The Mysterious Magic of Music

Why does music affect some people so deeply that we're moved to tears—of joy or of sorrow? Why does some of it send chills up our spines? Why does an exceptional performance make us want to leap to our feet and cheer? What exactly is the mechanism at work here?

In particular, why does this happen only to certain people?

One of my favorite compositions is Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, which some musicologists have described as one of the saddest pieces ever composed. Yet when I play it for friends, hardly anyone admits to being affected by it. One friend said she felt absolutely nothing; another said he was very nearly put to sleep by it; yet another asked if I'd please turn off the "screeching noise."

But Barber's Adagio affects enough people that it's quite often played publicly following the death of a great leader or revered individual. At its premiere in Russia, the audience was so taken by it that they refused to leave the hall until it was played again. How I yearn to have been there that night, to be surrounded by so many fellow humans willing and able to surrender their souls to such extraordinary sounds, to be utterly consumed by them, to weep openly in an enormous shared celebration of vicarious grief—and to revel in it!

Yes, as contradictory as it may seem, many people actually enjoy being emotionally tortured by music: the experience is exhilarating, enthralling, liberating. I also find that exceptionally powerful performances of uplifting, exciting works, when the musicians are thoroughly engaged in the piece, will also move me to tears. An example would be a standout performance of, say, Maurice Ravel's Bolero—what a genuine thrill when Ravel changes the key near the end! (Incidentally, at times like these I often become the world's greatest conductor!)

I've been in search of an answer for as long as I've been aware of the phenomenon. I vividly recall exactly when that awareness was born.

I was 22 and working at an art studio, where the owner often played classical music on an old portable record player. For the most part, the music was merely pleasant background noise... until one particular piece came on, and I stopped what I was doing so I could actively listen. Then I began to choke up.

It was Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony—in particular, the third movement, the Romanza. There, contained in a mere twelve minutes, was my entire emotional life laid bare: all of the heartache, the grief, the pain, even brief glimpses of hope and joy.

46 years later, it still serves as the theme of my life. And it still makes me weep.

Since that awakening, I've delved deeply into music, seeking out those works that possess emotional power. Astonishingly, I've found music capable of expressing any human emotion: not merely happy, sad, angry, etcetera—those are like primary colors. Music can also be incredibly deep, layered, nuanced... hope, fear, frustration, determination, resignation, regret... even emotions so subtle and complex that they're virtually impossible to articulate, like colors with no names. Some music I can feel deep inside, and while I may lack the ability to describe what it is I'm sensing, I'll ache all the same.

Music is clearly a stimulus; but what exactly is it stimulating? Humans are merely blobs of electro-chemical processes; how do these complex sounds evoke such complex reactions? In my quest for an answer to the riddle, I came upon This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin. Just based on the title, I pinned a great deal of hope on the book.

Alas, it was of no help. The author, a former rock band session artist, spent much of his New York Times Bestseller dropping names and impressing us with how much he's learned in his new vocation as a neuroscientist. While he acknowledged that some music can affect us emotionally, he focused on the impact lyrics have on us. This literal perspective ignores the much broader emotional spectrum that pure music can evoke. This power also transcends all language barriers—a kind of "universal language," if you will—yet one that's not perceived by everyone, or (evidently) fully understood by anyone.

Frustratingly, this "universal language" remained largely unilluminated by Levitin, who went to great lengths to explain the mechanics of music composition (pitch, rhythm and so on), but not the means by which it stimulates emotional responses. So I turned to the Internet to research the subject, and all I found were studies and papers that all said pretty much the same thing: Yes, it happens. No, we don't know how or why.

So I began to develop some of my own hypotheses, and came up with four mechanisms by which we react to music. The first I call "fundamental response": this has to do with the fact that certain chords are almost always described as sounding happy, sad, and so on. Think in terms of our sense of taste: sweet, salty, bitter, etc. As we evolved, it might be that these fundamental sounds were a result of certain circumstances, such as the gut-wrenching howl of a wounded creature, or the yips of delight at finding a new source of food.

Next I suggest we have "core preferences," akin to a person's predisposition for certain foods. As an example, I've hated pineapple since I was a baby, according to my mother. Why did I hate pineapple? It's a mystery, but it was evidently hardwired into my senses from birth. Contrast this with "learned preferences," music to which we were regularly exposed while growing up.

And finally, I offer as a fourth category, "associative preferences." These are responses that develop as a consequence of unrelated circumstance: that is, what was going on while certain music was heard for the first time. As an example, in my case I was introduced to Vaughan Williams' Fifth in a safe, comfortable environment with a group of three or four individuals engaged in creative work; the music was entirely incidental, so I encountered it passively, with no purpose or goal. I was free to connect with it, which I did immediately and powerfully, for it spoke directly to my innermost self, bypassing any conscious thought of which I was aware.

