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?

Those of Us Who Live for Emotion

Everyone in this world lives with emotion (well, maybe the psychopaths don’t, but most everyone else does). We laugh, we cry, we feel anger and despair, and for the most part, we learn as young adults to handle these emotions, to live with them, and – to one extent or another – integrate them into our lives in a way that doesn’t (usually) override our ability to function as human beings.

But not everyone truly feels emotions the same way. Some of us fall more into the logical spectrum, whilst others are run by their emotions, making decisions based entirely on ‘feel’, ‘gut reactions’ or instincts. And, of course, some of us find ways to defend ourselves from emotion, because we’ve been so deeply affected in the past.

Having worked in the same place for the past ten years, most of the people I know are of course work colleagues. I know many of them well, and most of them well enough to know – to some degree – what kind of an emotional person they are. There are private people and people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, but you can usually tell what kind of an emotional person someone is by the way they express themselves, the emotions they choose to show (or that they can’t control), and the way in which their decision-making process is influenced.

It’s likely you know people like this, too. Think of all the people you daily say “how’s it going” to. Then think about the ones that, without fail, will always answer “fine” – whether they’re fine or not. Then think about the ones that are actually more truthful – that will tell you when things aren’t fine.

There’s no right or wrong way to be, of course – these are just people at different points on the emotional spectrum. Personally I fall into the former category, but I know plenty of people who will gladly share their whims and woes if asked. An easy mistake to make with this, however, is to assume that those people who don’t easily show their emotions simply don’t feel them as strongly – or at all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Using myself as an example, it’s been a really long time since I could say I’ve truly felt any deep emotion of any kind – joy or despair, laughing or crying, these things kind of just don’t happen to me. I tend to live life day in and day out by just sort of moving from task to task and place to place, making decisions in the moment based on whatever seems right at the time. If you were to ask me how I felt and I were to answer truthfully, the answer would probably actually just be, “I don’t really know.”

Of course, a large part of this is probably my bipolar medication, which is, well, literally supposed to diminish the extremes of emotion I feel day to day. Prior to being medicated, I do remember times of uncontainable rage, pits of black despair, mountains of eagerness to work, and bouts of inexplicable tears. But even then, these were the rarer instances, and most of the time I wouldn’t allow myself to truly feel anything.

And I think this is a telling perspective, in some ways. I think there are some of us who actually feel so deeply that we deliberately protect ourselves from such emotion, by either avoiding things that make us feel deeply, or simply not letting it in at all. This can be a positive thing, to some arguable extent (I’ve never cried at a funeral), but it can also be detrimental: when discussing the recent Black Lives Matter protests with others, I can see how worked up they get about it, how deeply, deeply hurt they are by the injustices suffered by black communities across the country. And whilst I can inarguably see just how terrible things really are, it doesn’t make me as sad or angry inside because I just can’t allow myself to be hurt so deeply. I sort of wish it did, but I don’t know how.

Sometimes I envy people who can simply allow themselves to feel. When presented with those things in life that absolutely should trigger deep emotions (deaths, births, successes and failures, tragedies and triumphs), I kind of just … don’t feel anything. I can look at the event and think that it’s good, or bad, or whatever, but I don’t really deeply feel it, and … it makes me sad, but (of course) not really enough.

There is one thing that this lack of deep emotion does for me, though, and it’s that it allows me to understand conflicting perspectives in a way that I often see others to struggle with. Take something very simple but very relevant: Trump supporters. Most of the people I know are pretty liberal, and many of them simply cannot fathom how anyone could still support someone like Donald Trump after the toxicity, outright lies and falsehoods, and total lack of care that have so far defined his presidency. Yet for me, despite not agreeing with these people, I find myself in a position where I can actually understand some of their rhetoric, their mentality and their decisions. Because I’m not clouded by my own emotions (most of the time), I can see others’, and understand (to some degree) why they feel they way they do.

In the end, although I envy those who feel deeply, I don’t think I’d trade it for how I am already; I like being able to identify with and understand a multiple of perspectives, even if it means that the true depth of others’ feelings fall into more of an intellectual and logical empathy than a true “I feel what you feel” kind of thing. It allows me to get along with more people than I might otherwise be able to, and of course, it means I very rarely feel deeply enough to hate.

Of course, the reverse is that I rarely feel deeply enough to love, either … and that hurts.

How do you approach emotion? Are you a feeler, or a thinker? And do you find you have to feel what someone else does to empathize with them, or can you empathize from a logical perspective?