January 2017 – Why music affects us in the way it does

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Welcome to a brand new(-sh) and shiny(-ish) 2017. One hopes that humanity comes to its senses and delivers progress towards a better, fairer, more peaceful world in the year to come. Given indications so far, I doubt it but we shall see. I hope that I’m wrong.

What will be different for CRAVE Guitars in 2017? Other than the complete change of lifestyle to a more modest form of living and the absence of any funds to take forward the vintage guitar business, it will be a year of contemplation and formation of thoughts about the future. I have to remain optimistic that CRAVE Guitars will metamorphose (again) and will flourish in some splendid new form.

Anyway… back to the present and this month’s topic, in the absence of new gear. One of the things that has fascinated me over many years is why people choose, like, and are affected by, the music they listen to. My iTunes library runs into several tens of thousands of songs, predominantly but not exclusively from the last 5 decades, so the topic is pertinent. This article tries to understand why you might like one song while I might hate it and vice versa, or why we both might like or dislike the same one. While reading, please bear in mind that my roots are completely in modern music, which comprises a massively diverse smorgasbord of contemporary music from the 1960s onwards, right up to the latest releases. While I can appreciate (some) classical or traditional music, it doesn’t impact my life in the way that ‘modern popular’ music does.

The cultural revolution (no, not the Chinese uprising of 1966-1976) that began in the early 20th century led up to the seemingly sudden introduction of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s. However, ‘modern’ rock and pop music didn’t appear fully formed overnight and its roots in blues and jazz go much further back. What the explosion in supply and demand that has occurred over the last 6 decades has done is to open up range of musical types in such a way that defining current genres and sub-genres has become increasingly difficult. In addition, technology (for instance to facilitate composition, recording, production and distribution) provides us with convenient access to types of music that hitherto might have been difficult to reach, let alone appreciate.

When I was young, my parents listened predominantly to classical and traditional music. However, this background does not appear to have influenced my personal preferences. So what did shape my listening habits while growing up in a rapidly changing world? The ‘nature versus nurture’ dichotomy doesn’t appear to be a determinant of taste and passing years don’t appear to have modified my listening behaviour significantly. Certainly my musical choices have not been passed to the next generation either, which is more than capable of making up its own mind, helped no doubt by convenient availability of music like never before. Perhaps I am unusual, which may be why I posed the rhetorical question in the first place.

You may think that this may be a ‘heavy’ topic for the start of the year (no pics either for copyright reasons! Sorry). However, I am going to try and get inside your head a little bit, so bear with me. The focus is not only on the things we tend to like collectively but also why some of the differences in musical preference between individuals can be so profound. Exploring the foundations of musical preference a bit further provided few satisfying answers and a lot of frustrating dead ends along the way. Although he may have been biased, Beethoven said it more succinctly than I can, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy”.

To try and get to the bottom of this particular theme and gain some greater insight, I decided to delve a bit deeper into the subject matter. There is an awful lot of pure science behind music, especially the physics and mathematics of music ‘law’. While the scientific aspects are interesting in their own right, it was the psychological impact of music that provoked my curiosity. Let’s begin by breaking it down a bit…

One arm of musical science is called musicology. The word stems from the Greek meaning the ‘study of music’, so this seemed like a sensible starting point. Musicology, as it turns out, is largely formed of three different areas of study:

  1. Historical musicology – which is often referred to as music history (in a similar way to art history) and looks at the way that music has developed over a significant period of time. However, while this may explain the main epochs of music, it does little to explain how we ‘feel’ about the music we listen to in the current era. However, it does tend to outline what musical styles were popular through the ages and the access that ordinary people had (or didn’t have) to experience performance music
  2. Ethnomusicology – this area of music study looks at music within a cultural and/or societal context. While this may explain a bit about musical expression described by the generally common behaviours of large groups, e.g. western or far eastern music, it is very broad and doesn’t really get to the basis of individual musical preference (except within the context of a large society)
  3. Systematic musicology – is a term that covers many aspects of music including general questions about the importance of music right through to the specifics of music theory, varying in discipline, ranging from qualitative to quantitative studies

There is also a branch of musicology called cognitive musicology, although this looks more at mathematical modelling to explain how the brain processes and interprets music in a similar way to how it might process language, including learning, attention, planning and memory. Empirical studies have shown that there is a correlation between musical training and intellectual growth and a whole branch of neuropsychology has developed around this area. Functional MRI scans have shown that the brain actively responds to musical stimulus – no surprise there. Neuroscience, though, focuses primarily on biological processes, rather than emotional, responses.

