Music Shapes the World

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As he grew older, Tomas Edison (1847-1931) became increasingly fascinated with the alleged mystical powers of sound and music. Inspired by the spiritualism and paranormal craze of the decades surrounding the turn of last century, Edison announced in 1920 that he was developing a machine that could communicate with the dead. He reasoned that if a spirit world actually existed, an extremely sensitive device was needed to converse with it. A little closer to reality, Edison conducted a series of Mood Change Parties, in which participants listened to recordings and filled out charts documenting their responses. The goal was to link mood changes—worried to carefree, nervous to composed, etc.—with corresponding musical stimuli.

One of these “parties” took place in a Yale University psychology class. As a newspaper described it, it aimed “toward alleviating neurotic conditions, with a view of discovering psychological antidotes for depressed conditions of mind whether due to fatigue or disappointment.” Similar experiments were conducted at other Ivy League schools, giving an air of legitimacy to the proceedings despite company documents showing little serious interest in the project’s scientific merits or lack thereof. Not surprisingly, both the séance device and the Mood Change Parties were, more than anything, elaborate marketing ploys.

Whatever the motives, the machine designed for the deceased and the parties intended for the living grew from Edison’s awareness that sound could manipulate the psychological atmosphere. Pseudoscientific claims aside, it is clear that certain tone patterns used in certain environments can cause us to feel as if something otherworldly is occurring (hence the effect of science fiction film scores). Likewise, a group of people with common cultural backgrounds (such as Yale students in the 1920s) usually have shared reactions to changes in tone sequences—the differences being only in degree.

In both cases, too, sound-triggered transformations are perceived not just in the internal realm of emotions, but also in the surrounding environment. The room itself is felt to shift from heavy to light, tense to relaxed, sterile to active, etc. But these are really psychological shifts. From a philosophical standpoint, this adds support to the notion that the mind shapes the world around us. Before we can begin to apply rational thought, subconscious processes organize data coming to us through our senses, and largely determine what it is we are experiencing. Musical sounds strike us on such an all-consuming and mind-altering level that the emotions stirred interiorly tend to influence how we perceive the exterior world.

In Edison’s experiments, this was demonstrated both in the presumed way that aural changes could create an ambience conducive to communicating with the dead, and the more realistic idea that the mood of a party—not just those in attendance—could change in accordance with listening selections. In this modest sense, music can be said to shape the world around us.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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