Contrast this with the audience who heard the premiere: London was being bombed out of existence by Hitler. While many thousands of citizens were huddled in shelters all across the city, the concert halls still hosted performances even as the bombs rained down on them, and broadcast the music by radio. And there, in the dim, dusty gloom of the bomb shelters, terrified people were calmed by the earnest, troubled yet hopeful melodies Vaughan Williams had composed years before the war. Imagine how very different their reaction must have been from mine.

Indeed, when I learned of this, I actually felt somewhat guilty for adopting the work as "my theme." But then a good friend advised me that my "claim" to the music was just as valid as anyone else's. The composer did not create it expressly for certain individuals, or to suit any particular circumstances. His only agenda was to entertain us with the enigmatic sounds that emerged from within him, brilliantly realized by expertly skilled craftspeople: the members of the orchestra.

But I dare say I'm no music expert, and my hypotheses might be just so much nonsense; besides, it still doesn't explain that connection between the sounds we encounter with the feelings we experience. I'm merely trying to understand and make sense of this magical power. And I use the term "magic" quite deliberately, for I've found no concrete explanation for the effect. It would appear to remain a mystery, and that which we cannot understand is often described as magic. I for one am eternally grateful this magic exists!

Personal Favorites

As I'd mentioned, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony remains at the top of the list. In particular, the Romanza presents a long sequence detailing a lifetime of pain and frustration, summing up the inevitable futility of life in one agonizing, unanswerable question: was it worth it? There then follows a slow, gentle conclusion that assures us we will ultimately find comfort in our eventual, equally inevitable death. Of course, this is my interpretation—flawed though it may be—of what I hear. Others I'm certain will interpret it quite differently. And as I'd also said, I doubt very much if Vaughan Williams had any of this in mind when he composed it. I'd love to know what his agenda was—assuming he had one.

I also mentioned Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, something of the gold standard for sorrowful music. One remarkable aspect of it, though, is that it's not maudlin; it doesn't try to make us feel sad. Instead, it plays out as an honest, earnest work that offers us the means to find our own grief, and allow it to emerge.

Among my more recent finds, the soundtrack for Black Widow by Lorne Balfe is simply spectacular. Like the film, it's undeniably superhero stuff, but with strong Russian overtones, making it refreshingly different from the typical bombast of an action-adventure blockbuster. Employing a 118-piece orchestra and a 60-member choir singing in Russian, Balfe created powerful, stirring music that's solid and substantial, yet also aged and melancholic. I put the soundtrack on repeat for a whole day, and it was still giving me goosebumps at the end of the day. Indeed, several months later it's become firmly cemented as one of my all-time favorite film scores—some of the tracks just just rip me to shreds.

Sometimes I'll find the most remarkable music in the most unlikely places. Among the more unusual is music from videogames. I have zero interest in videogames, but some of them have outstanding scores. I call them "gametracks," and my collection is substantial and constantly growing. One gametrack in particular has a curious little work that I maintain is the most striking musical depiction of regret, for me one of the most dangerously powerful of all emotions. Richard Vreeland composed the music for the game FEZ, and the track in question is called "Forgotten."

Speaking of simple tunes with remarkable power, a favorite "new age" composer of mine is Tim Story. His album The Perfect Flaw has a track that can quickly turn me into a sobbing mess: "Lydia." Indeed, I can get choked up merely by thinking about the piece.

During my college days, I explored quite a lot of "progressive" music (among many other genres), and a regrettably short-lived band quickly became a favorite: Beaver and Krause. The title track from their album In a Wild Sanctuary isn't even two minutes long, and yet it remains a tune I play frequently. I can't even explain how it makes me feel; all I can say is that it still manages to find some button hidden somewhere deep inside of me and pushes it.

Some tracks may not necessarily evoke emotions on their own yet still move me deeply due to the performance. Strangely, one of the works that remains most effective is the third movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, as performed by Wendy Carlos on the Moog synthesizer, from Carlos' debut album, Switched-On Bach. I was never a fan of baroque music, but Carlos' realization of it is flawless, and that may speak to what bothers me about baroque music: it's often composed with nearly impossible-to-perform precision. Hearing it performed with that same precision, curiously, is quite appealing to me. Equally enthralling is Monteverdi's Domine Ad Adjuvandum, which appears on Carlos' second album, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer. Without fail, both works send major-league chills up my spine.

I have hundreds of other favorites among the many thousands of works I've accumulated, so there's no possible way I could be comprehensive about the music I love most. Plus, as I continue to discover new music, it all remains quite fluid. And that's part of the magic.

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