by George Neame
Music is one of the few things that has always been embedded deep into human nature, in a similar way to art. ‘It’s an explosive expression of humanity’ claims pianist Billy Joel; It can be used as an expression of the artist’s innermost emotions and the way it is interpreted can reveal even more about the listener’s personality. But what is it about certain songs that induce such extreme emotions from us?
Through countless hours studying the use of alliteration, assonance, sibilance and onomatopoeia, any English student will tell you that sounds have dramatic effects on the readers of poetry, novels, or even those who listen to a play performed on-stage. When we listen closely to some songs, we begin to notice that the sounds produced by the singers are often reflective of the moods they are trying to convey. This is evident in Biffy Clyro’s song God & Satan, the stressed ‘s’ noises in ‘when the see-saw snaps and splinters your hand’ creating a relaxed and calming atmosphere designed to make the listener feel the song as it is supposed to be felt.
Not only is this apparent in lyrics though, but sounds created by instruments can also lead us to feel a certain way about the song. Beats that imitate natural noises such as waves or laughter can both brighten our mood or darken it. Teardrop by Massive Attack features an ongoing, repetitive drum beat that mimics that of the human heart and in doing so begins to put us in a tranquil state as it is so comforting to hear; the sound of a heartbeat is, after all, wired into us and is the most inherently reassuring noise to humans since it is the first we ever hear.
It becomes clear quickly that it is generally easier for songs to be happy than sad. Noises we associate with grief tend to be much less natural than those associated with happiness and are therefore intrinsically difficult to subtly employ during a song. Not only this, but it has been proven listening to music benefits a person’s wellbeing. Known as the ‘Mozart effect’, it has been suggested that music affects the affects the amplitude and frequency of brain waves, therefore improving short-term memory and spatiotemporal reasoning, the ability to visualise patterns and sequences. In addition, listening to classical music increases the level of the hormone serotonin in your brain, which relaxes muscles and slows breathing rate, leading to a reduction in stress.
Furthermore, provided it is not a ‘sad’ song, any music also serves as a distraction. When you are depressed and your mind focuses on one miserable thing (anything from an illness to bad results in an exam), listening to music provides the opportunity to at least partially forget these worries. Even if subconsciously, our minds attend to the different instruments and harmony so the very act of listening to music can divert our attention.
Although it is evident to see that music should naturally make us happy, it is obvious that there are some songs that have completely the opposite effect. Many people believe a song is simply made depressing by notching down the tempo and playing it in the minor key, but these are not the only reasons we find certain songs sadder than others.
Firstly, instrument choice is essential. Music that features a piano or violin is likely to be downbeat and gloomy, whereas dance songs that use synthesisers, guitars and drum beats tend to be happier and more cheerful. Interestingly, there is a reason some instruments are sadder than others, other than just their key and the speed at which they are typically played. The violin, for example, has a pitch that closely matches that of the human voice. Because of this, any high-pitched quavering noise produced by a violin sounds like wailing in grief and any low-pitched sounds we link to moaning or crying. The use of violins and violas is demonstrated in The Beatles’ chilling Eleanor Rigby, often considered the band’s most depressing song.
Our preconceptions of a song can dramatically alter the way we hear it, as well as what we associate with it. If, for example, you were told to listen to the song ‘Tears in Heaven’ by Eric Clapton, you would expect nothing less than the dreary, melancholy tones you are greeted with and even if the song turned out to be upbeat and cheerful, you would still be searching for that element of sadness you suppose to be present, having been suggested by the title.
As well as this, what we associate with songs we have heard before often makes them appear depressing even if they are not. This association can be visual or mental, but once you link a song with a certain event or thought, it is hard to shake off this connection. Many people claim the saddest song they know is Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, but would they view the song as quite so depressing if they did not instantly associate it with the heart-wrenching story told in James Cameron’s film Titanic? It has also been proven that people who listen to love songs after a break-up recover slower than those who don’t, suggesting that music brings back memories that we do not always want to remember.
Having established that music can affect our mood, we come to ask ourselves whether the opposite is possible. Can our mood affect the way we appreciate and interpret music? Do songs sound sadder or happier depending on how we are feeling? Personally, I think that our frame of mind is more important in determining whether or not we find a song happy or sad than the actual song itself. The best example of this I can think of is the song My Broken Heart by Noah and the Whale. Roughly half way through comes a violin solo which, when in a miserable mood, sounds like the pinnacle of heartbreak, an expression of pure grief beyond description. Listen to the same song when in higher spirits however, and it becomes a demonstration of bliss, euphoria and exultation, as if celebrating everything that could be celebrated about the world in twenty seconds.
Music has the power to force us through many different emotions, from misery to bliss, but it is sometimes hard to categorise a song as either ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. After all, most will include elements of both, and it is the way we view these songs that defines our personality. A sophisticated computer could recognise the use of piano and violins in a song, identify that it is in the minor key and acknowledge the small number of ‘beats per minute’ making it ‘sad’, but it takes a bit of humanity and soul to take a song and interpret it as whatever you think it means to you.