Monday, April 26, 2010

About the Healing Power of Music --Part 2 (of 3)

For me, the ultimate music is that of Johann Sebastian Bach. And of course there have been many claims by music therapists that his music is somehow almost mystically healing. I recall back in the 60’s and 70’s there were claims made that plants grew more lushly when Bach was played in the air around them. I was always skeptical of this, but suppose I liked the idea from a poetical standpoint. Websites claiming this can still be found (1,2).
(Interestingly, both of the above sites claim that both Bach and Indian sitar music were most effective an enhancing plant growth.)

The music therapist Andrew Weill has written a book about what composers (in the “classical” realm) are effective for healing purposes and which ones are not. Bach along with Mozart and Brahms are composers he seems to find effective for therapy and healing of body and spirit.

But I have number of very good friends who do not seem to enjoy Bach’s music at all. A frequent claim from some of them, which I find astonishingly incomprehensible, is that they find it mechanical. I had another friend, an older gentleman that flew planes in WW II, that even went so far as to claim that Bach’s music was “noise”.

And think not for a minute that a person has to be Christian or even religious to greatly appreciate Bach—prominent atheist Richard Dawkins has asserted that Bach’s St Matthew passion is the one work that he would take with him to a desert island, were he forced to choose only one piece (in BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs )

I know some of my friends and colleagues find “new age” music soothing and relaxing. Though I have heard exceptions, generally I find music that falls within this genre tiresome and even irritating. It tends to stay on the same harmony for too long, and generally involves an unacceptable (to me) degree of repetition of phrases and themes. So for example, if I were confined to a hospital bed, and were to be subjected to this type of music, I imagine my health and general disposition would deteriorate rapidly.

Another aspect of this issue we must consider is the time interval of subjection factor. To take an example from my personal experience: I will frequently turn the XM dial to the bluegrass station (channel 14 at the present time), and become quite enthused and emotional for some interval of time. Typically 20 to 30 minutes. But after that time, the appeal of it will tend to lessen, and I’ll change to another station (or quite often decide silence is the best environment within the car---such as it is in city driving).

So, generalizing recklessly, I suggest that there are forms of music that may appeal to a given person for some interval of time, but not for an indefinite time. For example, one often hears another person say something like, I enjoy listening to bluegrass (or bagpipes, or pipe organ, or flamenco guitar , etc) for a short time (e.g., maybe 20 to 30 minutes), but after that it all starts sounding the same to me, and loses its punch or appeal.

The social context necessarily enters into ones appreciation and dislike of a certain form. For example, I suspect that “country” music has a strong socio-economic correlation. The life style, tending towards a “red neck” one, that tends to be represented in C&W is something that not all of us city bred folk can relate to. The same thing probably works in reverse with regard to classical or jazz, i.e., people whose live contexts are primarily rural and/or blue collar may find it difficult to relate to these forms, because they tend to (perhaps in some cases rightly) associate the followers of those styles with “elitists” and even pretentious snobs. I realize I am generalizing outrageously, and there are a great many exceptions on both sides of the equation. The point I am trying to make is that the life style and context of a person’s life is probably statistically correlated to what kinds of music they like. This is perhaps strongest in connection with rap and hip-hop, where the music has originated in a black inner city context. That the lyrics are often obscene and violently racist is a further turn off to a lot of people that live outside of that environment.

Do people sometimes posture as liking a kind of music that places them in a desirable (in their mind) group? I suspect that yes, this is often the case. Maybe classical music would in fact be a good example here, where an appearance of being interested in “long hair” music can easily be associated with being “intellectual” and a member of the social elite.

Nostalgia plays a very key role, I am sure. For example, when I hear Rock a Billy or pre 1965 black blues, I am thrown back to my youth. Would I love that music if I were hearing it for the first time, with no memory involved? I don’t know (but I am guessing that I would love the pre 1965 black blues—it had an immediate appeal to me as a teen, in spite of it not being a mainstream, popular (among suburban white kids) form.

We must also consider the situation that one is in. If I am driving in heavy traffic, it is not a good time to appreciate an intense, deep form of music such as a Bach organ fugue. The harp music of the Irish bard Turlough O’Carolan can evoke wonder and imaginative images, but it will not be likely to do so if I am having a cavity drilled in the dentist chair. Maybe the deepest music requires a context where on can be in repose.

Yet another aspect of music that might affect ones judgment of it is the physical. That is, the timbre and tone and volume of the particular musical style or piece. Examples: some love the Scottish bagpipes, while many profess to hate them. Doubtless there are cultural associations at work too, but it is likely that the physical characteristics of the bagpipes sound, even when well played (maybe especially when well played, ), offends some ears. In my case, while I love the bagpipes, I could probably not enjoy listening to solo pipes for more than about 30 minutes or so. The effect, pleasing and exciting at first, begins to pall after a time. I know people who dislike the sound of the pipe organ---the opposite of me, as I love it with a passion---but perhaps the sound causes some kind of unpleasant resonance effect in their ear drums, precluding any enjoyment of the composition itself. The guitar is an instrument that, assuming it is reasonably well played and, most importantly, in tune, appeals strongly to me in all of its various forms. Even a piece of “new age” music, if not too heavy on monotonous repetition or simplistic harmony, can have some appeal for me. So if I am typical, certain instruments have an inherent appeal simply because of their physical characteristics, such as overtones, volume etc. I must add a personal note: I had not thought much about this until writing this essay, but in my case there are not really any conventional instruments that rub me badly. But there are certain ones that tend to inherently appeal more to me: the classical guitar, the organ, the piano, the lute, the fiddle (played in folk styles such as Celtic and bluegrass), the trumpet (in a bebop or post bop style), the saxophone (in rock n roll or bebop like Charlie Parker), the pipes (Irish or Scottish), the Irish flute, the cello, the harp (folk or classical), the oboe, the clarinet, and the harpsichord. Instruments that tend to have a more limited appeal (in spite of there being appealing musical pieces using them) are the flute (the classical metal one), drums (in isolation from pitched instruments).

(continued in Part 3)


Charles said...

So for example, if I were confined to a hospital bed, and were to be subjected to this type of music, I imagine my health and general disposition would deteriorate rapidly.

Actually Tom, you would get so irritable and annoying that you would you force yourself to get better just to get out of the hospital.

Charles said...

I found this quote amusing since I know the origin of it. "I had another friend, an older gentleman that flew planes in WW II, that even went so far as to claim that Bach’s music was “noise”. Hardly a trustworthy source.

Tom said...

Wow, I am wondering how you know that gentleman? Are you sure? He used to work for me back in the 1970's, and was indeed very opinionated, and claimed among other things that "milk was poison" and "that cigarettes din't cause cancer, that matches did".

I recall that he claimed Scientific American had an article about how someone had shown Bach's music was "noise". It turned out he was mistaken, I found, when I located the article--it was Bartok they had considered---but he had also misunderstood the gist of the article, which did not say that a significant noise component in a technical math sense was really bad.

BTW, is this the Charles from the guitar society?