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Saturday, May 21, 2011
Brain / Mind ... Music ... Science ...

A few days after writing my Sad Song blog, about how a tune by The Cars pulled me out of the dumps on a very trying and frustrating day, I read an interview in the May Scientific American with a hearing specialist and surgeon who is performing neuroscience research on musical creativity. I.e., what goes on in the brain when a songwriter sits at a piano sit at a piano searching for a pleasing series of notes, or when a bunch of performers improvise and exchange riffs. The pace may be different in these two situations, but the overall process of creativity is about the same. But just what is that process all about?

The interviewee, Dr. Charles Limb, mostly said that more research is needed before anything definitive can be said. So the article is more about investigating an unanswered question than about explaining a new scientific discovery. Another interesting question that Dr. Limb asked towards the end of the article – and again left unanswered – is “why do we love sad music? Why does it make us feel better and not worse?” Hmmmm, that’s a darn good and interesting question, especially given how I resolved my Friday the 13th blues earlier this month. We don’t seek out other sad and depressed people when we’re feeling down; that just makes us feel worse (most of us, anyway). But we certainly do love our sad songs, and maybe movies and paintings too. What’s the difference?

If a scientist like Dr. Limb can’t give a good answer, I certainly can’t. But heck, that never stopped me before. In light of my Friday the 13th experience, I will posit that sad music seems like a way of “talking about it”, getting it off your chest. If you’ve got a handful of unneeded $100 bills in your pocket, you could go see a therapist and get her or him to listen to your blues. But other than family and friends – and even among them, only a small percentage at best – you won’t get a lot of sympathy if you start dumping your woes with, say, the next thirsty co-worker at the office water cooler or coffee table. They’ve got their problems too.

But humming a sad song at least makes you feel like you’re doing something expressive with an unwanted emotion; and it reminds you that someone else, i.e. the song-writer, felt what you do. So there’s an expression factor combined with a sympathy factor. Now, how much better can the average shrink or kindly friend or spouse do? (Yes, I know that shrinks are supposed to help you get at the root of your sadness so that you can change yourself and stop whatever else was generating your unhappiness. But I myself believe that the psychology paradigm of ‘therapeutic intervention’ is VERY over-rated, more faith-based than anything else).

I wonder if Dr. Limb and his fellow audio-creativity researchers will arrive at something like that. I recall reading about recent neuroscience research showing that music is “heard” in the brain in regions that have much to do with coordinating body movement (i.e., motor cortex and cerebellum). In a way, when we groove to a catchy tune, we feel something akin to what we feel when moving our bodies. Well sure — to walk or dance or just lift a fork, there has to be a certain rhythm between the thousands of little muscles all over our skeleton frame. When we walk down a street, it seems quite a bit like good music (at least if we’re “swinging down the street so fancy-free”, if you’re old enough to remember the song “Hey There Georgie Girl”). When we trip and stumble, there is something off-key and staticky about it all.

And think about dancing – it seems like such a natural response to music for most people (not in the same way for me, but I’m a different story in that regard). Yes, I believe that there is a lot of overlap between body expression and music, and humming a sad song allows the emotive expression of feelings that our social group doesn’t want us to otherwise express.

Hey, you want to hear all about my latest problems and worries? No? OK then, fire up the CD and punch up a melancholy song, maybe some classic cheese like Barry Mantilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You”. Oh, and an honorable mention to Elton John also for his “Sad Songs Say So Much” from 1984.

(Even though Elton sold a re-worked version of it to Sasson Jeans, which aired a commercial taking advantage of the close pronunciation of “Sasson” and “sad song”; and also the usefulness of the opening verses, i.e. “put them on, put them on, put on those [Sasssss – sons] . . .”)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:01 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, Well, I’m not sure I can agree with all the psychological answers to “liking” sad songs. Actually, sad songs just make me sad. I can only listen to them for a little bit when the pain often just becomes too great, and I just have to stop listening. Sad songs just make me sad.

    I did, tho, think of the German term for what you may be describing: Schaudenfreud. (I think I’ve spelled it right.) It means being happy at someone else’s misfortune. So maybe sad songs are a “version” of schaudenfreud. Same idea as what I’ve often heard in my life: Well, look at all the people in the world who have much worse problems than you do. Ssomehow this is supposed to relieve my pain in a situation. This “solution” only adds to the burden I may feel and doesn’t help me a bit.

    I do, however, think that there is a difference in “sad songs” that have “sad music” and sad words and songs that have “happy” music” with “sad words”–songs full of contradiction. There are a whole lot of these last songs around, and maybe these are the ones you are referring to that make you happy. Manilow’s “Can’t live without you” is one such–sad words, happy music. Another such “contradictory” song is “Mack, the Knife”–the words are really horrible, if one actually listens to them; yet the music is totally contradictory–upbeat, lively, happy. (I find myself saying, what’s wrong with this picture? when I hear that song.)

    But then there is Barbra Streisand’s “Memories” (“of the way we were”) has both sad words and sad music and is almost too much to listen to more than once at a time; it evokes such pain in me. Nora Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” evokes the same kind of tangible pain as “Memories.” Then there is Nora Jones’ “Come Away with Me” that seems as if it should be happy, but the music makes one feel the answer will be “no” and somehow makes me sad.

    So maybe the answer to “sad songs make me happy” is the contradiction between the words and the music. I think one tends to respond to the music rather than the words. Think of some of the rap songs nowadays that are filled with vituperation, hostility, and misogyny; yet people “bob and dance” to them as if they were singing about butterflies and flowers. Serious contradiction there.

    The ability of music to cause a physical response in one’s body, as if someone reaches inside one and physically touches a sensitive spot is amazing to me. One can sing about killing someone in a very gory way (Mack, the Knife) and yet “feel” happy. Again, I have to say, what’s wrong with that picture? The ability of music–as opposed to the words–to evoke in one so many different (and contradictory) emotions is amazing and something I never really analyzed before. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 22, 2011 @ 7:22 am

  2. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

    http://www.willimekmusic.de/music-and-emotions.pdf

    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

    http://www.eunomios.org

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek, music theorist

    Comment by Bernd Willimek — January 4, 2014 @ 8:41 am

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