Local study explores emotional relationship to different music genres
Have you ever been cheered up by a certain piece of music? Has a song ever made you cry? Music can inspire exaltation and despair. It can bring back long-buried memories, and can even help with the management of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and autism. It is remarkable that the human brain is so deeply affected by a mere collection of organized sound.
Music is a part of virtually everyone’s life, and it is frequently referred to as a “universal language.” Junior music composition major Michael Samson said not all people are affected by the same types of music.
“Different styles of music elicit different emotional responses, and I think that’s totally awesome! What I feel listening to Radiohead I could never feel listening to Beethoven, I could never feel listening to Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and so on. That’s why I like to listen to as much music as I can: so I can experience the full range of emotional experiences that music could provide me.”
Emma Markham, a junior guitar performance major from Amherst, Mass., is preparing to conduct an independent study in which she will explore different people’s reactions to different styles of music. She plans to gather an audience to listen to a folk trio and then a classical trio both in the same venue, but with different atmospheres coinciding with each respective genre. The audience members will fill out a survey asking them about their enjoyment of the two groups in the different atmospheres.
“The point of the study is to test how the atmosphere of a performance affects people’s reactions,” Markham said.
Markham’s hypothesis is that “the atmosphere that is characteristic of a certain genre of music stimulates a certain reaction from its audience.” In other words, the somewhat “stuffy” environment of a classical music venue is what prevents the average audience member from connecting with classical music, not the music itself.
“The cultures behind classical music and folk music affect the way people interact with those types of music,” Markham said.
If Markham’s study hypothesis is supported by the study, it may change some students’ minds about music. Many people will say point-blank that they hate classical music, jazz, show tunes or heavy metal, refusing to listen to any music of that style. However, if Markham’s hypothesis proves correct, those same people might discover that it’s the “snobby” jazz culture or the “angry” atmosphere at a metal concert that they dislike, rather than the actual music.
In fact, some styles of music are more similar than you might think. Samson, who will participate in Markham’s study as a pianist, said that when he’s invested in listening to music he “feels the way the music feels.” He added, “If the music is particularly powerful, that feeling lingers even after I’ve finished listening.”
How is it possible that a pattern of sound waves can provoke such strong emotional reactions? John White, associate professor of music theory at Ithaca College, believes music has extreme powers.
“Music is powerful due to its ability to go beyond the limit of words. That is, music can ‘speak to’ or hook our emotions in ways more powerful than words can,” White said. The composer Iannis Xenakis, in his book Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, described music as “catalytic: its mere presence permits internal psychic or mental transformations in the same way as the crystal ball of the hypnotist.”
No matter what style of music you prefer, whether you’re a musician, a composer or just a listener, music impacts you in a unique way. By exploring unfamiliar genres, you open yourself up to all the emotion music can convey.
If you’d like to learn more about your relationship with music, you can participate in Emma’s study, which is taking place Friday, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m. in Whalen’s Iger Lecture Hall.
Bronwyn Bishop is a freshman TVR major who likes to move and groove to any tune. Email her at bbishop1[at]ithaca[dot]edu