Listen to ABBA’s worldwide pop music hit Dancing Queen. How does it make you feel? Likely you feel excitement, enjoyment, and a surge of youthful vitality. Perhaps it even makes you want to dance! But turn on thrash metal band Slayer’s Reign In Blood and you will feel your blood pressure rising and your hairs stand on end. Perhaps you’ll even have an inexplicable desire to break a plate or two. What is going on?
Our minds and bodies experience a plethora of different emotions when listening to sounds and music: visceral responses to aural signals are extraordinary phenomena. The subject has fascinated scientists, musicians, and lay people alike for centuries. Join us in delving into the archives of sound and music to discover more.
Experiments in music and feeling
In a book titled “The Secret Life of Water”, controversial Japanese entrepreneur Dr. Masaru Emoto carried out an experiment using the music of Alan Roubik, an American master pianist. Many of the subjects who took part said they felt their bodies becoming “invisible” while listening to Roubik’s music. Dr. Emoto then asked Roubik to compose a specific piece with the intention of healing the listener. Roubik did so, then exposed the music to running water, in an experiment which married scientific and spiritual preoccupations.
Roubik discovered that beautiful water crystals formed in response to the music.
When Roubik observed photos taken during the water’s exposure to his healing composition, he was amazed. The pianist claimed that the crystals presented the exact same image that he had had in his mind when writing the music. Roubik concluded that his thoughts had become music, and the effective healing power of the music manifested in the water crystals.
Hans Christian Andersen famously once said: “Where words fail, music speaks.” British musician and former member of The Beatles, Paul McCartney, allegedly composed the song “Yesterday” after a dream, just as many composers’ claim that their ideas appear from alternate dimensions and dream-like states. These ideas often resist translation into spoken language, so they become music.
Perhaps water, which makes up 70% of our bodies and has numerous ethereal associations, can ostensibly “feel” these melodies and produce crystals in response. Music that heals may have a positive effect on our physiology because of the high water content of our bodies.
Music and the Church
The Vedas state: “The universe is made up of sounds”. The Bible states: “The first and the last of the miraculous sounds are with God: the divine is God”.
Western music originated from the Catholic Church, with an overarching intention to praise God. People have supposed for centuries that musicians had received the word of God and translated it into works of art, such as George Frideric Handel’s famous oratorio, “The Messiah”, which he wrote in only 24 days.
Handel narrated his experience of writing the chorus “Hallelujah” in “The Messiah”, saying: “I think I did see all Heaven before me, and the Great God Himself” (1).
Joseph Haydn, the father of the symphony, also claimed to have received heavenly revelations and composed another oratorio named “The Creation”. Haydn reportedly said: “In my life, there has never been a time when I came as close to God as when I wrote ‘Creation’. I feel that God exists eternally in me”.
When “The Creation” was first performed in 1802, the audience gave a standing ovation. Haydn was happy to stand in gratitude, and pointed upward, saying: “This song is from up there!”.
The power of music during wartime
One of the pioneers of utilizing the power of ancient Chinese music was Guan Zhong. Chancellor of the State of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period, over 2,700 years ago, he was summoned to be presented as a prisoner when Duke Huan of Qi ascended to the throne. Zhong devised a plan to utilize music to distract his captors.
Once on the prison cart, Zhong composed a jovial song to teach the guards. The guards sang, enjoying the passing of time, and forgot their fatigue. They pushed the prison cart quickly, and before long, were way off course. Duke Huan sent men to chase them, but it was already too late.
During the First World War, French and British troops encountered the Germans in battle. One Christmas Eve, a small German army faction laid down their weapons and invited a musician and a singer to the front line to sing Christmas songs.
The carefree artists tumbled down to the trenches and played their festive music. Soldiers from all sides poured out to listen. All soldiers were touched upon hearing the joyful music: they conversed, they revelled, they even exchanged small, token items as Christmas gifts and listened to a monk’s prayer.
For weeks afterwards, not a gunshot could be heard on this particular front line.
Music in literature and cinema
In Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning movie “The Pianist”, a pianist flees Warsaw in Nazi-occupied Poland and hides in a ramshackle house. A German officer catches him, and asks him to play music. The wonderful song that ensues shakes the officer’s composure and leads him to help the pianist make his escape.
In 2006’s German Oscar-winner, “The Life of Others”, Lieutenant Wiesler of the Ministry for State Security undertakes the task of tracking musicians and artists that are considered suspicious. He is assigned to watch the famous writer Georg Dreyman. Wiesler bugs Dreyman’s house, and listens in to the writer’s conversations with his partner, Sieland, and their writing collective.
Dreyman has no idea that he is being eavesdropped.
However, the eavesdropping yields an unexpected result: the cold-hearted lieutenant is softened by learning that his own life lacks the color of creativity. The movie reaches its climax when Dreyman plays “Sonate vom Guten Menschen” for Sieland as Wiesler listens, tears streaming down his face. Wiesler, a changed man, uses his insider knowledge to help the writers escape persecution.
The music makes the musician
Returning to the modern, Western world, a dark conspiracy has formed. Within the rock music community, a so-called “curse” called “The 27 Club” has developed since several members of this musical subculture have died at the very same age: the age of 27.
Among them are Brian Jones of legendary rock band The Rolling Stones, songwriter Jimi Hendrix, songwriter Jim Morrison of The Doors, Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain, and jazz singer Amy Winehouse. The exhaustive list is long.
It is difficult to explain the mysterious synchronicity of these musicians’ passing. However, people are able to make connections between the music they played and the lifestyles they led: intoxicants are rife within the rock music community, perhaps even more so than other genres.
Allegedly, water persists in producing scattered shapes when exposed to rock music, rather than the delicate crystals that form in response to classical music. Do we take this as indicative of a great, invisible force at work?
Music to heal, not harm
Perhaps we can make use of the analogy: our body is like a jar of water, and music will either invigorate that water with healing energy or intoxicate it with negativity.
Sounds and music can be either constructive or destructive to the experience of the soul. The choice of how to use, employ, and enjoy music is ours.