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Music: Soothing the Savage “Beast”

Music: Soothing the Savage “Beast”

“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.” English playwright/poet William Congreve, from The mourning bride (1697).

It seems the connection between mood and music has been front page news for some time now. And why not? It’s just as natural and intended as can be.

By the way, did you catch the difference between how the “musick” line is used today and the real thing? Interesting.

I love music, and have always felt it deeply. What I consider to be pleasant and uplifting pieces can take me to the stars. And sad songs can make me cry. Enter Elton John and Bernie Taupin…

Turn them on, turn them on
Turn on those sad songs
When all hope is gone
Why don’t you tune in and turn them on
They reach into your room
Just feel their gentle touch
When all hope is gone
Sad songs say so much

Ever felt that way?

Music and the Brain

Music and the BrainSo how can music be so emotionally powerful? Let’s get started by giving it an anatomical go…

Okay, we hear a pitch. How? A corresponding part of the inner ear went into action and sent a signal to the brain’s right auditory cortex (that’s it to the left). Catch this – it’s believed the auditory cortex has frequently changing regions for each band of pitch. If that isn’t enough, it’s also involved in harmony, melody, and rhythm.


Music and Moods

So we’ve established how we receive a morsel of music. But how does it influence mood/emotion? For example purposes, let’s use an unpleasant melody.

One of Elton and Bernie’s “sad songs” is playing on the radio. The auditory chain of command ultimately leads to the posterior cingulate cortex (to the right), which lights up like a Christmas tree. A signal of emotional pain and/or conflict is generated. And the amygdala, as well as the other components of the limbic system, take it from there.

It’s a bonus to know that the cingulate cortex is also involved with episodic memory recovery, pain, and the ability to understand what others believe.

And so a link between tonality and mood/emotion is established. Actually, it’s no different than how we naturally convey emotion in our speech tones.

Music and Perception

Not only can music influence our mood, it can impact the way we perceive the world. That according to Jacob Jolij and Maaike Meurs of the Psychology Department of the University of Groningen (Netherlands). A summary of their research was just published in the interactive open-access journal PLoS ONE.

In their work, Jolij and Meurs first established that their subjects better recognized happy smileys when they were feeling happy themselves. No great surprise.

What’s special, however, is the discovery that smileys that matched the music presented were identified much more accurately. And when no smiley was shown, the participants often thought they recognized a happy smiley when listening to happy music – a sad one when listening to sad music.

Literally, the subjects were seeing things that simply weren’t there. That’s the power of music!

The take-away is this. We already know that reality is established as the brain compares the input that comes in through the eyes with what it expects – based upon life experience.

But the research suggests the brain builds-up expectations based upon life experience and mood. Music is a great contributor.

Final Thoughts and Three Questions

It’s no great secret that music can deeply impact mood. But now we’ve learned it can influence our very perception of the world.

That’s exciting.

I’m not going to ask if you listen to music – that’s too easy. I will, however, ask you three things…

  1. Have you come to understand how music influences your mood/emotions?
  2. Can you accept that music truly impacts your perception of the world?
  3. Given what you’ve just learned, will you strive to use music strategically to claim a more fulfilling life?

So get on with it! Sooth that savage beast/breast of yours…

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