On the first day of my general education music classes, I typically ask students, “What is music?” Without fail, the vast majority of the responses that I hear have something to do with emotion. Given the function that music serves in most people’s daily lives, this is not surprising. We use music to reinforce a certain mood or to change how we are feeling all the time. If we’re getting amped up for a party, Chopin etudes are not going to keep that energy going. Instead, we turn to something lively and happy to keep the mood flowing. Similarly, many people turn to sad music after a breakup or during times of emotional crisis. While musically wallowing in negative emotions for extended periods of time may not be the healthiest thing we can do, I suspect this impulse is based on our basic need to feel like we are not alone in our moments of sadness.
However, once we are ready to change our mood and start feeling happy again, often we use music as a stimulus for brighter feelings. You can also see this type of thinking in action by paying attention to music in film and television. Much of the tension generated during a scary film comes from musical sound, just like film composers use sonic cues to inform the audience that the handsome man who just confessed his undying love to the naïve, young girl is lying through his teeth.
So, how do musical sounds reflect feelings? That’s a complicated question. Part of it is answered by neurobiology, while some of it is learned behavior, enforced by the culture in which we grow up. While all human cultures have some kind of music (and it is believed that music has been part of humanity as long as we have been hanging around on the planet), a piece of music that sounds happy or sad to a typical Western listener may not necessarily sound that way to someone from another part of the world. So, for our purposes, let’s focus on Western musical traditions.
Grossly simplifying the matter, music in a major key sounds happy, while music in a minor key sounds sad. Similarly, music with a fast tempo gives us energy, while slow music helps us relax. In vocal music, lyrics also play a huge factor in how a song makes us feel when we hear it. Unless the idea is to be ironic, the text to a song such as Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” would not work to a musical background such as that from The Carpenters’ “Top of the World” or vice versa (though, now that I think about it, I’d kind of like to hear that…). Again, these are not universal constants in all musical cultures, but they generally hold true for the vast majority of music a typical American listener will encounter. If these conventions were not generally consistent in our culture, film music, like a just described a moment ago, would not have the effect that it does on the viewer.
As for the brain, according to Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and musician, the brain processes music in a multi-phasic process. First the auditory cortex processes the sound. Then, those signals are sent to the frontal regions of the brain, which examines the structure of the musical sound and creates certain expectations, and the cerebellum and basal ganglia examine rhythm and meter. Finally, the mesolimbic system responds to the upsetting of those expectations by releasing dopamine, creating a sense of pleasure from the experience of hearing something we did not anticipate. Naturally, this all occurs very quickly, so that we are not consciously aware of the process. Instead, we suddenly find ourselves being drawn to what we hear, whether it is because it creates a continuity with the emotions we are feeling or offers a better alternative. When it comes to music, our brains are programmed to enjoy surprises.
Why am I suddenly thinking about all of this? Well, on one hand, I think about it a lot. Talking and writing about music and how people use it in their lives is kind of my job. But, also, there’s a more selfish motive at work. I’m getting ready to move. I’m starting a new job three states away. I have a seven-hour drive ahead of me, and I need to create a playlist. The move itself is causing a lot of conflicting emotions: excitement and anticipation, happiness about the opportunity, fear of the unknown, sadness at leaving my friends, nervousness about the new job, stress for all the planning that needs to be done… So, how do I use my knowledge of music in a logical, informed way to reinforce the good, recognize and support the sad, and chase away the fear? Honestly, I’m not yet sure. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears. In the immortal words of Flava Flav, “Hit me!”
Now, just as listening to music can direct and impact our emotions, making music has long been used as a tool for focusing one’s feelings in productive and creative ways. Music therapists allow teenagers struggling with emotional disorders to express themselves in sound. Once upon a time, I studied music therapy, and I completed two semesters of practicums, where I worked with Alzheimer’s patients at local retirement homes. Singing old songs helped these people recall their pasts and clear their minds. Composers and songwriters often speak of needing to get their feelings out by writing them down within the context of a song or work.
I’m guessing for my long drive, I’ll be doing a lot of both listening and “performing.” I am one of those people who can’t help but to sing along with music, especially while I’m driving. So, if you see a woman in a blue Civic headed down I-85, singing and bopping around like a maniac, wave hello! With any luck, by the time I reach my new home, I’ll have produced enough dopamine to be feeling happy and ready to start the newest chapter of my life!
One of the most incredible albums I know that served as an emotional catharsis for its writer and performer is Sand and Water by Beth Nielsen Chapman (1997). She wrote the songs for this album during and following her husband’s long illness and death from cancer in 1994. The raw emotions and honest lyrics confront the pain, anger, and bewilderment that I can only imagine would accompany such an experience.
The album Sand and Water first began to attract public notice after Elton John reported during an interview with Oprah Winfrey that Chapman’s music helped him to come to terms with the death of Princess Diana. John also performed songs from the album during his 1997-98 tour.
Chapman’s songs simultaneously celebrate the life of her husband, condemn the circumstances that led to his death, question her emotional responses to her circumstances, confront the realities of being left alone to care for their son, and trace her struggle to regain her sense of self. Listening to the album is a rare and beautiful experience, in which this gifted singer and songwriter opens her heart for all to hear.
Sand and Water is available in streaming formats through Spotify and Tidal. And, though it is out of print, it can be purchased on CD (and cassette!) on Amazon.
How does Beth Nielsen Chapman’s music make you feel? What other music do you use to change how you feel?
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.