Medicinal Music, Lyrical Lotions & A Lil Scientific Skepticism

I have heaps of t-shirt slogans as hilarious as this one. At least 3.

NB: This post follows on from a recent topic over at the [sic] Magazine forum.

A recent article on BBC News briefly highlighted a study currently being conducted and lead by audio engineer Dr Don Knox, with the aim of creating a mathematical model by which music would be created and subsequently prescribed to aid patients suffering conditions such as depression as well as physical pain. Below are the opening comments from the article:

“Scientists at Glasgow Caledonian University are using a mixture of psychology and audio engineering to see how music can prompt certain responses. They will analyse a composition’s lyrics, tone or even the thoughts associated with it. Those behind the study say it could be used to help those suffering physical pain or conditions like depression. By considering elements of a song’s rhythm patterns, melodic range, lyrics or pitch, the team believe music could one day be used to help regulate a patient’s mood.”

I think it’s pretty much undeniable that music can and does affect a person’s mood. It’s the idea that it can be engineered by scientists with the specific goal of doing so that I have a problem with. For a start, that goes against just about everything I believe music and art stands for – that being a free expression of ideas, emotions and thoughts of the creator(s) and not the product of pre-determined equations (and yes, I’m well aware of the existence of such music already, what with the scores of generic, formulaic and  industry-generated pop acts).

The study focuses on the technical aspects of a piece of music and their subsequent effect on listeners. As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t just dilute the core of a piece of music, it makes it something else entirely.

I’ll agree that language, in whichever form it takes, contains an inherent lyrical element, which encompasses things like rhythm and meter, so, sure, mathematical equations and algorithms could be formulated to determine certain characteristics of effective lyrics. They could well come up with graphs to match specific vocal intonations with corresponding neurological effects and determine patterns. But I don’t need a scientific explanation to tell me why I shiver every time I hear Tori Amos sing the line “is your place in heaven worth giving up these kisses” in the live version of Cooling found on To Venus and Back, and not when I hear it on any of the other versions I have.

The aforementioned elements aside, however, how can anyone possibly propose to dissect lyrics into mathematical components and use it as a means to direct people to compositions that will have specific emotional (or physical) effects? Will we see new warning labels appearing on music releases? This just found on a post-rock album… Warning: This recording contains emotionally effective music and is intended for the temporary relief of silence and minor ailments caused by emotional disturbances. Prolonged use may cause feelings of calm, followed by extended periods of gloom, fits of euphoria and in some instances, melodramatic climaxes.  Not to be used in conjunction with inferior audio equipment. Please see your record dealer if symptoms persist.

I could be wrong, of course. Maybe it’s about time I stopped the incredibly challenging affair of seeking my own rewards from music and let a computer decide my ‘best match’. If movies have taught us anything it’s that computers and robots are capable of understanding human emotions. Edgar, the talking computer from 80’s flick Electric Dreams is testement to that, and boy did he know music. He certainly had a profound effect with that little duet through the air vent, and even stood a good chance at winning fair Madelines heart. But, alas, t’was not to be and the self-sacrificing computer ended his life to clear the path for Miles. Let that be a lesson to you, Mr Scientists – while Edgar is proof positive that a machine can learn what love is, creating emotionally charged programs on electrical equipment results in severe system overloads, and just because they leave us with incredibly beautiful swan songs (see below), it’s not justification enough to use mechanical hearts to further our own emotional advancement. Plus, since he could never quite manage to pronounce ‘Miles’ correctly, I fear we’d be in for a slew of lyrics such as “I see a thousand moles through you“*, “But all the moles that separate, disappear now when I’m dreaming of your face“*, etc. etc.

Seriously though, in my experience, people tend to listen to specific pieces they’ve previously connected with on some level and subsequently chosen to match a mood that they’re already in; which suggests an awareness  of their connection, but I can’t see how those kinds of connections can be forged, mimicked, designed or manipulated (manipulated being the key word there – personally, if a scientist handed me a song “hand picked” via a system of computerised, possibly standardised, parameters, I would almost certainly baulk at the inferred manipulation).

Understanding a number of common, predictable elements is one thing, but it’s not just content and delivery that matters, that resonates with an individual. Those things are subject to worlds – universes – of subjective filtering, meaning that the effect a simple word or phrase has on one person will be completely meaningless for another, or even have the opposite effect. I just don’t see how the myriad, wildy varying nuances of an individual’s psyche can be accounted and catered for. One may be able to use probability to predict the likely outcome of something, but I can’t see music choices generated from a statistical chart achieving the same kind of resonance as music that we find and love on our own.

And you know what? Even if it could, I’d really rather they not try. Music is an art, the result of human creativity,  and our connections with it are based on such a vast range of individual circumstances, i.e. have you ever discovered an album, artist or song at just the right time for it to be the most profound? Let’s not undermine the thrill of that very personal  experience by engineering formulas that can spit out proposed intimations like a dating service. Really, let’s not allow science to decide everything for us.


*Lyrics taken – and slightly adjusted – from A Thousand Miles from You by Mindflow, and Here Without You by 3 Doors Down respectively.


About Satellite for Entropy

My thoughts are fish, all swimming about and prone to scattering swiftly. Some of them are pretty but not all of them are gold. Some have teeth; some travel in gangs and with a single school of thought; some are haphazard loners, darting about the place randomly and to no obvious purpose. But they're all slippery little suckers. Sometimes, I get lucky and find myself with a good grasp on one, long enough to remember what it looks like before releasing it back into the wild. View all posts by Satellite for Entropy

2 responses to “Medicinal Music, Lyrical Lotions & A Lil Scientific Skepticism

  • RB

    Really good article.

    I do already have one album that I purchased on prescription…

    And it is indeed good for treating the heart and soul.

  • Satellite for Entropy

    I once had this English bloke recommend I try that stuff, just a little bit, purely for recreational purposes.

    Turns out it was a gateway CD, and led to all kinds of jazzy psychedlic trips. Last week I traded my VCR for a Spacemen 3 single.

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