Tuesday, December 28, 2010

YSpeak Project 5 - Why does music affect us in the way it does

<sing this song>Rudolph the reindeer

The careless abandon and romantic nothings echoing from your grandparent’s gramophone, the muffled sounds of your parent’s favorite tunes on the radio, the songs you crooned along with as a sentimental teenager, the golden oldies you sway to on a lazy Saturday morning and the psychedelic trances you jive to at a late night party. Amazingly, we can all relate to those situations for Music it seems, is omnipresent, at every step of  the journey that we call ‘life’.

Music is often touted as the universal language, the underlying stream that runs through all of humanity from time immemorial which binds us together in uncanny harmony. A recently conducted experiment in the Royal Institute of Technology at Stockholm, provided quantitative evidence of the universality of music. A ragtag bunch of volunteers ranging from musical virtuosos to seven year old children, were asked to manipulate songs to enhance the poignancy of specific emotions, like happiness, sadness, anger etc. All of them, landed on the same tempo for each song to bring out the intended emotion. This indicates that music contains some hidden information that evokes similar response irrespective of age, personality, taste or training.

But, what is the use of Music? Why would anyone want to learn about minor modes, tonic triads or dominant ninths? Learning geometry may be useful for saaaay, building pyramids. Playing with Lego blocks can foster a realization of space. But how does one understand time? That is where music comes in. Paradoxically enough, it also teaches us the rigors of mathematics at the same time as encouraging creativity. Other functional uses of music encompass teaching us to get along with others and suppressing anxiety and stress. Some say that music, by virtue of its individualistic appeal and interminable conundrums is a world shaper; one that can make or break civilizations.

ASK THE AUDIENCE A QUESTION….Name one of your favorite songs..Why do you like it?
This brings us to an interesting question. Why do we like certain tunes? Is it because of structural features that they might contain? Or is it because they resemble other tunes that we like? In language, unlike music, there are specific syntaxes that define the permissibility and sensibility of one’s utterance. Music, does not have a fixed set of essential features or a rigid structure.
Let us turn our attention to the second possibility of new favorites resembling our old pet loves. This approach brings up more questions than answers! What do we define as musical resemblance? Well, it is related to how an individual represents melodies in his/her mind. Unfortunately though, nothing spells UNIQUE as much as music does and in each of our minds, different parts of our brain store distinct rhythms, modes and harmonies in unique ways. Beyond that, individuals differ even more. Some cringe at the symmetry that others barely discern, others are elated by a subtle whale song in the background that is imperceptible to most. How do we harmonize the each fading memory of a tune with the next one to be heard? If we like new tunes because they resemble old ones, how then, does our initial liking for music begin? Do we associate some tunes with pleasant experiences? Are they somehow related to our mother’s voice or heartbeat? Are there themes that we find innately likeable? These and many more could hold truth simultaneously, for the only thing that we know with any certainty about our mind is that it is interminably complex.

Music affects us in ways that are more substantial, direct and poignant than just about every stimuli. Plato allegedly said, “Let me handle the music for one generation and I will control Rome”. We may have conquered the moon, yet we are quite far from understanding music and the mind! Rest assured though, that we don’t need to understand the Beatles to love their Music!

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