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Note: The articles above were stolen by this website with a perfection of cheerfulness and enjoyment, and with much gratitude, from New Scientist magazine, 29 November 2003, pp. 38ff. -Ed

The Power of Music – from New Scientist

Three articles for reflection on the joys and beauties of music

Music and the power of music: Who could live without it?

Plato said music gave "soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life".

Dr Johnson called it "the only sensual pleasure without vice". And for Tolstoy, it was the "shorthand of emotion". From our earliest societies, we have filled our lives with music. Almost everything we do has some musical association -try going through a day without hearing any. But why does music affect us so powerfully? How does it exact such a pull on our emotions?

Until recently, these questions went largely unanswered, but the study of music and emotions is now a fast-growing field. In this special section on the power of music, we look at what researchers are finding,visit a music therapy centre to see how music can heal, and talk to composers about what is going on in their minds as they create.

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DO WE have any control over the rollercoaster ride from sorrow to ecstasy that music seems to take us on? Are there specific chord sequences, rhythms, patterns or other "chill and thrill" devices that lead to immediate emotional responses? Do our bodies shape the way we make music and appreciate music? Are musical appreciation and ability innate? Quite unexpectedly, there turns out to be a high degree of resonance on these questions between our contributors to this section.

One of the big theories is that our physiology dictates the range and organisation of the sounds we call music. Some of the most popular rhythmic patterns in music reflect rhythms in our bodies, especially heartbeat and breathing. And as the psychologist John Sloboda explains (see below), some of the most important emotional "signals" in music echo human vocalisations. If you play around with music the same way we play with speech when we are expressing are emotions - raising or lowering the voice, say -the music, too, sounds emotional.

This, he says, might explain the universal appeal of many forms of music, since basic human emotions are common to all cultures. Songwriter Mike Stock, formerly of the hit-making team Stock, Aitken and Waterman, acknowledges that for him "there have only ever been two songs: either you're happy or you're sad".

Sloboda points out that a key aspect of our emotions is that they are tuned to detect change. The change may be positive (falling in love, winning the lottery), or negative (sickness or the death of someone you care about). Either way, the message of change is: pay attention now! We are incredibly good at recognising patterns and, more to the point, deviations in patterns. Since music is essentially pattern in sound, it is not hard to see how it can "hook" us with subtle variation in melody, structure or rhythm. As people listen to music, they pick up on the patterns and make predictions about what will come next-without needing any formal musical training. And when those expectations are violated, the musical surprises inevitably produce emotional reactions.

Of course, there is a strong cultural element to music. The use of scale, tone and harmony differ across the world. In the west, especially, cultural shifts can [today] reshape popular music in just a few years. Stock points out that pop songs have speeded-up from a standard 120 beats per minute in the 1980s to around 136 today, a change brought about, he says, largely as a result of the use of Ecstasy in clubs.

How innate is all this? Some researchers are hard at work looking for a single system underlying all responses to music. Part of this involves studying people who have suffered brain damage that leaves them responding abnormally to music. One woman developed problems in recognising melodies that had once been familiar to her. When she was played the Albinoni Adagio taken from her own collection, but not told what it was, she said she had never heard the music before; but then she added that it made her feel sad, and that feeling made her think of Albinoni's Adagio. Other researchers have been watching mothers and babies for clues. One study showed that babies seem to respond more when sung to than when spoken to: six-month-old babies seemed hypnotised" by their mothers' singing. This apparently inborn quality of our response to music underpins music therapy. No matter what the trauma, injury or handicap, therapists believe that anyone can benefit by using music as a way of communicating. Music therapy involves such a huge range of emotions that it can resemble a work of music in itself. Small wonder that many therapists believe their sessions can be a laboratory for studying how music works on people.

What about the creation of music?

Vangelis, the composer who scored the films Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire, writes in an utterly different genre to Stock (cited above), but their experience of the creative process of music writing, and both do not read or write music, shows some remarkable similarities. Both are unclear about how the creative impulse translates into music-whether it's a chart hit, an award-winning film score, or a piece they are writing for themselves. Stock reports that "all of a sudden something will happen, and you realise you've got something you didn't have before". For Vangelis, it's a question of consciously not thinking. He talks of detachment and of trying to be totally "available". This is close to what Sloboda says about performers entering a state of absolute absorption, or "flow", where they will almost lose their sense of time and space while feeling uplifted and engaged.

