Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Music and the Savage Beast

If you’re a day-dreamer like me, you’ve probably wondered at some point in your life why music is so important to us humans (and you witches, vampires and zombies). When I write, I choose the music that I listen to based on the mood that I want to evoke in a specific chapter. If I want it to be Lord of the Ring’s-magical, I listen to Enya’s Watermark album. When writing a battle scene that should make the readers want to dive into the pages and join the heroine in chopping up something evil (please look away, aforementioned creatures of the night), I like to listen to the Transformers’ soundtrack or my Dance cd. When the boy is supposed to say something Twilight-mushy to the girl, Dire Straits, Adele and Michael Learns to Rock are my choice of drug. Green Day, Eminem and The Bloodhound Gang are the only way to go when writing a scene with teenagers just doing their thing. In other words, I need to psych myself up before writing emotional stuff and what better way to do it than with some awesome tunage. But how does it work? What makes my brain send out all these signals that tell my body how to feel?

As a recreational musician, music inspires and steers my actions more than I care to admit. Grief that I have managed to keep at bay for months on end may suddenly burst through my heavily-guarded walls at the heart-rending tunes of Evanescence. People who I normally can’t stand seem a little bit more bearable if David Guetta is mixing something in the background. If I think a chapter of my book belongs in the garbage, I just listen to more appropriate music and edit the chapter, giving it a facelift (mind you, it doesn’t always work; sometimes even I have to face the facts and chuck a chapter because no amount of music genius can save plainly bad writing). 

Of course, others may simply be annoyed by my choice of music, like my sister for example who cringe at some of my more foul-mouthed singers. That’s another thing about music that baffles me: like mostly everything else in the world, its effects depend wholly on things such as individual taste, cultural background and all the “mistakes” your parents made in raising you.

So what makes our brains so receptive to music? Why is it that a series of notes can have the power to placate, motivate, sadden or destroy? I’ve always wondered and have read through articles beginning at anonymous bloggers who wouldn’t know good music if it bit them on the…right up to Yale and Harvard professors who have devoted their lives to this age-old mystery. Unfortunately, none of them could actually help me understand the phenomenon. (This could also be due to the fact that I’m somewhat lacking in the patience department, but let’s shelve that away for future discussions, shall we?)

“……How does music succeed in prompting emotions within us? And why are these emotions often so powerful? The simple answer is that no one knows. We are able to quantify the emotional responses caused by music, but we cannot explain them.”—Geetanjali Vaidya, ‘Music, Emotion and the Brain’, http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro04/web2/gvaidya.html.

There you have it: no one knows for sure. And throughout all our kazillion dollar research and theories, the brain goes on doing what it wants, with or without our permission. It picks up the splendor of the many sequences of minims and semiquavers, legatos and pianos and interweaves them with our miniscule understanding, creating a world of emotion that we might never learn to fathom but which we can and have been embracing since the beginning of time.
Caveman Boogie, ya’ll!

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