Responding to Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A woman is seated in the balcony section of an opulent concert hall. As the orchestra plays, she takes in a deep breath, her eyes well up with tears, and she sways ever so slightly from side to side. Her counterpart in West Africa is enraptured in a drum-induced spirit possession, dancing ecstatically to the complex rhythms and perpetual melodies. In each case, the woman is exceptionally moved: her response exhibits a degree of emotion reserved for only certain members of society. Not everyone is able or willing to respond gushingly to orchestral music. Not everyone is capable of going into a trance or contacting spirits. In these disparate settings, the women are acting out the socialized behaviors of the hyper-musically attuned.

It is tempting to judge the effectiveness of music by the appearance of those who experience it. The dancer’s kinetic gyrations seem more intense than the mostly internalized feelings of the concertgoer. Likewise, pulsating beats seem more viscerally charged than the subtleties of a symphony. If physical display were a measurement of proclivity, we might conclude that one continent (Africa) is more musical than the other (Europe). But are these simply variable reactions to the power of music?

Missing from the surface assessment is an appreciation of cultural specificity. Judith Becker makes this point in Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing. Without conflating wholehearted listening and ecstatic dancing, she identifies the “limited universals” underlying each experience, including emotional arousal, cessation of inner language, and the loss of a sense of self. Just as the music varies, so do the listening contexts and expected outcomes. Yet beneath the diversity are similar physiological and neurological effects.

Precisely how one responds to music is determined through a three-stage cognitive-bodily process. The first is universal: the automatic deciphering of musical sounds. The second is cultural: learned responses to specific musical sounds. The third is individual: the degree to which a person enacts learned responses to specific musical sounds. Although these stages occur simultaneously, there is a clear progression from general to individual. Beyond the first—the ability to detect humanly organized sounds as music—are two increasingly subjective filters: cultural and personal. Culture sets the guidelines as to how one responds to sounds, and the individual tends to act within those guidelines. Sure, one’s tastes and disposition can put his/her response outside of the norm; but as a rule it is difficult to transcend or discard the range of socially acceptable reactions.

Returning to the comparison above, the weeping classical music fan and the possessed dancer can be grouped in the upper limits of their respective music-cultures. They are the deep listeners of their societies. Their expressions are intensely personal yet unequivocally cultural. The manifestations differ, but the level of emotion is essentially the same.

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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2 thoughts on “Responding to Music

  1. John Morton

    An interesting post, Jonathan. We’ve been here before, of course. Morality, too, plays a part in the cultural aspect. Remember early responses to Elvis, especially in the Bible belt? I was born into a family of engineers and I can see beauty in efficient function, too and mathematicians speak of beauty in their work. I must say I’ve come to dislike even the word ‘culture’ because it so often refers to attitudes that result in divisiveness. And yet the musical establishment can be just as bad. Ravel’s quartet in F, submitted for the prix de Rome when he was at the Paris Conservatoire, was criticized and declared to be ‘academically lacking’. When musical tastes surface through layers of cultural experience they bring a lot of baggage, too but then, that’s art as we know it, I suppose.

    Reply
  2. jlfriedmann Post author

    I learned recently that mathematicians have a precise definition for “beautiful” when it comes to equations. That sort of thing obviously doesn’t exist in the world of music.

    Reply

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