Why does music move us?

JOE NUNWEEK
Last updated 05:00 30/03/2014

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Back in 1933, Hungarian jazz pianist Rezso Seress composed a melancholic piece of music called Gloomy Sunday, allegedly while feeling blue after splitting with a lover.

Originally an instrumental, it became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and, with the addition of English lyrics, Billie Holiday turned it into a hit during the World War II.

Almost immediately, the BBC banned her version in a forcible attempt to keep soldiers and civvies chipper. American
radio stations quickly followed suit.

It wasn't just jingoism that drove the censors - Gloomy Sunday was also cheerily nicknamed the Hungarian Suicide Song, with alarmist press reports linking it to a couple of dozen deaths in both Hungary and North America.

Nowadays, Gloomy Sunday is passed off as an urban legend-turned-media panic, but we've always been awed and fascinated by music, and by its ability to alter moods and cast emotional hues. Faced with the popularity of matching music to prayer, early Christian theologian St Augustine warned that "music has a secret and incredible power to move our hearts.

When evil words are accompanied by music, they penetrate more deeply and the poison enters as wine through a funnel into a vat". Bearing in mind that in the year 398 AD, St Augustine would have been unaware of American hip-hop collective Odd Future - banned from entering New Zealand recently lest they incite riots - this is positively prescient.

In 1921, businessman and inventor Thomas Edison called his latest record player "the phonograph with a soul", marketing it like medicine: "Gradually the music soothes you. You forget fatigue and your nerves disappear. You feel refreshed and lighthearted."

Determined to prove the benefit of music to family and home, he offered people free Mood Change Charts in-store, and willing participants were invited to Mood Change Parties to fill their charts in as a group (and hopefully, buy something).

It might sound like a frivolous sales pitch, but the notion of a mood-change party isn't all that far off some of the contemporary research into music and emotion.

Researchers at Tokyo University recently put forth a simple but paradoxical conclusion from a 44-person study: sad music actually induces pleasant emotion. The participants sat alone in a room, one after another.

They were played excerpts of three major and minor-key pieces, then asked to rate 62 descriptive words or phrases related to the emotion they felt at that time. Interestingly, while the subjects could recognise the music that felt tragic, they didn't necessarily feel misery - instead, words recurred like fascinated, merry, feel like dancing, in love.

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In other words, there was a disassociation between felt and perceived emotion. And it was surprisingly distinct.

Jonathan Friedmann, a professor of music history at California's Academy for Jewish Religion, says part of music's emotional appeal is that it's 'safe', even when it's sad. "In contrast to the ordinary experiences of our everyday lives, frictions and happy outcomes in music occur quickly, cleanly and predictably," he says.

"Music may evoke a 'negative' emotion or travel through several emotions. But the drama unfolds within a controlled
and finite time frame."

The fact we react emotionally to music at all presents a challenge to the 'cognitive' theory of emotion, which states that there should be some rational connection between the emotion an object makes us feel, and our beliefs about that object.

For example, if you feel fear when you see a wild pig in the forest, it's because you're rightly worried it's going to rush and gore you. If you feel concern when you see a crying child alone in the supermarket, it's because you believe for good reason that the child is lost and vulnerable.

This position grants that we're intelligent enough to recognise emotion in music, but it doesn't help explain why you then get teary-eyed or euphoric over it.

There are two major schools of thought on why this might be the case. The "emotivist" theory holds that music actually induces emotions in us directly, and that our physiological responses to music - such as changes in respiration when listening to uplifting melodies - are proof of this.

Some emotivists argue that an element of make-believe comes into it, too: we might imagine ourselves striding forward confidently when we're listening to music that moves along with conviction, for example; or picture ourselves floating along a calm river when we're listening to music that's particularly serene.

The "cognitivist" theory, on the other hand, maintains that our emotional response to music is a result of music simply "displaying" emotion, or resembling real life.

It's a matter of recognition. For instance, a jumpy, erratic musical tempo may make us feel agitated because when humans are feeling agitated, they often appear jumpy and erratic.

According to cognitivists, this is why "sad" music is soft, slow-paced and low, while "dramatic" or "angry" music is loud and high-pitched.

Professor Stephen Davies from the University of Auckland's philosophy department has devoted a significant chunk of his work to fundamental questions about music, sparked off by an unexpected observation several years ago: he noticed the way beagle puppies' drooping and downcast faces look sad to us, even when we know the animals don't feel sad.

"We may need to find a similar explanation for music," he says. "The thing that struck me was the way we can respond to something that looks sad - without [it actually] feeling that sadness."

His own theory about listeners' responses to music, "emotional contagion", offers a novel way of explaininghow music communicates mood and emotion. We often read the moods of others by the way they talk and move, says Davies, then unconsciously copy them.

