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Psychology and Music

Part 1: Which Came First the Music or the Id?

   There is probably no one today who would argue against the idea that music has an effect on our emotions. Whether that effect is a subtle one or a profound psyche rattling experience, depends on the music, and the individual. Some believe that this emotional response is a direct one based on the particular tonal structure of a musical composition, while others believe it to be more of a stimulation of memories or emotions rekindled by the musical passages. Regardless of your belief the effects are undeniable, whether you are a serious listener or merely use it as chewing gum for the mind.

   Several studies have been done to measure the effect of music on plant growth and, depending on which study you read, the results seem to vary greatly, ranging from rock and roll having the greatest beneficial effect, to classical being the most beneficial with hard rock having a negative influence on growth, to studies claiming music has no effect at all. There have been experiments showing that certain sound frequencies have a stimulating effect on plant growth, but one could hardly refer to the continuous playing of a single note for hours on end “Music”. It does seem feasible that certain sound frequencies could cause a reaction in plants, either positive or negative, by inducing a resonating action in the cell structure, but as for plants preferring one type of music over another, I guess that depends on which study supports the readers own preconceived notions.

   Similarly studies performed on animals seem to show some minor effects on farm animals, such as increased milk production in cows, increased egg laying in hens, and studies performed with chimpanzees at the American Society Of Primatologists tend to suggest a correlation between music and mood in primates, but more serious research is still needed for any realistic conclusion as to the how and why of such effects. Irregardless of which study one chooses to endorse it seems clear that music does have an effect on nearly all living organisms at one level or another, and that the more advanced or more self aware the organism is, the greater the measurable effect.

   At a more basic level no one can refute the fact that natural sounds, birds chirping, waves washing ashore, a gentle rainfall, etc, are pleasant sounds and have a soothing effect on the listener. It is likely that our earliest, primitive, foray into music was probably an attempt to emulate these natural sounds, and developed along with humans to become what it is today.  As we escaped our bonds of a purely instinctive, survival, based existence and evolved into one that was more creative and self aware, so also did our music escape the bonds of imitation and become a means of self expression. The very foundation of music is based on the sounds that we universally accept as being pleasant and harmonious, and this became the accepted music notation that we use today. The concept that some sounds “sound” better than others is no doubt firmly rooted in our primitive psyche, while our current pre-occupation with music in general may be a way of masking out the more discordant sounds in our daily lives, with a more primal based harmony.

   Numerous studies have shown that music has a definite influence on our mood, and music has been used for its therapeutic affect on patients by physicians, both psychiatric and medical, as well as new age gurus. Madison Avenue is quite aware of these studies and uses music as a means to sell their product in TV and radio commercials, tailoring the music to the age group they want to reach. The fact that music in the workplace has a proven positive effect on production is a fact that industry is well aware of, and the acceptance of music in the workplace is becoming commonplace. Shopping malls pipe in music that is as varied in nature as the customers who frequent the mall, from the neutral elevator music designed to fill the awkward silence, to the individual store music designed to cater to the age group of its expected clientele. In all these instances the background music tends to have a relaxing influence that increases our productivity, or lubricates our wallet for that last minute impulse buy before leaving the store only to tune our car radios to our favorite commercial radio station.

   Nearly everyone has had the Deja-Vu experience brought on by a song that reminded them of a memorable moment in their lives. The memory may be a happy “Honey They’re Playing Our Song”, or a sad, “Heart Break Hotel” experience, but you cannot deny the, time travel, effect brought on by music. People, as they get older, tend to remain avid listeners of the music they heard in their youth, when they were more carefree and spontaneous, whether that choice in music was independent or molded by peer pressure. Each succeeding generation seems to choose a different style of music to identify with, and the social attitude of any given individual can almost be discerned by the music that they listen to. Indeed, some choose a particular music style as a way to define their personality. The real question remains, “Does music define our personality or does our personality define the music, or “Which came first the music or the Id”.

   Over the decades we have gone from “Zoot Suits”, to “Tie Dye”, To “Basic Black”, to “One Size Fits All”, in an effort to outwardly identify with our musical tastes by appearance, or in a more amusing timeline from “Ducktails and Beehives”, to “Long Hair and Afros”, to “Long Pointy Hair with Neon Highlights”, to “Shaved Heads” . This outward appearance delineates us into groups that have a common interest, whether that interest is based on our personality or our musical taste. The current popularity of more aggressive styles of music may be in direct correlation to the increased levels of stress found in society today, or at least in society’s increased tolerance of aggression. Even if the lyrics are removed, the nature of music is still easily identifiable, it is either designed to soothe, stimulate, or in some instances aggravate. The greatest achievement of any composer is when the emotion they instill in their work elicits a similar response in the listener, so is the composer creating the social response or are they merely reflecting the social consciousness.

   As a musician and composer I know that what I compose is based almost entirely on the state of mind I’m in at the time, so to me it seems logical to assume it is the same with most other musician/composers. Is it possible that as societal stresses increase that music would reflect that stress, and in some subconscious way impose that mood back into society in a vicious cycle of sorts? Only time will tell, and the next few decades should prove interesting.

