A MUSICAL ROLLERCOASTER
‘Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory’ proclaimed Oscar Wilde in 1891. Whether this covered the self-inflicted pain of listening to music to induce tears and helplessness was left unsaid. If you were in pain or discomfort, would it cross your mind to do something that would exacerbate the situation? If you stubbed your toe, would you then hobble to the toolbox to retrieve a hammer with which you could hit it, to make it hurt just that little bit more? Clearly, this would neither assist the situation, nor induce a calmness to deal with it. So, why do we do it? Why do we listen to those songs that take us to an emotional place that, given the opportunity, we would not choose to revisit in person?
Many theories regarding ‘musical expression’ exist, and the title of such research speaks volumes. Perhaps we are listening to these expressive songs as an outlet: an emotional purge. Are we unable to vent these emotions without an aid? Maybe sitting on a doorstep, listening to an emotive song is a therapeutic outlet for emotions that would otherwise remain festering inside. ‘There is no doubt that [people] can be profoundly moved by perceiving, performing, or imagining music, and consequently music must touch on something in their emotional life that brings them into this state of excitation’ states Paul Hindemith- composer and author of ‘A Composer’s World: Horizons and Limitations’- before continuing ‘but if these mental reactions were feelings, they could not change as rapidly as they do, and they would not begin and end with the musical stimulus that aroused them’. This implies that an emotional change when listening to music is not real: merely a temporary and false expression of nothing more than a reaction. ‘We often catch the emotional ambience of our environment or of those around us’ argues Stephen Davies-‘Infectious Music: Music-Listener Emotional Contagion’- and that similarly, when listening to music, the emotion exuded through the music is infectious, similar to that of a bad feeling, fear or excitement in a crowd. Is it that we feel an empathy with the artist who has written, or is singing, the song? Perhaps we find it comforting that someone else is experiencing the same pain as we are, and that person is able to express his or her feelings in a way that we are unable, thus enabling us to ‘reflect’ our emotions upon theirs? Jerrold Levinson-‘Music and Negative Emotion’-states that our emotional response to music ‘mirrors’ that of a response to a real emotional situation, yet the ‘music-emotion’ differs to a real emotion in that it is not directed at an actual object. An arguably more direct theory from Colin Radford-author of ‘Emotions and Music: A Reply to the Cognitivists’-states that ‘listening to sad music does make people sad. To deny this is itself paradoxical because it involves the cognitivist maintaining that when people say this is what happened, they are mistaken’. So, when you find yourself turning into a quivering, sobbing wreck each time you hear the rousing opening bars of that song you call ‘your song’, you could perhaps argue that the emotions are real, the moment is real, and not simply a weak, empty reaction to something that, essentially, means nothing.
Additionally, we use music to motivate ourselves; we generally listen to upbeat songs whilst we undertake physical tasks, such as vacuuming and working-out, whilst we tend to err on the side of the more down-tempo song for those evenings when we turn the lights down low and indulge in a relaxing bubble bath. Swap the genres around, and we may find that the housework takes a lot longer than anticipated, the work-out is not quite as exerting as we had hoped, and the relaxing bubble bath turns into a pre-cursor for a night out ‘on the town’.
The aforementioned theories reflect the reality that we do feel emotion in music. We listen to the lyrics and feel the beat of the song, we use it to vent our own feelings, to reflect our pain onto something that can absorb it, mix it up, and spit it back out at us using sounds and words that we have not contemplated, or are unable to express. We know that our brains react to music, yet we cannot definitively test our cognitive reactions to emotive music, simply because the areas that would be aroused in our brains during such a study could potentially be reacting to something else-to a thought, a memory, a hope, or even a fear.
Consider that perhaps ALL these theories are correct: consider that, as Hindemith theorised, the emotions are experienced, yet are not real: a sort of play-acting. This in itself could be a therapeutic outlet for an emotion hidden inside, and as much as faking a smile cheers one up, perhaps exhibiting a ‘music-emotion’ could, in fact, be a coping strategy for those unable to vent their sadness at particular life events. Consider it a bonus that these emotions are short-lived, for as quickly as you can turn off the song, you can carry on with your daily life, and with the bonus of a weight of the ‘tears and memory’ removed from your shoulders.