Music, like language, is an integral part of our cognitive development, which might explain why musical expression is just as important as linguistic expression to nearly everyone on the planet, and has done for thousands of years. However, examining intellectual development does not explain how we, as individuals, respond to music in such a fundamental way. It also doesn’t explain the unifying force of fandom and mass hysteria, i.e. why we congregate in large groups then react disproportionately and often very rapidly to a particular movement in taste (fads?) – anyone remember Beatlemania?

Our brains generally respond to sound in a similar way. The auditory cortex works in association with the cerebellum and frontal cortex, and is responsible for processing ‘organised sound’, including music and language. While music also affects many other parts of our brains, scientists have pinpointed the areas deep in our brains that are activated by and cause emotional responses to music, primarily the amygdala and nucleus accumbens. The amygdala determines whether our bodies need to take some form of conscious action according to the sounds we hear, while the latter regulates the release of the hormone dopamine as part of the brain’s ‘reward system’ and plays a part in rhythmic timing. Dopamine is important as it makes us feel arousal and pleasure so, perhaps, music is a drug after all. Medically, our wellbeing can benefit from using music to reduce anxiety or stress, as used, for instance, in music therapy. Our reaction to music may be divided into emotions that are ‘perceived’ or ‘felt’, which might explain why, for instance, why some people enjoy listening to sad music.

Conversely, whether consciously or unconsciously, music can also be intrusive and distracting, for instance in public places or call centre queues (e.g. ‘Muzak’), when forced to listen to music we don’t like, or exposed to music inappropriately out of context, it can be linked to production of the stress hormone cortisol within the adrenal gland. One example of cortisol production as a result of an auditory stimulus may be the brain’s reaction to fingernails scraping a blackboard causing a significant antipathetic response.

Our clever brains are constantly trying to predict what comes next (technically, the anticipatory response). Many musicians have exploited this characteristic over centuries to tease us and then maximise the ‘crescendo’ effect. Auditory and visual acuity is strongly linked, which perhaps partly explains why we like to go out and watch live music or are drawn to music videos. Closing our eyes while listening to music can suppress the visual stimulus and concentrate the auditory stimulus.

So… does a better understanding of musicology or neurology help with this particular conundrum? Unfortunately, no it doesn’t. However, it does provide a broader framework within which further questions can be asked. There are clearly links between the physical mechanics and the psyche of music, so some further delving was required. Where to look next?

Music psychology was my next point of call. Music psychology is a different approach that attempts to explain musical behaviour and experience, including how we perceive music (e.g. pitch, rhythm, harmony and melody) and our ability to learn, play and perform music. Why is it, for instance, that some people are content to listen to music (i.e. be affected by it), while others are driven to acquire the skills of musical technique and perform in front of audiences (i.e. to affect others through it)?

While the answer to the question above is beyond the scope of this article, emotion is as vital for those making music as it is to the majority of us who listen to what they create. March Bolan once said, “Emotion has to be foremost. When I feel emotional I’m equipped to express myself”, and Debbie Harry also commented, “I do know the effect that music still has on me – I’m completely vulnerable to it. I’m seduced by it”. Jimi Hendrix went a bit further by saying that,Music is my religion”. To many, musical appreciation is as strong as faith, if not synonymous with it. Suffice to say, music is a powerful medium. Keith Richards expressed music in more survivalist terms, “Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life”. How strongly do you feel about music’s professed omnipotence?

Perhaps a more relevant approach is to look at what psychologists refer to as ‘affective responses to music’. An ‘affect’ in basic psychological terms is how an organism interacts with stimuli including, amongst other things, the experience of feeling or emotion. Music is one such stimulus that leads to patterns of behaviour and regulation of our emotions. When looking a bit more deeply, even this area tends to break down into a number of factors that academics have attempted to measure. For instance, in relation to emotional music, the following formula has been postulated:

Experienced emotion = structural features x performance features x listener features x contextual features

While expressing emotion as an equation cannot hope to capture the nuances, it does indicate that the way we feel about music is actually a complex interrelationship between a number of human actions and situations. Studies have, unsurprisingly, repeatedly shown that music consistently elicits emotional responses in its listeners (duh!), so what is actually going on?

Why does some music make the hair on the back of our necks stand up? Psychologists refer to the ‘chill’ effect as ‘arousal’, which is a non-conscious physiological response to an environmental stimulus, caused by the hormone dopamine (again). How strong this reaction is depends on, as you might have guessed by now, a number of variables.

The psychology of music and the way it helps shape our genre preferences, again, tease us with answers. However, all it does is to identify that there are notable differences between us but not how or why these differences occur in the first place or why the emotional responses can be so varied and profound.

