Tag Archives: Preference

Nostalgic Healing

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There was a time, not so long ago, when nostalgia was classified as a mental disorder. Psychology texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries described nostalgia as a form of “melancholia,” an “immigrant psychosis,” and a “monomaniacal obsessive mental state causing intense unhappiness.” These negative views inherited the term’s original connotation, as coined by Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688. He called nostalgia a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.”

Nostalgia has accumulated positive associations in recent years. Pop culture “nostalgia dealers,” specializing in vinyl records, comic books, and motion picture reboots, capitalize on the public’s wistful longing for the past. Social media sites like Facebook make it possible to stay in touch with people from different stages of our lives, fortifying links between who we were and who we are today. This healthy sense of self-continuity begins in young children, who fondly reminisce about birthdays and family vacations.

A host of social-psychological studies have found nostalgia to be effective in counteracting loneliness, easing anxiety, increasing generosity, and strengthening relationships. Even when yearnings stir bittersweet emotions, they imbue our lives with meaning and make the end of life less frightening. Dr. Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University observes: “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function. It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”

Music is a favorite nostalgia tool for laypeople and researchers alike. An experiment conducted by Routledge and colleagues showed that playing hit songs from the past makes life seem “worth living” and wards off despair. Psychologists in the Netherlands found that listening to nostalgic songs makes people feel physically warmer.

study from Scotland’s Glasgow Caledonian University tested the effects of music listening on the perception and tolerance of experimentally induced cold pressor pain. Fifty-four participants were subjected to three cold pressor trials. The first was accompanied by white noise, the second by specially designed “relaxation music,” and the third by the participants’ chosen music. When listening to preferred music, participants tolerated the pain stimulus significantly longer than when listening to white noise or relaxation music. They also reported having a much greater sense of control when hearing their chosen music.

While this study did not involve nostalgic music, per se, we can assume that at least some of the favored music fit that description. We might even expect stronger coping from expressly nostalgic music. Not only does this put to question the comparative efficacy of music marketed for healing (the type featuring drawn-out tones, flowing rhythms, atmospheric drones, and minimal chord changes), but it also suggests that the best music for mood regulation may be totally idiosyncratic: my nostalgia is not necessarily your nostalgia. Wistful affection, in short, is a key factor when considering music for pain relief, well-being, and life-affirmation.

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

Five Notes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Cultural evolution greatly outpaces biological evolution. The excruciatingly slow pace of natural selection is eclipsed by the rapid and localized intellectual, behavioral, and technological transformations that take place within human societies. Moreover, whereas the mutations and adaptations of genetic evolution typically lead in a single direction, cultural changes can be linear, cyclical, conservative, progressive, or all of these at once. Such variety is a result of human-directedness. Unlike the non-sentient forces of nature, which spawn diversity through gradual descent with modification, cultural advancements and retrenchments are conscious choices, and thus prone to splinter off in multiple directions.

In this sense, the use of the term “evolution” in discussions of culture, while commonplace, is somewhat misleading. Rather than progressing unidirectionally, human culture is the fickle and multidimensional product of a capricious species. This is obvious when examining music. If musical styles were placed on an evolutionary continuum organized from simple to complex, actual timelines would be demolished. Minimalism would predate Romanticism, blues would precede madrigals, and the Beatles would come before Bach. The absurdity is exacerbated when world musics are thrown into the mix.

Beneath the false premise that fewer notes indicates an earlier period is a bias regarding what constitutes complexity. Just as each style has its own history, each style is complex in its own way. Where harmonic density is lacking, rhythms may be more intricate. Where counterpoint is highly cultivated, modal choices may be limited. Where orchestration is refined, emotional content may be restricted. More often than not, these scenarios are the product of preferences: the relative absence or abundance of a musical element is dictated by taste, not chronology.

A good example is the Chinese predilection for the pentatonic (a five-note non-semitone scale). Chinese musicians are aware of “bigger and better” scales, but five is a sacred and symbolic number. The five notes of the scale—gong, shang, jue, zhi, and yu (usually equated with do, re, mi, sol, and la)—correspond with a variety of other fives. Among these are the cardinal directions (center, west, east, south, north), elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), colors (yellow, white, blue, red, black), tastes (sweet, pungent, sour, bitter, salty), and political structure (king, minister, people, national affairs, natural world). Far from being a “primitive” stage in musical development, the Chinese pentatonic is a conscious conservation of socio-historical meaning.

What’s more, while the pentatonic may exclude notes present in the Western heptatonic (not to mention chromatic and microtonal scales), it is similarly capable of generating endless melodies. This point is made in The Art of War, which observes that the five colors combine to “produce more hues than can ever be seen,” the five tastes “yield more flavors than can ever be tasted,” and the five notes “give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” Indeed, the value ascribed to discovering new combinations has ensured the preservation of the scale, despite many cultural changes that could have swept it away. This, in itself, goes against any hypothetical theory of musical evolution.

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

Hearing Averages

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Our field of perception is constantly crammed with tastes, smells, sights, sounds and other intrusions from the outside world. To make sense of this multifarious bombardment, our brains not only choose which stimuli to pay attention to, but also organize that information. The procedure is aided by prototype recognition, or the categorization of perceptions based on the central or average representation of a class. Countless hues enter our vision, but we sort them out based on a finite number of colors—red, blue, green, etc.—with modifying adjectives—light, dark, -ish, etc. The same occurs when deciphering shapes, words, weather conditions, food odors, facial expressions, and so forth.

Organizing experiences in this way is highly economical. The brain simplifies reality by placing an enormous variety of information into basic classifications. Virtually everything we perceive is processed in this stereotyping way. Yet, as obvious as this might be, we are less apt to recognize the role of prototypical elements in ascertaining beauty.

In 1990, psychologists Judith H. Langlois and Lori A. Roggman published a study entitled, “Attractive Faces are Only Average.” They asked college students to rank the beauty of human faces in a series of photographs. Their conclusion: faces with features approximating the mathematical average of all faces in a population are the most attractive. On the flipside, the researchers noted, “unattractive faces, because of their minor distortions . . . may be perceived as less facelike or as less typical of human faces.” We subconsciously reference the prototype of “faceness” when evaluating appearances. Our preference for averages and aversion to extremes is likely rooted in a primal sorting out of genetic regularities from potentially harmful mutations. Normal is safe and safe is beautiful.

Of course, when we go beyond photographs into real life, unconventional faces can be (and often are) judged favorably. In such cases, beauty is said to reside in the “eye of the beholder.” However, this very cliché acknowledges a baseline or common appearance of beauty from which an individual departs. (The natural preference for a prototypical face is overridden by extra-facial qualities, like kindness, talent and a sense of humor.)

As it is with faces, so it is with music. Within a given population in a given time and place, certain musical features are normative. These can be likened to the mathematical average of faces, and might include major and minor triads, common chord progressions (e.g., I-V-vi-IV), rising and falling melodies, normal structures (e.g., 8-bar form), and so on. These features comply with expectations and suggest stability—traits also detected in the “normal” face.

In music, temporary deviation from these elements can be a measurement for separating “interesting” from “bland” and “good” from “mediocre.” But deviating too much is, to most ears, an unwelcome mutation. As a rule, popular music is popular because it is prototypical. Attractive songs are only average.

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