The Psychology of Music

I think it was Ezra Pound who considered that all music tended either towards the dance or towards the song. A nice and a pregnant observation

There is also a commonplace which states that music is ‘a language’; some go as far as to call it ‘a universal language’

Of course it has not boundaries in the way that say French or Arabic and other spoken and written languages have; which are bounded by their availability only to speakers and writers and readers of their languages.

All this may be conceded – yet there is indeed a difference between say Indian; Chinese; Arabic; European; Spanish musics; and anyone familiar enough with these differences can usually give a geographical source to any piece she hears played.

Thus the different culturally-based musics are distinctive and differentiable to a modestly trained ear.

Then there are ‘social classes’ of musics, for want of a better name for them. There is ‘pop’ which is an amorphous and wider ranging entity; a very broad church indeed. Within it might be places – Country & Western; Rock; Blues; R&B; soul; rap; rave; house; M.O.R. and so on.

Then there are traditional musics; which can be very interesting. These include folk; gospel; spirituals; mambas; calypsos; possibly reggae and skaa; and indigenous musics of native peoples wherever in the world a tradition exists.

But traditional musics are not always so easy to pin a culture or a geography to. Mediaeval English music is hard sometimes to distinguish from Arabic folk music (because of the influences both ways during the Crusader Wars).  Celtic and Indian folk can ‘overlap’ because the dark skinned dark haired Celts were part of the same indigenous race which occupied India many moons back.  Anthropology has its place here.

Spain and the Moors; South America and Iberia; North America and almost every where; West Indies and African; all reflect musics which involve history and historical shifts; and which concerning the blendings of these musics taken in vaccuo were entirely accidental in resultant effects.

But this all said: and music acknowledged to be a various and multitudinous range of styles and sensitivities; the question remains – can we say anything which is able to help characterise what music is and how it works (universally) upon us?

Here are a few interesting considerations.

Leos Janacek, an Eastern European composer of classical music during the 20th century, claimed with some authenticity I think, that he found inspiration for his Symphonietta and his Glagolitic Mass and his handful of successful operas; in regarding and using as his raw materials the speech patterns and rhythms he heard daily in use around him.  Now this is important; because music does indeed ‘talk’ to us; and I would say that much music has the ability to ‘jerk us around’ emotionally in much the same way as we pick up nuance and intonation; mood and urgency; in what people tell us in their speaking to us.  Maybe there’s a learning curve required for Janacek’s products made out of his raw materials, and maybe there’s a learning curve for us for all musics; but give a listen to Janacek and see whether you agree with him and see whether you can see the speech patterns put to work as music.

I tend to feel Janacek’s speech rhythms when I listen – and I believe his operas are so successful because of these patterns in them – they help immensely with telling a dramatic story in song.

Also I believe Janacek was in no way unique; than many composers and songwriters of all kinds either aware or unawares use spoken language patterns as a basis for what they produce.  The alignment of music with verbal languages is apparent.

Let’s go back to the ability all musics have to ‘jerk us about’ emotionally. What goes on here? Young girls shed tears over a sad song. Commuters take up the hint and march briskly through Waterloo Station to the military music played on the platforms there deliberately so as to get people moving of a morning.  The Spartans allowed themselves only martial stirring tunes in their Peloponnese home; deliberately so as to make their men grow up tough and not susceptible to ‘softness’.  Hard Rock can drive persons to frenzied excitement (which Jack Black comically displays in his movie ‘School of Rock’). Music can stand for things. National Anthems; Church Services; Relaxation; intense pain and grief; love and joy; all kinds of emotions and ideas coalesce around musics and around particular musical styles and pieces.

And we are truly ‘jerked around’ by music; subliminally it is used in shopping malls; in waiting rooms; over the phone; at intermissions; and so on with an intent to encourage us to buy or to be patient or to pay attention.

An interesting musical fact

Mozart wrote what have become to be known as divertimentos. These usually are for small string orchestras to play. Their name gives a clue to their function. They were ‘diversions’ in the old fashioned sense of that word; in the way tennis or card games are ‘diversions’ from the grind of daily toils.  Divertimentos were early ‘spam’; or as it used to be called ‘muzac’.  Except that nothing that a man of the calibre of Mozart wrote was ‘spam’ indeed.

These divertimentos were played as background music in society salons of Mozart’s times in Vienna. (A ‘salon’ is a large plush room where evening dinner parties with many ‘important’ guests would mingle and take recreation; probably do business and swap gossip. The 18th century Facebook and LinkedIn.  Divertimentos were not meant to be listened to – at least not in the way a classical music buff listens to her music – which is – as Nietzsche said – ‘with one’s feet’.

