• Atul Prasad

The Unparalleled Note

The Foundation

There is a special place of escape that everyone has and this place is quite common for a lot of people. Give it a listen. Can you hear it? The sound of the earth around. I definitely can. It's in the breeze, in the water, in the light. The music. We all can hear it. We all can feel it. We all can see it. The music. The rhythm, the melody and the harmony. In actuality, there is no noise but only sound. The art, that is governed by pitch, dynamics, timbre and texture has this phenomenal capability of moving the mind, body and soul simply through the medium of sound. The name being derived from the greek word “Mousike '' which in turn is the art of “Muses”, has many names across the world.

The origin however, is common to all. It all started with the sounds around us, as early non-linguistic humans. Sound and vision was used to recognise things in our surroundings and slowly as humankind evolved, the everyday sounds turned into melodies which went on to become a mode of expression for millions. Soon, stories and poetries became a part of this free form of expression. The music, the sound, that we all hear on a daily basis, exists in waveforms within a particular audible limit. These waveforms, when they flow, create a set of vibrations that have the power to move minds. Emotionally and spiritually.

The Evolution

Since the beginning of time, music has grown and evolved side by side with humankind. From just mere sounds to classical symphonies to being divided into several different categories and subcategories. From the early 1600’s to the 1800’s, music was composed as strictly organised symphonies by the greats like Beethoven, Mortzart and Vivaldi. In the early 1900’s is when it progressed to spontaneously played improvisational music such as jazz, and avant-garde styles of chance-based contemporary music from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Music can be divided into genres (e.g., country music) and genres can be further divided into subgenres (e.g., country blues and pop country are two of the many country subgenres), although the dividing lines and relationships between music genres are often subtle, sometimes open to personal interpretation, and occasionally controversial. Within the arts, music may be classified as a performing art, a fine art or as an auditory art. Music may be played or sung and heard live at a rock concert or orchestra performance, heard live as part of a dramatic work (a music theater show or opera), or it may be recorded and listened to on a radio, MP3 player, CD player, smartphone or as film score or TV show.

Why should we listen?

We like music because it makes us feel good. Why does it make us feel good? Research from across the world show that people listening to pleasurable music had activated brain regions called the limbic and paralimbic areas, which are connected to euphoric reward responses, like those we experience from good sex, good food and addictive drugs. Those rewards come from a gush of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. But why? It’s easy enough to understand why sex and food are rewarded with a dopamine rush. This makes us want more, and so contributes to our survival and propagation. The truth is no one knows. However, we now have many clues to why music provokes intense emotions. The current favourite theory among scientists who study the cognition of music is how we process it mentally, emotion in music is all about what we expect, and whether or not we get it.

Scientists drew on earlier psychological theories of emotion, which proposed that it arises when we’re unable to satisfy some desire. That, as you might imagine, creates frustration or anger – but if we then find what we’re looking for, be it love or a cigarette, the payoff is all the sweeter.This is what music does too. It sets up sonic patterns and regularities that tempt us to make unconscious predictions. We all know that music has this direct line to the emotions: who hasn’t been embarrassed by the tears that well up as the strings swell in a sentimental film, even while the logical brain protests that this is just cynical manipulation? We can’t turn off this anticipatory instinct, nor its link to the emotions – even when we know that there’s nothing life-threatening in a Mozart sonata.

Emotions and Symphonies

The idea that musical emotion arises from little violations and manipulations of our expectations seems the most promising candidate theory, but it is very hard to test. One reason for this is that music simply offers so much opportunity for creating and violating expectations that it’s not clear what we should measure and compare. We expect rising melodies to continue to rise – but perhaps not indefinitely, as they never do. We expect pleasing harmonies rather than jarring dissonance – but what sounds pleasing today may have seemed dissonant two hundred years ago. We expect rhythms to be regular, but are surprised if the jumpy syncopation of rock’n’roll suddenly switches to four-square oompah time. Expectation is a complicated, ever-changing interplay of how the piece we’re hearing has gone so far, how it compares with similar pieces and styles, and how it compares with all we’ve ever heard.

Emotion in music will be primarily culturally specific. In order to have any expectations about where the music will go in the first place, you need to know the rules – to appreciate what is normal. This varies from one culture to another. Western Europeans think simple rhythms like waltz time are natural, but Eastern Europeans dance happily to metres that sound extraordinarily complicated to others.

All of us develop a strong, subconscious sense of which notes sound right, whether in sequence in a melody, or sounding together in harmonies. But because different cultures use different scales and tunings – the scales of India and Indonesia, for example, don’t respect the tunings of a piano – there is nothing universal about these expectations. A jolly piece of Indonesian music may be interpreted as sad by Westerners simply because it sounds close to being in the traditionally melancholic minor scale.

The Climax Theory

Like any story, music pieces have an ending too. Some of us, like myself, never want the music to stop its intense continuum. Symphonies, old or contemporary, are composed like a waveform. The patterns of the compositions are such that they follow the path of a wave. To be more precise, a Sine wave, a curve representing periodic oscillations of a constant amplitude. Sometimes a musical piece might end on a low or on a high, depending on the mood set by the composer.

All this can rationalise a great deal about why we feel emotions from particular musical phrases and performances. The rewards stimulated by music heard for the first time are particularly dependent on communication between emotion and logic circuits in the brain. Our emotional response to music may be conditioned by so many other factors too, like if we are hearing it alone or in a crowd. Underneath all these ideas is the fact that we’re not even sure what kind of emotion we’re talking about. We can recognise sad music without feeling sad. And even if we do feel sad, it’s not like the sadness of bereavement. Some music, like some of Bach’s, can create intense emotion even though we can’t quite put into words what the emotion is. So we’ll surely never understand why music stimulates emotions at least until we have a better picture of what our emotional world is really like.

Music, at the end of the day as an art form, is an incomprehensible beauty. The effects it has on us as humankind is unparalleled. So, give it a listen. Can you still hear it? The music around us. I sure can.