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What Is the Effect of Music on the Listener?

Music can take us out of this world of time and space.

The creative feat of composing music and its effect on the listener is to inevitably bring one to ponder the question, 'Just what is the difference between man-made musical sounds and the constant presence of worldly sounds that occupy consciousness almost around the clock?' For here we have two different kinds of hearing experience, yet both delivered courtesy of the same sense organ, namely the working ear.

Obviously we live constantly, more or less, in the natural world utilizing all five senses, of which hearing obviously plays its own important role in our worldly time and space existence. However, the composer of music creates an arrangement of instrumental sounds that can take us out of this world of time and space by putting together a rhythmic succession of individual tones organized as melodies that quicken inner sensibilities, induce unexpected changes of mood, release deeper levels of thought and feeling and put linear time on hold. The constant presence of the world’s natural sounds is transcended, although they continually engage the ear until we fall asleep. As the 17th century English poet John Dryden wrote, ‘What passion cannot music raise and quell?

Music has always played an important role in mystical rituals. The classical Greeks, for example, regarded it as an art presided over by the Muses, setting the mood, inciting the passions, and inducing states of mind that can take one out of time and even help to heal one in dire cases of tragedy or sickness. I would think that anyone who saw Sir John Barbirolli (the conductor of England’s famed Halle Orchestra) taking the Vienna Philharmonic through Mahler’s First Symphony would surely agree that at times he seemed to be spiritually transfigured. He was a man who, through the music, knew something of the infinite; of that inspirational force that accompanies experiences we feel to be of divine origin. Here is a note I wrote to myself in my hotel room after the performance: 'A man in a true state of grace – uplifted, devoid of ego or vanity or any form of self-consciousness, living a truth which lies beyond the world. Remember Nietzsche in ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ talking about the genius in the act of creation merging with the primal architect of the cosmos.'

One wonders when and how the first discovery of the psychological effect of structured manmade sounds (the art of composing musical tones in succession, thus taking the ear beyond its main function of bringing the natural sounds of the outside world to consciousness) actually came about. I would think it was when the simple drumbeat was first used, creating rhythmic patterns of percussion sounds that psychologically affected the listener and brought about states of mind that served both the spiritual and survival needs of the community. And as more varied and complicated instruments came into use (woodwinds such as flutes, strings in the form of violins, piano percussion in the form of a keyboard), ultimately forming the symphony orchestra, so has the art of composition and the psychological range and intensity of the effect on the listener. We make a point of listening to music nowadays, popular or classical. It is part of our way of life. We dance to music, and films and plays have musical accompaniments that support and intensify the story line. Neither should we forget the power of the human voice, either in solo or choral performance, to take us out of time and place for a while.

Hitler had his cabinet attend programs of the Berlin Symphony, especially when Wagner was being performed. What better than ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ to encourage a warlike spirit? And Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ certainly brings the pall of death home to roost. If you want be uplifted beyond the biological limitations of time and space, listen to Henry Purcell’s ‘Chacony in G Minor for Strings’ on a Decca disc entitled ‘The Classic Sound’ with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten.

The one sure way, as Carl Jung put it, to ‘break the spell that binds us to the cycle of biological events’ is through music. I have found that if the space in which you experience the sound of music is while sitting in the 1,000-year old ultrahigh vertical space of a great Gothic cathedral such as Bourges in central France (close to where my daughter, Wendy, lives) time and place are transcended, the watch on the wrist forgotten, worries are temporarily eased, and day-to-day consciousness surrenders its compulsive drives.

Are not these faculties – to create music on the one hand, and to be lost to time and place on the other – feats of human consciousness that cause some of us to question our mortality?

John Armstrong, an English inventor, wrote, ‘Music exalts each joy, allays each grief. Expels diseases, softens every pain, subdues the rage of poison, and the plague.’ Is this why so many hospitals today employ a permanent musician, say a guitarist, to bring music to the seriously ill, because the restorative benefits are so remarkable?

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