Emotional Music

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What is emotional music? But maybe first, I should ask, what is an emotion? And, are all emotions universal? Are your experiences of grief, remorse, shame and heartbreak the same as mine? I’d guess no; I don’t see how they could be.

It seems that emotions are experienced so differently between us humans that they cannot be truly defined. Perhaps they are like colours, most of us know what they are, but cannot describe them.

The third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Op. 59 No. 1, has been called “an expression of sadness of extraordinary depth and sincerity” by Malcolm Budd in his 1985 book Music and the Emotions. To me, this piece does not express sadness as I know it. It suggests a quiet, intimate articulation. It sounds too rigid to convey sadness.

Budd also suggests that Edward Elgar’s Sospiri, Op. 70 “expresses profound sorrow and a feeling of irrecoverable loss”, this time I agree with him. So, maybe some emotional experiences do equate between humans.

Elgar: Sospiri, Op. 70

Music that has a strong emotional content, is it more melodic than discordant music? Does slower music have a greater emotional pull over faster music? These may be unanswerable questions, but if you think that faster music creates a more positive feeling than slower music, you could be right. Frontiers in Psychiatry have published a report titled, “Effects of Musical Tempo on Musicians’ and Non-musicians’ Emotional Experience When Listening to Music”. In it they state, “Fast music evoked positive emotional valence with activation in the bilateral STG”.

What this means is that fast music has an intrinsic attractiveness, or goodness about it. So, does the opposite equate? Does this mean that slow music has a less positive effect on us? If it does, certain types of slow, sad, or highly emotional music might upset us more than fast happy music.

Again, what comes back to an individual experience is whether a positive or negative emotion affects you more.

Bach: Concerto for 2 Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043

Most composers have a tendency to create more faster music than slower. I measured 16 popular concertos for their balance of fast to slow music. From Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor BWV 1043, to Vivaldi’s Concerto for 2 Mandolins and Orchestra RV532. What I found was that the fast movements averaged 11:40 and the slow movements 7:23. If the fast means positive and slow means negative equation holds, overall, classical music should make you feel better.

Vivaldi: Concerto for 2 Mandolins in G Major, RV 532

For me, I love slow sad music more than fast happy music. However, slow sad music does not distress me. The tempo of slow music makes me feel more relaxed. Through slower pieces, my focus on the music increases, and I feel I gain a greater reward from slow music.

It is known that loud fast music can increase your heart rate and speed up your breathing, while slower softer music produces the opposite effect. If certain types of music can do this to our heart and breathing, the same music must affect our emotions. But, just exactly what emotions are touched when connected to particular types of music is unmeasurable.

That said, when we are hurting, we know exactly what type of music it is that unbottles our pain. But, it may be different kinds of music that releases our pain for every single person who has ever existed.

It also may be that increasing the pain can help get rid of it, or at least reduce it. And music can do this so powerfully. For me, when I am beside myself, I will listen to none other than that big man of soul, Barry White. In particular, his Never Gonna Give You Up. The tempo of this upbeat positive song does it to me every time; it pulls me out of the blues. As does Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Johannes Brahms. Both pieces of music get my blood flowing and bring me back out of my inner world of torment.

Brahms: Hungarian Dance No.5 in G Minor

Our feelings are hard to deny. There are certain people, places and pieces of music that we tend to steer clear of because they affect us so. I find that I become transformed and inconsolable when I hear Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. For me, and I know for many other people, that this piece of music, which has a simple idea underneath its construction, I know as others do that this is perhaps the most painful piece of music ever composed. It is heartbreaking.

Gorecki: Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”

Companies that sell music online clearly believe that there is a category called emotional music. If you go to many online music sellers, you will discover a section called moods. In this section, you’ll find music that they fit into categories of emotions like passionate, melancholy, bittersweet and such.

However, while there is no one fixed category of music called emotional, we certainly know it when we hear emotional music. It’s the sort of music that stays with us for our whole lives. We call on it when we need uplifting, to remember, and, to help us get through our emotional lives.

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