How Music Affects Emotion

April 6, 2017
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Much like blinking and breathing, music is a necessity.  Also much like blinking and breathing, there are certain aspects that go unnoticed.  For instance, if you think about breathing you begin to breathe manually (like you are now).  In the case of music, everyone listens to it—and many play it—but many fail to take into consideration the emotion that music instills.   Everyone knows music can make you happy or sad.  That’s not the point; the point is how.  How can music cause emotions within humans that are more complex than happy or sad, for example, feeling scared, worried, confident, or blue?  Keep in mind everyone can feel blue, but few understand what it really is.  It’s far deeper than sad.

Anyway, let’s begin with some examples.  I encourage you to listen to Albert Ayler, a free-form jazz saxophonist.  Immediately upon listening to one of his songs, you are likely to feel a little uncomfortable—maybe anxious or worried.  The music is irregular to say the least, and the tempo is all over the place (hence the term “free jazz;” it is not confined to a specific tempo).  This unnatural rhythm and note sequence somehow manages to give us a feeling as complex as discomfort.  For a more modern touch, try the vaporwave artist Saint Pepsi and talented rapper Ski Mask the Slump God.  Saint Pepsi’s popular album Hit Vibes is riddled with, well, exactly that.  Good vibes.  Each song brings back some particularly good memory or scene, and whatever emotion comes with it; primarily joy.  This feeling is popularly encountered when listening to bossa nova, a genre that usually makes you feel as if you are in a coffee shop, or jazz, a genre that makes you feel like you’re in a New York lounge.  Ski Mask the Slump God’s music, much like other popular rappers such as Future, the group Migos, and more, makes you feel empowered and almost intimidating.  There’s an inexplicable feeling of prosperity and success albeit with some dark undertones when listening to most rap songs.  Songs like “One for My Baby” by Frank Sinatra can even give a feeling of “blueness,” a feeling I tend to say is akin to sadness but gives a bit of hope or good outlook somewhere in it.  It isn’t the end of the world, “bawl your eyes out” type of sadness.  It’s more beautifully advanced than that.  Now anyone could drag on forever about song after song, artist after artist, genre after genre, but they would never get their point across.  Therefore, it is important to note personal explanations for only the feelings established in these aforementioned genres, artists, and songs.

We shall begin with the gloriously eerie Albert Ayler and the impeccable Frank Sinatra, along with jazz as a whole.  Jazz is a special genre, in that it offers much to appease our emotional sides—but why?  The answer lies in the frequency, instrumentation, chord progression, and tempo.  The lyrics don’t really matter in this case, considering very few jazz songs even include lyrics and the ones without them make you feel the same way as the ones with them.  Having given Albert Ayler a listen, you would probably already understand where I’m going with this.  The tempo, frequency, and chord progression are just all over the place.  The notes jump from high to low, low to high, and seem to have no thought behind them at all.  The tempo is practically nonexistent, and the frequency tends to bounce around and have no definitive structure.  This completely tarnishes everything humans know about music and puts them in an unusual and uncomfortable situation.  This is what creates this anxious feeling.  Your brain keeps trying to find a rhythm, a pattern, some cliff to grasp onto, but you keep falling through a void of total disarray.  The point is, there’s nothing to hold on to.  There lies the creation of the anxiety and abnormality.  For Frank Sinatra’s “One for My Baby,” the explanation is rather simple.  The saloon-type piano in the background sets the story for a lonely boozehound that just had his last girl walk out the door.  He’s sad, but hopeful in that he has a buddy to tell his story to—and that buddy is the bartender, Joe.  The listener to the song is Joe, hence the blueness.  Take it in this light:  If a good friend came to you and gave you some bad news, you’d feel sorry for him, but wouldn’t feel sad yourself.  The song puts us in a sympathetic position.  Jointly, bossa nova establishes the same sort of feeling in that it makes you feel like you’re in a coffee shop simply due to the fact that it is played nonstop there (like jazz is in New York lounges).  The jazzy genres I’ve mentioned tend to play off of familiar sounds to bring back memories and form emotions.  They also both serve as a great background to a get together.

The newer genres on the other hand are a bit more complex.  Let’s begin with the wave subgenres (chillwave, vaporwave, cloud rap, synthwave, future funk, etc.).  All of these genres include a central feeling of nostalgia from the heavy use of synths and retro sounds.  That nostalgic feeling is captured so well that you can even feel it if you haven’t experienced the original situation.  For instance, I was born in the year 2000, so how could I possibly feel nostalgic towards the 80’s?  It is most likely due to a large influence of childhood videogame culture that most people can relate to.  These wave genres all take the same attributes, yet vaporwave is a little more in depth.  It features influences like Japanese culture, Arizona iced tea, sadness, ancient Roman and Greek statues, Fiji water, the color purple, symmetry, the Fibonacci Sequence, and drugs (notably lean).  Granted, most of this is ironic, but it’s there nonetheless.  It combines all of these influences to create a narrative satirizing capitalist consumerism and the creation of scenes from childhood memories.  If that isn’t absolutely brilliant and chaotic, I don’t know what is. 

Now, let us discuss rap.  Rap is fairly simple; it was created as basically the rock and roll of black culture rebellion.  Groups like NWA decided it was important to express what it was like to be discriminated against as an average black man from a normal black neighborhood.  It spoke out against things like police brutality with the power of poetry with rhythm.  Thus, Rhythm Assisted Poetry.  It also talked about the more realistic, dirtier sides of life—sex, dugs, and the like.  These two qualities of rap music combined to give a street feel mostly attributed to places like Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and primarily New York.  This “street” sound makes any listener feel macho, and stories of making it big in the music industry and buying fast cars, drugs, and being surrounded by beautiful women at all times makes anyone feel successful.  Not to mention, the hard, dark bass and piano often give this feeling as well.  The sound is stark in comparison to something like a Moog synthesizer.  The complexity in the lyrics of some artists tell amazing, realistic stories and speak on current issues (classic artists and groups like Eminem, Biggie, Tupac, and Wu Tang Clan, and some new artists like Your Old Droog and Jonwayne) while some artists make music just for hype and partying (Desiigner, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, etc.).  There are also more unique and artistic rappers like Kanye West that give an entirely different take on the genre, yet still supply the same feeling.  In summation, rap and genres like vaporwave give a new outlook that only resonates with the current age, like reminiscing about 80’s consumerism and the trials and tribulations of life on the streets (and an oddly large amount of references to the Dijon mustard Grey Poupon.  Even DJ Mustard gets his name from this type of mustard!).

Thus, music is felt not only through instrumentation and lyrics, but also subconsciously through frequency, note distribution, chord progression, and tempo (often in relation to music theory).  These feelings evolve and change over time as societal issues do, as well as relevant topics and vibes.  While music does make everyone feel different in their own way, it seems to always be centered around the feelings I’ve mentioned.  Knowing this, just imagine how music would make you feel in the future.  For instance, Jamaican sounds are on the rise thanks to artists like Drake.  This is totally new for America, yet exists in places like Toronto, Drake’s hometown, in genres like rap and dancehall.  Now remember, as you witness music change throughout your lifetime, keep in mind the new feelings and sounds that are made—and remember how they came to be.

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