Tag Archives: music theory

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.

Music Is As Fairy Tale Does

Part One:
Distance • Recognition • Connection • Experience

I miss traditional storytelling, in the only way that you can miss something that you either never had, or had all too briefly. I suppose it’s really more a faith in the belief that it was something integral to human experience, because by traditional storytelling I don’t mean “old books and stories”, I mean the act, the skill and the practice of a narrator telling you a story. You know, out loud. Possibly around a campfire, with a wizened, white-bearded village elder captivating audiences of all ages with amazing adventures once had, heightened and punctuated by the use of voice, facial expressions, the shaking, thumping and cautionary points of a gnarled branch that doubles as a walking stick… (this goes hand-in-hand with my romantic, medieval imagery of “storyteller”).

I was lucky because my family recognised and encouraged my love of telling and hearing stories when I was young. I have one very fond memory of myself, my two brothers and my mother sitting on our lounge room floor in a circle, TV off, making up stories and telling them to each other in turn. I doubt I was much older that 5 or so, and the most that I can remember is that somewhere in my story was a pterodactyl. And probably a wizard (there always seemed to be a wizard of some form in my stories). It was a wonderfully unique thing to do, even back in the 80’s most likely – suggest that kind of activity to most families today and they will probably look at you like you’re a weirdo.

The Art of Story Telling is the Art of Closing Distance

Story telling has the capacity to close the distance between belief and disbelief, the known and the unknown, experience and inexperience. People have a tendency to participate, at least on some level, with the story being told, and will therefore experience it on a personal level even if the story being told is of  circumstances one may never experience in real life. In that regard, I think the traditional practice of storytelling is a valuable art form; one very different from committing tales to paper. While I believe that on some levels everything is a solitary experience, with an openly shared experience, connection with and to those that shared it is intrinsic.

People use different, often superficial, ways to connect to one another now, or to at the very least maintain a sense of connection – this isn’t new or surprising news. The primary means of communication outside of direct conversation that we have (letters, phones, emails, MySpaces, Facebooks, instant messaging etc. etc.), have the odd ability of being able to both distance us from personal relationships as well as initiate and develop them. My purpose however, isn’t to take any in depth look at that particular phenomenon, or any lack of social interaction. What this is really all about is that I believe music is not only one of the only arts we have left that fosters the same sense of shared experience that I feel (from that limited experience as a 5yr old) the original storytellers were able to, but that it now serves the same, deeper function traditional fairy tales once did.

Entertainment Value…

Even at its most basic level, as pure entertainment, music has the innate capability to forge connections between people. When two people who have never met before begin a conversation, chances are music will be one of the first topics brought up, for obvious reasons. Most people are able to participate in a conversation about music because most people like at least some of it. Everyone begins a conversation about music on level ground, personal taste and opinion comes into it and hopefully it moves to common ground. (Ok, so there are some jerks out there who always think they have superior taste in music than everyone else and that they have the ‘higher ground’. Higher ground is, however, shaky ground and highly susceptible to having rocks thrown at it. There’s also far less air up there so prod them into speaking passionately and profusely until they run out of it, turn blue and topple to their well-deserved doom. Where all the evil wizards are).

What talking about music really does, aside from hopefully keep conversation flowing, is it enables an unspoken mutual understanding and recognition to take place at a different level. Music speaks to us on an emotional level, so when we speak to people who share similar tastes and passions in music, there’s an automatic sense of connection based on a shared understanding of something else; which generally goes completely unspoken. The scope can be pretty wide, I’ve no doubt. By which I mean the intensity of that sense of connection can range from merely thinking ‘hey, this person’s pretty cool’, to (and if you’ve read any of my previous posts you may understand this reference) “OMG, that’s my favourite band too!” and suddenly you’re in love, or at  the very least some  briefer variation of it… What it boils down to is that often when we meet someone who has the same or similar understanding of our passions, it makes us feel understood, too. We soundtrack ourselves, so much of our lives, with the music we listen and connect to, that in turn it helps us feel a connection to those who are listening to the same ‘soundtrack’ we are.

Ok, so what does all or any of this have to do with traditional fairy tales? Well, it’s all about what I mean by traditional fairy tales; as well as how, and the reasons why, we connect to music in the first place.

