Music and Emotion

The Age-old Puzzle of Human Response

If you've listened to more than a little music, you've most likely received an emotional reaction from some of it. You've probably noticed that whenever that happens, the effect is initially unexpected and varies in its intensity. Its also a safe bet that you cannot truly explain or define why it affected you.

You might be listening to a Symphonic work, a Jazz combo, something Country or a Folk song. Whatever the style, it becomes obvious that certain musical creations are able to communicate in a way that transcends the moment.

Those with a broad and varied interest in music soon discover that not all music is equal. Some of it may simply be functional, contrived, uninspiring and produce little or no emotional reaction. Other music may call forth a few emotional moments here and there but you find yourself wishing for more.

Then, there are those truly inspiring musical creations that lift one out of oneself, somehow transporting the listener in a way that defies explanation.

Inspiring music appears to contain an abundance of emotional peaks and valleys that may evoke pleasure, sadness and other diverse manifestations of emotion. For the listener, this often becomes a very unique and moving personal experience - and the oddity is that neither the composer nor the performers of the music will be able to explain exactly how or why it creates that effect.

This seeming inability has nothing to do with the extensive technical abilities of the composer or members of the orchestra. Rather, it concerns the difficulty anyone encounters when attempting to define or describe the ethereal nature of inspiration. For example, how does one go about describing the Source?

Apparently, it matters not the musical style - a simple folk song might trigger an emotional reaction as powerful as that created by a complex symphonic work.

Why this happens has been debated for ages but most musicologists will agree that trying to find the answer to this and other human response questions becomes a gigantic task due to the plethora of human, technical, psycho-biological and other variables that permeate an inspiring composition and its performance.

Another unusual aspect is that no two people will react to any given piece of music in exactly the same way. What might be a moving experience for one person might be somewhat different for another.

Back to the future

In order to gain a better understanding of why this disparity occurs, look to the subject of human conditioning - for it contains insightful information regarding how and why people react in the manner that they do.

The concept of human conditioning is based upon the premise that human perspective is influenced from birth onward by parental, societal, religious and other forces. Consequently, all future human experience is filtered through and measured by past experience.

Therefore, it does not require too great a stretch to understand why individual responsiveness to music may vary from person to person. Simply stated, each life experience is different for each person and though experiential similarities may exist, responsiveness remains uniquely individualistic.

A mysterious something

What is it in music that gives it that remarkable ability to reach and so strongly affect the human psyche? How is it able to calm, soothe, heal and minimize pain? And what about its darker side - wherein it is capable (as some researchers suggest) of actually creating pathological conditions in humans, animals and plants?

Regarding the latter, a number of research projects have convincingly demonstrated that music can be harmful or beneficial dependent upon the type. Most notable is the work of Dorothy Retallack, Dr. T.C.Singh, Dr. Harvey Bird and Dr. Gervasia Shreckenberg. (see below)

Unlike the research mentioned above, other sources of information often prove to be more conjectural than factual. For sure, one can find the usual authoritative comment in any good library...but much of that opinion appears to focus on the effects of music rather than its ethereal nature and origin.

However, deciphering and understanding the ethereal may ultimately require more than human rationalism and logic can provide. Perhaps this is one reason why the puzzle of human response to music has yet to be solved.

Logically, one would think that thousands of years of musical endeavor should have produced something in the way of bona fide evidence; something that would provide an irrefutable explanation for that musical-empathic link that so often lifts the human spirit. Obviously, that link has yet to be established and if history is any indicator, the solution to the puzzle may be a long time in coming.

Meanwhile, inspiring music continues to fulfill a strong human need. It speaks to the heart and because of this, improves and enhances our lives. This is why certain music has been so successful as a stress management tool. It calms and provides respite wherein recovery may take place.

As for solving the puzzle, that is best left to the musicologists. Listeners need not and should not be too concerned with the complex issues and technical aspects of music. As a matter of fact, focusing on the complex tends to block one’s ability to feel. Why? Because it is impossible to analyze and feel simultaneously.

A passing mention should be given here concerning the existence of something that is best described as sonic mayhem. Sonic mayhem cannot subsist for long without the support of high-powered marketing hype, numerous theatrical effects and high decibel amplification. It is called music by its practitioners and followers but that is a misnomer. Rather, it is a form of abrasive-aggressive entertainment. This subject will be pursued further in a future article.

So where does all of this leave us? Well, we have a world of music at our disposal and where we go from there is up to us. Perhaps, during the process of listening to music, we may experience one of those magic moments wherein we discover ourselves.

Finally, inspiring music contains a message for everyone and to receive that message, all we need do is simply listen with an open heart and allow the music to do what it has always done best - uplift the human spirit and soothe the soul.

For more about the work of Dorothy Retallack, Dr. T.C.Singh, Dr. Harvey Bird and Dr. Gervasia Shreckenberg go to:

Copyright © 2003-2005 Channel 1 Records All rights reserved

Bill Reddie is the owner of Channel 1 Records, a company that has been producing music for stress relief and stress management since 1972. Further information regarding the beneficial effects of music and its potential for relieving stress, anxiety and burnout may be found at:

In The News:

Music to the ears  The Hindu
Hot Pandemic Market: Music Royalties  The Wall Street Journal
Salute to America offers music, games  Jefferson City News Tribune
Music Week  Music Week
Music & More guide for July 2  Waco Tribune-Herald
Ida Haendel obituary  The Guardian
Bob Dylan Has a Lot on His Mind  The New York Times
Roots music  The Indian Express

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