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".
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.
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.
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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.