Engaging with music, whether it’s listening to it, or creating it, is one of life’s great joys. Neither Aleena nor Janine could get through a whole day without listening to some music. Humans have a deep emotional connection with music. But just how does music affect our mood, and how does our mood affect the music we listen to, or the music we create? In episode 19, Aleena and Janine get into the links between music and emotion. Aleena also shares her newfound discovery: a dog with natural dreadlocks. Janine, on the other hand, is pleased to find out that her habit of hoarding books can be reframed as a Japanese artform!
Mastering of this episode, plus intro and outro music, by the ever-talented Dr Adrian Diery.
Does music have a universal effect on human emotion?
You know how music gives you a vibe? In Western culture, we have a pretty strong sense of what is “happy music” (get your dancing shoes on) and what is “sad music” (go grab some tissues).
It’s commonly thought that this comes down to musical pitch: that major harmonies and melodies provoke more happy feelings, and minor melodies and harmonies provoke more sad feelings. But does this hold across cultures? Researchers from Australia and Germany wanted to find out.
*And if you’re not familiar with the difference between major and minor harmonies, check out this awesome (and funny) demo.
In this 2022 study, researchers went out to remote regions of Papua New Guinea to test whether music has universal effects on human emotions. They played pairs of major and minor harmonies and melodies to local villagers who had varying exposure to Western music; including some who’d heard hardly any. The villagers were asked which harmony/melody made them happier. The researchers did this same neat experiment with university students and trained musicians in Sydney, Australia.
Results from the Australian participants were as expected – participants experienced more happiness from the major harmonies and melodies than the minor ones, especially among the trained musicians.
But for the Papua New Guinea participants, it wasn’t always the case that major harmonies and melodies were tied to happiness. This means the researchers didn’t find evidence that music has universal intrinsic effects on our human brains (thought they couldn’t rule it out definitively). Cultural influences seem likely to be at play here, including learned associations and familiarity. INTERESTING!
So next time you’re listening to a real musical tear-jerker, keep in mind that it may not be a tear-jerker to someone else. Isn’t this cool? Even Aleena’s kryptonite: this cover of Mad World (*sobbing*).
Check out this great write up of this study for even more detail.
Smit EA, Milne AJ, Sarvasy HS, Dean RT. (2022). Emotional responses in Papua New Guinea show negligible evidence for a universal effect of major versus minor music. PLoS ONE, 17(6): e02695977.
How does wellbeing affect musical creativity?
Janine focuses on this paper from the Review of Economics and Statistics. Economists are interested in creativity since there are clear links between creativity and innovation, entrepreneurship and job creation.
As we know, creative, talented people push boundaries and can even transform a culture – this may occur during their lifetime and continue after they die, or kick off some time after they die.
So then, what are some of the drivers of creativity? And, specifically: can creativity be borne out of negative emotion states or mental illness?
To answer this question, the author pored over 1,400 handwritten letters written by classical music composers Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt.
Side note: apparently these letters are available electronically via in the Gutenberg database, in addition to >60,000 e-books and other written materials!! Check out Project Gutenberg!
With the letters, the author completed a comprehensive linguistic analysis to work out to what extent each letter involved mention of positive vs negative emotions. This provides a longitudinal dataset where we can observe changes in positive and negative emotions over time, for each composer.
The data around emotional state were then compared with information about creativity levels: namely, the number of important, quality musical compositions at different time points.
Overall, the author found that more significant works were completed following phases of negative emotion. The author then drilled down and compared different negative emotional states (e.g., anger, anxiety and depression), and identified that sadness was the main feeling that was driving bursts of creativity. There was even the suggestion that the creative process may help to “burn down” the negative emotions.
Aleena and Janine discuss how learning into creative pursuits during the most difficult life phases may be a worthwhile strategy. Who knows what you might create and be remembered for!
Borowiecki KJ. (2017). How are you, my dearest Mozart? Well-being and creativity of three famous composers based on their letters. Review of Economics and Statistics, 99(4), 591-605.
The dark side of creativity
Janine also runs through an experimental study from 2008: “The dark side of creativity”. In this study, participants’ emotional state was manipulated through mock interviews. Participants then completed artistic collages. Participants that were in a negative headspace produced more creative collages! So next time someone is a jerk to you, or something puts you in a bad mood, consider doing something creative and just see what happens!
What brought out our inner square?
Aleena discovered a dog breed that has dreadlocks – check out the Hungarian Puli! And she brings this full circle with a surprise, music-related factoid for Janine. Turns out Janine has seen this dog breed only several hundred times before without actually knowing it… Did you know the Bush album Sixteen Stone pictures lead singer Gavin Rossdale’s Hungarian Puli from 1994 – and his name was Winston! Hail Winston! Apologies for thinking you were some sort of weird snuffleufagus-type character all these years.
Essential tangent: check out The Inner Square playlist on Spotify! Hours of awesome, and at times nerdy, bangers for you to enjoy!
Janine is excited to reframe her book-hoarding ‘problem’ into a new Japanese ‘practice’: Tsundoku “the art of acquiring reading materials, but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them”. If you’d like to really hone this ‘practice’ yourself, Janine can provide private tuition and bookstore field trips 😉 Check out some great pieces about tsundoku here and here.
Image by Stefany Andrade on Unsplash
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