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14/02/2018

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Music and emotions - Valentines special

How does music have the ability to affect our brain and emotions in a way that plain noise does not?


How does music have the ability to affect our brain and emotions in a way that plain noise does not?

Music is a common phenomenon found in all cultures of the world and crosses the boundaries of language. The styles of music themselves vary greatly in these various cultures, but through them all, a common ability to effect our emotions exists.

But how is music able to evoke emotion in such a way?

Even to the untrained ear, music possesses something that noise does not - structure. This structure is most obviously perceived by rhythmic patterns. Indeed, powerful emotions can be evoked by just percussion instruments such as tribal drums. The brain even has neural oscillators which it can synchronize with the pulse of the music. On a deeper level, melodic phrases have a predictable structure that form recognizable patterns which are pleasing to the ear. Going still deeper, the overall form of the music also is based on patterns and structures such as Rondo or Sonata for example. All these predictable patterns are perceived by the brain as "pleasing" and so induce a positive experience for the listener.

Then again there is the element of pitch and harmony. Going back even to Pythagoras, there were theories of what intervals were considered "perfect" because of the coincidence of the certain frequencies of the different notes in a certain interval. For example, without going into too much physics here, the frequencies of the notes in a perfect fifth have more in common mathematically than those of a minor 2nd.. Unconsciously our brain perceives all these patterns and structures as something pleasing. Just think for a moment about the meaning of the word "harmony" outside of a musical context.

Talented composers manipulate the emotion within a piece by knowing what the listener's expectations are. I'm sure there have been many times when you anticipated what is coming next in a piece of music that you have never heard before. The composer can either fulfill your expectations or maybe surprise you with something unexpected and thus play with your emotions. Expectation builds anticipation, which when met, results in a  psychological reward, releasing feel good hormones.

So what does all this have to do with music education? Many times when my students are about to take exams, I advise them to forget about the notes and concentrate on being musical rather than mechanical - To enjoy the music and let that enjoyment come out in one's performance. Let those neural oscillators synchronize with the pulse of the music, appreciate the patterns in phrase and form, appreciate the way the frequencies of the different notes in a chord harmonize. Get away from just playing the right notes and try and find the beauty in the structures which the composer intended.


And just for Valentines below is a video of Liszt's Liebestraum No.3. But as you listen to it, try to do so in a different way. Try to identify the brain pleasing structures and patterns whether rhythmic, melodic or harmonic. Be aware of your expectation and anticipation and as they are met, sense those  psychological rewards and feel good hormones.



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