Friday, 22 April 2011

From Major to Minor - notes from a musical layman

I'm not a musician. I can't read music or play an instrument. (Though in my youth I played a few bars of 'Catch a falling Star' on comb and toilet paper - it was not well received). However, I do love music, and during the last few days I have been researching the emotional impact of music, as I wanted to find out why different types of music have their effects upon us.

There's certainly been a lot written about the subject, and I have read many articles, and extracts from books from over the last 20 years in particular. The text below is a summation of many of those articles, and I record them as making sense to me. I expect that those who are more expert in music and biology than I am, will have their own opinions, which I will be glad to hear.

It has been written that "Music alone with sudden charms can bind thy wand'ring sense, and calm the troubled mind", (William Congreve, Hymn to Harmony), or that "If music be the food of love", (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night). But how does music cast its spell? An article on the Biology of Music in the Economist, says, "Romantics can take comfort from the fact that science does not yet have all the answers. But it has some".

The article goes on to say, "When philosophers debate what it is that makes humans unique among animals, they often point to language. Other animals can communicate, of course, but despite the best efforts of biologists working with beasts as diverse as chimpanzees, dolphins and parrots, no other species has yet shown the subtleties of syntax that give human language their power. There is however, another sonic medium that might be thought uniquely human, and that is music. Other species can sing (indeed, many birds do so better than a lot of people), but birdsong, and the song of animals such as whales, has a limited repertoire - and no other animal is known to have developed a musical instrument".

Music's effect on the outer layers of the brain - the temporal and even visual cortex - is only part of the story. These are the places in which the signal is being dissected and processed. The place where it is having its most profound effect is in the brain's emotional core - called the limbic system. Music's ability to trigger powerful emotions is well known anecdotally, but science requires more than anecdote.

A few years ago, Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, decided to see if the anecdotes were true. He asked several hundred young men and women why they felt music to be important in their lives. Emotion turned out to be not merely an answer; it was more or less, the answer. Around 70% of both sexes said it was "because it elicits emotions and feelings". The next most popular response, "to alleviate boredom" came a distant second.

Dr Carol Krumhansl, a psychologist at Cornell University has shown that music does elicit emotions - rather than merely expressing an emotion that the listener recognises. She addressed the question by looking at the physiological changes (in blood circulation, respiration, skin conductivity and body temperature) that occurred in a group of volunteers while they listened to different pieces of music. The ways these bodily functions change in response to particular emotions are well known. Sadness leads to a slower pulse, raised blood pressure, a decrease in the skin's conductivity and a drop in body temperature. Fear produces increased pulse rates. Happiness causes faster breathing. So, by playing pieces ranging from Mussorgsky's 'Night on the Bare Mountain' to Vivaldi's 'Spring' to her wired-up subjects, Dr Krumhansl was able to test musical conventions about which emotions are associated with which musical structures. Most of the conventions survived. Music with a rapid tempo, and written in a major key, correlated precisely with the induction of happiness. A slow tempo and a minor key induced sadness, and a rapid tempo combined with dissonance (meaning inharmonious or harsh sound favoured by the composer Schoenberg) induced fear.

Arnold Schoenberg
Let's take a moment out to look at Schoenberg, and have a comment on the minor key. Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna in 1874, and died in Los Angeles in 1951. He is credited with being the inventor of 'atonalism' and the 'Twelve Tone Tune', which are also described by some as "the ravisher of the listener's ears". An Internet article comments, "Schoenberg redefined music in the early twentieth century. Perhaps no name on a concert's billing scares the average listener more than that of Arnold Schoenberg. After over fifty years of accustomising ourselves to his modern style, many of his pieces are still difficult to understand and evaluate".

He said himself on his peculiar style of music, "I believe what I do and do only what I believe, and woe to anybody who lays hands on my faith. Such a man I regard as an enemy, and no quarter given". So there. In preparing to write this blog, I listened to quite a few of his pieces, and to be honest, I could not get to grips with it, and was left with a feeling of irritation and frustration. Happiness was certainly not an induced emotion, and from the research produced, I am not alone.

On the mention of the minor key, I well remember in my Church days, often selecting hymn tunes, particularly Welsh tunes, in the minor key, as the music seemed to best reflect the solemnity of the written words. Perhaps this was the result of my upbringing, where religion was more austere than happy. I think that I can identify with the research results.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scanner
Let's get back to the main text. To delve even deeper, so to speak, Robert Zatorre and Anne Blood, have pursued the emotional effects of music into the middle of the brain, using PET scanning. They attacked the problem directly by composing a series of new melodies featuring explicitly consonant and dissonant patterns of notes, and playing them to a series of volunteers who had agreed to be scanned.

When the individuals heard dissonance, areas of their limbic systems known to be responsible for unpleasant emotion lit up, and, moreover, the volunteers used negative adjectives to describe their feelings. The consonant music, by contrast, stimulated parts of the limbic system associated with pleasure, and the subjects' feelings were incontestably positive - a neurological affirmation of the opinions of those who dislike Schoenberg's compositions.

Many more tests have been conducted over the years with similar results. A lot has been discovered about how music works its magic, but why it does so is a different question. Following one study, it was said, "While evolution should certainly build a fine, discriminating faculty for musical criticism into people, it is still unclear why particular combinations of noise should affect the emotions so profoundly. Stay tuned".

After reading this, some may say, so what? I know what I like, and I know what I don't like. That's good enough for me. No argument from me there. However, for those of us who want to go deeper into the biology of music, I think that the scientific experiments are fascinating. I'm sure that there is still much to learn, and possibly to disagree over. We know what music does for us, but does anyone really know why it does it? Perhaps there's a professional out there who can add to these notes from a musical layman.

1 comment:

  1. Hi dad - very interesting blog. On the science of music I know that Ravel called his works 'sound paintings.' This is how he described timbre in music, the fact that sound changes, between a trumpet and clarinet playing the same note, or the long change of a gong after being hit. It is close to energy, so the 'attack' on an instrument; plucking, boiwing, hitting etc is what begins the 'painting.' It's different from art though because it never stops - music is alive whereas art is static. For humans this began simply with drumming, and possibly ended with Ravel? Daphnis and Chloe is unparalleled in its use of timbre, colour and for that matter rhythm and harmony - odd though it may seem it might be viewed as the greatest achievement in western music because of what it does with what you've described on your blog - it also sends shivers down the spine so delivers on emotion too...