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About music

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

Music is the purest form of art as it exhorts us, in the most abstract, powerful and condensed way, to connect with our emotions. Music moves us inside and out. It absorbs us and spits us back to reality. In these suspended minutes, we are at once completely present and absent to the world around us. In experiencing music, our soul is reminded of its existence. Our heart beats harder. Our eyes open wider and feelings come rushing. What does this vibration feel like? It opens a gate inside us. Music can be the miracle that happens when we feel life resonates with us. It is like finding a doppelganger randomly.

The study of musical meaning developed by Leonard Meyer in 1956[i], distinguished mood (relatively permanent feature of music) from emotions (temporary feature of music: a sad music) and affect (our experience of emotion: sadness can be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the context): "There are no pleasant or unpleasant emotions. There are only pleasant or unpleasant emotional experiences". And since experience is highly subjective, and depends upon a number of factors (the memory associated with a music, our musical education, the quality of the performance, our culture, the mood we're in, the number of times we heard this music before, etc.), there is not one way to respond to music, even in the same culture. It is a highly personal and intimate experience.

Studies have proven that listeners recognize the emotions in a musical piece almost instantaneously (thanks to tempo, major/minor key, etc.). We need more time to identify a musical style, as we have to find patterns. And it often takes us a few times to appreciate a musical piece – at first hearing, the ambiguities may clutter our understanding, but in subsequent hearings, we can thoroughly enjoy it. For us to experience well-being while listening to music, Meyer argues that a deviation from expectation has to be created, and the tension then created has to be resolved in a satisfying way. The resolved tonal ambiguity releases pleasure in the listener. Uncertainty can be addressed by a number of outcomes and we do not control what's coming up. We anticipate the next move, but the result is better. Someone crafted a full musical experience with a denouement in mind, and carried us through ambiguity and discovery, just asking for our patience and attention. And we gave him our trust, we opened our ears and our heart. At times, our reaction to music surprises us. An opening, a solo, a choir, a different harmonic touches us; we experience a chill. Music film composers have mastered the technique– think Ennio Morricone (The Mission, Cinema Paradiso), Hans Zimmer (Interstellar, Gladiator, Inception) or John Williams (Star Wars, Schindler's List). Their scores are often understated and build their power gradually, as they support movie scenes and stories. Their strange power conjures our imagination well after the images are gone.

Between 55 and 88% of the population can experience a musical chill. According to Michelle Colver, a researcher from the Social Psychology Lab at the Eastern Washington University, the phenomenon is particularly prevalent with people whose personality shows an "openness to experience", people who immerse themselves intellectually in the music by making mental predictions on how the music will unfold, or engage in daydreaming while listening to music. With music and art in general, we introduce some void into our experience, a breathing space for us to escape. It is not a divided attention but a wandering one, prompted by inspiration. We stare. We drift. We let our guard down.

An emotional reaction to art has been known, in some rare instances, to become overwhelming. The Stendhal Syndrome, first diagnosed in Florence in 1979 by the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini (although examples abound in literature history), embodies the profound effect beauty enacts in our soul, the effect of a meaningful beauty. It is a psychosomatic and mostly benign disorder marked by a faster heartbeat, vertigo, faintness or even pain in the face of great beauty. The culprit can be art, nature or moments of great personal significance. People relate being struck as if experiencing something for the first time and possibly the last. Time dilates – their memory recalls the fleeting instant more vividly than most because it made them feel more alive. They feel immersed in an intense felicity, connected to the world and others.

[i]Emotion in Meaning in Music, Leonard Meyer (1956); “Music and Emotions, Notes on Leonard Meyer” by David Huron, Ohio State University, School of Music

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