Music is an emotional business. But is it also a natural law, bound in with our bodies and ideas of motion we’re only beginning to understand?
I am in the unique position of studying with both Professor John Rayner and Dr Jonathan Powles, both of whom have published excellent recent articles on The Conversation (see here and here) on the tightly-linked subjects of science and music. Ideas touched on by both articles approach a theory of universality in music, based on ideas of motion in both disciplines.
The two concepts of music as a “language of the emotions” and music as a “natural law” might not be as at odds as Powles suggests.
I would propose that in search of a natural law of music, perhaps the ancient Greeks would have better spent their time, instead of studying the movement of celestial bodies, studying the movement of their own corporeal bodies.
The presence of universal gestures in mankind and music hint at order, and modern technology has begun to confirm these suspicions.
Inside the brain of a musician
It is easy to imagine cogs whirring in a musician’s brain’s motor cortex as well as the auditory cortex during a performance. Be it pressing piano keys, bowing a string or singing a top C, music is a physical act.
Rayner describes to us the physical action taken by his wife – the operatic soprano Theresa Rayner (see video below) – to produce her lovely singing voice.
What’s fascinating to me is the knowledge that those cogs are not only whirring in Theresa’s head, but also in the heads of every member of her lucky audience, whether they are musicians themselves or not.
In fact, if we completely divorce ourselves from the physical act of performing and simply listen, those very same cogs in the motor cortex still spin alongside those in the auditory cortex.
The human mirror
This coupling of cortexes is by no means unique to music. Of particular interest is our use of the motor cortex in processing emotion. Just as with music and its performer, use of the motor cortex for emotion is not limited to just the person experiencing the emotion, but also to their “audience”.
We identify other people’s emotions from countless things, including physical gestures. Many emotions are universal and our physical expression of them is (largely) recognisable across cultures. The video, below, by Bill Viola, is illustrative of this.
If we see a figure hunched over and shuffling along slowly, our brain can “mirror” that figure’s emotion, complete with a few revolutions of the corresponding cogs in our motor cortex – a process known as the “human mirror neuron system” – and through it we experience empathy.
Our brain imitates the emotion of the figure, and we mirror his or her emotion in our brain and understand that he or she is “sad”.
Music as a language
As Powles noted, there is some recent evidence to suggest music can act as a “language of the emotions”. Tribe members who had never before been exposed to Western music were able to identify the intended emotion of a musical work.
In Western music, the most common description of emotion reduces to the following: major key = happy; minor key = sad.
Apart from the problem of this leaving out every other emotion in between, this definition is by no means concrete. A skilled composer can depict any emotion they choose regardless of this modality.
In many other cultures the major/minor definition of emotion is swapped, or non-existent. The most joyous Hebrew songs are set in a minor key – as per the video below.
What, then, allows someone from another culture to experience the emotion of a piece of music?
Motion and a musical language
In Leondard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, the singer’s sadness is a slow, smooth and often descending melody (see video below).
The same too in Maurice Ravel’s Pavane, where the motion supersedes our cultural notion of major keys.
These melodies describe to us the motion of our sad, hunched-over individual as surely as seeing him or her with our eyes. Our brain can mirror this motion in much the same way as before.
While undoubtedly described in very abstract terms, our brain does appear to relate music to spacial and visual perceptions in a very concrete way.
The perception and representation of motion in music is certainly much more complex and hard to classify than I have suggested, but it is because of this that music is able to convey such complex movements.
Music may not be the pure “language of the emotions” musicologists in the past hoped, but motion has finally given music and emotion some tangible common ground.
These parallels in the motion of music, and the motion of an emotion, allow our brain to not only translate the music into an emotion, but also let us experience it.
Our brain’s ability to understand the motion of both music and emotion is astounding. As the cogs in our cortexes spin, it transforms listening to music into an act of empathy.