Sunday, August 7, 2011

What is it about music?

I can't get enough of this song. I saw Gillian perform this in 2005 or 2006, and I'm so happy that she's finally put it on an album. Why have I played this song over 20 times in one day? Of course, there are technical aspects of it that are neat (I particularly like the frequent dissonances that resolve in Rawlings' guitar line), and the lyrics remind me of the time in my life when I first heard the song, but are these alone enough to produce such strong emotional reactions? Why does music give us chills? Why does it freak us out?

Indeed, music seems to activate the neural reward system, and certainly there are no lack of hand-wavy evolutionary psychology theories on music's emotional pull. But why does music make us feel things?

We have several touch/feeling metaphors for music: a person's voice can be "rough" or "velvet", musical passages may be "light" or "heavy, and pitches can be "rising" or "falling". Given this mapping, can we find cross-modal effects of music and feeling? One type of cross-modal effect is synaesthesia, where two senses are correlated in the same person. To a synaesthete, letters can have color, tastes can have shape, etc. The most common form of synaesthesia related to music is "colored music". Can we find evidence for "touched music"?

This paper is the reason I would love to be a psychologist in the 1950s. Here, the goal was to see which combinations of senses could be combined in synaesthesia, either in naturally occurring synaesthesia or in (I can't make this up) mescaline-induced synaesthesia. Here is the summary matrix of their results:


(An "N" in a cell represents a naturally occurring synaesthesia, and an "E" in a cell represents an "experimentally induced" synaestesia through mescaline).

So, who were the participants in this study?? The two authors and their two friends, one of whom was a natural music-tactile synaesthete. (See, I told you psychology was fun in the 1950s!)

This synaesthete described her experiences: "A trumpet sound is the feel of some sort of plastics; like touching certain sorts of stiffish plastic cloth - smooth and shiny - I felt it slipping." Sounds interesting, but does not sound like the "chilling", emotional experience.

It turns out that musical chills, while having a strong physiological basis, are not automatic but rather require attention. This implies that music and somatosensory (touch) systems are not necessarily linked.

So, no real answers in this post, but there's one other cool piece of data that I'll throw into the mix.  So, if you ask people to assign colors to both emotions and music, people (normal, non-synaesthetes) are ridiculously similar in the colors chosen. Of course, this was presented at a conference and is not in final, peer-reviewed form, but it is certainly interesting.

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