To be continued…


Image sources:

Men hur kommer man in i berget, frågade tomtepojken by John Bauer

Rumplestiltskin by Walter Crane

Cantiga Santa Maria

Does Your Weather Affect Your Sound?

The idea that weather can affect more than just how fast your clothes dry on the line isn’t new – we have credible sources for studies about how weather can affect a person’s mood and so on. In that sense, it’s also reasonable to assume that where mood plays a part in choices we make, the weather can have a subtle – if vicarious – effect on the music we choose listen to at certain times (many have seasonal favourites, or apply seasonal moods to albums and songs, and there have certainly been entire albums written for particular types of weather).  What I’m really curiuous to find out is how significant a role weather really plays in the music that gets written outside of things like “music for a rainy day“, and more curious if there are discernable trends that can be found in line with region-specific weather patterns.

That might sound odd, perhaps even far-fetched at first, but I’m going to (briefly) explain some of my reasoning behind why I think this idea is more than plausible. (I’m also going to plagiarise myself, and quote excerpts from a forum post I made about this a couple of months ago 😉 ).

If you think about the origins of music – and I mean your traditional / tribal / folk stuff, quite often the instruments were made to emulate the sounds of nature, including weather (rainfall, wind storms etc), so these kinds of sounds have had a strong influence on music from the beginning. Traditional music in countries like Mexico and Africa certainly share a bit in common, at least in terms of being percussion-rich and fairly fast tempo – attributing that to hot or dry weather is flawed theorising at best, but it’s still food for thought. Here in Australia, for example, another hot, dry country, traditional music still features percussion quite strongly, but the tempo is slower, more indulgent perhaps.

A lot of traditional instruments are still in use today, though probably without the specific intention of mimicking things like the sound of heavy rain falling on dry earth, or harsh snow storms with howling winds etc; and obviously the instruments and the sounds they can create are not so region-specific any more, either.

One also needs to take into consideration subject matter when it comes to music, which also affects tone and pace. If you consider that songs generally tell stories, or at least convey a concept, I think it’s reasonable to assume that while you have things like mood, theme etc in the foreground, weather is still a part of the background, at the very least contributing to the prevalent mood and most often without it ever being overt. (Would, say, Bon Iver’s For Emma… had different underlying elements, or even a different sound altogether, if Justin Vernon’s self-imposed isolation had taken place in Tanzania, or the Arctic? The album, I assume, would be telling much the same story, but nature and the weather it brings with it can be a powerful source of inspiration and/or influence, especially if in those kinds of circumstances it’s one of very few things that one has for company, as well as generally being the only part of the scenery that fluctuates or varies).

Quite obviously, there’s much more behind the idea of “region-specific” sounds than weather. Popularity, scene, market forces and a whole host of other factors can all be (at least in part) responsible for the emergence and prevalance of certain kinds of sounds emanating from specific regions – most associate  grunge with Seattle, and I certainly haven’t heard any “blame it on the rain” reasons for that. And, of course, music is no longer constricted in terms of access to new trends and sounds from across the globe. Further to that, in more densely populated areas, large cities and suburbs etc, weather probably doesn’t play as significant or obvious a role as it once did (noted more often if it’s inconveniencing day-to-day life), so perhaps the influence is more subtle to indiscernable, but I still wouldn’t go so far as to say non-existant.

So, both out of personal and professional curiosity, I extend an invitation to musicians and music enthusiasts alike to offer your own perspective on this subject. Whether it’s just a matter of weather affecting mood and subsequently the tone of music, or if certain sounds have inspired the use of a particular instrument and how. Perhaps you may even slightly alter the way a song is played during different types of weather. There’s little to no resources (that I can find) available where this subject is concerned, so for the time being the scope of information I’m interested in is pretty wide – if you’re just an avid listener, perhaps you’ve noticed trends or sounds at least common to certain areas, be they local to you or a region/country of specific interest, that you may be able to source to the kind of weather specific to the area.

All opinions, perspectives, ideas etc. welcomed – anonymously or not. Please keep in mind that if I can gather enough material on the subject, I’d like to write a feature article, so sources and references are appreciated and will, of course, be credited.


Image author: Böhringer Friedrich