Part 2: The Beat and Potatoes

     The lyrical component of music is different aspect entirely, being that the lyrics are perceived on a conscious as well as a deeply subconscious level. According to studies by the American Psychological Association, there is evidence that intensely aggressive lyrical content begets aggressive behavior. Violent songs increase feelings of hostility, irregardless of the musical style, artist or properties of the songs. Even humorous violent songs increased aggressive thoughts, and these thoughts can influence our perceptions of society, biasing our interpretation of events and thereby instigate a more aggressive, verbal or physical, response than would be seen in an unbiased individual, resulting in a vicious cycle  of aggressive social exchanges (1).  One doesn’t have to be an exceptionally keen observer to notice the effects on society of the “life is sh**, why bother” Punk movement, or the “shoot ‘em up, demeaning lyrics” of Gangsta Rap, but does the musical content actually cause these behavior patterns, or are these personalities already inherent in the listeners who lean toward the music that best mirrors their self image? If we look closely, we can almost predict a personality type by the preferred music. Studies suggest that people who favored certain genres of music tend to fall into one of the following categories:

Ø      Reflective and Complex category; Classical, jazz, folk and blues, tend to be inventive, have active imaginations, value aesthetic experiences, are tolerant of others and are politically liberal.

Ø      Intense and Rebellious category; Alternative, punk, heavy metal and rock music, tend to be curious, risk-takers, physically active and intelligent.

Ø      Upbeat and Conventional category; Country, religious and pop music, tend to be generally outgoing and cheerful, enjoy helping others, see themselves as physically attractive with conservative views.

Ø      Energetic and Rhythmic category: Funk, hip-hop, soul and electronic/techno, tend to see themselves as physically attractive, talkative and energetic, and forgiving with non-conservative ideals.

   In the movie “Apocalypse Now”, there was a scene where helicopters flew into enemy territory blasting Wagner at the enemy; believe it or not this scene is founded on fact.  The use of  music in psychological warfare goes back a long way. In WWII Soviet forces in Leningrad broadcasted Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony at the intruding german forces and the the Allies blasted jazz and patriotic songs into Nazi-occupied Europe. Since then musical-psychological warfare has advanced to become a means of harassing the enemy. It has been used against Noriega in ’89, when American troops set up loudspeakers and sent an unending stream of rock music, and heavy metal directed at the palace, (not as effective as the battle of Jericho, but probably just as unnerving). Some might remember the siege in ’93 of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, by the F.B.I. . When Tibetan chants and other annoying sounds were used in an effort to break the will of the cult. Music has routinely been used during interrogations at Guantánamo and elsewhere, and the playing of loud music  is SOP for the Army in an attempt to convince the enemy that resistance is futile. These techniques supposedly  engender feelings of hopelessness and despair, and from all accounts on the subject, it seems to work quite nicely, the more aggressive, and louder the music, the more effectively the technique seems to work. (2)

    Scientific evidence mounts in support of  the strong communication between the mind and body, and music as the universal language is believed to play an important part in creating mental and physical well being. Our sense of hearing is one of the first to developed and, the first sounds we ever hear are the sounds of our mother's heartbeat  and the tone of our mother's voice. These were the first sounds that connected us to our bodies and the world around us. Our bodies are a complexity of harmonizing rhythms: heartbeat, pulse, brainwaves, etc. so in a real sense we are indeed creatures of rhythm. Speech; a variation of pitch, tone, volume and rhythm, are responsible for a larger percentage of our communication than the actual words we speak. We  use sound and music as part of our ongoing human interaction and communication, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.  Sound has been shown to be extremely useful in healing, it has been used successfully to induce states of physical, mental, and emotional relaxation, and in the form of chants, tones, music, and natural sounds it is used in many medical fields for the enhancement of health, vitality, psychological and behavioral conditioning, and stress reduction. There is a strong connection between a person's thought, attitude, perception, and emotion, and the overall health of the individual. Studies show that music helps to increase seretonin levels and decrease stress related hormones, it can induce an meditative brain state while the practitioner remains awake and alert. Music can affect blood pressure, pulse rate, circulation, brain wave activity, metabolism, and other physical and emotional responses. The vibration of sound can literally transform the cell structure. So in a very real sense “We are what we hear” . In this context we are definitely a product, (at least at some level), of the music we listen to.(3)

    We may select the styles of music that reinforce our self image, or as a way to emulate others who are perceived as being “cool”. We may select our music as a badge for others to see, or as a mask for who we want others to see.” Whether we chose for conscious or subconscious, peer pressure or intellectual, or if the music in reality chooses us, one thing is certain: there’s a lot of music out there to choose from.


1-http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/psp845960.pdf -Article: "Exposure to Violent Media: The Effects of Songs With Violent Lyrics on Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings," Craig A. Anderson and Nicholas L. Carnagey, Iowa State University and Janie Eubanks, Texas Department of Human Services; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 84, No. 5

2-Journal of the Society for American Music, Volume 2, Issue 01, February 2008

3- http://www.healingmusic.org/

Copyright © 1999, 2000 David M. Harrison
More on this at: http://www.upscale.utoronto.ca/GeneralInterest/Harrison/Vibrations/Vibrations.html

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Origin Of Music | Psychology and Music | Pianos - Acoustic vs. Digital | To Compose Music , First Learn to Improvise | Guitar Buying Tips
Protecting Your Acoustic Guitar | To Tab or Not To Tab | Copyright Info | When The Music Dies | Good,Bad,Remarkable | Music Promotion
Requiem For The Songs

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