Saturday, February 13, 2010

The music or the misery: An exploration of why we listen to pop music

Every Valentine's Day I have a tradition of watching “High Fidelity,” the 2000 John Cusack vehicle based on Nick Hornby's novel about a music-obsessed record store owner's attempt to understand why all his relationships ultimately seem doomed.
The solace I find in this film is not the subject of this article, but rather a question the film presents that, if dwelled upon, forces us to look at the very reason we listen to music and how it affects us.

“What came first: the music or the misery?” asked Cusack's Rob Gordon in the opening scene of the film. “People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Ten years after the film's release, the question remains unanswered. Sure, it is a chicken or the egg question that has no correct answer, but that doesn't mean the question doesn't warrant exploration. With both love and potential heartbreak in the air on the eve of Valentine's Day, the time has come to explore this mystery.

At first blush, the answer seems obvious: the misery has to come first because it is emotion that drives the creation of the music.

“If we look historically … we were emoting these things long before we were able to articulate them,” said Rick Hensley-
Buzzell, a music therapist at Mount Washington Valley Psychological Services. “The emotion had to come first because the ability to create that emotion in some sort of standardized language — the language of music — didn't come until much later.”

So, there's the answer. Case closed. But there's really more to it because, as Hensley-Buzzell notes, once music was created we now “have a common language to be able to convey those emotional ideas and recreate those emotional ideas.”

Essentially, music has become such an ingrained part of culture that it is no longer a one-way street. There's a give and take between the emotion and the music.

“In terms of love songs, this feedback loop reinforces itself, as people then attempt to attain a level of perfection in their own relationships which they have heard so much about via songs and movies, and which has been strummed lovingly into their ear since day one,” said Ben Hammond, a 2001 graduate of Fryeburg Academy who studied music technology at McGill University in Montreal. “We all hope one day to love as strongly as Peter Gabriel does while singing 'In Your Eyes,' though perhaps seeing the doorway to a thousand churches in just one girl's eyes is a bit unrealistic.”

If our query can't be answered with the simple black or white answer of which comes first, then perhaps the question becomes: How do we choose to interact with music?

“I dive deep into lost-love songs when I’ve lost a love,” said Brian Charles, the owner of The Music Shop in North Conway and a Julliard-trained professional musician and composer. “Bonnie Raitt’s 'You Can’t Make Me Love You” is now a deeply set permanent marker in my brain from a divorce 15 years ago. I just don’t have the heart to listen to 'love' love songs when I’m down.”

Nikki Martinez, the former morning show host on Magic 104, also sees music as a way of marking our lives, but sees how we allow music to affect us as a choice.

“Whether it be a song full of cherries and chocolate fountains or pain that you didn't think existed, I think you can choose to either have control of your own feelings, or you can let music control the attitude you're in,” Martinez said. “I personally decide to control my feelings and let music be a type of soundtrack for life.”

This idea of the "soundtrack of our lives" is key to understanding how we interface with music and how it does affect our mood. Music acts as memory trigger to a certain time, place and feeling.

“If I hear the song 'Heaven' by Bryan Adams, I'm back in high school feeling the heartache of a lost girlfriend," Hensley-Buzzell said. "So I can be in a great mood, hear that, and even 25 years later go, 'Man, that really crushed me back then.' So it is relational; it is all about what we project on to [it] … There is a difference between what it is and what it represents.”

Hensley-Buzzell stresses the distinction that, yes, music has the ability to change a mood by recalling a previous emotional state, but that it doesn't create a new mood. The emotion is already within us — it is the music that activates it. It is a distinction that local music teacher, actor, singer, choir director and theater director Mary Bastoni-Rebmann is also quick to make.

“The music we choose to listen to is a direct result of how we feel,” said Bastoni-Rebmann, who has a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her master's. “Songs of love will serve as a vehicle to allow the reaction to happen. The feelings and experience, either positive or negative, are already inside, and music gives one permission to let it out.”

Charles believes the ability for music to allow people to let it out is at the core of what pop music is all about. It is pop music's pure, straightforward messages that allows it to speak to us so clearly when we are feeling down.

“[Pop music] doesn't require too much looking under the surface,” Charles said. “The song is identified as pop because it is a song that doesn't require more than one meaning at a time — maybe there's a double entendre thrown in here or there, but once it goes beyond that it stops being pop. So, boy do I want a simple message when I'm feeling bad. I don't want to look into the deep, dark depths of my soul as much as I'd like to get over this period.”

Furthermore, Charles sees music as connecting to a community that allows us to not feel alone.

“What better than to find someone to commiserate with who won't ask you any questions and who won't put you on the spot, doesn't have any needs of their own — they are just there to provide solace,” Charles said.

Hensley-Buzzell agrees with this concept of music as something to connect with, but takes it one step further, suggesting that music helps us to sort out who we are in relation to the world.

“A lot of the pop music will go away because it talks about people on people,” Hensley-Buzzell said. “But when you get to something that allows us to experience the world, the universe, spirituality larger than ourselves, I think that's what music allows us to do, to tap into and give us some perspective.”

So, now we're starting to get into the very reason we listen to music. Music is a universal experience. We all seem drawn to it on some level. Genre preferences may differ from person to person, but the impulse is the same.

“We listen to music because it is a thoroughly human trait,” said Therese Davison, of the Kennett High School music department. “It resonates with our human bio-grammar, meaning that the human body responds to music in a primal capacity related to an innate musical intelligence. Music is a means of communication that exists in a realm other than the tangible or the verbal and goes beyond the cultural conditioning of one’s environment.”

What Davison is talking about is based in science and how our brains actually work. On a certain base level, music speaks to us.

“Music and profanity have a very similar tie in that they are able to speak to lower functions in the brain,” Hensley-Buzzell said. “They are able to speak to the emotional centers of the brain, which are much more protected, almost like first brain, survival, like our reptilian brain that is inside of us.”

But maybe we are getting too cerebral in the what, why and how we listen to music. Music undoubtedly affects us and perhaps it doesn't truly matter what comes first, the emotion or the music. Maybe the key to it is to be aware of the relationship we all share with music.

“Whether it's the chicken or the egg, everyone knows that love songs are exaggerated,” said Hammond. “But maybe that's the way they should be to give us cynics hope that maybe, just maybe, it really can happen. And if nothing else, it gives us acoustic guitar players a cheap way to score points with our wives/girlfriends/potential Valentines.”

That's a good final thought as we either embrace or brace ourselves for the day of love. And if you don't have anyone to hold this year, there's always that reliable, unquestioning friend known as music.

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