Studying Emotional Chords of Music

Music, so goes the old saying, hath charms to soothe the savage breast. But is that because of the nature of music itself, or is it because there is something within us that prepares humans to respond emotionally in very different ways to various kinds of music?

Why does Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" drive us toward depression, while the rumba makes it hard to sit still? In short, why do some tunes make us sad and others make us happy?

For years scientists have tried to answer these questions, although not with as much vigor as some would like.

"There hasn't been a lot of research on this," says psychologist Jerome Kagan of Harvard University, who believes his research may have moved us a small step closer to understanding why some tunes are easier for us to accept than others.

Kagan and fellow psychologist Marcel R. Zentner, who is also a musician, subjected 32 4-month-olds to an unusual test to see if they were predisposed to certain types of music. The infants, 16 boys and 16 girls, who had not been exposed to much music in their homes, were placed in front of a speaker cabinet that had been covered with an "attractive pattern of concentric circles," Kagan says.

At issue is whether the infants were "biologically prepared" to prefer consonance, or harmony, over dissonance, the atonal sounds of some contemporary music. The infants were subjected to four trials of two different compositions, one consonant and the other dissonant.

When the consonant tunes were played, the infants stared attentively at the fabric covering the speaker. But when the dissonant tunes were played, the babies jerked their arms and kicked their legs in a way that told the psychologists they were under duress. Point proven, Kagan maintains. The infants possessed an "innate bias favoring consonance over dissonance."

Not everyone believes that simple test is conclusive, but most musicians would probably agree that a pleasurable response to harmony comes naturally, while appreciation for music must be learned.

"I think dissonance goes against our grain," says Trina York, a pianist trained in the classics who migrated into contemporary music. "I wasn't attracted to it at first."

She said that what lured her into contemporary music was its rhythmic and mathematical components. But she admits it isn't always easy to listen to the atonal nature of so much of contemporary music.

Kagan agrees that the appreciation of some forms of music is not innate and must be learned. Although we may be born with a predisposition toward consonance, "the emotional reactions to certain melodies are probably acquired," he says.

As we grow older, we become accustomed to associating sad tunes--usually played in slow tempo in a minor key--with sadness, he says.

Kagan and Zentner tried to demonstrate that by also exposing babies to sad music.

"They didn't behave as if they were made sad," Kagan says. But he concedes that it is far more difficult to detect a sad response than one of distress.

Years ago, psychologist James L. Mursell of Columbia University documented that music has an effect on pulse, respiration and blood pressure, and it can even increase the metabolic rate at which the body burns calories. And instrumental music can increase the efficiency of mental work.

Research has shown that vocal selections cause too much of a distraction, yet purely instrumental pieces stimulate the mind to work more effectively.

The argument that music appreciation stems from an innate need comes largely from the fact that most cultures have some form of music, and there is evidence that even some of our earliest relatives may have enjoyed an occasional tune.

While excavating a cave in Slovenia recently, archeologists found a bear's thigh bone with four round holes in a straight line, apparently punctured by Neanderthals thousands of years ago. The archeologists believe the bone was a flute, at least 43,000 years old, and possibly 82,000 years old. If it is indeed a flute, it is the oldest musical instrument ever discovered.

Neanderthals no doubt enjoyed sitting around the fire, listening to music. One wonders if they had tunes to make them happy and tunes to make them sad.


Lee Dye can be reached via e-mail at

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