Divertimentos were subliminal and creative of ‘atmosphere’ like our music for meditation disks we see in boot sales today for 10p each. You were – at such a dinner party – conditioned by the music into a conducive state to enjoy the social frissons.

But Mozart’s divertimentos are preserved – and are preserved because they are durable and great pieces of composition and of music to hear played. Try K271 – that’s a very dry code number give to one of these divertimentos by the cataloguer of Mozart’s works after Mozart’s death.  K271 is delightful and engaging, light but very absorbing – you won’t regret it.

So, as it were, Mozart was ‘talking’ quietly and persuasively to everyone present at these high-society soirees as his music seeped unheeded into the consciousness of the guests; and he settled them and made them feel good and assured and maybe Mozart induced not a few indiscretions (not just concerning ladies, but concerning politicians and businessmen also?) to be offered and maybe accepted?

‘Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast’

‘If music be the food of love; play on’

So here in music resides power – power to persuade to rouse to encourage to sadden – a power like that described by Hamlet concerning one of the players come to act a drama; on whom Hamlet bestows astonishment and honour when he speaks thus of him:

[He] in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit

That from her working all his visage wann’d,

Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!

For Hecuba!

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,

That he should weep for her?

Music has this powerful emotional pressure upon us all – it can ‘jerk us about’ and we cannot stop it sometimes.

Songs get ‘attachments’.  Soccer clubs in UK have fans who adopt a song which becomes the song for that club. Liverpool FC has ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ West Ham United has ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ and so on.  These songs weld clan loyalties; strong and binding; lasting and unbroken down generations and across families.  The weekly match experience would diminish greatly without them.

But music can be understood – I am convinced – and has a psychology of its own. It can be studied and can be investigated and expounded – with the right care and enough diligence.  Even the pauses in music work on us. Has any of you heard the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, his desperate final ‘swansong’ of deep and impenetrable despair?  In the best recordings there is a silence mid way through and one is left hanging and attentive – waiting – only a couple of seconds but they seem an age of agony – one has been primed emotionally by what had come before the music died out here.

When the notes come; the chord strikes – like a bolt, like a blow to the head – and even though you have heard it seventy times seven times before it remains unexpected, unable to be accommodated and contained by your feelings – and it hits you somewhere low down in the bowels with a deep grievous pity and terror – the chord is vicious and it is soft and melting – and like a blade or saw cuts you open and leaves your heart bare and throbbing in pain – and you wonder – what sort of state was the guy in who wrote those few bars? – How could a guy write them and survive the emotional wrench?  Tchaikovsky was dead a few days later after completing the symphony – probably by his own hand.  There’s nothing more to be said – it seems inevitable – it’s all there in his last cri de coeur. Signposted – Prophesied

Music can make articulate the inarticulate-in-language person. There are stories that arise which bring to light men and women who have been raised – often overnight – to singing stardom – in popular and in classical styles – who have been raised from singing in their kitchens as the wash dishes or prepare meals for their family – maybe along to a recording they enjoy of a song or an aria – or who habitually sing in their baths likewise. These persons often are sweetly unaware of their own abilities or their own senses of rhythm or of a turn of musical phrase or of their virtuosity; until someone prominent who knows and has position and confidence can place them onstage at The Albert Hall or at Carnegie Hall.

Shelley called poets; ‘The unacknowledged legislators of the world’.  Musicians, performers and composers likewise have a majestical gift for directing and guiding our hearts our passions our souls. And like any great power it can be misused by those who wish to misuse it. Just as a madman in the White House can press the nuclear destruct button; so the same guy (or woman) is able to act more subtly with stealths and guile so as to place your dispositions whereabouts s/he wants them; and music remains a powerful weapon in the armoury.

Bob Dylan, one of the greats of 20th century folk and of what was known then as ‘protest song’ who made such a difference to so many lives and probably affected the world as much as did a Nixon or a Johnson; Dylan sang (with feeling):

I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Simplify you, classify you
Deny, defy or crucify you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

No, and I ain’t lookin’ to fight with you
Frighten you or tighten you
Drag you down or drain you down
Chain you down or bring you down
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

I ain’t lookin’ to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up
Analyze you, categorize you
Finalize you or advertise you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

I don’t want to straight-face you
Race or chase you, track or trace you
Or disgrace you or displace you
Or define you or confine you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

I don’t want to meet your kin
Make you spin or do you in
Or select you or dissect you
Or inspect you or reject you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

I don’t want to fake you out
Take or shake or forsake you out
I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *