Beauty, Motion, and Home – Listening to Music

One of the most exhilarating yet, enigmatic things about teaching, learning and researching music is trying to comprehend the sheer variety of ways that musical experiences can be meaningful to people.

Over the past few months I’ve found myself coming back again and again to three “tunes” that have been part of my listening repertoire for years. I love each of these pieces of music and have found all three to be deep reservoirs of personally meaningful experience. Thinking about “how” and/or “why” each of these tunes might be meaningful is icing on the experiential cake.

Here are some of my experiences and ‘blips’ of potential explanations for how they might arise… …read on into the references if you’re curious for more…

Sometimes it’s simply being in the presence of beauty

I can listen to great performances of Massenet’s Meditation from Thai over and over and will consistently find myself in awe. The particular combinations and orderings of sounds that make up this melody and the tenderness that’s possible in its performance are simply, aesthetically beautiful to me. The tune appears during a transcendent moment in a larger operatic work (read about it here).

One compelling discussion of how this type of response to music comes about has been put forth by the psychologist – Konečni (2008) – who describes how being moved, experiencing thrills, and recognizing a sense of the sublime in music might occur. With his, Aesthetic Trinity Theory, he argues that these types of experiences may be what he calls the “most genuine and profound music-related emotional states” (Konečni, 2008, p. 115).

This is an amazing recording from 1919 by Mischa Elman, violin; Josef Bonime, piano:

HEAR IT HERE

Sometimes it’s tapping into a sense of primordial motion

Another tune that strikes me at my core time and again is Janáček’s brass fanfare from Sinfonietta. When I listen to this piece I feel a heightened sense of space and motion – volume in the sense of filling up the air around me with rocking and swaying undulations of sound. For me, musical experiences like this reveal a certain basic premise of life, a connection to a larger world that sometimes seems hidden to everyday sensation. This is especially the case when I hear this piece live and I was fortunate to have recently had an opportunity to hear the IU Brass Choir play the heck out it.

Some psychological notions of the embodied nature of consciousness seem to capture this phenomenon well. McGuiness and Overy (2011) present a fascinating discussion of how music listening experiences can consist of a linking of “innate bodily responses to musical gestures” (p. 2). They describe how, at a pre-conscious level, people might relate to musical sounds as physical gesture and that this ability to relate to sound in this way may be a primary means for connecting with others through shared experiences in music.  McGuiness and Overy’s discussion is truly interdisciplinary, drawing from neuroscience, music theory, psychology, cognitive science, ethnomusicology, and philosophy.

Here’s a recording with constant motion in the foreground… 😉
Janáček on the escalator

Sometimes it’s reflecting on the past or making a visit home

George Harrison’s Beware of Darkness, from his first solo album All Things Must Pass, will always have a special place in my heart. In contrast to the descriptions of abstract experience above, my experience with this tune is about home and what’s familiar. For me this song captures memories of listening to the Beatles and other classic rock as a kid with my parents in New Jersey. It’s Earthy, elemental, and introspective yet, warm and approachable. In short, it’s like a great trip home to see family.

One of the overwhelmingly consistent findings of research that delves into what kinds of music people prefer – is that we tend to prefer the familiar. A classic study by North and Hargreaves (1995) documented this correlation quite clearly. It seems that for me, the familiar is a powerful preference factor as well.

Here’s George at The Concert for Bangladesh with special guest, Leon Russell who does, in my opinion, the coolest version of this tune… link here.

CODA

As a music teacher who’s also a researcher I’m often left wondering after listening to this music… …did I do enough to provide my students with opportunities for these kinds of experiences? I sure hope so.

References:

Konečni, V. J. (2008). Does music induce emotion? A theoretical and methodological analysis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2, 115-129.

McGuiness, A., & Overy, K. (2011). Music, consciousness, and the brain: Music as shared experience of an embodied present. In D. Clarke & E. Clarke (Eds.), Music and consciousness: Philosophical, psychological, and cultural perspectives (pp. 245-263). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

North, A. C., & Hargreaves, D. J. (1995). Subjective complexity, familiarity, and liking for popular music. Psychomusicology, 14, 77-93.

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