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What emotions does this music make you feel? It probably depends on your culture. | Anthony Brandt

We’ve been conditioned to believe that music taste is based on personal preference. But it might just be a lot more complex than that. Ask any random person what kind of music they love and they’ll most likely give you one, two, or maybe three genres. We’re actually born to appreciate all music but whittle our broader tastes away as we get older. Composer, writer, and Rice University​ professor Anthony Brandt posits that music is like language; if you don’t expose yourself to it, you’ll lose understanding of it.

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So one of the cool things about the human brain is that we’re born into the world able to learn any of the world’s languages. And, in fact, babies when they’re born they babble using all the possible phonemes, and then gradually those are pruned away mirroring their parents just to be limited to the phonemes of their native language. And in the same way with music: we’re literally born able to enjoy, appreciate any of the incredibly rich diversity of musics all over the world. But through exposure, we become conditioned and familiar with things to the point that it’s second nature and it almost feels absolute to us in terms of the certainty we feel in our reactions.

What’s wonderful and so inspiring and great is also that we can constantly stretch and expand that. And just as we can learn a second and a third and even a fourth and fifth language, we can constantly be broadening our tastes through exposure and growing what we love.

And often people are afraid, “Oh, does that mean that I give up what I loved before?” No, it’s just like having more children. You just have more love and you love more music.

So I want to do a little experiment with you. I’m going to play you two arias and I want you to grade them on an emotional scale, where number one would be the depth of tragedy and ten is ecstatic joy. And so we’ll play you the first clip and then just take a few seconds to write down your response to it.

And now we’ll play you the second clip and again do the same thing. One is the depth of tragedy, ten is ecstatic joy.

Okay, now let’s have a look at how you responded. And the answer to what those arias are is that they’re actually both arias telling about the exact same point in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.

It’s the moment when Orpheus looks back at Eurydice when he’s leaving the underworld. And by making that mistake he will never see her again. And so it’s the moment of greatest sadness in the piece.

But I strongly suspect that you graded the first one as being quite sad, but you graded the second one as being happier even though they’re representing exactly the same part of the story.

And the reason for that is that the first one is in the minor mode which we, in the West, are conditioned to experience as meaning sad and a negative affect.

And the second one was written before that idea of “minor is sad and major is happy” was actually solidified in Western culture. And so that second aria is actually in major even though Orpheus is singing about exactly the same thing.

And it’s a great example of how tuned we are to our culture to respond almost instantaneously and effortlessly to the emotional cues that we get in Western music. But that’s based on exposure and conditioning. It’s not something absolute.

And so there are cultures in the world that get married to music in minor. The Jewish song Hava Nagila, which is about celebrating life, that’s a song in minor.

Again, one is just astounded looking across world cultures at the way we reinterpret musical expression and constantly come up with our own angles and visions which eventually get solidified within a certain cultural sphere.

So we think about Beethoven as the most visionary experimental composer of his day. And yet he never wrote a piece which used the noise characteristics of the instruments as expressive features. He never wrote the piece where the pulse was completely flexible and you didn’t have a steady beat at all. He didn’t write a piece where there were all of a sudden silences interspersed in odd ways or people could play the same music all at their own speed.

And the point is that half a world away, that was the music of the culture. That was actually what was considered normative. That was how people expressed themselves in music.

And so we all move in these narrow channels, but actually when you take the broad view music is an open frontier, not a closed system. And that’s just a model for all human imagination in general.

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