• Mind, Melody, Mood and Meaning: An Enquiry into Music

    Jun 21 2009, 21h58

    ‘Without music, life would be a mistake.’
    - Friedrich Nietzsche
    Well, he knew what he was talking about. The fact remains that music, as a whole, is such an integral part of our lives, of the mind, of our humanity, that we cannot conceive a world without it. One is compelled to ask why: just what is it about music that makes it so necessary, so natural, that we can’t imagine life without it?

    The question is not an easy one to answer, even superficially: nor is it an isolated one, for as soon as you’ve asked it, you’ve asked several other questions as well. How does music transcend the sensory barrier to become what many listeners and composers call a ‘spiritual’ experience? Why does a song you used to listen to as a child bring back memories in all their sharpness, all their vividness – making the experience akin to almost going back in time? Why do some songs make you want to dance, or cry, or, in the case of My Chemical Romance, slash your ears? How are you able to derive comfort and joy from a sad song?

    All those questions are Big Ones, indeed (although I am inclined to think that none of them are more mysterious than the question of why Miley Cyrus is listened to by 239,419 people; a mystery far deeper than them all). Ahem, anyway. So, in this particular journal, I shall try expound on and answer them. To be rather straightforward: I should like to tell you beforehand that this is not going to be one of those dreary, dull, impossible-to-understand ‘theses’- you know, the ones in which folks with balding heads and grimy faces express a few simple truths in grandiose terms, with sentence constructions so complicated they are likely to cause you to rupture a blood vessel or two. No, I intend this to be simply a general study into the matter. Although in some parts I express views that are strongly analytical and hence arguable, I should like to state the scientific parts dealing with it document well-researched facts.

    I do not proclaim to be any kind of ‘authority’ or ‘expert’ on the subject (I despise those terms). I’m any other average seventeen year old girl and therefore do not assert any authority – I only lay claim to general inquiry and curiosity. So, if you’ve any ideas or views of your own on the subject, whether similar or totally opposite, feel free to discuss them in the comments.

    [/end boring preamble]

    If you managed to traverse through that and are not already asleep over your keyboard right now, I shall now assume it safe to proceed. I’m going to divide the study of music into three main categories, mainly:

    Psychological – in what ways music influences the brain, how different music manages to invoke emotion from the listener, etc.
    Philosophical/Analytical – the need for music, its role in creative self-expression, why it is the most abstract of all arts, etc.
    Social –how music influences the society, cultures, the interaction of music with the listener, the Artist vs the Society, the contemporary music scene and the role of technology, etc.


    Hector Berlioz, the famous French composer, once broke down completely during the performance of a Beethoven symphony. He was approached by a fellow-listener, who, seeing Berlioz sobbing uncontrollably, offered consolation: ‘You seem to be greatly affected, Monsieur,’ he remarked gently. ‘Had you not better retire for a while?’ ‘Are you under impression,’ Berlioz snapped, ‘that I am here to enjoy myself?’

    Berlioz’s statement challenges our ordinary conception about music. The commonly held view is that music is a means of sensory pleasure: intended to provide you with enjoyment. While this in itself is true to a degree, no doubt, the whole truth consists of something much deeper. Imagine pleasure, imagine enjoyment, imagine satisfaction – imagine all these, experienced at all times, taken in blindly externally, the edges blunted, neutralised, done away with. They dim the feeling, suppress emotion, flatten the experience, defuse the senses. Something taken in purely for the sake of satisfaction has to wear out sometime and indeed, it does gradually.
    That is why, the music that endures is the music that invokes a deep emotional response. A response that touches a chord of sympathy within the listener. That said, it does not mean that the response should be sad – it can range from sadness to humour to jealousy to happiness. Happinesss, as opposed to pleasure. Jealousy, anger, sadness and joy are all emotions, and it is these emotions that for the listener make music what it is: it goes beyond the gratification of the senses.

    Why Sad Music Makes You Happy, and vice versa

    I would now like to touch on a sub-question: Why does sad music make you happy? To answer it, we must first fully understand what the question really implies – and it is not what it seems. I think I had better illustrate this by contrasting examples.

