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?

Where to Focus Attention (?)

There are a lot – and I mean a lot – of things in the world that vie for our attention on a daily basis. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep (if we’re lucky enough to be able to sleep, what with everything grabbing for our attention), there are a million and one different foci demanding we consider them first, and if I’m honest, it can feel incredibly overwhelming at times.

For example, right now I’m writing a blog post, having spent around an hour pre-scheduling photo posts for the next couple of months. But here are a few of the things I could/should/would have been doing instead:

  • Clean the back yard
  • Go shopping
  • Write more of my novel
  • Finish the symphony I started four months ago
  • Spend time with my wife
  • Eat lunch
  • Have a shower
  • Read about racism
  • Read other blog posts
  • Read a book of any kind

And I could go on. There never seems to be enough time in the day to get everything done, and you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ll likely spend the rest of your life not doing things that you could have been doing instead of whatever you are doing at the moment.

This becomes an overwhelming mental burden, and comes with a great deal of guilt associated with the things you don’t actually manage to get done. When I was younger, I used to break down and often actually collapse in a pile on the floor, unable to cope with the demands of life, and totally incapacitated from the pressure of trying to decide what to do next. In fact, I’ve ended up building a life around the concept of actually just doing whatever I want to do, rather than worrying about what I might have to do, just to avoid this sense of crushing turmoil.

I don’t necessarily think this is a healthy way to look at life, but it’s the only way I can often make it through the day. I actually had a conversation about this (closer to an argument, if I’m being honest) with my son the other day, with respect to the different views my wife (his mother) and I have on this subject. My wife is the kind of person that just does; if something needs doing she’ll just get it done, regardless of whether there are things she might rather do instead. Perhaps to a fault herself – sometimes she’ll get so caught up in getting one thing done that she lets other things slide out of focus, even if they might have needed doing, too.

On the one hand, this mentality of doing what I want to do is what’s allowed me to write three fantasy novels and a YA novel whilst working a full-time job and dealing with depression, bipolar breaks and general mental ill-health; I’ve often spent a great deal of time writing that I could have been doing dishes, working in the yard, or any number of other inane – but important – tasks. On the other hand, it’s what’s led me to still not understand how to do my taxes, or keep my car clean and well-serviced, or check the sump pump in the basement before a storm.

And this is all relating to the little things in life – the things that we all have to do just to survive each and every day. Never mind the big things, like tackling social injustice and racism and misogyny and poverty in third-world countries; how can I possibly find a way to commit to acting on these kinds of things, when I can’t even remember to brush my teeth in the morning? There are things in the world – great big things – that give me great cause for concern, such as climate change and the deaths of hundreds of thousands from COVID-19, but dwelling on them seems a fruitless endeavor when I struggle to find clean socks because I never got around to doing my laundry. All that happens is I once again get overwhelmed, depressed, and end up wanting to sleep it all away.

I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to finding balance in this respect; after all, if we all spent our lives only doing what had to be done, we’d want to shoot ourselves out of tedium. Yet if everyone only ever did what that wanted to do, none of the actual important things in the world would ever get accomplished – like finding a vaccine for COVID-19, or putting a human being on Mars. (The US president seems to do what he wants all the time, and look where that got us.)

Of course, there are days that I feel better than others, where I can put aside the wants in favor of the musts; at the start of quarantine, I think I might have been going through a manic phase and was cooking every night, cleaning up after myself, getting my work done, blogging at the same time, and actually managing to balance all the things in life that I wanted and needed to do. But those phases never last (at least for me), and eventually I come around to a point again where I either just want to write or play video games, or else watch South Park and drink myself into oblivion.

Perhaps finding more a structure in life would help some; I know there are people who set aside time for their passions and hobbies, but after that time is up they return to the grindstone of work and chores. Something in me – something childish, perhaps – rebels against that notion, arguing that creative pursuits can’t be contained or boxed in; that when the inspiration strikes, you have to attend to it no matter what. In reality, of course, I recognize that most of the time inspiration doesn’t strike, and I end up just twiddling my thumbs waiting for something to come to me; wasted time that could’ve been spent productively, if not enjoyably.

