Art, Music and Emotions


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by Susan Dunn

Desperate because homeless people were camping out in a New York bus station, proprietors played opera music. It worked like a charm. It also worked when a California convenience store piped opera in their parking lot to drive drug-dealers away. I find this amazing since I just paid $200 to hear an opera.

Most of us enjoy music, some of us at near-euphoric levels. “Amusia” (no emotional response) is rare, and associated with “disordered musical perception”. In other words, to know music is to love it, but we have our individual tastes. If you think not, try sharing an office and a radio with someone.

To know why there’s this discrepancy among individuals, we would have to get inside the human brain. Fortunately with the positron emission tomography (PET) we can, and we have the research of Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre (B&Z) of the Montreal Neurological Institute. B&Z wrote about a subject who had “an intense, altered emotional state or ‘transformation’ … only produced by particular pieces by Rachmaninov, and [not in] response to music other than Rachmaninov’s, nor to other sensory experiences.”

Whatever piece it is to you, this is the music T. S. Eliot describes as, “Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, But you are the music while the music lasts.” Why does music effect our emotions this way? Music is sound waves. The cochlea in our ears translates them into electrical impulses which travel to the brain stem, and then become brain waves (alpha, delta, etc.). When we say we’ve been moved or touched by a piece of music, indeed we have. Music may be felt as much as heard.

In fact, Beethoven continued to compose symphonies after becoming deaf by placing a board between the bone in his neck and the piano strings so he could feel the vibrations. B&Z found that music was like a depth charge, heading straight for a pleasure center, those areas of the brain responsive to reward/motivation, emotion and arousal that are known to light up in response to food, sex, and drugs like cocaine.

We know food and sexual activity increase dopamine activity in a site identified as NAc, that there’s increased activity in the midbrain and 3 other regions when we eat chocolate, and that there are changes in 8 regions, nearly 3 times as many, during a cocaine rush, including the amygdala which releases excitatory chemicals into the blood stream. No wonder it’s called a “rush,” and so addictive. It’s apparently like depth charge shrapnel that explodes upon entering the brain.

B&Z quantified favorite music as that which the subject reported as giving them chills, or sending a shiver down their spine, and then recorded the changes in their heart rates, electromyograms, and respiration as they listened. They found as the pleasure increased, the blood flow changed in the pleasure centers, as predicted.

“Drowning Man” by U2 does that for Marshall. For me, it’s “Piscatore ‘e Pusilleco,” by Andrea Bocelli.

So, when people question my use of art and music in my EQ courses and coaching, I can now respond that I intuitively knew it was as fundamental to emotions as food, sex and illicit drugs. But food and sex meet biological drives. Why music?

Dr. Geoffrey Miller, author of “The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature,” thinks traits such as musical and artistic ability might be like the peacock’s tail; sexy. Men don’t look for these qualities on the porn sites, but in the selection of long-term mates, both men and women find them of value.

A. S. Vitogsky said, in his book, “The Psychology of Art,” “The emotions caused by art are intelligent emotions. Instead of manifesting themselves in the form of fist-shaking or fits, they are usually released in images of fantasy.” “Art” we can extend to include all the culture arts, i.e., poetry, sculpture, dance, music.

It’s all going on in our heads, and that’s a safe place! We sublimate, or divert the expression of an instinctual desire to something more socially and culturally acceptable.

The emotional content of the cultural arts also shapes and instructs. Primitive warriors beat drums to face down their fears before battle (which evolved into the Sousa march), painted their faces, and donned feathers to make themselves bigger and scarier to the enemy.

Painters, musicians and poets obsess over their love objects I particular, or of love and romance in the abstract (see Rossini’s paintings, the poetry of Robert Browning, the love songs of Puccini and Verdi).

And Lorenzo the Magnificent used art allegorically to instruct. He commissioned the painting of Pallas [Athena] subduing a centaur as a suggestive wedding gift to beastly Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco when he married gentle Semiramis D’Appiamo, who was to subdue his evil ways.

In a similar fashion, some jails use a color of pink, known as "drunk tank pink," to calm people who've been arrested.

We convert energy into producing music and art that might otherwise be discharged in socially unacceptable or harmful ways, or sometimes as the only outlet possible. “There are only two things to do with a woman,” someone wrote. “Love her or turn her into poetry.”

Appreciation of art serves the same purpose. Emotions around people are not always safe. In fact, one society considers anger so potentially disruptive to social stability, they have no word for it!

When we’re angry, we can play the piano or draw pictures, activate the pleasure center and get over it. When nervous or stressed, we can listen to music or look at art and self-soothe. We listen to music when we’re grieving a lost love, and dance to it with our love during courtship.

“Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast,” my mother would tell me when I was angry, and send me off to play the piano. Over the years I have often turned to music during difficult times, though it’s nearly always with me.

My friend James, who’s a physician, has used music for over 40 years to manage the stress of his hectic practice, the suffering he sees, and the responsibility of the decisions he must make. Interestingly, like the subject B&Z wrote about, Rachmaninov is his favorite.

Two young parents I know use music to soothe their child who is overly excitable due to a stroke she endured in her infancy. She particularly responds to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”

It was no coincidence that the Greeks made the god of music also the god of healing. Music does have charms.

Someone on to the same thing described poetry as “feelings through a crack pipe,” but, importantly, there is no crack pipe. The arts are sufficient to themselves, and are a source of pleasure that’s legal and safe, and available, even if you must hum to yourself.

We can work through emotions with music and expand our ability to understand and manage them in pro-social and intelligent ways. This is why they have such a salutary effect on us, and are so needed in our lives, the moreso in relation to the roughness of our lives.

When writing grants to provide cultural enrichment for the homeless, looking for rationale for my requests, I came upon this quote: “It smooths out the edges of our souls.”


Suggestions for Further Reading

Author:Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ Coach, [email protected] Coaching, Internet courses and ebooks around emotional intelligence for your personal and professional success. Coach Certification Program - fast, affordable, no-residency, training coaches worldwide. Email for free ezine.

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