    Gary Jules’ cover of Mad World is an excellent case in point. Overall, one would be disposed to call it a pretty depressive song. It is gloomy, brooding, lamenting. My Dying Bride’s For My Fallen Angel , right from the first second, grips you with its opening violin notes and holds you in unimaginable torment and anguish. There are no lyrics – only spoken words come in later in the song, yet from the start, the music itself tends to invoke extreme emotional response in the listener. Further, Keane’s She Has No Time , Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here , Porcupine Tree’s Where We Would Be (that solo!), Muse’s Unintended , Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah , The Beatles’ Yesterday , Beth Gibbon’s Show , Anathema’s One Last Goodbye (okay, enough examples) – all of them serve as ‘sad’ songs. What ‘sad’ here means is, on a superficial level, the lyrics and on the deeper, the underlying element of emotion expressed in the music, in the voice and the notes. Not in words.

    It is this inherent sadness, this genuine, unadulterated feeling of the artist that bowls us along into living the song, into experiencing that sadness ourselves. We assume the place of the artist – we are able to place ourselves in the picture. This mutual affinity, this connection born out of the genuine feeling makes the song more real to us, and consequently, a part of us. That is why we are able to derive comfort from sad songs. And that is why it makes us ‘happy’ – but it is a different kind of happiness, which I would be foolish to even begin to describe, for it is a happiness that cannot be expressed in words.

    On to the other extreme, I don’t know if there are others who actually feel ‘sad’ over supposed ‘happy’ songs, but I personally do tend to get ‘sad’ over particular songs that are clearly not supposed to be sad. For example, Pink Floyd’s Green Is the Colour , Explosions in the Sky’s Your Hand in Mine , Regina Spektor’s Fidelity , Anathema’s Temporary Peace , Johan Sebastian Bach’s Air , Balmorhea’s Truth , Shubert’s Ave Maria , Buckethead’s For Mom - all of these serve as excellent examples. They do not offer depressive lyrics, they do not contain a sad note. Yet the sadness is there – just beneath the surface. Not in the song itself, but in your response to it.

    Beauty is tremulously attached to fragility, and when confronted with true beauty, true art, art that is as close possible to truth as can be – it makes you feel ‘sad’. That is not precisely the right word: because it’s again a different kind of sadness, something that you only experience when you confront that ideal of art, beauty. The kind that makes you stop dead in your tracks, the one that catches you unawares, the one that holds you, pins you down and simultaneously makes you feel lighter than air, the one that makes you aware of something you knew and yet didn’t realise before. It needn’t be music – it applies to all art – Michelangelo’s Pieta, Vincent Van Gogh’s Lovers, all represent the ideal of that very rare and very wonderful, beauty.

    We can now understand why music works in such strange ways. Why art indeed, works in such strange ways. As general, common-sense proposition, happy music tends to make you happy – perfectly logical. Similarly, sad music makes you sad. Again, perfectly logical. But, when the thought, the experience, the emotion are pursued to their depths, to create a musical experience of such intensity, a creation of such artistry, the experience turns around, art reveals itself, the reflection reverses itself to become the real thing, art no more imitates life, art becomes life.

    Does Music Determine the Personality, or Does Personality Determine the Music?

    The question seems simple enough at first glance: don’t get deceived by it, for it is a curiously cunning one. Consider for one moment, two people, let’s call them….hmm, shall we call them Proton and Electron? (Oh well, in tribute to my love of particles.) Right then, Proton and Electron are both your average teenagers living ordinary lives. Proton is a happy-go-lucky sort, she gets by doing fairly well at school, has enough friends, seems content with her life. Electron is too a person for whom things are average enough, but he feels discontent, unbelonged, betrayed. Nothing seems to satisfy him. The world to him looks like a giant, staged play: full of actors clamouring for roles.

    Now, what music are Proton and Electron likely to listen to? At first you may say Proton is likely to listen The Beatles, or U2 or Muse or the like. Electron, you would be inclined to say, is more likely to listen Windir or Slayer or Type O Negative or Chopin. You may be right, but it is just as well that Proton enjoys Slayer or Electron likes The Beatles.

    The tastes overlap, do the personalities too?

    Now you are in a deadlock; for where do the personalities come in, and where the music? In what way do they respond to each other? The answers to these questions seem elusive because our approach towards them is conventional, limited: we tend to think in genres. Genres do not define everything. Which is not to say they are useless. Genres have their uses, of course.

    You can classify sound. Can you classify music?

