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Rita Watson MPH

Music, Emotions, and Pleasure Intermingle to Create Joy

From an art-musical pairing to a fusion of piano works, gratitude reigned.

Clemens Teufel, pianist © Rita Watson 2016
Source: Clemens Teufel, pianist © Rita Watson 2016

We often hear people say that music lifts their spirits, and, in fact, there is research that links music, emotions, and pleasure.  Additionally there have been studies that show how music seems to enliven people suffering from Alzheimer's disease. When feeling particularly weary, I often find that attending a musical event with university colleagues is restorative. 

A study linking music, emotion, and neurotransmitters was reported in "Science" in 2013. In talking about the research of neuroscientist, Dr. Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital with one of his students, we learned the following from "How music affects the brain," by Jacob Berkowitz: 

... "study participants’ brains released the key pleasure-related neurotransmitter dopamine several anticipatory seconds before the peak emotional crescendo of music they liked, a milestone in the cognitive neuroscience of music."

It can reassuring to see scientific evidence affirm what we believe to be true. Audiences would have agreed with such a finding at two highly creative concerts at the Boston Athenaeum recently. One highlighted the pairing of art and jazz. The other was a fusion of the works of two American icons. Each concert, open to the public, was like a miniature study of

All that jazz

Source: Petite Feet Quartet © Rita Watson 2016

In a concert to culminate Black History month, Petite Feet, an ensemble from the New England Conservatory of Music, set to music images from the art works of Allan Rohan Crite (1910 - 2007). Their compositions and sounds are influenced by the African-American culture --  a tribute to the cultural heritage which Crite preserved on canvases.

The tune of the Fats Waller classic, “Ain’t Misbehaven,”  filled the room at the start of the concert and set the mood. This was followed by Crite images of “Jumping Rope,” with the piano's jitterbug rhythm; “Streetcar Madonna," with an interesting bass interplay; “School Days, Harold St. Roxbury," enhanced by the tenor sax;  and "The Shower, Ruggles Street," with rhythmic splashing of the drum and piano. Perhaps the audience reacted not just to the music these young men composed to accompany the artwork, but to the sheer sense of enjoyment on the faces of bassist Simón Willson, drummer Jon Starks, pianist Shane Simpson, and Travis Bliss, tenor saxophonist. 

Piano works fusion

In a piano recital Clemens Teufel performed breath-taking pieces from Howard Hanson and George Gershwin. His piano solo version of "Rhapsody in Blue" was a feat in itself because he did not have a background orchestra to create the swells and drama of the work.  It was simply musical magic between Teufel and the keyboard. 

He also played three infrequently performed Gershwin preludes: Allegro ben ritmateo e deciso, Andante con moto, and Agitato as well as from Howard Hanson, Poemes Erotiques, Op.9 and Sonata in A Minor, Op. 11.* Teufel has performed at such venues as the Alte Oper Frankfurt, the Cite des Arts in Paris, as well as in the United States and at international festivals.

Smiles and applause

Both events were marked by applause and smiles.  We know that applause is an expression of gratitude and politeness, but why are smiles important? In a review paper published in February 2016 in “Trends in Cognitive Science,” Dr. Adrienne Wood and colleagues presented the scientific evidence that underscores what we intuitively believe: “Smiles generate smiles.”  It is called “mirroring.” The authors pointed out that “emotions are patterns of expressive, behavioral, physiological, and subjective feeling responses.”

Smiles and laughter are indeed contagious, as we learned from studies by Dr. Robert R. Provine, neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus. If you look at the faces of people in an audience during a jazz or classical concert, you will often see appreciative or mesmerizing smiles. 

Perhaps when we are feeling blue, finding a concert or listening to music that lifts our spirits will elevate our mood and envelop our senses.

Copyright 2016/ Rita Watson

Resources and Notes:

Berkowitz, Jacob, (2014) How music affects the brain, University Affairs.

Provine, R. (2000) Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Wood, A., Rychlowska, M.,Korb, S., Niedenthal, P., (2016) Fashioning the Face: Sensorimotor Simulation Contributes to Facial Expression Recognition, Trends in Cognitive Sciences.  

*A grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council supported, in part, The Teufel Program at the Boston Athenaeum at which I am an academic member