Perhaps delving into the characteristics of personality and self‑expression may provide some insight that has so far eluded my investigations? Some psychologists point to the ‘Big Five Personality Traits’ to explain and measure our ‘personality’. The ‘Big Five’ categories that shape our personality are:

  1. Openness to experience
  2. Agreeableness
  3. Extraversion
  4. Neuroticism
  5. Conscientiousness

The first two are called ‘plasticity’ traits (i.e. they tend to vary according to changes in context), while the latter three are called ‘stability’ traits (i.e. they tend to be relatively unchanging in adulthood). In relation to musical genre preferences, the plasticity traits are the ones that have greatest effect on our choice of musical gratification. In particular, researchers have found a link between openness, self‑assessed intelligence and preference for more complex music such as classical or jazz. I would argue, however, that this misrepresents the picture as there is a significant sociological and circumstantial connection going on here. Openness, however, does have an affinity for emotional response from music, as does agreeableness. Openness is also associated with ‘intense and rebellious’ music (including rock, rap, alternative and heavy metal). Extroverts also tend to prefer upbeat and energetic music (including dance, reggae and electronic music). Neuroticism is linked to the use of music for emotional regulation (including slow and sad or upbeat and happy ‘pop’ music, as well as indie music). Conscientiousness tends to be associated with an affinity for up-tempo, driving, powerful and defiant music.

Breaking things down into just five discrete factors has been criticised as simplistic, with other sub-traits tending to be incorporated within these five personality ‘dimensions’. There are also a number of other variables that co-exist interdependently of the ‘Big Five’. Psychologists have explored how individual musical preferences are affected by, for instance, age, gender, ethnicity, seasonality, familiarity, peer influence, and self‑perception. To me, location and mood are also key factors that motivate what music I listen to at any given time. What this area of study does is link personality, rather than emotions, to genre choices.

As with other studies mentioned above, investigations still focus on what the variances are but not how or why they drive our listening tastes. Clearly, all of these personality, demographic and contextual factors may help to influence genre preference but it is highly unlikely that any of them will ultimately determine it. In my opinion, the various hypotheses tend to generalise, rather than differentiate.

Personality studies get a bit closer to the core of the issue. However, it still doesn’t explain why two individuals with a similar personality and societal circumstances can still have completely opposing tastes or respond to the same piece of music in fundamentally diverse ways. Also, does our taste in music change as we age? When I was young, I assumed that I liked popular music because it was a given as part of the prevailing youth culture at the time. I also assumed that, as I got older, my musical tastes would mature into the ‘grown up’ genres such as classical or jazz. Nope. It didn’t happen and it probably won’t now. Neither do I listen predominantly to the soundtrack of my youth, although one cannot avoid the occasional reminiscence. I listen to a lot of new music as well and crave (sic!) emerging and fresh musical experiences. The same applies to guitar playing – perhaps there is a link there. As John Cage once pointed out, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones”.

In a previous article, I covered personal preference in relation to guitars. In that topic, I likened the emotional response to guitars as similar to the instinctive response that we have to attractiveness of the opposite sex. There is something about that unconscious, instantaneous and very strong, often compulsive, sensual appeal that exists but is very hard to define and articulate. To me, the same applies to music, as well as art, architecture and design. Some music has that ‘love at first sight’ written all over it and has a certain consistency of perceived aesthetic appeal, while others have a ‘grow to appreciate its deeper qualities that aren’t immediately apparent’ characteristic. Quite why some music requires multiple listens to in order to grow appreciation while other music immediately slaps you around the face is not clear. Both have their place; it isn’t a case of one is better than the other, it’s just different.

In addition, why does overfamiliarity sometimes reinforce affection in some situations while breeding contempt in others? Why do we sometimes just get bored by repeated exposure while there is some music we simply cannot tune into, no matter what? Why do we sometimes have extreme (positive and negative) reactions to what is, after all, just a piece of music? Why, also, do we adopt often very dogmatic defence of our personal preferences when challenged by others who feel equally strongly about theirs? I would also like to know why we have ‘guilty pleasures’, those potentially embarrassing tracks we really shouldn’t like but for some reason we do.

So… after all that, none of the above really gets to the root of why music evokes a strong empathetic sense of deep emotion or nostalgia (as opposed to simple familiarity). What does it say, for instance, about my personal preferences? Not a lot, actually – it’s interesting but in relation to the question in hand, it’s also a bit ‘so what?’ Where do we go from here and what more can we do to understand what makes our preferences very much our own? None of the academic disciplines or studies that I’ve looked at seem to get to the fundamentals of individual predilection.

As mentioned at the beginning, my amateur research provided few answers and raised a lot of frustrating questions. I would have expected some sense of surety (and reassurance) about my emotional state of mind. I also expected to discover that millennia of human learning would lead to a more satisfactory (or at least adequate) conclusion.