We are surrounded by more and more music. We cannot escape it. It is still a tool for social or even spiritual cohesion-think of 1000 Buddhist monks chanting in unison or a stadium full of football fans singing in support of their team. But it is also increasingly a tool for self-therapy, with people consciously using it to regulate mood or to engender a particular emotion. As Sloboda points out, in the 21st century people are more likely to seek profound musical experiences in their cars than in concert halls or cathedrals.

(Ends article 1)

headline Show me emotion

What is it about music that gives it such deep appeal? Why do we listen to so much of it? How does one particular song bring back powerful memories? And where are the concert halls of the 21st century? Liz Else for New Scientist asked psychologist John Sloboda.

Why do you think music is so powerful?

There are three key reasons. The first is something one of my colleagues calls the "darling-they're-playing-our-tune" theory. Music is a very powerful source of personal associations. Secondly, music has inherent characteristics that mimic the emotional signals of the world. The third-and most interesting to me-is the emotional effect of engaging with musical structure itself as it unfolds over time, which relates to the fact that our emotions are tuned to detect change.

Why is music so good at associations? A piece of music associated with an emotional event in your life can bring it flooding back when you hear it again. Of course, that is pretty idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Everybody will have their own special song, their memories. We know from research into the psychology of memory and the psychology of emotion that close to events of high emotional charge your brain takes a "recording" of all the other things that were going on at that heightened moment.

And how does music mimic emotional signals?

The most important signals are human vocalisations. My colleague Patrik Juslin, with whom I wrote Music and Emotion, is probably the leader of research in this area. He has shown that if you manipulate music in the ways in which speech is manipulated to make speech sounds emotional, then that music sounds emotional too. If I spoke very, very slowly, pitching my voice down at the end of words and sentences, you would interpret that as me being pretty depressed. If you write or play music like that - slowly with a falling cadence – listeners immediately said, "That's sad”. They are what I call “iconic connections". And they are very powerful, almost universal and automatic. It doesn't really matter what culture you come from because you make links to these innate human vocalisations of excitement, depression and so on, which the entire human race shares, so the mapping is very simple. There are only a handful of basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger and, possibly. Tenderness. Some people argue that disgust is one.

But how do we use music to detect change?

This is the aspect that I've done the most work on. Our emotions are tuned to detect change. In the animal kingdom change evokes fight or flight - it's about survival. For us, change can either be positive and helpful (falling in love) or negative and we want to avoid it (sickness or death in someone we care about). Emotions kick in when the environment changes in ways that are personally important to you.

This overrides whatever the organism might be doing to force it to concentrate on the change, because that is vital.

Our systems are exquisitely and delicately tuned to monitor the environment the whole time for change. We are very very good at recognising pattern, and when patterns change. And remember, music is par excellence pattern-pattern in sound.

How does this work?

Our brains are constantly trying to work out what the pattern in the music is and trying to guess what's going to come next. For most people this isn't an active process, it just goes on subconsciously and passively while listening to music. Because so much music in any one culture shares a common language and a common pattern-like tonality, the major scale, rhythm, harmony and so on-it soon becomes very easy to make predictions about what's going to come next.

More often than not those predictions are fulfilled. But sometimes you are expecting the tune to go up yet it goes down, or you're expecting it to end but it doesn't. Those little surprises produce emotional reactions every time. It's like a roller coaster: the emotion goes up and down according to what is happening in the music.

How do you research this?

We've been plotting those troughs and peaks by having people hold a joystick slider while they listen to music. As the music gets more emotional, they push the slider up. When it gets less emotional, they push the slider down. You get a trace of their emotional reaction. Now, unlike the associative memories, these reactions are not idiosyncratic. By and large, people experience higher or lower emotion at the same point in the music-and this is useful scientifically because you can isolate those points and ask what's happening there.

Have you found out?

Yes. There are some musical devices composers use that seem to explain some of this. One is called an appoggiatura, or a suspension, which is when melody is going along and then suddenly there's a note that is not part of the harmony at that point. A great example is the Beatles' standard Yesterday. The first note of Yesterday is an appoggiatura because it's out of the harmony. Then it resolves down to the key note on the the second syllable ("-ter-") which relieves the tension.

If you analyse musical compositions that are harmonically surprising, it turns out that they contain many apoggiaturas.

Another device is rhythmic syncopation. As we listen, we work out e pattern of a tune's timing: one, two, three, four: one. two, three, four. We line that up what comes in with those beats. In a syncopated beat, a melody note occurs before it should. It's a little jolt.

So the emotional temperature rises when you get a lot of th is happening?

