Surviving music


I always was an anxious child. One Christmas, I think it may have been 1968, my mother presented me and my four sisters with three 7" singles. Perhaps not the most original of gifts but one for which I remain eternally grateful. The first was Let It Be and I liked it very much. The second was I'm Gonna Make You Love Me by The Supremes and The Temptations. I REALLY liked this record. The third was Do You Know The Way To San Jose by Dionne Warwick which I played again and again and LOVE to this day.

There after music became a source of pure joy to me and an obsession by the time I turned thirteen. Music has a profound effect on me. Not only does it move me, it reassures me and, until the birth of my children, was my primary means of emotional expression. I know others feel the same. Of course for a long time, as I learnt my craft as a composer, music was often a source of frustration. My lack of ability coupled with the insidious pressures of fashion and industry prevented me from articulating myself freely. Finally, and probably because I never achieved any real commercial success, I stopped worrying about what others might think and started making music for myself.

However, it is only recently, following some research on sound waves for one of my Music Technology classes, that I have come to question why music should be so important to me and so many others. Why does it have such emotional impact? What mechanisms are at work that can so effectively inform and impact on our emotional lives?

If I might get philosophical for a moment, it is generally accepted that we are driven by the survival instinct. This instinct is so powerful it informs every moment of our lives. It expresses itself in the act of falling in love, in which we seek a partner to make us feel "alright" and secure. We solicit the reassuring approval of others by striving for achievement and recognition. Even in our most selfless actions we seek to elevate our statue in society, to become valued and protected.

Art performs an important function too. Through its dramatic narratives we are able to live life vicariously. To experience and survive danger and conflict and to learn from those experiences without risk. Television and cinema are the most self evident examples of this narrative form but music is too.

There are fundamental forces at play in the juxtaposition of harmony and discord which have parallels in the dramatic narratives of novels and cinematic films. Music has heroes and villains. The good the bad and the ugly.


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Why do some groups of notes sound harmonious? On close investigation we discover their frequencies are all integer multiples of each other. They are related, nice and symmetrical, reassuring and working in concert. Discord? Here the relationships between frequencies are not symmetrical. Notes conflict and beat against each other. They don't fit. They threaten and sadden. Nasty! So why is this a problem? Well, because we are symmetrical beings. We find symmetry beautiful and associate asymmetrical forms with disease and decay.

Add tempo, dynamics and contrasting instrument colours and you have all the ingredients necessary for a potboiler. So, implicit in our musical languages are all the components of the dramatic narrative.

Ever wondered why country music is so hugely popular? Personally I find its predictable musical structures uninteresting but it is this very predictability that others embrace. Country songs always end back on the tonic, that life affirming return to the major chord. Strong, dominant and reassuring. Whatever harmonic diversion are encountered along the way (go on sling in an A minor for the sad bit) we're sure to end up back home. Everybody loves a happy ending.

Ever wondered why Stockhausen never topped the charts or Stravinsky had such a rough ride at the premiere of Rite Of Spring? Of course you don't, we all know why. Too uncomfortable, too unsettling. No happy endings. Only 'real' music lovers can appreciate that stuff (go on, pat yourself on the back, I know I have!).

The more music you listen to the stronger you become. Familiarity with what at first seems threatening brings reassurance and a palpable sense of euphoria. Am I alone in finding the music of Krzysztof Penderecki and Gyorgy Ligeti as beautiful as that of Burt Bacharach? I don't think so. But it took a lot of listening to get there. And perhaps only a music obsessive has the necessary patience. Listening to music is all about overcoming your deepest fears. Perhaps in the midst of our most euphoric musical experiences we believe, if only for a while, that we can actually cheat death.

On the other hand, I could be completely wrong.

© Matt Ottewill 2001