Music On The Brain

I have long been curious about how and/or why music causes various visceral reactions. I wonder, for example, why is it that modulating keys gives one a lift. In search of some answers, I am reading Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination by Robert Jourdain. (This is not a new book; first published in 1997, and the paperback reissued by Quill in 2002.) Jourdain’s explainations evolve from sounds… to tone…to melody…to harmony…to rhythm…to composition…to performance…to listening…to understanding…to ecstasy, and his ten chapters are so named. I haven’t reached ecstasy yet — I’m only as far as rhythm — but here are a few interesting tidbits (the italics are mine):

“Laboratory studies show that untrained adults discern contour almost as well as profesional musicians. So contour is central to our experience of melody.” Harmony, or “melody in flight” is a required dimension to hearing melody, as is rhythm. “Some musicologists have described harmony as music’s third dimension, its depth dimension (with breadth of time and the height of pitch space as the first two dimensions).”

Harmony needs dissonance just like a good story needs suspense…Only after lengthy expeditions in other harmonic realms, realms that orbit lesser tonal centers, is the listener granted release from his agony. Inferior composers make quick, perfunctory returns to tonal centers, or travel so far from them that the listener hardly recognizes them when finally brought home. The trick is to find just the right balance between reinforcing tonal centers and violating them.”

“With experience, our brains acquire a vocabulary of these common progressions…Halfway through hearing them, we anticipate their endings. They are musical cliches. But a talented composer can take advantage of this fact by encouraging the listener to anticipate a standard ending yet writing something different. When the chord anticipated and the chord actually heard are aptly chosen, the contrast can be blissully excruciating.”