Yes, and when it rises enough. people move from recognising that something is happening to feeling that something is happening. This is an important distinction, and it's a distinction that has really confounded and confused a lot of research. Because there are two ways of answering the question.

“What emotion is there in the music?'' You can detect objectively that the music sounds sad, but you don t feel sad yourself. But when you start feeling something yourself, that is the thing about music which is more variable. How you respond will depend on factors inside you and inside the music. This is why a piece of music at a friend's house that really bowled you over can leave you cold when you take the CD home and play it on your own.

Do composers use these "tricks" to manipulate us?

I'm sure some musicians and composers stick with tried and tested things that they know have a greater chance of jerking a tear or whatever. Some melodies that musicians would think were really bad and quite manipulative do work on the emotions - very effectively.

Take the first line of Land of Hope and Glory: it's got that appoggiatura in it. And even people who loathe jingoistic stuff sometimes find themselves being carried away by this tune. These effects can be strong, but can also be resisted.

How come?

This is where the societal bit comes in. It's to do with selection. When my daughter was younger, we would be driving in the car and flipping channels. Within two seconds of hearing a bit of classical music, she'd say "Ugh", and completely filter it out. Many elderly and middle-class people have that immediate filter-it-out reaction to pop or rap. These strong "choices" are often linked with social identity. Many social groups are partly defined by the music that they share.

Do we use these effects of music in our daily lives?

I have to say we don't know very much. What we do know is that many people choose music that means a lot to them; they say they couldn't live without it. Another bit of research I've been doing with my colleagues at Keele University involves paging a group of volunteers seven times a day to ask what they are doing. Often we have found that they are listening to music, mainly by choice but sometimes simply because a store has music playing in the background.

So what's going on?

When we call them, we ask people to fill in a questionnaire that tells us about their emotion at the time. The emotional change is greatest when people have chosen the music themselves. That tells you they know something about what kind of music they need to effect change. But why do people need to effect change? One of the things that surprised us, but perhaps shouldn't have, is that the most common place for people to listen to music is in transit. The car is the symphony hall of the 21st century. People keep their favourite collections in their cars. And when you ask about this, they say it's about getting them in the mood for the next thing they are going to do. Driving home from work you play soothing music to forget the stresses of work and get into a more mellow mood.

They are playing with their emotions? That's right. It's as if people are using music as a self-administered emotional therapy or emotional amplifier to modulate, to moderate their mood. There's nothing else that does this like music does. People who know about blindness and deafness have said deafness is the cruellest sensory deprivation because it cuts you off from the world of the emotions. Vision is cold, hearing is hot. Music is about sociability and company. Music is a companion, a comforter, a person who is there with you in hard times.

Is it my imagination, or is there really more music about these days?

In highly industrialised societies, we listen to more music, but we make less. If you look at how much music is going on in an African village, you find that people are singing and dancing all the time. Work has its songs, so does leisure, but the difference is that people are making music, rather than walking around with things plugged into their ears listening to it. What has changed for us is that music has become much more individualistic. People listen to most music alone. They do it in a self-referring way, to achieve personal outcomes. In other times and places music has had a social and cohesive function.

Is performing very different from listening?

We know that the human body is naturally rhythmic. We like doing rhythmic, co-ordinated things, so there is a natural impulse to perform. And that gives added emotional benefits. Performers talk about performance as an intense, emotionally satisfying experience, of getting into the "flow" - or absolute absorption.

How about composing?

Composition is a tricky one, because in Europe it is tending to become a specialised and precious thing that only a few classically-trained people do. And many of those composers have gone off on a track by themselves, producing music that, frankly, no one wants to listen to. To find out what is going on for most people you need to study pop composers, because they tend to make music in an improvisatory social way. The Beatles' songs emerged in the studio where one of them would come up with a little twist and say: "That's good, remember that, we can make something of that:' That's the natural way for compositions to emerge. Children do this before they become socially embarrassed, humming and singing to themselves, and making up little songs. It's a natural human activity.

Do you play?

Yes. I'm a trained pianist although I don't get to play much these days.

I had lessons from a very early age and I was a junior exhibitioner at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I could have been a professional musician, but it required too much obsessive practice. That wasn't what I wanted.

What are your favourite works?

For a gripping, totally involving experience, I would pick something like a Mahler symphony. The late Romantic symphonies, such as Tchaikovsky's, also have a wide emotional palette. But this "what's my favourite piece" game can be overplayed. It depends what you're looking for, and everyone's tastes - their "strong choices" - change. I couldn't relate to Mozart for the first 30 years of my life. Now I think he's one of the greatest composers.