Maybe the problem is that, after two-plus decades, I still don’t really want to be an adult. Adulting is hard, filled with inane tasks and boring, challenging responsibilities, and I’d much rather spend what time I might have on this earth enjoying life (ironic, I know, for someone plagued with depression). Whether that be writing, listening to good music, or just dozing in the middle of the day, I just can’t face the idea that if I did all the boring, important stuff, I wouldn’t have time left for the stupid, fun stuff.

How do you cope? How do you make time for what you enjoy doing, without it coming at the expense of what you know must get done? Or, like me, do you kind of just … not care?

Laughing, Because Otherwise We’d Cry

I’ve always enjoyed working where I do, but I’m particularly proud of my peers and leaders at the moment for pushing for ongoing conversation around race, social injustice and prejudice. In a time where it seems like everyone is jumping on the George Floyd bandwagon, then jumping off as soon as something else comes along, where I work has – so far – maintained a steady grasp on the importance of challenging racial bias both with our teams and with our customers. We have meetings at least once or twice a week around the subject, and have started to provide venues for black voices to be heard across the company – and acknowledging that even so, there’s a lot more work we have to do.

During one of these meetings, the topic of racial humor came up – specifically, the notion of laughing uncomfortably at racist jokes, or looking the other way, or simply ‘letting it slide’. And the overall consensus was – as one might expect – that racist humor is pretty much not okay.

Personally, however, I think humor is actually a much more subtle and complicated topic than simply ’right vs. wrong’. On the whole, I tend to agree that a racist joke for the sake of being racist, for shock value, or because it actually reflects your true ugly beliefs, is definitely not okay. But this begins to toe a delicate line – if something is taken off the table as a subject of humor because it’s offensive to some, then where do we draw the line at what is and isn’t okay to joke about?

I realize this is an old subject, and there are many who’ve debated it far more eloquently than I’m able to, but it’s nonetheless an important one. After all, we humans love to laugh, and there’s not a whole lot of humor that doesn’t come at someone’s expense. Whether it’s an edgy pedophile joke or simply a punny dad joke, somewhere along the line someone is put out. I think the main reason for this is because of the very nature of humor: we laugh when something clashes with our expectations, prejudices or preconceived notions about a particular topic in an unexpected way. Take one of my favorite jokes from when I was a kid:

Q: What do you get when you cross a canary with a fan?
A: Shredded tweet.

I pity you if you didn’t at least roll your eyes at that one. But the implication is in fact rather violent – a canary fed through a fan would be a cruel, bloody and horrific mess. PETA would not approve.

So should that joke be considered unacceptable? I think most people would find it pretty innocuous, but I can’t deny that there are some people in the world who might actually be offended.

Of course, there are subjects that are far more controversial than childish animal cruelty puns; racism, sexism, child molestation … there’s really no end to the extent of vile and horrible things that humans are capable of, and these are of course very serious topics that should be discussed in a serious manner if we are ever to find long-term solutions to the problems they give rise to.

But we aren’t all capable of changing the world; everyone is not a saint, and most of us struggle as it is to get through our daily lives with our minds and emotions intact. In fact, the vast majority of us rely on humor to diffuse situations, to make life more tolerable, and to simply come to terms with some of the worse things in the world.

So what is okay to make fun of, then, and what isn’t? Can I make fun of a friend for being outrageously gay? Can he make fun of himself for being outrageously gay? Can I poke fun at Mohammed? Or the people who violently protest his depiction in media? An incompetent president for drinking covfefe in the morning? Do I have to limit myself to G-rated humor and wordplay? Innuendo can be incredibly sexist; even an offhand remark about self-tan could come off as racist.

In one sense, there is a simple answer, in which I’ll paraphrase one of my favorite satirical shows ever, South Park: either everything is okay to make fun of, or nothing is. The ‘line’, so to speak, is entirely arbitrary, depending on the audience and the perception of the people both telling and hearing the joke. If I make a Catholic priest altar boy joke, there is a very specific demographic that will likely take great offense to it; most other people would probably laugh. If I make a Muslim joke, it’s pretty likely that those demographics will be completely reversed.

But at the same time, the concept of ‘all-or-nothing’ is still something of an oversimplification. Yes – if we start arbitrarily saying certain things are off-limits, then there’s really no stopping the train until humor is gone forever. I mean, even Winnie the Pooh makes fun of freaking mental health, and where would we be if we had to ban children’s media because it might offend someone?

