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Music and the Mind

Psychology of Music

To understand how human beings make sense of music, we have to turn to branches of music psychology and neural science which look at all aspects of musical behaviour from the primitive to the highly developed. The effects of music on a listener vary greatly depending on the listener, the music and the environment and so we must look at several aspects of musical behaviour if we are to draw any meaningful conclusions. While music is often used in a religious or spiritual context, one has only to look at the rave phenomenon of the 80's and 90's to realize that the line between spirituality and hedonism is not always easy to draw. While some believe that music can bring peace and enlightenment it is also capable of evoking other more primitive emotions and reactions.

Spiritual and Religious Aspect of Music

It is known that music has many spiritual and religious connections and is used during rituals in most, if not all religions. The early Christian Church thought that music brought man closer to God, thereby justifying the interference of the Church in all early musical influences. Some of the greatest music that survives from certain periods of history is that which was written in praise of God.

Even if the motivation for music is not derived from the allegiance to a particular religion, there is often some spiritual aspect at work. Belief in some force outside of the musician's own creativity is common amongst composers whether a muse, an occult or supernatural belief, or no more than an admiration for the beauty and infinity of the laws of physics and maths that make music possible.

Greek philosophers during the 6th century BC sought to integrate the laws of nature with theories of aesthetics and Plato thought that the study of harmony was conducive to the liberation of the soul from the tyranny of the senses. Throughout the history of music there has always been a strong association with the universe and the divine - as if the composer was tapping into a fountain of rhythm and harmony that exists in some way outside our own. The notion of the muse enforces this link suggesting almost that the composer is just a channel for music from somewhere else. The spiritual aspect of music, however, is something that is simply too subjective and un-testable to pin down. Like God it is something that we will probably always have to guess at, relying on the accounts of others and our own experiences to guide us.

On a scientific level, however, we are beginning to unravel some of the mysteries of human consciousness and the way that the brain processes its sensory input. Clinical and neurological sciences can help to explain how one relates the reception of acoustic properties to understanding and emotion. Sensory and cognitive processes need to be linked somehow to our creativity and aesthetic experience in a way that is meaningful.

Relationships between Auditory Stimuli and Emotions

Humans are conscious animals and can experience emotion as a result of auditory stimuli. Why is it that noise can irritate us to distraction, however music can relax and uplift our spirits? As mentioned in the Physics of Sound section, music has some organization underlying it as opposed to simply being random vibration or noise, but actually pinning down the point at which noise becomes music (and therefore enjoyable) is a difficult task and has become more so in the twentieth century as the traditional laws of harmony and instrumentation have been bent ever further.

Our overall appreciation and experience of music must be a combination of both our conscious and subconscious processes. Our conscious appreciation is split between the left and right hand sides of our brain. It is known that the left hand side is the more logical and mathematical side, controlling speech and language and helping us to analyze. The right hand side however, seems to focus more on emotions and intuitions and deals with discrimination of pitch, melody and rhythm.

Aphasia (stroke affecting the left side of the brain) or patients with damage to the left hemisphere show the inability to deal with speech. They may be unable to talk but can still sing and dance.

Amusia (damage to the right side of brain) results in loss of musical discrimination e.g.) inability to recognize a song or sing a sequence of notes.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain has shown that all music activates the auditory cortex, where the brain processes sound, and sometimes triggers parts of the brain that are associated with emotion.

Unconscious experience cannot easily be measured but some argue that aesthetic pleasure is measurable in terms of arousal of the autonomic nervous system which includes heart rate, respiration, electrical skin conductivity (Galvanic skin reflex) or electrical waves in the brain as shown by EEG recordings.

One psychology based theory relates emotion to cognitive memory. Musical memory accommodates not only harmonic and rhythmic elements of music but also a spectrum of qualitative differences in aesthetic and affective experience. Another influential model is the cybernetic view of human beings as a purposeful self-regulating biological system which is kept in balance by feedback in the cycle of perception (input) and action (output). Music is thought of as information load.

A third theory toys with the concept of "information" and the limited human capacity to process it in the perception-action cycle. There may simply be more "information" in the music than man may be able to absorb while hearing it resulting in subconscious, retrospective processing.

