Rictor Noren

Music Maker

Anxiety of Influence

How music can ease times of anxiety.

Posted Aug 12, 2014

If, as Donald Winnicott suggests, “artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide,” what of it?

What if communicating promotes anxiety, and hiding, worse? What if I’m not an artist at all, and my verities unknown?

Anxiety can lead to strained relationships and vice versa. Anxiety can lead to a skewed definition of success and vice versa. We feel are though someone else’s culture is richer and more meaningful. Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal work on “flow” suggested that we many of us live our live bouncing between anxiety and boredom.

The idea of a release from anxiety is for many unrealistic, as we are born to project outcomes, and we traffic in “what ifs.” We turn to diet and yoga, benzos and ssris, talk and shock therapy, drink and the lubricious.

Man makes meaning through the arts as is his conceit, and as I explore the intersection of human functioning and music, I would like to connect a few of these dots.

Music can excite, bore, make us fall in love, and calm our nerves.  As it’s anxiety we’re exploring, nerve-calming it is.

A study out of the University of San Diego suggested that exposure to certain types of music has a positive effect on cardiovascular recover. In the 2004 study, participants were exposed to different styles of music:  classical, jazz, or pop, or to sit in silence. After which, they were given a battery of three minute mental arithmetic tasks. Those who listened to classical music had significantly lower post-task systolic blood pressure levels than participants who heard no music.  Interestingly, other musical styles did not produce significantly better results than silence, and silence didn’t seem to offer cognitive advantages over music.

So what is this music and how can we use it to our benefit?  One thing that isn’t clear in this study, is exactly what classical music are we talking about?  If we’re using the term classical music to mean concert music from the past 500 years, one can find any number of anxiety producing examples, especially from the last 100 years.  In broad terms, Mozart is classical music, but then so too is Schonberg, and though musicologist can stitch those two composers together, lay audiences have a more difficult time, and often find them polarizing.

For purposes of the discussion of anxiety, I like to limit this to music that has a defined form such are sonata-allegro form, or song form, or rondo form, based of triadic harmony. Examples would include anything from the “classical” period ­– 1750-1830. 

Pick a task, and pick a Haydn symphony, or one of the scores of Boccherini quintets, and allow the music to quiet your internal dialogue. Feel the order and the organization. Let your mind enjoy the quietness of this music.  In times of tremendous anxiety or internal unrest, beautifully organized sounds can be more soothing than sitting in silence, as silence can lead to uncontrollable thoughts.

The once popular “Mozart” effect in babies turned out to be wishful thinking, and yet there is mounting evidence that exposure to certain types of music can calm our days.  

I find that different styles of classical music work at different times of the day.  For example the Mozart clarinet quintets seem perfect for the morning whereas Debussy’s La Mer seems better suited to the later part of the day. Gregorian chant seems especially suited to early morning and late night.  Beethoven seems to work better in the evening.

Of course, this is the what seems to work for me.  There is some “classical music” that I might want to avoid in times of crisis.  As exquisite as they are, Schonberg’s Erwartung or Brittin’s Peter Grimes don’t necessarily quiet the mind. I adore Erwartung, but can find it agitating.

Find your script–the music that works for you.

About the Author

Rictor Noren is a violinist and teaches at the Boston Conservatory of Music and MIT.

More Posts