The Signature of Sound

A Look at Music and Its Effect on Us

 by Zahra Musgrave

 For many of us (slaves to the structure of cardinal time), the first sound that we register in the waking moment of our each & every day is the unmistakable sound of our alarm clocks.  Tried and true, these sounds break up the veil of sleep, & command us to rise.  Thankfully, we’ve come a long way from Levi Hutchins’ 1787 hunk –o-metal alarm seen on those old Sunday morning cartoons levitating from sheer vibration!  Digital options began popping up mid 1900s offering buzz-free alternatives such as radio station fade-ins & natural light emitting stimulants. Stephanie Dodier, clinical nutritionist and emotional eating expert, reminds that waking up to the sound of an alarm buzzing in your ear has negative effects on your health.

 Interestingly enough, the body does not differentiate between stressors.  The alarm signals that your body releases cortisol (a hormone produced by your adrenals in response to stress) & this cortisol is then circulated in the bloodstream to carry the message of stress to all organs & parts of the body! Interestingly enough, the body does not differentiate between stressors.  So, a lion chasing you at top speeds & the need to get to work on time basically become one in the same thing? Studies show that persons waking up to a sound less intrusive than the classic buzz displayed lower heart rates, lower cortisol levels, & a higher willingness to begin the day. Was it the change in tone/pitch that stirred these people from slumber differently, or the fact that one alarm was merely a sound & the other music? What’s the difference between music and sound?

 Sound is waves of pressure transmitted through various materials; more specifically it is vibrations traveled through an elastic solid, liquid, or gas carrying frequencies in a range that can be detected by human and animal organs of hearing. When these sounds are arranged into a specific pattern, we call them “music.” Merriam Webster defines music as “the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.”  Beethoven’s 5th: musical. Car alarm: not so musical.  Cognitive Psychologist Steven Pinker is infamously quoted characterizing music when he said, “I suspect music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of our mental-faculties.” He also suggests that music is a by-product of language. We didn’t evolve to love cheesecake specifically; we just went apeshit for anything sweet or high calorie.  Our language evolved through response to cries, growls, grunts, & in that we also learned the language of music.

 Just as the buzz of the alarm clock brought on stress to the body, it is seen that music can exert an effect on the body. At 60 bpm, music is acknowledged as the most relaxing speed (Holm and Fitzmaurice, 2008).  When working out, we tune into much higher bpms that are a vibrational match to our increased heart rates. The body’s system involved in these responses to stimuli is the autonomic nervous system (ANS).  This control system is comprised of two parts; the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our body’s response to perceived threat & the parasympathetic nervous system, which serves functions that occur when we are at rest.

 Solely, dissecting a universal art as epic as music under the divisive lens of science seems disrespectful to the emotional side of things. Amongst the flesh & blood of it all, a connection to our emotion resides. William James & Carl Lange of the James-Lange theory of emotion considered the physical response a primary to the feeling of emotion & even noted set patterns of responses that corresponded to specific emotions. He described anger as “increased heart rate, snarling and increases involuntary nervous system arousal.” He described fear as “a high arousal state, in which a person has a decrease in voluntary muscle activity, a greater number of involuntary muscular contractions and a decrease of circulation in the peripheral blood vessels.” (James, 1893) However, long time critic of the James-Lange theory, Walter Cannon countered that autonomic patterns were too slow and non-specific to be unique to each emotion and that emotion therefore had to be primarily a cognitive event (Cannon, 1927).

 Whether voluntary or not, response to music is universal & presents itself in many, interesting ways. In Transylvania, the “aesthetic meanings are transformed when music is embedded in social action: the same cânt˘arile de joc (“dance tunes”) are played while people dance at weddings and while they cry at funerals (Bonini Baraldi, Filippo. 2009). It’s the way in which the tunes are played out in the unfolding of the social context that exemplifies its value. And yet, in another study, music and movement were found to “share a dynamic structure” (Beau Sievers, Larry Polansky, Michael Casey, and Thalia Wheatley, 2012).  Movement/melody recognition proved similar between students at Dartmouth College and adults in L’ak, a rural village in northeastern Cambodia. However, even within their respective groups, emotional response is not consistent across all listeners. Are emotional responses to music learned based on social contexts? Cultural location?  & if so, then is the associated movement learned as well? These phenomenal relationships between music, emotion, and movement reach beyond the confines of this page, & when in the moment of total musical entrancement all labels fall through & we rise to ebb and flow of sonic wonder.

 We shared a fun, weird, & easy 10 question survey related to music habits/beliefs with 3 local, music-centric FB groups. Of the 25 responses, these were the results!

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dave kosciolek