Tuesday, July 29, 2008


The intersection between music and emotion is complex.

Musical preferences or predilections are often very personal and individual, and are often coloured by a person's past history (e.g. some songs may be associated with positive or negative past life events). Of course, the musical styles that you grow up with often become those you permanently prefer.

I've noticed quite often that patients of mine who struggle with sadness or anger may choose music that has a sad or angry emotional tone. In these situations I worry sometimes about whether the music itself is "feeding" the negative emotion. An extreme example of this would be music in which the performer is screaming, often about how bad life is, where the listener--often using headphones that are socially isolative--is absorbed for hours every day.

But I think that music is an external experience that can touch us, or resonate with emotions. In this way a musical experience can help us feel less alone, more understood, more "in synchrony" with something outside of ourselves, even if the music is laden with the same kind of sadness that we may experience internally.

Therapeutically, I have to acknowledge the value and power of this kind of "synchrony". So I generally would never try to dissuade the fan of "screaming angry music" from continuing their choice of genre (besides, I would be just one more person unsuccessfully attempting such subjectively intrusive and unwelcome advice). Yet I encourage people to gently explore types of music outside of their familiar territory, and to search for music which goes further than emotional synchrony alone, but also soothes, calms, inspires, provides hope, gives energy, or gives a thrill of joy. Some of the great works of music can touch us in our sadness, and therefore "resonate", while also guiding us towards hope or even making us smile with delight.

Here are some specific examples (off the top of my head) which work for me (everyone will have different tastes, of course, but if you're looking for something different, give these a try) :

-anything by W.A. Mozart. the piano sonatas (exquisite, sweet); the piano concertos (poignant and sometimes sad but always ending with hope and joy -- and the tunes stay in your mind); the wind concertos (clarinet & oboe).

And very specifically a vocal piece by Mozart called "Exsultate, Jubilate"; the piece in its entirety is a distillation of the joy of life. The last item in this piece is the perfectly beautiful and energetic "Alleluia". In fact, I would go so far as to make this whole piece--including the composition itself as well as the performers and their backgrounds--a metaphor for joy in life: to have joy, one must work at it for years (as the performers have done). One must hear others and learn from others. One must pursue poignancy as well as virtuosity. One must have moments of tension and dissonance, but they must always be relieved imaginatively and beautifully. Some of the joyous moments may be brief, but they stay with us forever even after they are literally over. My favourite performer of this piece is now Carolyn Sampson. Kiri Te Kanawa was my previous favourite. I'd recommend listening to it on the best possible stereo system available to you.

Another specific selection is the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach as played by Glenn Gould (who made two recordings of this piece, in 1955 and in 1980 -- I'd recommend hearing them both, starting with the 1955 version; the final aria at the end of the 1980 version is like a sweetly beautiful farewell from one of the great musical geniuses of the century). Also there's a version by Murray Perahia which is extremely good too, in case you find Glenn Gould's playing too eccentric. This piece is another metaphor for life: it starts with something simple and beautiful; it moves through many variations with different degrees of motion, emotion, and energy, yet always with the same underlying grounding theme; then it ends beautifully and serenely, almost just as it began. Implying a cycle that continues yet changes, beginning and ending at peace, but with lots of work and tension and playfulness and growth in-between.

Other specific suggestions:
1) Chopin, Piano Concerto #1 in E minor, Opus 11. The second movement is an example of sublime beauty.
2) Beethoven: Violin Concerto. Beethoven had a difficult life as a result of his own inner emotional problems (lots of depression, irritability, anger, relationship disappointment) in conjunction with various external sorrows, especially the total loss of his hearing. His music is full of emotion and power; underneath the sorrow there is sweetly touching beauty and joy, and I think the violin concerto is one of my favourite examples. Anne-Sophie Mutter is a great performer of this piece.
3) Beethoven: slow movements from many of the piano sonatas, such as "Pathetique" and "Moonlight".

With all of these suggestions, I realize that for some people, they would just rather listen to something else (musical taste is such a personal thing). Also, when feeling very unwell in any way (emotionally or physically), sometimes even your favourite music can feel irritating or can make you feel worse (it may remind you, for example, of how much you could be enjoying it if you were feeling well; your lack of enjoyment when ill could then remind you again of your illness and make you feel worse).


Anonymous said...

But the screaming music is cathartic, and by listening to another person scream some kind of passionate message, one might imagine that I wouldn't have to scream.
The problem with classical music is that one must either be young and with no cultural barriers, or musically fluent enough to understand the worth of something whose message is not a music video or a fast car. TV is like a book without the imagination. Popular music is like candy and classical music is like flax seeds, in that it takes imagination to truly understand and enjoy flax seeds.

GK said...

The idea of "catharsis," despite seeming philosophically attractive, is questionable. Screaming, hitting a punching bag, or watching someone else do these things, to vent anger, may subjectively cause a feeling of relief in the moment, but it conditions one to require violent release when angry feelings arise; furthermore, such conditioning renders non-violent behaviours less satisfying or effective to deal with negative emotions.

A sublime aspect of music relates to the manner in which tension or dissonance is resolved, often with the sense of time, progress, energy, consistency, or effort manifest rhythmically.

