The Power of Emotion In Music

I haven’t been feeling so well lately, probably because I inadvertently stopped taking my medication for a little bit, and the resulting depression has had me on something of a trip down memory lane – at least as far as feeling and emotion is concerned. It’s not that I necessarily want to feel this way, but it is bringing back to me the memories that I once could feel this way.

Let me try to explain. I have a reasonably large collection of music (not that music collections really mean much in today’s world of all-you-can-eat streaming services), and I’ve formed emotional attachments to many of these songs. They make me feel certain ways – whether it be happy, sad, boisterous, etc. – and I’ll often listen to them when I’m feeling those ways, to reinforce my own sense of emotion. I even have entire playlist simply called ‘Depression’, for when I’m at my worst.

The interesting thing about this is that whilst some of the songs in my Depression playlist would probably be universally seen as ‘sad’, many of them would almost certainly not trigger the same thoughts and feelings in others as they do in me. Memory is an enormous part of what makes me feel with music – specifically emotional memory.

Some people can remember the first time they ever heard a song, sort of like they can remember their first kiss, or where they were when they first learned some monumental truth. I can’t. In fact, I struggle to remember what I had for breakfast yesterday in most occasions, and if you were to name a song, I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to remember the first time I heard it.

What I do remember, however, is how I felt when I first heard it. Name me a song and I’ll probably gloss over it; play me a song and I’ll – in most cases – be transported back to the time when I first heard it, complete with the emotions and sensations I was going through at that time. It isn’t that the music causes the emotions – it’s that it reminds me of them.

To me this is fascinating, because it implies that music doesn’t necessarily hold inherent emotional power, but rather holds the power of emotional memory – the power to remind us of how we once were. (I’ve heard smells can do the same thing.)

Now of course, this isn’t going to true of every song, nor of every person; as far back as the history of humans, certain types of musical ideas have been associated with specific feelings; major keys are happy, while minor keys are sad; perfect chords are satisfying, while dissonance builds frustration and anger. Yet within even the history of western classical music, the thought of emotion being inherently tied to music is a relatively new concept (-ish). Moving out of the Middle Ages, where music was generally sacred, the Renaissance and Baroque periods of musical invention gave rise to composers who wrote for fun, and not just for god.

Yet even the great composers of the past such as Bach, Handel and Vivaldi aren’t particularly known for infusing deep emotion into their works. Certainly, they have ‘serious’ and ‘light’ works, but music from that era comes across often as more studious than heartfelt, with only a passing sense that a cantata in a minor key might be used for a more solemn purpose than a fugue in a major key.

Approaching the 1800s, however, there is a marked shift in musical tone and dynamic, largely led by Beethoven and his successors. Few scholars, I think, would argue that Beethoven’s majestic ninth symphony is not deeply infused with a wide range of emotions, from fear to rage to outright joy (indeed, the final movement is known as the “Ode to Joy”), and the Romantic era of music he ushered in was one in which emotion was key above all else.

The twentieth century saw a shift away from this, particularly following World War I and the desire to distance culture from the nationalism that sparked it, and the middle of the century was dominated by composers trying to reverse this trend and remove not only emotion, but themselves entirely, from their works (Schönberg, Cage, and others would often try to create composer-less music). However, as blues and jazz began to dominate the popular musical landscape, classical music faded into a background of obscurity whilst rock ‘n’ roll kept the ‘feeling’ alive.

Still, despite the concept of ASMR and the goosebumps you get from a particularly powerful passage, you really can’t argue that music contains the emotion in its entirety. The composer/songwriter may try their best, but interpretation – both from the performer and the listener – is where the connection actually happens. Let’s take a reasonably popular example that I can explain for myself: Wait and Bleed, by Slipknot. Reaching number 34 in the US charts and earning the band a grammy nomination, it’s a song that most people have at least heard of, if not expressly listened to. With its extreme distortion, dissonant chord progressions and screamed vocals, the first emotional impression one might get from this song is anger and rage (as could be argued for most of Slipknot’s output).

Yet for me, the song carries a deep weight of depression – specifically the teenage existential misery that I was going through when I first heard it. I don’t expressly remember what I was doing or where I was when I actually first heard the song, but it was part of the soundtrack to my young adulthood, and will be indelibly etched into my memory as an overwhelmingly sad song.

When I hear Wait and Bleed – or any other song that I first heard during that time of my life – I find myself reliving those feelings in my life, often tinted with a hefty dose of nostalgia. It doesn’t particularly matter if the song is meant to make the listener feel a certain way or not – it makes me feel that way. And interestingly, contemporaneous music that I didn’t listen to – such as Linkin Park – don’t have nearly the same emotional effect on me, despite the songs themselves being just as emotionally raw and powerful.

I even think that this emotional attachment to music – formed in the deepest subconscious of our minds – can be an explanation as to why, after a certain age, we stop connecting to new music as much as we do old music. (How many of us remember our parents hating our music? How many of us dislike our children’s music?) Our teenage years, developmentally, are our most raw, vulnerable and formative, and the things we experience during that time are likely to stay with us forever. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t heard a new song since I turned thirty that has been able to have even close to the emotional impact that those songs I first heard when I was fifteen did. In some ways this makes me sad, because I feel like my world of musical experience is getting smaller, but I also recognize this as a natural part of aging – we become comfortable with what we know, and our experiences jade us, obscuring the wide-eyed wonder with which we saw the world before.

Ultimately, I’m glad for music, and the emotions it can stir in me; without it, I think I would probably be an unfeeling automaton most of the time. The music I love, the music that I connect with, reminds me that I actually am able to feel, especially in those times when the world around me, the meds I’m on, and my own inherent mental health issues, conspire to hide those feelings from me.

What’s your favorite emotional music? Is it something that would be widely accepted as emotional, or does it have some special connection to you, and your life?

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