Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Music of the heart

I've wondered for years why certain pieces of music elicit such a powerful emotional response.

Partly that's because I react powerfully myself, and kind of always have.  I vividly remember being about fifteen years old and being moved to tears the first time I heard Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis:

Well, "moved to tears" is kind of an understatement.  "Sobbing" or "bawling" would be closer to the mark.

Then, there's the first time I heard the moment when the sedate, tranquil "Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus" in J. S. Bach's Mass in B Minor suddenly launches into the wild, triumphant trumpets and chorus "Cum Sancto Spiritu":

This one elicited a different response, although just as intense.  I was lying on my sofa with headphones on, and when that transition happened I felt like I had been bodily lifted into the air.  These experiences were what prompted me to weave both of these pieces of music -- and a number of others -- into the narrative of my novel The Chains of Orion, as experienced by the character of the kind-hearted, music-loving robot Quine.  One of my coolest experiences as a writer was being told by a reader that he'd been so intrigued to find out why I'd chosen the pieces I'd used as a framework for Quine's story that every time another one was mentioned, he'd sit and listen to it -- and doing this had really enriched his experience of reading the book.

So music can generate some powerful emotions, but what's curious to me is how differently people can react.  I also recall a less-pleasant incident when as a teenager I got into a riproaring argument with my mom (who was one of those people who simply couldn't bear someone having a different opinion than her) over whether Mason Williams's brilliant guitar piece Classical Gas was melancholy or not.  I find the minor key riffs -- especially after the bright major-key brass passage in the middle -- to be deeply wistful, nostalgic, just this side of sad.  My mom's argument was basically "it's happy because it's fast," which to this day I don't understand.  (Although if I were to have the same conversation today, I'd be much quicker to let it go and say "okay, your opinion is your own."  Maybe my mom wasn't the only one who couldn't stand being contradicted.)

While it's still a mystery why some pieces of music can affect certain people viscerally and leave others completely cold, a paper that came out last week in the journal iScience has taken at least the first step toward cataloguing how those experiences are perceived.  A team led by Tatsuya Daikoku of the University of Tokyo used the impressions of over five hundred listeners to different chord changes to see if there was any commonality in the sensations those created.

And there was.  The authors write:
The relationship between bodily sensations and emotions can be elucidated from the perspective of the brain’s predictive processing.  Predictive processing operates on the principle that our brain constantly anticipates and predicts sensory inputs based on prior experiences.  When there’s a mismatch between the predicted and actual sensory input, a prediction error is generated.  Interoception, which refers to the brain’s perception of internal bodily states, plays a pivotal role in this context.  The brain generates emotions by minimizing prediction errors between the anticipatory signals derived from its internal model and the sensory signals through exteroceptive and interoceptive sensations.  Within the framework of music, when our musical predictions are not met, it can lead to a visceral, interoceptive response.  For instance, if we anticipate a musical chord progression based on our prior experiences and the music deviates from this expectation, it can generate a prediction error.  This error might manifest as a sudden change in heartbeat or a rush of emotions associated with surprise, both of which are interoceptive responses.

This certainly describes my mental levitation during Bach's Mass in B Minor.  

I wonder, though, how much of that sense of unmet anticipation is dependent upon the musical tradition we've grown up with.  I get together with two musician friends every couple of weeks to play Balkan music -- a tradition not only with chord progressions that can sound strange to Western European ears, but with time signatures heavily favoring odd numbers.  (One piece we play has the time signature -- I kid you not -- 25/16.)  So for example, would the progressions in this lovely and haunting tune sound unsurprising -- and therefore less poignant -- to someone who grew up in rural Macedonia?

In any case, that was beyond the scope of the study, but it would be an interesting next step to include volunteers from cultures with very different musical traditions.

So I think I'll wrap this up.  Maybe put on some music.  Stravinsky's Firebird never fails to pick me up by the tail and whirl me around a bit.  On the other hand, for an emotional rollercoaster, there's nothing like Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which takes us from the joyful gallop of the first movement directly into the wrenching pathos of the second.  Or maybe I'll opt for the eerie atmosphere of Debussy's piano piece The Drowned Cathedral.

So much music, so little time.


No comments:

Post a Comment