In summary, I have no easy answer in response to the title of this article. Darn it! Academia may provide a lot of informed opinion and (in my view, some refutable) evidence but it does little to satisfy my ardent curiosity. Perhaps a glib qualitative ‘because I like it’ is sufficient after all, despite its crude ambiguity and subjectivity. I therefore challenge the learned professions to come up with something better. I defy anyone to predict my preferences on the basis of the academic studies covered here. Conversely, however, it is probably relatively easy to predict my personality based on my extensive iTunes library. Perhaps we are looking through the wrong end of the proverbial telescope?

So, in the absence of incontrovertible proof, I tried to identify 20 tunes that constitute the playlist of my emotional existence. At the time of writing, the list comprises (in no particular order and excluding multiple songs from a single artist):

  1. The song that makes me go all warm and fluffy inside: The Cure – ‘Love Song’ (1989)
  2. The song that makes me sob uncontrollably like a girl: Death Cab For Cutie – ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’ (2005)
  3. The song that makes me want to scream with hatred: Buggles – ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ (1980)
  4. The protest song that makes me feel like an angry young man (again): Rage Against The Machine – ‘Killing In The Name’ (1992)
  5. The song that makes me grin like an idiot: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘O’Malley’s Bar’ (1996)
  6. The song that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end: Ben E. King – ‘Stand By Me’ (1961)
  7. The song that makes me think profoundly: The Clash – ‘London Calling’ (1979)
  8. The song that makes me want to hope: Johnny Nash – ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ (1972)
  9. The song that makes me head bang like in Wayne’s World: Blur – ‘Song 2’ (1997)
  10. The track to play air lead guitar to: Led Zeppelin – ‘Kashmir’ (1975)
  11. The groove that makes me want to get up and boogie: Chic – ‘Le Freak’ (1978)
  12. The song that I wish I could have written: Louis Armstrong – ‘What A Wonderful World’ (1967)
  13. The song that I’d like to cover live: Rolling Stones – ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)’ (1974)
  14. The best song to get stoned to: Pavement – ‘Range Life’ (1994)
  15. The song that I can chill out to: John Martyn – ‘Small Hours’ (1977)
  16. The song that makes me depressed: Sex Pistols – ‘Pretty Vacant’ (1977)
  17. The song that lifts me out of depression: The Beloved – ‘The Sun Rising’ (1990)
  18. The song that makes me long for a balmy summer’s day: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince – ‘Summertime’ (1991)
  19. The chart single from my youth: T. Rex – ‘Metal Guru’ (1972)
  20. The album track from my youth: Pink Floyd – ‘One Of These Days’ (1971)

Like many of CRAVE’s topics, it seemed an easy task on the face of it, however, as usual it turned into anything but. While contemplating the mix, I kept changing my mind depending on how I felt, which just proves how impulsive, volatile and value‑laden the subject matter is. I am not going to divulge why these particular tracks stir my sentiments, suffice to say that they do. I must stress that these aren’t necessarily favourite songs (especially no. 3!), just ones that evoke some sort of emotive response. What would be your 20 lifestyle tunes? What about all those millions of tracks that one hasn’t even discovered yet? I am not a betting person but I would propose quite confidently that it is highly unlikely that many people would share exactly the same list, and thank heaven for that… but why?

In conclusion, and as a final parting shot, I will say that extensive diversity and continual evolution in music are inherently good things. Only through variety and innovation can we closely match the way we feel with the music we listen to. Frank Zappa once stated that, “Music is always a commentary on society”. Indeed, when considered in those terms, culturally, it is problematic to separate the two. While some people are happy caught in that time warp of a certain period or are captivated by a specific genre, others like me are inquisitive and intrigued by what has been as well as what is yet to come. I look forward to ‘the next big thing’. My quest for new musical experiences is prominent and my personal choice is strongly shaped by disposition and attitude at any one point in time.

Existentially, I believe that music is essential for the healthy sustenance of the human condition, while the music you or I like is a very, very personal thing that contributes to our overall wellbeing. Leonard Cohen observed, Music is the emotional life of most people, while Robert Plant asserted similarly, “Music is for every single person that walks the planet”. The compromise between global and individual musical engagement is relevant or we wouldn’t have anything to talk (and argue) about. The similarities and, perhaps more importantly, the differences between us continually drive musical development and invention. After all, that is what motivates us guitarists to come together and create our own interpretation of music after all.

Anyhoo… I’m off to plink my planks (again) as a cathartic exercise while leaving my subconscious to attempt to unravel the mysteries of personal preference (again). Yay for the former, Sigh for the latter.

This month, I’ll finish with a quote by the late, great Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, who said, “If you think you’re too old to rock ‘n’ roll then you probably already are”. Until next time…

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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