Music can be felt. It’s an emotional thing. Music stimulates emotions and stirrs memories. Music can make us happy or sad. This is no rational process but when it comes to the production of memories, at least the unconscious mind must be involved. Or can it affect the body without any diversion through the mind?
Emotions are illusions. They are tricks played to us by biochemical processes. They have no substance. Yet, they play an important part in our lives. They shape our thinking. They trigger our actions. They are a part of our self. Yet, they are only temporary. They do not persist. Not like attitudes.” emotions can be conceptualized as the felt and sensed reactions that arise in the midst of the (inter)corporal exchange between self and the world. Emotions can therefore be regarded as quite distinct from the long-term attitudes, feelings or preferences we express about our environment” (Hubbard,2007, p.121).
Emotions can be excited by persons, places, objects, situations and art. Hubbard claims that one and the same place can trigger different emotions according to time and company. A place we feel safe at in daytime may turn into a threatening experience in night-time. We can feel happy somewhere when we are in company and sad and forlorn when we are alone (Hubbard, 2007).
Health and illness raise emotions. Eating and drinking raise emotions. Molz (2007) studied the emotions McDonald’s restaurants in foreign places stirred in Western (mainly white American) travellers . She concluded that the attitude shown towards McDonald’s falls into two contradicting categories. One group was pleased to find something that ‘feels like home’ a long way from home. The feeling of familiarity was stirred by the standardized routine and environment of such a restaurant (although often combined with feelings of guilt). “Travellers are relieved to find a clean, air-conditioned haven where they know what to expect, where the food always tastes the same, the environment always feels the same, and there is always toilet paper in the bathroom. It all sounds so comforting” (Molz, 2007, p. 70). The other group was appalled by exactly this homeliness. They were looking for adventure in unknown territories and were unhappy when they found exactly what they thought to have left behind.
What Molz says about place, can also be claimed for art and music. The same piece of music can stir different emotions each time we listen to it. Like with place we can search for safety and cosiness in music or for adventure. It may depend on our mood (which is also a state of emotions) if we tend to one or the other side. In the first instance, we are in fact longing for a return to the mother’s womb. We are in need of shelter from the harsh world and the demands of everyday life. In the second case, we are in peace with our current existence and are looking for new sensations. Gombrich, the art historian, even claimed that consuming art is a mental training that increases our tolerance of the unexpected (Gombrich cited in Kandel, 2012).
But even the adventure-seeking music lover needs some familiarity. The adventure must not be boundless. The unexpected must not be fully unexpected. If the music is perceived as totally unstructured, it is only noise to us. We must understand what we hear to make sense of it.
On the other hand, art is mostly about emotion. There is not much rational about how we perceive art. In fact, I think rationality diminishes the pleasure art can give us. When I was a teenager, I knew very few about the theory of music (music lessons in school were boring and hence I did not give too much attention to the babble of the teacher). I perceived music solely as exciting or dull sounds. Over the years, I have learned a lot more about bass lines, riffs and motifs. I learned to extract the different instruments from the music while listening. Much of the wonder of music is therefore forever lost to me. (This is at least how I feel about it).
But is the pleasure or displeasure created by our unconscious mind or does the music trigger biochemical proecesses directly? Phenomenologists think that the body is an actor. I think it is a receiver. It can react to music without the help of the conscious mind. Analysis is rational. Feeling is irrational. Music hence seems to be able to trigger biochemical processes in our body. It can make us feel happy, sad, lonely or whatever. Is this a capacity of music? After all, music is just noise. Noise that we perceive as structured. It brings up memories. Memories that are linked with emotions. The brain “analyzes this incoming sensory information in light of past experience and generates an internal representation, a perception of the outside world”, says Kandel (2012). So, music is never just music. It is not perceived as what it is. Everyone perceives it differently. And even, we will hear a different tune each time we listen to a piece of music. Music is made by the listener.
But shamans claim that they can heal with song. What kinds of energies are working on our body when we listen to music? Here I stop before I enter the realm of esotericism.
Hubbard, P. (2007) “The Geographies of ‘Going Out’: Emotion and Embodiment in the Evening Economy” in Bondi, L., Davidson, J. and Smith, M. Emotional Geographies, Aldershot:Ashgate
Kandel, E (2012) The Age of Insight – The Quest to Understand the Unconsciousous, in Art, Mind, and Brain, New York:Random House
Molz, J. G. (2007) “Guilty Pleasures of the Golden Arches: Mapping McDonald’s in Narratives of Round-the-World Travel” in Bondi, L., Davidson, J. and Smith, M. Emotional Geographies, Aldershot:Ashgate