The idea of everything resonating in harmony and the notion of morphic resonance are extremely appealing from a musical point of view and could even go some way to explaining why it is about music that makes it affect our moods and behaviour. Much of the body's biochemistry relies on cycles and rhythmic pulses that control all manner of functions (the heart being one of the most obvious). Recently the rave phenomenon has proved that certain auditory stimuli, when combined with psychoactive drugs such as MDMA (Ecstasy) and LSD can cause extremely powerful physical and mental reactions. This is now understood so intuitively by the producers and ravers that the music is written to take the listener through a series of well defined reactions, usually timed to coincide with the stages of experience associated with taking Ecstasy.

Sound which produces alpha waves can induce sleep or a trance like state in humans and relaxation is perhaps the experience most commonly associated with music. Music is used in many cultures as a direct therapy for physical as well as psychological disorders and Eastern religions have always had a strong link between sound and emotional and physical well being. The traditional words chanted (such as the well-known "Om") are designed to concentrate and balance the chakra or energy centres of the body through a combination of exercising certain muscles and the intonation and pitch of the syllable itself.

Colour and Music

There have been many theories concerning the relationship between music and colour dating back to Ptolemy (famous Alexandrian scientist of the 2nd century). Synaesthesia is defined as "the production from a sense-impression of one kind of an associated mental image of a sense-impression of another kind". In plain English it is the extraordinary phenomena by which certain individuals seem to have their senses misaligned and so smell or hear colours. This tends to suggest that the role of the brain in processing sensory input is perhaps more crucial than we imagined. It may that reality is indeed the kaleidoscopic maelstrom of energy that quantum physicists would have us believe and that our brain's interpretation of it is not quite as real as we believe. While the majority of us generally concur on this interpretation, synaesthesia suggests that it may be arbitrary or just one of many ways of looking at (or listening to) things.

The associations between music and colour have been found to be entirely subjective and largely personal. Experiments carried out by playing different types of music to groups of people have shown that a general agreement is made as to whether the music suggested vivid shades or fainter pastel shades (i.e. degree of luminosity) but not as to the particular colours evoked.

Many musicians possess key-colour associations. The mind of a person possessing this particular type of colour-association somehow takes account of the relative rather than the absolute pitch-position of keys. Key-colour associations are in part conventional (general tendency to attach darker colours to keys with flats in their signature and brighter to those with sharps) and partly arbitrary and personal as no two musicians agree on the same series of associations.

The Mozart Effect

Much research has been carried out to establish whether listening to Mozart increases brain power. "The Mozart Effect" emerged after an attempt to model brain activity on a computer highlighted interesting facts. The firing electrical impulses from the brain nerve cells were transferred into sound outputs which produced sounds similar to baroque, new age or Eastern music. The idea was reversed and an investigation into how the brain responded to music was initiated. It was hoped that patterns of music would prime the brain to activate similar firing patterns of nerve clusters.

Controversy surrounds the original standard IQ tests conducted with Mozart's "Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major", as results differed between different researchers. Some tests found no increase in brain power and other findings suggested an "enjoyment arousal" factor by which people in a good mood perform better.

Recent work to study hundreds of compositions by many composers has been carried out to establish what type of music creates the "Mozart Effect" in humans. Results indicate that sequences repeating regularly every twenty to thirty seconds may trigger the strongest response in the brain. It is known that the functions of the central nervous system, such as onset of sleep and brain wave patterns occur in thirty second cycles. The music of Mozart also often peaks every thirty seconds.

Findings have shown that people with Alzheimer's disease function better if they listen to Mozart and it has been found that the music reduces the severity of epileptic seizures. It has also been found that children who are musically trained from an early age have increased mathematical reasoning.

Music Without Emotion

In the 18th century, Mozart showed how to construct "musical dice" that could be used to combine known aesthetically pleasing ingredients with random elements in order to produce vaguely creditable compositions. More recently, experiments have been carried out to establish whether a cleverly programmed computer could be capable of producing great musical masterpieces according to criteria that the programmer has provided. Some may argue that the music expresses nothing because the computer program itself feels nothing, but this opens up a whole area of debate as to whether music exists outside the human consciousness. I would argue that either way the computer does indeed create music, the real question being whether it is music before it has been heard by human (or animal) ears. It has been stated that the universe is silent, for without ears there is simply vibration and no sound...

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