“It is the special province of music to move the heart.”Johann Sebastian Bach
I’ve said it before: music is magic. It’s the strangest thing…something you can’t physically touch can have such a tremendous impact on your emotional state. And it’s pervasive. Marketing folks and film producers know this magic. They effectively use music to tug at your heart strings when the mom in the insurance commercial opens up a letter from her son, who’s been away at college. Music, in situations such as this, increases emotional response. It’s as if music is an emotional lubricant – think of Dorothy freeing the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz with the oil can – music can sometimes free emotions that have been stuck in gear.
Music, Love, and the Brain
Dr. Cortney S. Warren, a professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas states it quite clearly – “Music is what feelings sound like.” This is true, especially for composers and performers in many cases. They are expressing emotions through their music. We often get a tonal representation of an emotional state. But what about how the music impacts the listener? Well, part of this comes from association. Hearing is a sense and is tied to memory just like the other senses. When you eat that favorite childhood dish, you are taken back to pleasant days, sharing a meal with the family. When you smell a specific flower – let’s say a daisy – you are reminded of your baby shower because the room was full of daisies that day. Music has the same associative impact. When you hear the song to which you danced your first dance at your wedding, it most likely will bring forth positive emotions (as long as no one’s feet got stepped on!). The music becomes a cue for the brain to recall a memory associated with that tune.
Makes sense. But when you’ve never heard a piece of music before and it causes certain feelings, what’s going on there?
Words Matter…But So Do Notes
If the music has words, this can have an obvious impact. A song that talks about the one that got away might make you think of the one that got away. If you are expecting and a song talks about babies, you might respond with strong emotions. If you have no connection to the words, you might not feel much. But music doesn’t need words to evoke feeling. Therein lies its magic – and it’s based on science.
The amygdalae are deep, central brain structures that receive some of the first projections from the lower brain centers. Music stimulates the amygdalae in a similar way to faces, smells and other sounds, most likely because all these stimuli are perceived as having social significance due to their communicative properties.
So music has a physical effect on the part of the brain that is partially responsible for processing emotional reaction and memory.
Let’s try something. Take a listen to the first few minutes of this piece by Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer of minimalist music. This is his Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror of Mirrors) for piano and cello. It is very, very simple. No words. No flashy rhythms. No driving drum beat. No singer crooning about that special night. Close your eyes and listen. As you listen, think of a loved one for whom you care very deeply, whom you haven’t seen in a while. Press play, close your eyes, think of that person, and listen.
Music Waters the Emotional Tree of the Soul
What happened? What did you think of? What did you see in your mind? What did you feel? I bet you felt something. Did you cry? Did you smile? Did the music take you to an emotional place you weren’t expecting? It’s almost as if the music gives us permission to feel, to emote, to let the inward become the outward.
Music, in its infinite wonder, feeds the emotional tree of the soul. It allows buds to form, flowers to bloom, and green leaves to spread like a crown, turning toward the light of the sun and collecting dew in the morning and rain drops in the afternoon.
Music connects us emotionally. When you make music with others, you develop a sense of trust, of empathy, of compassion.
Sure, there’s science to back this up, but we can feel it when it happens. When there’s a song in your heart, let it out.
I’ll say it again: music is magic. And with respect to Shakespeare’s original line from Twelfth Night, I think Col. Henry Heveningham got it right when he said, “If music be the food of love, sing on!”