    Not in terms of genres, that’s for sure. Take death metal and take classical – opposite ends of the spectrum, completely different in sound – but in music? Who can tell? Can you say Death’s Open Casket does not express, in its own ways, similar sentiments found in Frederic Chopin’s Funeral March?
    Thus, in order to answer this question completely, without ambiguity, we take not only the psychology of the individual, nor only the nature of music – but the interaction of both. Music can make you feel, it can make you happy or it can make you rage. Your brain responds to a particular music in its own ways.
    Thus, personality of an individual to an extent determines what music they listen to, and similarly, the music too affects the personality to a certain degree.

    Does Music Make You Smarter?

    Studies have shown that the human brain responds to a challenging piece of music in the same way as it does to a complex problem in maths or science. The link between mathematics and music has been previously established, of course. It also commonly agreed by educators that abstract concepts such as ratios, fractions, etc become more concrete when applied in their musical contexts.
    A commonly observed, and particularly interesting, phenomenon is the Mozart Effect: the discovery suggests that students who listen to Mozart for 10 minutes on a regular basis perform better in spatial-temporal tests.

    Among other psychological effects:

    • It is proven that people who sing on a regular basis rank higher on the happiness scale.
    • In a study of music as a painkiller, people listening to happy music reported 20% less pain than other patients under the same conditions with no music.
    • Music is beneficial to people undergoing medical procedures.
    • Children taught the piano at the age of six are more likely to witness an increase in their IQ
    • It is scientifically proven that music helps patients suffering from stroke recover faster.

    The Heavy Metal Connection

    Stuart Cadwallader and Professor Jim Campbell of The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth at the University of Warwick came to the conclusion that gifted students who feel the pressure of their ability could be using Heavy Metal music to get rid of negative emotions. The researchers’ conclusion is that the pressures associated with being gifted and talented can be temporarily forgotten with the aid of music.


    Why Music Exists

    Because music has always been around, it is easy underestimate its presence. Just imagine, for one moment, that it did not exist, that folk songs, Pink Floyd, and that annoying ‘HEY HEY, YOU YOU, I DON’T LIKE YOUR GIRLFRIEND’ blasting out of the radio didn’t exist (although you would be grateful for the last one, wouldn’t you?). There would never be a Stairway to Heaven . Nor would anyone sing at weddings and birthdays.

    And then, of course, it all begins to look too unreal. Too implausible. Just as well, because as long there is humanity, there will be music. It is curious that the human foetus, at 16 weeks, starts functioning in the auditory system, which is the first of the brain systems to function. Ten weeks later, it has a functioning brain system around it, which means that you are musically receptive long before anything else.
    One is led to question, why do we need music? Why this inborn need of a melody? Music, above else, is a manifestation of ideas, a means of self expression, a communication of feeling. Humanity owes its sustenance to these very reasons, and therefore music will always be around.

    Music is also our claim to humanity, what connects us with others: a universal channel of empathy. That is true for all art. Every time a person reads a book or picks up a painting or listens to a song, they become a little less lonely.

    Why Music Is the Most Abstract of All Arts

    Music on its own is the most independent and abstract form of art. Its effects are seen on physical as well psychological levels. It is something that exists separately and independently, for neither does it borrow directly from the material world, nor does it reflect a model in nature. Art on it own is a ‘mirror’ of the world which echoes it depth and its scope, but music is not a reflection, it is the thing itself. – For it is, after all, not a mere imitation of anything in nature.

    You can draw a vase or a running stream, or write poems on the most commonplace things but what do you create a melody from? Nothing, it has to come from yourself.

    Perhaps the most strange and wonderful thing about music is that it’s going on. It’s happening! It’s right now, it’s unraveling itself every second, it’s never static – always dynamic, forever changing. The very mechanism of music is constituted that way. Because life itself is a flow, music perhaps is the art form truest to life.

    ‘Becoming One With the Art’ or how the Moonlight Sonata got written

    It is a common experience, for any musician – professional or amateur – when they put their fingers to the keys, unaware of what they are going to play one moment, and the next moment, it just comes to the mind. It’s almost as if the melody writes itself on the canvas of silence. As if the instrument plays itself.

    Where do we draw the line then, between the Artist, and his or her Art?

    One very important, and frequently misunderstood and misrepresented of the whole thing is: Music is identification. Whether as an artist, or as a listener, in response to the notes that flow out of the instrument or the speakers and reach your ears, you place yourself in the picture, you connect with the melody, and thus, as a whole, you identify with the music. You find that something in the song, and that something makes you want to listen to it again and again. You don’t know what it is – you can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s there.

    This means, music exists because the artist, the composition and the listener unite as one to produce the overall musical experience. It is this interaction between the song and the listener that constitutes music. It follows then, that music can be interpreted in different ways by different individuals. Our response to the song varies and that is why each song is special in its own way.

