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Why does music move us? part 1

"If music be the food of love, play on" - William Shakespeare
          What is this power that music has to ‘move’ us? Why should music affect how we feel? What is the link between music and our emotions? We set out to answer these questions with a basic grasp of the rudiments of music theory and a lifelong and progressively more attentive experience of listening to music. There will be many questions left unanswered, but we hope at least to glimpse something of what constitutes this relation that we observe between music and the human passions, and to start to understand it.

The experience of being ‘moved’ by music

         We do not have to look far in our experience to see that the power of music to move our emotions is both well and universally recognised, and even exploited. The lullaby is perhaps one of the most universal and time honoured examples of music’s power to play on the emotions; why should the particular qualities of a melody or rhythm so affect us as to send us to sleep? The twentieth century has seen the arrival of the rock genre, music which specialises in communicating feelings of angst and violence to the listener. Why should music have the power to do this with such effect? In the same century we have also observed that the same series of visual images accompanied by different music produces very different emotions in the viewer (we think of the importance accorded to the soundtrack by film directors). Why should it be the music that affects our emotions more than the image?

         In all cultures, different types of music have always been considered appropriate for different occasions – for a funeral, for example, or a coronation. How is it that particular music can suit the feelings of a specific occasion? Or even of a time of day? Grieg’s Morning Suite, for example, is well named for the sense of freshness and burgeoning hope it conveys, whereas a Chopin Nocturne creates an atmosphere of pensive solitude and calm. How do they manage to do this? We think also of how different types of music have been developed in different cultures – the particular musical modes adopted in China or India for example, or the highly developed rhythms and harmonies on the African continent; what is the link between the temperament or character of a people and its music?
          Music also moves us through the power of association: a particular song or piece of music reminds us of where, when and whom we were with when we heard it previously, and conjures up all the emotions that we experienced at that time; we re-live a past experience when we hear again the music that went with it. This is indicative of a strong link between the external sense of hearing and the internal sense of memory; music acts as a medium, stimulating the memory. (We observe also that there seems to be a special link between the external sense of sight and the internal sense of the imagination; if the memory is particularly auditive, the imagination would seem to be more visual than auditive). Through song, music has often throughout history been given the significance of an idea and used as a unifying tool: we think of national anthems, revolution songs, soldiers’ marches, etc. The place of music in religious worship is also linked in part to this aspect. Why should music be particularly effective in uniting people?

         Music may unite people in a powerful way, but on the other hand, one thing we notice immediately when we consider the vast amount of music that exists, is that different people have musical preferences and that music does not always move people in the same way. Musical tastes very greatly, not only from person to person but even for the same person; there are times when one prefers some type of music to another, according to one’s mood. Looking back down the western musical tradition, we notice that the music of the Romantic period in particular plays precisely on the coming and going between different emotions, by leading the listener from one emotional state to another – playing off sadness against joy, fear against hope, anguish against calm etc. Listening, for example, to a Beethoven or Rachmaninov piano concerto, is to be taken on an emotional expedition. But what is it that makes this possible? What is more, out of all the different types of music, and various sorts of instruments, can we discern a hierarchy and see what most affects our emotions?

        We notice, then, that music corresponds in a powerful way to different emotional states in us. Music is able to express, convey and provoke a whole spectrum of emotions. The vast array of musical styles and forms is matched in richness by the individuality and complexity of the life of the emotions. But why is this so? Why should a composition of sounds affect how we feel?1 Why should there be a pleasure for us in listening to both ‘joyful’ and ‘sad’ music? Why, in fact, does a major scale sound ‘happy’ to us, and a minor scale ‘sad’? What is this relationship between the sense of hearing and our emotions? Upon what is it founded? What is particular to the way auditive sensitive qualities affect us, differently from colours, smells, tactile qualities etc.? Music is of course an art, and like all the arts it conveys something spiritual in the sensible, in this case through the sensible world of sound. How is the spiritual conveyed to me in the sensible qualities of sound, and what of the spiritual is conveyed in this way?  We must also bear in mind that man takes pleasure in ‘listening’ to silence; there is the curious fact that alone of all the senses, we like not to exercise our sense of hearing. What does this tell us about the link between music and the passions?

1Man also takes pleasure in listening to the natural sounds of the physical world– of wind in the trees, of waves breaking on the shore, of falling rain etc. Why do we enjoy these sounds? Part of our enquiry will be to find out what the link is between the sounds of the natural world and music.
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