A couple of days ago I was in my car, listening to Sirius XM Satellite Radio's station Symphony Hall, and was delighted when one of my favorite pieces of music came on -- Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
I've always reacted to music emotionally, ever since I was four years old and begged to be allowed to put my parents' vinyl records on the turntable and play them. My mom, not trusting my capacity to handle them carefully, at first refused, but when it became clear that I would keep asking till I got my way, she finally caved and taught me how to operate it.
To my credit, I never so much as scratched a single record. Even at that age, I recognized that they were far too precious to me to mishandle. I did, however, play certain records over and over and over, undoubtedly making my mother question her decision to teach me how to use the record player. Interestingly, I never had any interest in children's music -- not that my parents had much of that in any case -- the pieces I fell in love with as a child were Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Dvorak's Symphony #9: From the New World. I remember being blown away when I was about twelve, and had a little portable AM/FM radio my grandmother gave me, and stumbled on the one radio station near where I lived that had a classical music program once a week. I was idly flipping channels, and -- all of a sudden -- the opening chords of the first chorus of J. S. Bach's Magnificat in D came pouring out of the little speakers.
Three minutes later, when the piece ended, I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom with tears streaming down my face. It was, truly, a transformative experience -- so much so that I worked it, very nearly verbatim, into my novel The Hand of the Hunter.
But I didn't know then, and still don't know, why some music resonates so strongly with me, and other pieces don't generate any emotional response at all. I was spellbound when I discovered Stravinsky's Firebird when I was seventeen; it's still my very favorite piece of music. On the other hand, I've heard music-loving friends rave about the symphonies of Brahms, and I can say unequivocally that I've never heard anything by Brahms that has ever generated more than a "meh" reaction from me.
Why? I don't think anyone could answer that.
What is certain is that music is, for most of us, a deeply emotional experience. And two studies that just came out this week support the conclusion that this response is very likely to be innate.
The first, which appeared in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, is perhaps not that surprising. It studied the stress levels and mood of over seven hundred volunteers, and found that listening to music improved mood and reduced stress, pretty much across the board. Most hearteningly, the stress reduction was greatest in those who registered the highest stress levels before the study.
Like I said, nothing too earthshattering. But the second is absolutely astonishing. A paper in Psychological Studies showed that newborns, when played music judged by listeners as "happy" or "sad," responded differently -- and that it seems to be independent of tempo ("happy" music generally having a faster rhythm than "sad" music). Newborns listening to the tunes judged as "happy" showed greater focus, calmer facial expressions, reduced heartbeat, and less movement of the hands and feet; "sad" music produced no such effect.
So the hallmarks of a happy piece of music -- things like being in a major key, less harmonic dissonance, and wide pitch contours -- are markers we either learn prenatally, or else are (amazing as it may seem) hard-wired into our neural network.
I said earlier that this was "astonishing," but honestly, it shouldn't be. Like I said, I've responded emotionally to music for as long as I can recall, and although my parents had a decent collection of records, neither of them played an instrument (nor made any real efforts to expose me to music). Whatever capacity I had for music appreciation was already there somewhere. And the fact that the link between emotion and music is so innate is pretty incredible. I have to wonder what evolutionary purpose it serves. We certainly get a lot of information about others' emotional states through the pitch contours of their speech; think about what it sounds like when an actor portrays a "robotic voice," for example. The contours flatten out, leaving behind a monotonous, mechanical stream of words.
But is this really what drives our emotional response to music? It's only a guess. What's certain is that the current research explains why for so many of us, music is a critical piece of our lives -- something we return to again and again for solace, comfort, and emotional release.