18 October 2012

A >>Mind-Blowing<< Thought

As you've probably gathered, I am a musician. While I cannot claim any place among the very good, I can at least claim to sing on key. Most of the time. (Scary fact: Most musicians never advance beyond intermediate mastery of their instrument.)

Often, people separate the emotional reaction to music from the emotional performance when creating it. This makes sense - a musician engaging in the act is active in their experience; the listener has a more passive role in receiving the creation. For this reason, many musicians I've talked to don't often feel the emotions they simulate while playing. When performing a piece, consistency is highly valued - being able to deliver a performance fairly similar to a previous performance indicates mastery of the piece.

But for whatever reason, my emotions are more involved when I play than when I simply listen. The marriage of the analytical - am I playing this note correctly? - and the emotional - should this section be more sorrowful? - serves to heighten the pleasure. Sort of like how sea salt is the perfect addition to caramel. The two taste good enough by themselves, but combine them, and WOW. Magic happens.

Regardless of if I'm creating or experiencing it, I can very quickly become swept into the emotion of a piece. Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, for instance, never fails to send shivers up my spine at the prospect of a future I cannot influence (the 4th, after all, dealing almost entirety with fate and humanity's futile efforts to overcome destiny and shape their own paths). Now We Are Free, from the film Gladiator, is two parts joyous to one part melancholic, and I cry every time I hear it. Point proven: Music has a very heavy influence over my emotions. This effect is so extensive that I have created playlists themed around certain moods, designing them to gradually change my feelings to a different. I have melancholic to transition in and out of feeling sad; Choleric, to make myself excited; Sanguine, to brighten my mood to the euphoric; and Phlegmatic, to motivate myself.

Too often, I get swept away into the music without a second thought. But today, while listening to the radio's disgusting, treacly, overly auto-tuned songs at work, I overheard a customer talking about "how much [she] [was] moved by Blown Away" - a recent trending song from Carrie Underwood. Now, Blown Away is probably the only song that station plays that I would consider better than bad (yes, I'm a music snob. So sue me). But I would not say that it "touches me" to the extent this song was talking about. Likewise, the person in question probably would not be moved to tears by Leave It Alone by the ever amazing Manchester Orchestra.

And this realization got me thinking. A dange -- Yes, yes, we've heard that joke a million times. Stuff it. -- ow. 

Isn't it amazing that music even has the capacity to affect out emotions?

What is it about a series of notes and chords that can so strongly affect emotions? Of course, this started me on a long line of wiki-walking. Apparently, a group of researchers played famous pieces of Western music to an African tribe that had never heard music from our civilization. The people were able to correctly identify the emotions being expressed by Bach and Mozart and Beethoven -- and they had never been exposed to this style so different from their own style of music. Additionally, when the researchers altered the harmonies to be dissonant or the drum rhythms to come off-beat, the group correctly pointed out that the music sounded wrong.

Which means that music's effects are basically universal. Different societies may express those emotions differently, but the emotions can translate from culture to culture.

There are some theories about why music affects our feelings so strongly. One hypothesizes that our emotions react to that as a sort of evolutionary strength training - our emotions need to function correctly to ensure that ape-men continue to sit by the fire ( a pleasant emotion) and hunt in groups (because loneliness is unpleasant) so that the Great and Magnificent Human Gene Sequence may continue to perpetuate. Music allows our emotions to stretch and remain active even when the body is not going through an emotional event.

That feels wrong on so many levels. Not just because it doesn't make sense, but because that would rule out any possibility of non-functionality. There are pieces of art out there that are simply beautiful without causing emotions. For instance, this picture of a pepper. It's lovely, but there is no functionality. If this theory were true, it would imply only things that provide the function of exercising the emotions would be pretty.

Also, I reject this theory because I am egotistical and do not think that my only purpose on earth is to further my DNA.

Another theory says that music stirs our feelings because it is the auditory version of motion. I find this one a little more plausible - that most things that cause emotional reactions involve motion (or lack thereof) on our parts. The joy a woman might feel at seeing a SUPERAMAZINGLYCUTEADORABLEWIDDLE BABY!!! or sorrow felt seeing the body of my uncle in his coffin at the funeral home - those both elicit reactions, and both are connected to physical movement. In fact, this theory states, we can see the link. A Symphony is broken into Movements; a Partita is a series of short pieces inspired by dance; a Fugue has an inarguable sense of motion throughout.

This may hit on part of the truth. But it leaves out the main thing: if the Heavens declare the glory of the Lord, it must be because we have the capacity to hear them. Personally, I'm a little torn between whether our capacity to be moved to tears by a piece of music is because God decided to give humanity a little present - something special just because He loves us - or because it comes innately with the imago dei. After all, the first thing God does after creating is to call it "good." He appreciates His creation, and when He gave us Creativity - another divine attribute - He also gave us His ability to appreciate it.

Most likely it's a little bit of both. But regardless of the answer, I remain in awe of the whole bundle. God *could* have created us without an ounce of artistic endeavor, but He didn't. And if that isn't Grace, I don't know what is.



1 comment:

  1. "I reject this theory because I am egotistical and do not think that my only purpose on earth is to further my DNA." -- I stand in wholehearted agreement with this statement.

    I personally incline more toward emotional resonance with music coming inherently as part of the imago dei package. God delights in many things, including His creation; furthermore, if God doesn't love music, why on earth would He want us to sing to Him? :p Thus, if we are in the image of God, it makes perfect sense for humanity to likewise love music.