often accompanied by goose bumps, a lump in the throat or weeping. By analyzing the self-reports of more than 250 people, Goldstein found that the most frequently mentioned thrills occur in response to music (96 percent of respondents)–far exceeding the rate for an expected thriller, sexual activity (70 percent). (See “What Ever Gives You Thrill?” box.)

On the assumption that the thrill experience involves natural brain opiates (endorphins), which are thought to be involved in many kinds of “highs,” Goldstein compared volunteers’ responses to thrilling music of their own choosing before and after they received either naloxone, a drug that block brain opiates, or an inert substance. He found that while the effect was not dramatic, naloxone did appreciably lessen musical thrills in some listeners.

Goldstein suggests that the thrill sensation, which clearly involves the autonomic nervous system, may arise from a brain area that is linked to the limbic system, a subcortical area heavily involved in people’s emotional reactions.

Psychologist John A. Johnson of Pennsylvania State University, who has also studied thrills, or “chills” as he calls them, in response to music, found that people’s heart rates increase when they experience a chill and decrease when they do not. He believes that these heart-rate changes reflects shifts in attention from outside to inside oneself as emotional states vary with the music.

One of the interesting sidelights of Goldstein’s study is his finding that people tend to have the same pattern of thrills each time they listen to a particular piece of music, although the intensity of the thrills varies from hearing to hearing. The pattern generally corresponds to dramatic peaks and valleys in the music itself. However, not all people who listen to a given piece of music respond with the same thrill pattern. “Evidently, the emotional content is perceived differently by different people,” Goldstein notes. “Often, subjects told me, what makes a certain musical passage able to elicit thrills is some association with an emotionally charged event or a particular person in the subject’s past, as though the music had become a conditioned stimulus for the emotional response.”

People’s tendency to have vivid associations with specific pieces of music, and to free-associate while listening to it, adds another, special emotional dimension to their musical experiences. A person might describe a certain bright and lively merry-go-round tune as “happy music,” knowing that we usually say such tunes are happy. But the music may actually be strangely depressing because it’s a reminder of a painful childhood event at an amusement park or an evocation of a childhood now lost and mourned. While such very personal and idiosyncratic reactions to music may be a researcher’s nightmare, people’s private associations and images while listening can provide invaluable clues to many levels of consciousness, as music therapist Bonny has discovered.

In sum, we respond to music with a complex mis of psychological and psychological reactions triggered by numerous aspects of the music itself. But music is filtered through our personal and cultural experience, training, associations and expectations. So in the end, the music in our heads and bodies is our own. Perhaps this is what avant garde composer John Cage meant when he obserrved, “Music is sound played by millions of hearers.”

COPYRIGHT 1985 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group