In other posts, especially Letting Your Environment Help You, I’ve talked about using music to help mood and concentration. Music can help to sometimes (not always) ease us out of bad moods and into good ones, provide relief or relaxation, energize us, distract us when we’re too wrapped up in non-constructive thoughts, help block out distractions, and even help create a flow state.
Why do we react to music?
Even understanding some of the things music can do for us, I’ve wondered for a long time why it is we as human beings react to music. After all, music is just sounds: pitches, rhythms, timbres, alone and in combination, often not even including any specific or clear information. Why should vibrations in the air create such strong reactions inside our electrical and chemical brains?
In her insightful (though sometimes dry) book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, philosopher Jenefer Robinson sheds some light on this subject, and helps explain what it is about music that we connect with and why we react so strongly to it. In a word, this thing is emotion.
How can music cause emotional reactions?
It’s weird that music, which doesn’t have facial expressions or neurochemistry or a body, should be able to not only express emotions, but to evoke emotions in those who hear it … but this starts to seem less weird as we think about the many tools music has at its disposal. It can mimic or suggest the sounds that people make in different emotional states, like laughter, shouting, sobbing, sighs, and many other human noises. It can use rhythm to suggest movement or body states, evoking strong or irregular heartbeats, marching, gliding, and bowing. It can make harmony and dissonance (that is, unharmonic sounds) by putting specific combinations of pitches together whose waveforms either fit together or conflict. It can provide a rhythm for us to fall into. It can create effects that stimulate emotional responses directly, like crashes to create sudden surprise or fear, or soft rhythmic sounds to evoke calm. It can create expectations from what we know about music, for instance when we can tell a song is building up to a big finish, and it can tap into memories and associations, reminding us of people, times, or situations long past. It can get loud or soft suddenly or slowly, be played sharply or smoothly, use instruments that wail or bray or sing or thud or rasp, yearn upward or drag downward …
Well, I’m sure you get the idea, even though that doesn’t come near listing all of the devices music can use to evoke emotion in us. The point is that music has an awe-inspiring range of ways to call out emotional reactions in us and to channel those reactions into a complex emotional experience with its own shape and path. It’s emotional experiences that are a large part of what makes music almost universally enjoyable to us human creatures (although music has some other attractions too: intellectual, cultural, poetic, social, and so on). And it’s also those emotional experiences that make music a tool we can consciously use to change mood.
How can we use music as a tool?
If we think of music as a sort of designed emotional experience and realize that not only do different people react to different musical experiences differently, but that the same person reacts differently to the same music at different times, then we begin to have an idea of what kinds of decisions we can make that will help us use music as a tool. The essential questions to ask ourselves are
1. What kind of emotional influence would be most helpful to me right now? (here we’re referring to all the things I mentioned that music could do at the beginning of this article, and more) and
2. What kind of music is likely to give me that experience, given the mood I’m in?
The second question is a trickier one. It’s easier to answer if you have more musical choices at hand, and also easier to answer if you’re used to thinking about how you’re reacting to music (that’s mindfulness again, which I mention in a number of other articles), but often the best way to answer it is to explore. You may want to poll friends, jot down notes about musical experiences you’ve had, flip through radio stations, try out various songs from your music library until you happen to hit one that works, or build Pandora stations to fit different mood needs. (I talk about the free Pandora service in this post.)
Regardless, consider when and how music may have helped you in the past, and look at your life to see if it can’t be used deliberately to help you even more in the future.
Photo by RossinaBossioB