A musical mystery

We still don’t know why music affects us emotionally. A recentish paper from the University of London examined the matter and concluded that music definitively influences our interpretation of emotional visuals (sad music made participants score a slightly frowning face as sadder than they had scored it after listening to happy music, and vice versa with a happy face).

Some have speculated that music taps into the noises we humans create as a result of our emotions (such as running away = fast tempo, dancing with a loved one = slow tempo) and yes in an abstract kind of way I can see how this might happen. Other suggestions would needs include that we’ve heard that kind of music before and listening to similar music creates a trigger to take us back to the emotions of that initial moment.

Certainly it is accepted that an accomplished musician can play various styles and pieces which make the audience respond emotionally in different ways.

But it is still intriguing and still not fully understood how music can make us feel.

And the wonder of the modern world, where so many people have little time to connect with their emotions (so I hear) is that we have things like Youtube, Soundcloud, iTunes, Spotify and others, which allow us to listen to the wonder that is music.

And yet music offers such specific emotions I find it hard to accept that it simply reminds our instinctive brain of the noises we humans make when in the throes of a particular emotion. It seems akin to the claims that men and women respond differently to colours because women used to be gatherers and men used to be hunters – it’s all a bit woolly.

For instance, we can immediately grasp the anguish of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the urgency of the Flight of the Bumblebee, the cuteness of Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk, the order (and interruption) conjoured by the Padstow Lifeboat, the tenderness of Offenbach’s Barcarolle, the sheer joy and exuberence of Southern Flavor and the entire musical journey that is Beethoven’s 6th symphony (for ever in my mind, playing out to the pictures given to it by Disney’s Fantasia)

And many more too numerous to mention.

Whatever it is, whatever it taps into – music moves us. And we don’t know why, but for now let us just enjoy that it does and continue to share our favourites, spreading those all-important emotions further and further until we can all recognise the humanity and similarities that we all have in common.


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