Music from all periods of history is really quite approachable. There is a myth that "classical music" is difficult or less immediately pleasing. There are many examples of popular music which is technically and theoretically complex, classical music which is extremely simple, etc. One critique I would have about any style has to do with performers who have either not spent the time to master their skills, hence are stuck with primitive tools of expression, akin to writers who have poor literacy skills, or civil engineers who don't know their math or physics, don't know how to use a computerized design program, and just "wing it" based on what they think might work. In these cases, creative expressions become a product of emotional conviction or persuasive personality styles without the benefit of technical
or intellectual tools. Another problem I observe has to do with musicians who have an elitist attitude about their own genres, while dismissing others. This can frequently be seen among classical or popular musicians, each disparaging the other. Meanwhile, the greatest performers in each camp borrow imaginatively from each other.

I find that the greatest musicians or creative persons of any era are those who have respect, familiarity, and mastery of many different genres from past and present. The evolution of musical forms usually involves a rich borrowing from multiple other genres, in combination with the creative imagination of individuals.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I should have referred to "screaming" as the Artist's Anguished Cry. One might feel less alone when the popularity of such an artist proves that in a way, they are not: another suffers like they do. Anything is dangerous in large enough amounts, and often the authors of such music have a unique genius that redeems music that would otherwise be unpleasant.
Metal and "alternative" music mark the existence of things people do not want to acknowledge. I would rather know myself truly and utilize what resources are in me with full understanding of who I am at that moment, and isn't that the purpose of Art? A device through which we may see ourselves? I do not say "truly", because this music reveals only one facet in a constantly shifting whole.
The music is supposed to be jarring and somewhat alarming, but many sub genres were quite disagreeable to the public at first. Popular music is regularly judged unfairly based on it's reputation of being intellectually inferior to other categories of music. No educated man would dispute the importance of 20th century music, music that isn't even based on tonality necessarily, that often features strange, purposefully unpleasant noise. 20th century music is, however, considered intellectual (to the point where you need the cipher to decode what you hear, and it is cognitively inaccessible to most). Experimentation is essential for growth. The augmented fourth (tritone) was considered the ugliest, most evil chord ever in the 16th century. It was forbidden to be used in church music (the only surviving record of music from that time is church music). Now look at Wagner. Tristan chords everywhere. It wasn't even supposed to be an evil chord. But all these pieces are considered to be High Art, and popular music is so unpopular with the intellectuals writing the manuscripts that it is not even written down. Until now. Popular music (pop) has taken over where the higher forms have run into difficulty, similar to the way science has taken over from nature. (cue dispute)
The difference between now and Mozart is that in mozart's day they only played in one style--classical (and their relatively unknown pop styles). Now we have all our history of High Art musical styles and rules that prevent many from playing any style authentically, except for the pop musicians. The recorded history of pop music is brief enough that anyone can play rock guitar with practice, and this enables all kinds of unique genius that would otherwise be excluded.
Oh, and metal and all that stuff are sub-genres of popular music, which is why I refer to them as pop sometimes, even though pop is also a sub-genre of pop. Not all pop is pop.
I once witnessed a concert for raw beef and hammers. Some would think this to be a gag, and I think there was a ploy involved, but the purpose of art is to make you think in ways you wouldn't normally, and any experience can do this. Does this mean that everything expressive or cathartic is art and so is worthy of existing? I think so.
I take one multivitamin because it is good for me. I could just take vitamin c, and call the rest too highbrow, or I can rock out to a fist full of twenty multivitamins, but I know this is bad because my balanced brain knows when enough is enough. Some people can't tell. Maybe the problem isn't the music, but is the reason behind some kind of cycle involving the music, but creative expression must remain free and be understood as worthy of protecting in all things.
Alternately, I used to hate horror movies until I realized that those movies made me feel bad, but it was a different bad and was actually much more tolerable than my life at the time. Cheerful things just contrasted my mood and highlighted how bad I really felt. Sometimes you feel so bad you just can't listen to soothing music, and any music is better than no music at all.
Just a thought.

GK said...

Thanks, what a great comment.

I guess there is a delicate diplomacy in which an empathic bond gets established through an experience of any sort (such as music or some other art form), but where the empathic bond can help you to be soothed, move forward, solve problems, be inspired, etc.
To encounter "cheerfulness" when you don't feel cheerful, could just be irritating. However, as with any activity which is intensely absorbing or soothing, I think it is important to be aware of potential conditioning effects which may be unhelpful (as I've alluded to above).

Popular music has a much stronger emphasis on improvisation and composition as a daily musical practice--I am saddened to see that most classical music education gives little attention to learning improvisation or compositional skills; veering away from formal, orthodox interpretations of pieces is often penalized.

Tragedy-related genres can be very moving; maybe I am sentimental with this, but I feel that it is extremely important for any tragic tale to have some kind of "message of hope" contained in it; in fact, I think the mind is extremely receptive to tiny kernels of hope when it has just experienced something dissonant, dark, or scary. I consider it a great opportunity for an artist, irrespective of the darkness or negative emotion contained in the work, to always, always offer a message of hope. This hopefulness need not be maudlin or a "fairy tale" ending, as this could of course instantaneously break that empathic link, but even something small and subtle which speaks of some form of resolution, could help others forward through negative states, beyond the effects of empathy alone.