Tag Archives: Morality

Fleeting Effect

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

By the evening of December 30, 1862, Confederate and Union armies were positioned for battle in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. They were so close to one another that bugle calls could be heard from the opposing camp. Just before tattoo—the bugle signal for lights to be extinguished and loud talking and other disturbances to cease—army bands from each side began playing their favorite tunes. The music carried over the wintery air. “Yankee Doodle” from the North was answered by “The Bonnie Blue Flag” from the South. “Dixie” from the South was replied with “Hail Columbia” from the North. The back-and-forth culminated with the rival bands joining together in “Home, Sweet Home,” a song dear to soldiers on both sides. Thousands of homesick voices rose above the blaring brass instruments. It was a poignant reminder of their shared American culture and shared humanity. Then the music stopped. The men went to sleep and rose the next morning to slaughter each other. Of the major battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Murfreesboro (a.k.a. The Battle of Stones River) had the highest percentage of casualties on both sides.

This episode is a stark illustration of music’s fleeting effect. Music is rightly called the most emotional of the arts. In a matter of seconds or less, it can transform the listener’s mood and demeanor. The animosities of warring factions can be disarmed, their sentiments united, and their pulse-rates joined as one. But music’s intoxicating potential lasts only as long as the stimulus itself. Once the sounds evaporate, behaviors generally return to their pre-music-influenced state. As Susanne K. Langer observed in her landmark treatise, Philosophy in a New Key, “the behavior of concert audiences after even the most thrilling performances makes the traditional magical influence of music on human actions very dubious. Its somatic effects are transient, and its moral hangovers or uplifts seem to be negligible.”

Langer’s observation, along with the Civil War example, contrasts with claims prominent in the eighteenth century. Books such as Richard Brocklesby’s Reflections on Ancient and Modern Musick (1749) came with bold subtitles, like “Applications to the Cure of Diseases.” Modern thinkers and researchers refrain from claims that music somehow permanently impacts temperament or disposition. This is why, for instance, music therapy (both active and receptive) tends to be periodic and ongoing, and is typically administered in conjunction with other therapeutic and medicinal treatments.

None of this challenges the fact that music is strongly connected to feelings. If anything, the fleetingness of music-induced sensations sustains our attraction to the art form. It is largely why we return to the same music again and again, and long for musical interludes in our busy lives. These brief mood changes and moments of escape play a revitalizing role, temporarily recharging or redirecting our emotions without causing lingering distractions.

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

Empathy and Art Appreciation

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.          

In the Little Rascals short, “Mike Fright” (1934), several child performers audition for a station manager and a sponsor of a radio station. The Rascals are there as The International Silver String Submarine Band, a rag-tag troupe wielding an assortment of rusty hand-made instruments. The boys wait impatiently as the other acts audition, rudely disrupting the proceedings with their uncultured antics. Leonard, a smug and overconfident trumpeter, has his performance foiled by Little Rascals Tommy and Alvin, who start sucking on lemons while he plays. When Leonard sees the boys, his face puckers involuntarily, making it impossible for him to blow his horn.

This memorable scene depicts the human capacity for body mapping: an automatic response in which neural representations of perceived motor actions are activated in the viewer’s brain and trigger visceral responses. It is the reason we cringe when we see a needle poke someone’s arm, or yawn when we see somebody yawning. Similar empathic reactions have been observed in other primates, and the biological mechanisms responsible—mirror neurons, mimicry, and emotional contagion—probably predate the primate order.

Bodily empathy also plays a significant role in aesthetic appreciation. According to Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a major appeal of ballet, opera or trapeze flying is that, as we watch the performers, we enter their bodies. In his recent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, de Waal explains that when a dancer leaps across the stage, we too are momentarily suspended in air. When the diva sings her dramatic aria, we feel her voice as our own. When we see a painting showing the agony of a human figure, we cannot help but feel that emotion.

Even abstract art can stimulate body channels. De Waal cites an article by Vittorio Gallese, co-discoverer of mirror neurons, and art historian David Freedberg, which describes how observers unconsciously trace movements on a canvas. We sense body motion in the brush marks and put ourselves in the moment of the artist at work. This is like the cellist or pianist who involuntarily moves her fingers while listening to a recording of the instrument.

These examples reinforce the growing scientific view that empathy, while not lacking a cognitive component, begins as a pre-cognitive function propelled by bodily sentiments. This helps paint a bottom-up picture of morality, in which day-to-day interactions stimulate gut motivations that occur before and apart from rationalizations. Such “morality within” is not just a human phenomenon, but appears in other animals (primarily mammals) as well. The associated implications for the arts are equally profound, as empathy accounts largely for the pleasure we derive from them.

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