By: Anne H. Rosenfeld
"Why, when I first saw the Grand Canyon and the Piazza San Marco and the Alps, did I feel that these things had all been more moving in Cinerama? Why? Because both God and man forgot to put in the music."
Psychologist Roger Brown of Harvard University, pondering music's effects on our emotions, has capture its essence in noting its absence.
What Brown was missing was exactly what one Hollywood composer put in the film score he enclosed with this cover letter: "Here is a copy of the score which I tried to make bright, dissonant, elegant, entertaining, full, rich and sonorous, historic, spooky, hollow, informational, intellectual, light-hearted, lush, lyric, mocking, mysterious, powerful, questioning, romantic, unorthodox, unsettling and occasionally upbeat.
Music can move us to tears or to dance, to fight or to make love. It can inspire our most exalted religious feelings and ease our anxious and lonely moments. Its pleasures are many, but it can also be alien, irksome, almost maddening. It is created by people to affect and communicate with other people. In one sense, it's no surprise that music grabs us--it's supposed to.
But once you look at the process, it seems quite miraculous that people can bowl one another over just by jiggling sound waves. It's a miracle akin to that of language, and there are sufficient resemblances to have provoked serious study of their similarities. But music is more than a language. Psychologists, philosophers, musicians and musicologists have been trying to understand music's emotional power for some time.
Nonetheless, there's still no neat, complete theory or body of data that can explain how it works. (For that matter, the nature of emotion is still one of psychology's most controversial areas.) No matter how meticulously people analyze music and its power over our emotions, it remains elusive, evading verbalization and--like other arts, humor and love--largely slipping through the net of scientific inquiry. But for those willing to consider provocative fragments of information, there are a number of interesting clues.
Composer Roger Sessions has described music as "controlled movement of sound in time." The notion of control in music is important. Music is rarely the spontaneous outpouring of whatever sounds someone happens to be moved to make. It is highly patterned sound, chosen and shaped, consciously or not, in quite logical ways that often follow rigid rules. This may seem a strange way to elicit emotions, until you think about what goes on in the listener, too.
Both the people who produce music and those who listen to it grow up in a cultural environment that dictates in large measure what music is and how it is to be structured. We all learn certain rules intuitively, simply by exposure, and if we go on with formal musical training, we learn still more.
The rules provide a common framework of expectation that helps composers to organize their musical thoughts and listeners to track them. One such rule in much of Western music is that a piece of music should be in a particular key, with notes selected in accord with that key; further, the piece should end on the key's main note.
In his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music, musicologist Leonard Meyer argues that while listening to music (as when we listen to language), we spin out certain expectations about how things will proceed, based on our cultural learnings.
When the music conforms to our expectations, we relax, but if it deviates somewhat, we become tense. It is the artful succession of tiny expectations, frustrated and fulfilled, and the related tension and release that form the basis for our emotional responses to music.
We become bored with the regularity of a piece that's too predictable, and uncomfortable with one that deviates too much from what's known and expected. If it's mostly predictable but has occasional quite strange deviations, we're surprised or amused.
Meyer points out, too, that music is generally arranged so that certain themes or melodies are introduced, repeated and alternated with other themes. But the original ones eventually return and give us a comforting sense of completion when they do. This journey can be a complex perambulation in a classical symphony but occurs even in folk or popular music as the chorus and verses alternate but always return to end with the familiar refrain.
Within the context of established regularities, composers can and do play with us, sometimes breaking out of the mold or creating ambiguous musical structures that leave us wondering where the music is headed and whether it will ever reach its psychological "home." Sometimes there's an unexpected pause, or a dissonant chord, or a shift in key or rhythm--subtle tricks that keep us interested and on our mental toes until the music comes home.
Composers can surprise us at will by establishing certain regularities within the piece and then failing to follow them, as Haydn did in his "Surprise" Symphony, with its inappropriately loud chord at the end of a theme. In movie music, composers can also play with the expected relation between image and sound, as composer john Williams did in the score for Jaws.
Williams wrote a jagged, nervous shark theme that warned audiences whenever a shark was coming. But in a key scene, the shark appeared without the musical cue, thus intensifying the audience's shock and horror.