September 05, 2010

How Music Heals Bodies and Minds: A Waltz on the Sublime Side

Duke Orsino:

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Last week I went to the Proms with a friend. We perched high above the Albert Hall stage from the gallery looking down on the heads of the Minnesota Orchestra percussionists and the BBC Symphony Choir. The visceral thrill of this surging, pulsating music of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 – The Ode to Joy had everyone transfixed- and tapping out the rhythms as Beethoven himself did at its premiere in Vienna, 1824.  We experienced something larger than life, masterful, moving and euphoric - a definitive last statement on what a truly ‘great’ symphony ought to be. But the tapping got me thinking- how it is that music elates people  this way?

Ludwig van Beethoven
In popular culture, Beethoven’s music is forever fused with a personal experience of bliss. In the film ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) Alex, the crazy droog, says of Beethoven: Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!  It’s easy to see what he means – the rest of us struggle inarticulately to express it, ending up with the word ‘sublime’ –which is still somehow inadequate.

In Search of the Sublime
While memories of that film can be  attributed as much to Rossini’s ‘Thieving Magpie’ as to Beethoven’s Ninth, it was amazing to think that this incredible symphonic music came from the heart of a completely deaf person. If a deaf person can hear this symphony internally, I wonder what the rest of us, with fully functioning ears, are missing out on? When it was over, we agreed that this music really ‘lifts you out of the mundane.’  Yet, not every piece of music or art can do this. So what makes this different? How exactly does music transport us out of the ordinary self and into a lather of joy?

E. T. A. Hoffmann, the author and music critic found that only the concept of the ‘sublime’ could express what Beethoven delivers. This notion was at the heart of Romanticism. Beethoven was to Hoffman, the sublimest of composers. Not only does his music induce ‘terror, fright, horror and pain’, it also ‘awakens that endless longing which is the essence of romanticism.’  Plus, it ‘opens the realm of the colossal and immeasurable,’ and ‘leads the listener away into the wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite.’  Think he means that ‘shivers-down-the-spine’ moment in the presence of something beyond our small selves. The Ninth has it in spades: the shuddering, chugging repetitions, the surprising, yet satisfying contrasts, the sudden chord shifts, the sheer immensity of the conception, the logic of the development towards its grand finale. You don’t need flying shoulders to bolster your altitude with this music- it hits the high water mark, bang on.

Music Boosts your Immune System
It is no surprise then that music can be used as your own ‘happy trigger,’ a kind of euphoria stimulator. It is another healer, like any art form. At the very least, it leaves you feeling pretty good, but it can even boost your immunity. It is personal what will work: what one loves another detests with a vengeance. So, choose wisely. Beethoven doesn’t always soothe you - the Ninth  Symphony thrusts you on a roller coaster ride.  It  does, however, stimulate the ‘feel good’ centres of the brain, close to ‘food’ and ‘sex’ ‘chocolate’ and ‘chilli’, as studies at McGill University, Montreal have shown. In these stressed-out times, these are the happy buttons we need to press more often, so they can light up our lives. Let music, as Shakespeare says, be your ‘mind’ food- but then remember -  we are what we eat.

The ‘Not-Just’ Mozart Effect
Einstein loved his Mozart - it helped him to think more creatively.  Some argue that Mozart has overtaken Beethoven as the world’s most adored classical star composer, but I would say, what about Bach? Vivaldi? Monteverdi? Chopin? Wagner? Just name your own. It should not matter who is tops. It doesn’t have to be classical either to move you. People can reach it copying dance moves from a Britney Spears or Rihanna video. It could be hard rock, electronica, trance dance, even punk, though ‘rock’ is said to increase the appetite, and classical reduce it. Music has even been used in psychotherapy to treat different diseases, and mental disorders, not far off what was intended for Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Some Tube Stations in South London, classical music is piped through the PA system, perhaps to offset rising public discontent. Shops have known this secret for years. In Don Campbell’s The Mozart Effect (1997), it proposed that fifteen minutes of Mozart was alleged to influence and improve intelligence, memory, cognitive, spatial abilities and word recall. This is said to work whether you like classical music or not. While I’m sure Mozart works a treat, Beethoven might be brought in when big guns are needed - or to reach the parts other musicians can’t. 