The same could be said for how we respond to the emotional tenor of music - by mirroring its tone within ourselves. "It doesn't completely translate to the musical case, but the idea is that if we're talking then we tend to mimic each other. If you're despondent, I'll start mimicking that in tone and body language. I find out what I'm feeling by consulting my own body, and it ends up catching your feeling," says Davies.

Though listening to a song and picking up on its mood isn't quite the same as reading the mood of a person sitting in front of you, Davies believes a similar mental process may be at work.

"An imitation or mirroring of the way people move is about posture and comportment and the emotions that are being expressed through that. Sad people move differently from the way happy people do. Music creates an impression of movement, and we perceive the similarities and differences the same way."

In other words, if we're capable of reading and adopting someone else's attitude and demeanour, it's entirely feasible we might do something similar with music. That we could become "infected" by - or adopt via osmosis - music's appearance of happiness, sadness, anger or sensuality.

Theories aside, it's quite possible we get the same kick out of our interaction with music as we do from communicating with loved ones. What's more, music can reward us in ways some of those more challenging interactions can't.

Friedmann sees our exposure to sad music as "an emotional experience without the emotional investment - a psychological journey rather than something rooted in relationships or life situations."

Unlike "real life", he says, we don't get bogged down in it, which may make listening to induce a certain mood all the more appealing. "It represents an ideal that rarely occurs in real life: quick and easy conflict resolution."

And when it comes to music, familiarity certainly doesn't breed contempt - as it might with friends and family. At McGill University, researchers discovered that listeners exposed to their self-selected favourites experienced blood flow to a region of the brain involved in dopamine release, the same chemical that flows freely from food, sex, or - for a motivated few - exercise.

And it wasn't just during the moments of peak emotion in the song, either - it also occurred in the build-up a few seconds prior. There's an anticipatory pleasure from knowing, or guessing correctly, what comes next.

That explains what we like, but it also goes some way to explaining what we don't. Some genres (and likewise, some people) confound our expectations. We can't tell where a jazz tune will go next, and we decide we don't like that uncertainty one bit.

Meanwhile, a minimal techno track might fail to telegraph its emotional moves in a way we recognise - too repetitive; no tension and release.

Musically speaking, unfamiliar language, and how that translates emotionally, might explain which genres turn us off.

So music, it seems, triggers our emotional responses, in largely pleasurable ways - even when it presents as melancholy, or we haven't turned our mind to it at all. (If you've ever been in a shopping centre and noticed they're quietly playing baroque music, thank the various studies that show it makes shoppers less agitated.)

Which begs another question - evolutionarily, what's it for?

Psychologist Steven Pinker devoted only 10 pages of his 1997 bestseller How The Mind Works to the question, but threw down a serious gauntlet: it's not for anything.

"His basic assertion is that music is not an evolutionary adaptation," reflects Friedmann, "but a tangential technology: a human exercise developed and exploited for its own sake."

Music requires voice and language, and it also requires motor control, as so many of our parents were disappointed to discover after booking our primary school violin lessons. But Pinker argues that music is an excessive and inessential use of both. Like thedessert you don't need but still very much enjoy, music is an "auditory cheesecake".

Davies notes that even Darwin couldn't find a satisfactory answer for music's place in our development: "He couldn't figure out how it helped people survive, and according to the theories of evolution, if you've got strong universal behaviour, there should be some story about how it connects with our survival. People talk about what Martian anthropologists would find interesting, and you can guess that they would be very interested in music."

Friedmann thinks the notion of "auditory cheesecake" depends on a relatively modern idea of where music fits in the scheme of things. Davies agrees: "Most music is not excessive or even meant as an attraction in itself," he says.

"Historically and cross-culturally, music has served specific purposes. It has been central to extra-musical activities such as learning, storytelling, ritual, hunting, bonding, and lovemaking - all of which are crucial for the survival of our species. Only in the modern West has theconcept of 'music as entertainment' taken hold, along with some of the
excesses and tangential qualities Pinker identifies."

Then again, you could say the same about what's happened to clothing, food and the urban-hipster beard.

The science and origin of our music-listening habits hasn't been set in stone, by any means. Davies notes that our
brains light up all over the show when we hear music. Being able to pinpoint an exact reason for why we react like
the subjects at Tokyo or McGill is a long way off. But you could do a lot worse than the wonderful quote from the late
American philosopher Susanne Langer, who mused that "music is a tonal analogue to life".

It's perhaps an appropriate way to view a legend like Gloomy Sunday, where a song's sadness may have been
a more inviting form of melancholy than crushing depression and looming war.

Even when it's downbeat, music serves as some sort of balm - and however close we get to pulling it apart
to understand how and why, that essential truth will remain.

- Sunday Magazine

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