    There is an interesting story behind how Beethoven came to write his famous Moonlight Sonata. The story goes that, one late evening, while on his way home, he came across a house from which he could hear some of his compositions being practised. He then overheard a girl’s voice, saying that she wished a real artist would play it.

    He went into the house, and noticing that the girl at the piano was blind, offered to play the piece himself. While he played his beautiful music, the moon steadily shone down on the house outside. Beethoven was so inspired, so much ‘into the experience’ of playing the music, he created his Moonlight Sonata on the spot.


    Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte took particular care to see that music played while the troops were preparing for war. He was shrewd enough to realise the effect of music on marching troops: it put them in frenzy, it put a spring in their step, it filled them up with a strange sort of enthusiasm.

    The Beatles stopped playing live in ’66 because the noise of the audience was so loud, their excitement so utterly and completely present, that the band couldn’t hear their own instruments over the din.

    In their earliest days, Black Sabbath were denounced and feared by the general public: their new style of distorted music and unconventional lyrics horrified and outraged them. People were terrified of them and their music.

    Bob Dylan’s songs became the anthems of peace in the 60s and 70s, the protest against the war in Viet Nam was a war on the social front, and it has music at its forefront.

    Music is expression of individuality, individuality is originality, originality is resistance. A refusal be brainwashed the conventional modes of thinking, to fit into the mould of the public opinion.

    Is There Too Much Music in the World?

    Modern technology has given way to cheaper, smaller, and easier modes of creating, listening to, and sharing music.

    Artists are in danger of becoming factories. Music is in danger of being made a commodity. Like cereal packets. Manufacture, package, sell.

    Sure, there is good music around – some of the best there has been in decades, post-rock, metal, prog rock. But the rising popularity of ‘indie’ rock is a worrying trend.
    Music is everywhere. It’s ubiquitous and intrusive. In a world where music exists in all places and at all times, its value gets diminished. Silence becomes costly and is paid for by music, music becomes constrained and is paid for by mediocrity.

    Music, Technology and the Future

    There are those who argue against digital music, saying that it isn’t ‘real music’. One can understand where that comes from; but then it is rather like asking, should I write with a pen or a pencil, or should I type it? Do I paint in water colours or oil pastels? Instrument is only the means, melody is the manifestation, music is the meaning. In the end, it’s music that matters.

    There is a resistance against music piracy: I for one think it’s a lost battle. I think it will only get worse with time.

    When you make music, you’re doing something really quite simple: you’re expressing yourself. You have to express it in your own voice so that it’s not lost in the chorus of a billion other voices under the sun. An artist has to place his or her self in the picture, make connections, join the dots.

    If you lose these links, you lose everything. Originality stagnates into repetition. Innovation into imitation. Music into noise.

    Clive Davis once asked John Lennon what sort of music he was listening to, and was stunned by the Beatle's reply: ‘Nothing.’
    ‘Nothing?’ Davis replied. ‘Don't you want to know what's being played?’
    ‘Absolutely not!’ Lennon replied. ‘Did Picasso go to the galleries to see what was being painted?’

    So It All Boils Down To…

    Listen and let listen. That’s it.