I think that there are several other aspects to humor that need to be taken into consideration before simply saying something is or isn’t okay. Of these, perhaps the most important is intent. And I don’t mean whether you simply meant to offend someone or not; instead, carefully consider who the joke is actually making fun of. To revisit South Park for a moment, consider the episode dealing with the N-word, With Apologies to Jesse Jackson. This is actually one of the most spectacularly insightful points on racism I think has ever been made in mainstream media, and it does it in one of the most vulgar and offensive ways possible.

For context, it starts with the character Randy Marsh on a game show, having to guess a word based on the clue ‘people who annoy you’. The letters provided are, of course, N, blank, G, G, E, R, S: the real answer being naggers.

You can of course guess what Randy shouts out instead. This leads to a hysterical downward slide in which Randy kisses Jesse Jackson’s actual ass as an apology, and ultimately sees him labeled as the ‘N-Word Guy’, leading to prejudice, abuse, and finally a nationwide ban on the phrase ‘N-Word Guy’.

So why is this okay? How is it South Park can get away with hurling the n-word around dozens of times, making white people appear as the victims of racial injustice, and portraying Jesse Jackson as the ‘king of black people’? The answer is in intent. The episode was not intended to offend black people by using the n-word; it was certainly not intended to empower white people by empathizing with a false-victim mentality. Instead, the purpose of this episode was to bring to light the fact that the n-word is, naturally, an incredibly offensive term that has literally no equivalent for any other race or demographic, and to underline the hypocrisy of white supremacists who would happily argue against its ban, even though if a similar term could be applied to them they would outlaw it in a heartbeat.

The brilliance of this episode is that it makes the viewer painfully aware of the social pain the n-word holds for black people, and that fact that white people will literally never be able to understand what it feels like to hear it used as a slur towards themselves. It does it through absurdist humor, and even though we laugh our asses off throughout the episode, we’re also left, incredibly, more educated than before.

This is one of South Park’s strengths, and one of the reasons that I believe humor can’t simply be divvied into ‘okay’ and ‘not okay’ categories; its satirical power is in making fun of people who are generally accepted to be socially ‘wrong’ by taking their views and beliefs to their logical, if nonsensical, conclusion.

This is something that I think needs to be considered when discussing humor. Of course, this underlines a significant difference between a truly racist joke and a satirically racist joke (see the subreddit r/darkjokes for examples of unfunny, offensive jokes): a spur-of-the-moment offensive joke is unlikely to have been premeditated to highlight bigotry or bias, whereas a joke in the context of an entire story can often get away with it.

In this sense, the perspective that everything is okay to make fun of becomes more understandable. When South Park made fun of teen suicide by having a girl drop her phone off a bridge (as opposed to jumping herself), I was hardly outraged; despite the fact that mental health is a very important subject for me, I was glad that they were highlighting the fact that depression and bullying can lead to terrible consequences (for a deep insight into the disastrous effects of gaslighting, watch the entirety of seasons 20 and 21; it’s painful but enlightening viewing).

Humor is a deep and important part of human culture, and censoring it is a dangerous game. The moment we say something is off the table, it not only opens the doors for further censorship in a fascist sense, but also means that entire demographics of people are left without acknowledgement. The very ability to make fun of something brings that thing to light, and if done in the right way, can actually pave the way for significant changes that might be sorely needed.

This doesn’t mean that you have a carte blanche to let rip your racist uncle jokes; it doesn’t mean no joke can be considered offensive. What it does mean is that we need to protect our ability to satirize the world, because with the amount of dreadful, traumatic events that take place on a daily basis, if we couldn’t laugh, we’d have no choice but to cry.

In that sense, humor can actually be a powerful coping mechanism. Not only does laughing about things make you feel good from a dopamine-release point of view, but it actually can help to better understand others’ perspectives, and to make sense of the world in general.

Should the n-word be banned? Probably. Should racist jokes be outlawed? Not until racism itself is a thing of the past. Ultimately, there will always be people who are offended by jokes, but their offense can’t be the reason to stop making fun of them. Comedy, satire, and insightful – if offensive – humor is terribly important, and can’t be censored for fear of losing our ability to speak freely in the first place.

What do you think? Is there any humor that actually goes too far? Does the intent of the joke matter more than the delivery? Let me know in the comments!