Is there a different emotional response when you listen to classical music than when you listen to, say, rock or jazz?

Jazz is an interesting example. What you're doing is marvelling at the clever ways in which the performer is doing things you hadn't imagined possible with a familiar tune . That fits very well with that surprising jolt of the unexpected and with the aesthetic delight of performers tricking you as they play with your expectations.

(Interviewee above, John Sloboda is professor of Psychology at Keele University US. He and his colleague Patrik Juslin edited Music and Emotion (2001), published by Oxford University Press.

Music therapy sounds like another of those new-age techniques designed to soothe stressed executives. In fact, it's something far more profound that may reach the parts that other therapies cannot. Eleanor Case and Liz Else investigate...

It's 1944 in a veterans' hospital in Nowheresville, USA. After losing half his comrades in a raid while fighting in Europe, Private John Doe is so badly traumatised that he cannot speak. A musician arrives to entertain the vets. Private Doe starts to cry, his first response to anything in months. As the musician leaves, a nurse jokes: 'Perhaps we should hire you - you seem to be doing as good as us." Meanwhile, inspired by such insights, Michigan State University is at work on the world's first music therapy degree program.

Of course, music therapy has a much longer and of course broader history than re traumatised vets and a degree course. The idea has been with us for a couple of thousand years, but many people still class it as a Cinderella discipline. It has, however, achieved government recognition through the Health Professions Council of the UK and other parallel bodies worldwide, though it remains underfunded. One of the leading groups in the UK is the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre, a nationwide charity based to north London and mainly paid for by the music industry.

What exactly is music therapy? It is based on the idea that responding to music is an innate human capacity, unimpaired by injury, handicap or trauma. Therapists, though not clients, must have high-level improvising skills. Their work is to match their music to the needs of their clients. This initial matching or imitation is the bridge between client and therapist, Once this vital communication is established, therapy can begin. Nordoff-Robbins treats more than 700 children and adults nationally each week. Clients choose an instrument to play, from maracas and drums to pianos. Initially, therapists focus on musical elements such as tempo or volume that match a client's way of playing or just of “being in the room". Clients can be anybody: a child with delayed development, a stroke victim, someone with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, or a stressed-out executive. Music is improvised for each client in the hope that these joint musical excursions will expand their musical experience and expression.

So does it work? Music therapists are convinced they have seen the small and painful improvements concentration and movement, even occasional "miracles" when someone regains speech. But can they prove It? Hundreds of strands of research have embraced everything from the relationship between music and emotion to musical hot spots in the brain, biochemical markers of music-making's effects, and the "music" of the communication between mother and baby. But if you want to use science to prove the case for music therapy, you will have to wait a while.


PENNY discovered two years ago that she was HIV-positive. She was devastated and retreated into herself, lost her friends and left her job. Her first session of music therapy exhausted the therapist. Penny's inner chaos and depression tumbled out in crashing of drums and cymbals. The therapist tried to match this chaotic playing on the piano. Then he worked with her on alternatives to her thunderous playing.

Penny's music gradually became quieter and more structured. She was more "engaged". By the end of her therapy, Penny was working as a volunteer helping other people with HIV. She was also enjoying a far broader range of music than her previous staple – loud rock and roll.

Ben is 15-years-old and has an autistic disorder. He is a dreamy loner, frightened and angry when he feels under pressure and cannot understand. He doesn't like eye contact and rarely speaks. He was nervous when he began his therapy, running up and down the room. The therapist played the piano in a way that echoed his restlessness. But also created a safe atmosphere. Ben began to move towards the instruments placed in the room. He played for a few seconds and ran off. In his third session, he played a little longer. The therapist's music followed Ben's patterns of excitement, music-making and flight.

Towards the end of that session. Ben stayed at one instrument a whole 10 minutes as the music “held” him, helping to contain his anxiety about contact with another person. The music slowed down; soon Ben was playing more and more, until the music finished and a long silence fell. Ben looked directly at the therapist, surprise and pleasure on his face. He broke the silence with a sigh. For Ben, the therapy had begun.


The two case studies above have been provided by Nordoff-Robbins (www.nordoff-robbins.org.uk). For more information see: Association of Professional Music Therapists (www.apmt.org.uk/); British Society of Music Therapy (www.bsmt.org/); or American Music Therapy Association (www.musictherapy.org/)

Vangelis - From the heart

What does it feel like to make music? Is composition a structured process, or is it always instinctive, irrational? Here the Greek composer Vangelis, most famous for writing the scores to the films Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire (for which he won an Oscar), explains how he does it?