    Coldplay Bob Dylan Radiohead BurzumRed Hot Chili PeppersBathoryImmortal Lady GagaMuse Britney Spears Morbid Angel Dissection Kings of LeonMGMT PlaceboParamoreIron Maiden Lamb of GodQueenKataklysmYellowcardRise AgainstKillswitch EngageCryptopsy Porcupine TreeSteven Wilson Eminem WeezerRotting Christ Death Cab for Cutie Arctic Monkeys Nine Inch Nails The White StripesKaty PerrySatyricon Marilyn MansonVenom Slipknot The Doors Rage Against the MachineCannibal CorpseMassive Attack Amy WinehouseRihanna Avril LavigneTool In FlamesWindirBob Marley Keane Joy DivisionJimi HendrixRegina SpektorJason Becker SlayerDream Theater Bullet for My ValentineSymphony XJames LaBrieVaderBehemothBolt Thrower DeicideNile Within Temptation Job for a CowboyAudioslaveMarduk MayhemUlver Shining Taake FinntrollAmon Amarth Children of Bodom Opeth Suffocation Dimmu Borgir Wolves in the Throne Room Virgin BlackEnrique IglesiasEnslavedNevermore Dark Funeral Emperor Carpathian ForestSiaImpaled Nazarene Anal CuntBruce Springsteen The Mars VoltaJudas Iscariot Akercocke Moonspell Satanic WarmasterAgallochNattefrostGerard Way David Gilmour Roger Waters Syd BarrettLifelover Smashing PumpkinsM.I.A.Devendra BanhartBeirut Amy MacdonaldSufjan StevensJeff Buckley Adolf HitlerKalmahVan HalenRamones PixiesCat Stevens Explosions in the Sky This Will Destroy You Caspian Mogwai God Is An AstronautMono Godspeed You! Black EmperorDo Make Say Think BalmorheaThe Album Leaf65daysofstaticSigur Rós Yndi Halda A Silver Mt. Zion Eluvium Forever the Sickest KidsEric Clapton BucketheadAC/DC Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Deep Purple Machine HeadTiamatJohn LennonFrédéric ChopinBlack Sabbath Lacuna CoilFlёurMadonna Nevermore DragonForce Pain of Salvation Bruce Dickinson SavatageDirty ThreeAtheist Ayreon Anti-Flag Less Than Jake Shape of DespairElvis Presley Frank Sinatra Coheed and CambriaDio Plain White T's Blackfield Nest Cake MotörheadManowarAlice Cooper Ludwig van BeethovenWolfgang Amadeus MozartColdplayCradle of FilthFall Out BoySystem of a DownNirvanaMuseThe BeatlesLinkin ParkMetallicaGuns N' RosesLed ZeppelinFoo FightersMegadethGreen DayPanic! at the DiscoGood CharlotteDeathPanteraParis HiltonMy Chemical RomanceTaking Back SundayThe UsedArch EnemyUnknownCarcassBrand NewAnathema My Dying BrideU2 Johan Sebastian BachPink FloydGary JulesDamien Rice

  • Facing the Music (Or Why the Emo Genre Doesn't Exist)

    Mar 3 2008, 1h47

    What bands today are doing is not expressing themselves, but taking the quicker way out to money and fame. It's not art in any form. What is the single most important element of art? It's emotion. Without emotion, art couldn't be art, it would be a mere showing off. Now you take this single most important element and what do you do with it? You use it to form some crappy new genre, and call it "emo". Hello? What sense does that make? Does that mean that just because you've dyed your hair black and have this particular hairstyle, you and your music are emo? Well, that's stupid. If you're telling me this is emotion - yes, Pete Wentz, you - if you're telling me that just because your stuff deals with emotions of love, hate, anger, hurt, or whatever, your music deserves to be called "emo", you're retarded. Your lyrics might be emotional, your music is not.

    Actually, this brings me to the conclusion that the whole concept of an existence of a genre called emo is ridiculous. For, back in the day awesome people like Beethoven and Mozart existed, and no, they don't have lyrics talking about love's unfathomable bliss or unbearable pain - their music takes care of it, it says it all without saying a word. How's that?

    Do we call Beethoven emo? Oh yeah, Gerard Way has dyed his hair black, so do we call him 'emo'? Or hang on, Avril Lavigne dresses up as a punk - her music is automatically fit to be called "punk", eh?

    For fuck's sake, music genres can't be based on hairstyles! Music is music, whatever the band members look like. And please, don't bring emotion to disgrace in name of music. You can't have music without emotion. Also, all of you's who think you're making 'music' with commercial interests in mind, could not be be further from the truth. That means you, Radiohead. You might have the biggest record sales but your music will remain mediocre. You can have all the money you want, but you can't buy talent, you know. Or wait, is it creditability you're after? Explains why you let your fans buy your latest album at their own choice of price.

    Sure, bands deserve to be rewarded for their talent - but that is not their chief motive, it is just that they're happy doing what they love - making music. Making money comes by itself. The 00s have seen the worst wave of exploitation of music, what with Gerard Way and other retards parading about in eyeliner and lipstick, but people need to realise that you're hitting it wrong with going by faces. Go with the music, dammit.

    Ludwig van BeethovenWolfgang Amadeus MozartColdplayCradle of FilthFall Out BoySystem of a DownNirvanaMuseThe BeatlesLinkin ParkMetallicaGuns N' RosesLed ZeppelinFoo FightersMegadethGreen DayPanic! at the DiscoGood CharlotteDeathPanteraParis HiltonMy Chemical RomanceTaking Back SundayThe UsedArch EnemyUnknownCarcassBrand New