Music has been used to treat autism, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and even epilepsy.  Specific compositions, and even movements, are known to be effective with different illnesses. Music by Scarlatti, Corelli, Telleman and Albinoni are good for clarity of mind; Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries are good for releasing anger. Let despair trouble you no longer; just immerse yourself in a few Beethoven symphonies, especially Symphony number 5, parts 3 and 4; the Pastoral No 6, parts 4 and 5; and the unmissable Symphony Number 9 grand finale, which, based on Schiller’s poem, helps to worship at the altar of Joy. Fully engaged listening can help trigger your new neural network designed just for joy instead of the one that leads to depression. Bulgarian psychologist, Georgi Lozanov did much the same with his theory of Suggestopedia, a technique of enhancing learning, which is about attitude not aptitude, by utilising background music to create positive moods. It has been used in classrooms now for decades.  

Don’t even imagine either that this is all new-fangled science and can be dismissed easily - knowledge of the healing powers of music goes way back to the first mystery schools of Pythagoras and Iambilichus. Shamans from many cultures have always known how certain sounds resonate and are able to heal. 

Making your own Music
Even so, some critics have scoffed at the original tests that proved the Mozart Effect and spotted the flaws. It could have been other things that boosted intelligence, not the music, they suggested. Further testing and research was not conclusive. However, it did prove that actually playing music by far has the most ‘measurable’ effect. Thanks to brain mapping and imaging, we can pinpoint larger areas of grey matter in musicians than in non-musicians. It resides in the right auditory cortex. Practising chords and pulling a bow across strings flexes a muscle in the brain others might leave unused. Long term practice may have an impact on intelligence. 

We should conclude then that to make your own music is better than listening to it. Yet, If brain rehearsal theory is valid, then just watching someone play the violin might have impact. If you act out all the movements as well, it might give you a similar effect as playing it? This is good news for the non-musicians among us. This is a concept  of 'acting out' used a lot in hypnosis. Thinking makes it so, and many difficult issues are resolved by brain rehearsal in everyday trance.  It is also a way of making your own sweet music so you can dance to a different tune, and make relevant and lasting changes in your life. 

How to Make Music Work For You
Here are some tips for getting closer to music, for expanding its impact in your world:
  •  Prepare to listen by removing surrounding clutter- free up space.
  •  Sit very quietly and still so as to ‘receive’ the music.
  •  Lose yourself in the music; become absorbed in it totally.
  • Drum away on the balustrade or kitchen table by all means-even hum along ( just not during a public performance please). 
  •  Switch lights off to darkness when listening and imagine being blind. What does the music make you see?
  • Watch music performance on TV on ‘mute’ - TV performance with the sound off and imagine being deaf. What do the images make you hear?
  • Watch the orchestra conductor’s movements and copy-  act them out. You’ve seen Heavy Metal air-guitar players do it. How does it feel?
  • Tap out the rhythm on your fingers - nice bit of emotional acupuncture here, like EFT, attuning to the vibration
  • Imagine being the composer. What would you do differently?
  • Have fun

The Four Last Songs  by Strauss
Richard Strauss
Tonight I’m listening to one of my favourites- the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss sung by Finnish soprano, Marita Katilla, again at the Proms. It’s the Berlin Philharmonika conducted by Simon Rattle. It is top class - not bad for only £5 at ticket. I’m not a classical musician, but you don’t have to be to fully appreciate this exquisite floating, nostalgic, poignant composition. It sends its own supremely contemplative message melting from the beyond back into life. Beethoven himself said, ‘music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.’ I suspect that he was just telling it like it is. Philosophy is a tangled mess - both compromised and constipated by the limitations of language. Music leaves words way behind. Yet the combined fusion of word and music, like oxygen feeds fire, magnifies the impact.

The Four Last Songs do this blending of orchestra and singer perfectly. They are meditations on mortality from the poems of Hermann Hesse who was anticipating his own death, in the third one, Belm Shlafengehen:
                     And my unfettered soul
                    wishes to soar up freely
                   into night's magic sphere
                  to live there deeply and thousandfold.

My tastes are so catholic they go beyond any are tribal allegiances to particular genres; there are dozens of moods that elate and excite; this happens to be just one; but to my untrained ear Strauss captured something vibrant and magical;  these songs come close to expressing an almost inexpressible feeling, of longing for death, of greeting it kindly, calmly, even cheerfully - and we all may need that.  

Let us hope that with the help of Beethoven, Strauss, or other music of our choice, we are  gracious enough to do likewise when we reach that moment. 

© © Kieron Devlin, 2010, all rights reserved.

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