MUSIC, for me, is not just about notes. It is about everything. Music exists before we exist. It is the shaper of the universe. It is the universe itself. It is the primary vibration, the first thing that moves everything else. Everybody understands the language of music, whether they are a composer or not. We do not necessarily need to learn it. We need rather to remember it, for it is part of us. It is deep in our memory.

More and more, I feel I had tremendous luck not to go to music school. I do not read or write music, and I do not believe I need to. I am not against formal training, and there are some extraordinary trained musicians. But music schools do not necessarily teach music. They teach you how to interpret certain things, how to read and write. They teach you a repertoire. Yet music is more fundamental and deeper than that.

You do not learn in music school, for example, the essence behind the notes, that each note is an entity in its own right. Each note can be a galaxy. The main reason I feel this, the reason music became the main language for me to understand the world around me, is because I was not taught in the conventional way, which can close doors instead of opening them. From the age of four I learned to let myself go, and in this way learned the fundamental language and function of music.

I compose spontaneously. I try to capture the music without the influence of reasoning or the possibility of alteration. The only way to achieve this is not to think. Thought is a tool of analysis. It cannot be a tool of creation. The crucial thing is to get away from thought and analysis and create as much as possible without subjectivity and misplaced ego, to be absent as much as possible, to be detached from your environment-to be totally available...

Vangelis: untrained and unbounded - "Thought is a tool of analysis. It cannot be a tool of creation. The crucial thing is to get away from thought and create without subjectivity" - Vangelis

"available". To analyse something you first have to create it. This, it seems to me, is the natural order.

When the music comes raw like this it is closer to the truth of the moment. When I touch the keyboard, I do not have to know what is going to happen. There is definitely a reason why I play a particular thing and not something else, but I do not try to analyse that. Often after I have created something I will walk away and leave it and will not come back to check it sometimes for months, in order to eliminate any possible attachment.

Of course, when I am writing a score for a film, the situation is different. You cannot use the spontaneous approach in quite the same way. You have to get inspired by what you see, and to take that as a starting point. You have to try to work like a magnifying glass, to bring to people what the pictures cannot completely say and then extend it to something deeper. The emotion I am trying to get across is not all mine. It has to be compatible with what the director of the film is trying to communicate. It is a collaboration.

It is a very interesting exercise, though it is a different approach to my usual one. I do it because I need to. I have to do things like record albums and write film scores in order to build my studio, to buy my equipment, to function. Nevertheless, it is still possible to be truly creative within this kind of structure. All my life I have practised the spontaneous approach, so it does get through when I have to do something to order like write a film score. These things come instinctively. Normally when I am writing a score, I play while I'm watching the film. Most of the time, as with Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and 1492-Conquest of Paradise, I write it on the first take.

What you hear is my very first impression. I always try to be as quick as possible and not to think, even then.

Music is so powerful, it can change everything about a film. It can change everything about everything. It can be therapeutic or it can be destructive. And we have to be very careful when looking at the effect of music on people because people can interpret music in very personal, subjective ways. You can play someone a piece of music and see them react in a very positive or negative way. This is not always because of the music itself. It may be because the music is triggering a memory of a happy or unhappy period in someone's life.

People often tend to make music to get famous, or to make money. This is almost criminal, because we end up being surrounded by a cacophony of sound. We end up with an unnecessary mass of music. What purpose does that serve? Does it serve the public? No, it serves only the people hoping to make money by selling it. This is not a good thing. We are playing with a dangerous weapon. When I am asked to make a record, I often say to myself, do I have to do that? I do not want to impose anything on people. It is good to share music, but used in the wrong way it can be a dangerous thing.

It is the same with technology. I do not use computers when I write music. Everything is direct. I am not against technology, I am against how we design and use it. In every field, technology should serve people. Lately people are being used by technology. We need more than technology to call ourselves civilised. It can be a handicap. In music, technology is useful when it is being used properly, but it can help you only after you have created.

The music tells the composer what to do...

The crucial thing to remember is that it is not the composer who makes the music so much as the music that tells the composer what to do. The composer is like an instrument. We should be conscious that we are dealing with something that is vital and fundamental. This is what I have tried to do, and am still trying to do, every day.

(This essay in New Scientist was put together from a conversation between Vangelis and with Michael Bond


Note: The articles above were stolen by this website with a perfection of cheerfulness and enjoyment, and with much gratitude, from New Scientist magazine, 29 November 2003, pp. 38ff. -Ed

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