The (Strange) Powers of Music

Music plays an irreplaceable role in our lives. Very often, for the sinister too. Join me on a journey to discover the overwhelming psychological influence of music, and its exploitation throughout history.

In Vienna, a teenage girl drowned herself, clutching a piece of paper with lyrics on it. In Budapest, a shopkeeper killed himself and left a note that quoted the same lyrics. In London, a woman overdosed while listening to a record. At the centre of all these apparently unrelated suicides, the culprit was a music track by the name of Gloomy Sunday: the Hungarian Suicide Song.

It was composed by a struggling, Hungarian music artist by the name of Rudi Spitzer, in the extreme depression post a breakup with his girlfriend. It ultimately took his own life.

This music track has been attributed to hundreds of suicides all across Europe.

Rudi Spitzer. Image Credit: MentalFloss

Although this might just sound like an extreme case, the overwhelming power of music is well documented. It has been, and is still being used for both the good and the bad. What makes music so overwhelmingly powerful, and perhaps, influential, is the fact that the emotions and sentiments portrayed in a music track are not distorted by cultural differences.

The Language of Music is Universal

A recent study confirms this. People with absolutely no knowledge of a language can accurately point out the emotions portrayed in a music track composed in that very language.

Regardless of the fact that the tremendous psychological influence of music has only been recently discovered, both Indian classical and western music theory always incorporated psychological influences of music.

For example, take the ‘raga’, the fundamental framework of Indian classical music. Each ‘raga’ is supposed to be played or sung at a specific time of the dayWhy?

For the simple reason that a ‘raga’ played or sung at the correct time of the day heightens the intrinsic emotions present in us in that part of the day.

This increases its musical appeal to the audience. Coming to Western Music Theory, specific combinations of melodies and notes are used to make a piece of music sound depressing, jovial, and so on. (You can understand I’m not qualified enough to speak on that).

Music Soothes

Well, music can also help you fall asleep. Definitely, that’s a well-known fact. Many of us might recall sweet childhood memories of falling asleep to soothing music, courtesy none other than our very own mother! I myself used to do that.

In fact, researchers have now identified the most relaxing song in the world. It’s a music track by the name of Weightless, composed by an English musical trio, Marconi Union.

“This eight minute song is a beautiful combination of arranged harmonies, rhythms and bass lines and thus helps to slow the heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress.”

So that’s the song that can make you fall asleep in a jiffy! Faster than just another piece of “relaxing music”.

Music for Selfish Purposes

Then someone said, why not use music for our vested interests? And indeed they have. The use of music as satire, and for mocking the enemy can be traced back to the American Revolution.

Remember the song Yankee Doodle? It was originally composed by soldiers of the British Army during the American Revolution to mock the “dilapidated” dressing style of the Americans (whom they called the yankees) as compared to the strictly red coat formal dress of the British Army.

The red coat uniforms, as worn today. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Well, we all know that the red coat formal uniform of the British Army actually served as a disadvantage in war. Because it’s just not the best thing to wear for camouflage!

It’s just another form of psychological warfare. However, it was only Adolf Hitler who understood the true potential of the use of music as propaganda. Hitler made use of musical works glorifying German legends, such as the works of Richard Wagner.

Richard Wagner.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

His operas glorified ancient German knights, which Hitler then co-opted for himself. The widespread use of music is also traced to be a way to indoctrinate Nazi philosophy into young Germans.

Further forward in history, communist States such as the USSR and China have also used music for political propaganda. The Soviet Union, being very much aware of the wide appeal of music, banned those that roused emotions against the USSR, and instead promoted those which glorified their principles.

Music continues to be used as a means of projecting “soft power”, and also in public diplomacy.

Music Affects Us All Intimately

We might like to reconcile ourselves by saying that all these scenarios might just not fit into our daily lives. Let me prove you wrong.

Remember the last time you saw a horror scene? Maybe merely excluding the playback music might make the scene appear a bit less scary.

Maybe, excluding the soft background music from a solemn funeral might not make you so emotional. Maybe, getting rid of the playback music from an advertisement might not make it so appealing to us. Psychologists have figured out wonderful ways to subtly influence our choices, and marketers and movie makers take full advantage of it. It affects us all.

Why is music so powerful?

All this brings us to the final question: why is it that music is so appealing to us, humans? A probable explanation might be the fact that it reinforces our emotions.

We tend to listen to gloomy music when we are sad, and music which is upbeat when we are much more cheerful.

It also acts an emotional outlet. When we often want to express emotions but cannot, we listen to music that portrays such emotions. For example, when we are outraged, but cannot express this emotion, we tend to listen to music that is heavy and aggressive.

Music also possesses the power to cultivate emotions in us. Listening to upbeat music when sad can often up your spirits.

Another possible reason might be that it is encoded in our genes. The Genetic Music Project has codified into music the genes that define depressing diseases, and indeed do they sound depressing.

Do We Really Know?

To say the truth, we don’t. Researchers do have sleepless nights pondering over what in the world it truly is that makes music have its general appeal to all of us.

And I don’t think we are gonna have an answer anytime too soon.