Striking a Chord

Music arouses the rhythm of emotion

What is it about music that can lift us to our feet, fill us with joy, bring us to tears, or remain in our minds long after the last note has sounded? Plato said music gives soul to the universe, and playwright William Congreve said it soothes the savage breast, while South Carolina’s own writer, the late Pat Conroy, said that without music, life would be a journey through a desert.

Since the first bone flute called to cave dwellers eons ago, music has been used to summon men into battle, comfort the mourning, celebrate momentous occasions, and lift up the heart. Whatever the mood or occasion, it brings an added dimension to our lives, alleviating stress, enhancing mood, and relieving pain.

These days, music theorists and other experts analyze contemporary music, such as Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Paul McCartney’s Yesterday, for what makes them so memorable, as well as masterpieces like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or Vivaldi’s Spring that have held dominion through the years.

Researchers indicate certain features make music memorable and moving, for instance the use of an appoggiatura, an embellishing musical device that introduces an element of surprise. Yesterday, Adele’s Someone Like You, and Cohen’s Bird on the Wire have such devices. Music that causes chills certainly has distinctive features, agree psychologists, such as variations in volume, timbre, and harmony.

USC’s assistant professor of music education Gregory Springer, Ph.D., says, “Music affects people in a variety of ways — from physiological responses (like changes in heart rate and skin conductance) to affective responses (intense emotional responses). Some music is more intellectual, which inspires conscious thought. Other music is more emotional, which may result in more visceral, feelingful responses. People respond to certain styles and musical works differently, which is why everyone has different musical preferences.”

USC assistant professor of music history Kunio Hara, Ph.D., has his own theory on the powerful effect of songs such as Someone Like You. He says, “Music theorists point out that what Adele is doing is not technically an appoggiatura, but it’s true that Adele’s melodic faltering creates a tension.”

He explains, “I think what she creates is a sense of vulnerability, the sense of danger that somehow things will fall apart, but she manages to hold it together. This can be heard not only in the melody that she sings, but in the timbre or quality of her voice — a raspiness almost on the verge of cracking. These elements create a sense of tension and convey an effort that suggests an emotional depth on the part of Adele.”

Dr. Hara’s research interests include nostalgia in music and the operas of Puccini, areas in which he is considered an international authority. “The emotional power of music seems to lie not only in the music itself, but the associations that it brings. As such, the impact of music is probably dependent on the listener’s experience,” he says.

Although listeners have appreciated the impact of music for eons, musicologists themselves intellectually have understood its impact for centuries, says Dr. Hara. A “doctrine of affects” had been developed as early as the 17th century and continued to hold sway into the early 18th century in the era of composers such as J.S. Bach and Handel, he notes. Its proponents embraced the theory that a listener’s mood could be altered by music and remain in that frame of mind, whether happily or melancholically, until a different kind of stimulus was introduced. Compositions of the period tended to be static or uniform in terms of mood. Then, in the late 18th century, composers such as Mozart and Haydn worked under the assumption that the human psyche was in a constant state of flux. As a result, composers sought variety within a single composition, and movements began to contain a range of emotional affects.

Dr. Hara cites a particular study of Swiss mercenary soldiers from the 18th century and how they were affected by hearing their own country’s music while fighting for another. Military leaders worried that once the soldiers heard music reminding them of the past, they would become nostalgic and not be able to function in battle.

“Music heard in your youth has a powerful and magical ability to conjure up strong feelings from the past that seem to overwhelm one’s sense of self,” he adds. “The music industry certainly knows this. We are inundated with music from the past designed to appeal to our appetite for nostalgic feelings.”

So what music does the internationally recognized scholar and Puccini expert find especially moving himself?

“Most Puccini operas make me emotional, with particular inflections in the voice especially touching,” Dr. Hara says. “My favorite Puccini opera wavers from time to time, but I have to say La Bohème always gets me. What gets me the most are harmonies and timbre — the quality of the sound of voice or instruments. It can be very special when you make a personal connection with the lyrics that reflects what you are experiencing.”

Although his first serious instrument was the clarinet, these days Dr. Hara especially enjoys playing the Renaissance recorder with a group of local musicians. “This has been a very pleasant experience. What I like about playing the recorder is that when played in a group, it creates a wonderfully rich sonority. There is something magical about being able to play music with a group of people — breathing together, focusing our ears and minds on each other’s music, and hearing how all of our parts come together to create a rich tapestry of sound.”

When asked what kind of music Dr. Springer finds to be the most moving, he says, “This is a really tough question. I consider myself to be open-minded with regard to musical styles, but if pressed for a single answer, I would say that opera tends to be the most emotionally moving type of music due to its emphasis on both music and drama.”

While Dr. Hara lends his expertise to the world of sound and rhythm from a musicological standpoint, Columbia psychologist Frederic Medway, Ph.D., holds forth on its magic from another learned perspective. From the psychological point of view, Dr. Medway, who also grew up appreciating music, says, “Most people are inspired by a combination of lyrics and melody in popular music. The music will set an emotional response — for example, relaxation or excitement — but the lyrics will tap into a memory, a past experience, or provide a possible resolution to a conflict. Together they will help the listener retain the song, which is usually much better recalled than the artist, and certainly much better than the music manufacturing company or label,” he says.

Dr. Medway explains that music also can set a wide variety of emotional reactions — such as fear, anticipation, and joy — when used in the background or in movie scenes. A classic example would be the thumping sounds that anticipated the shark attack in the movie Jaws. Yet, popular music is what nearly all people will cite when asked what music triggers their strongest emotions, especially love.

Dr. Medway should know from an academic as well as a personal perspective. His extended family members, starting with his grandfather, have been leaders in the music industry for years. His own father was an executive with CBS Records and Sony Music, helping to launch the successful careers of numerous artists. Now retired as distinguished professor emeritus of psychology at USC, Dr. Medway continues to encourage music as a healthy pastime in his private practice.