Inside The Complex Science of Music: Emotional Vs. Cerebral Responses. (Music, Mental Health)

Kandinsky’s Several Circles With Black Lines – Made popular in the 1993 film, Six Degrees of Separation. The artist famously painted in opposing styles on both sides of the canvas.

Here is a recent submission from guest writer Alex Tiuniaev. If you’re interested in contributing a post, music or story idea to DG, feel free to email me.

I’ve always wanted to share my thoughts on how I listen to music and how I interpret what I hear. What is it that makes some tracks “work” for me while others leave me uninspired? Of course, there’s no short answer. Sometimes it’s a vocal hook, sometimes a driving guitar part, sometimes a floating ambience or a pumping bass line. With every track it is different. However, after giving some thought to this and “analyzing” the way I perceive music, I’ve come to realize that I can clearly distinguish between the two types of music: what I call “thinking music” and “emotional music”.

“Emotional music” is probably the most obvious kind. This is the type of music that makes you feel good or makes you want to cry or just makes you feel like you’re flying through the sky and all your problems just seem to melt away. This music caters to the basic human emotions, and this is what you usually can hear on the mainstream radio. Of course, that does not exclude jazz or classical or any type of indie or alternative music. For instance, Bach’s “Air on the G string” or Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” or even Philip Glass’ fabulous score to the film “The Hours” are all — to me — examples of this type of music. As are Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” or U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” or Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” or even Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and, strangely, most of Sigur Ros’ catalogue as well. As you can see, very different music genres belong here. This doesn’t have to be pop music in the narrowest sense of the term but tracks belonging to this type usually have a strong sense of melody and/or harmony and quite simple chord progressions (although again, this is not mandatory) especially when compared to what is called “academic music” or some of the more complex forms of jazz.

“Thinking music”, on the other hand, may (especially on the first few listens) seem dull and uninteresting, or too complex to comprehend, and at times even outrageously dissonant and non-musical. However, as it caters more to our “logical” or “rational” mind, and sometimes to our imagination, with the right attitude and the right mindset it can start to blossom and open up a world of previously undiscovered musical treasures. Take Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports”, for instance. Each piece is quite simple and “static” yet if you start to listen to the details and let the music carry you on a journey you might find that this album is one of the best works of modern music.

Most of Boards of Canada’s records belong here. Maybe they are not that complex when it comes to melody and harmony — as the basic building blocks in traditional music — yet they are highly “visual” and very unique in terms of “sound shaping” and their unorthodox usage of synthesizers and samples. Most of what is usually referred to as “20th century classical” music also belongs here (Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, Erik Satie, and Arnold Schoenberg just to name a few). Seminal jazz records like Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” or John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” are outstanding examples of this kind of music (again, this is my personal opinion – other listeners may disagree). Listening to this type of music is like looking at an abstract painting (as opposed to realist or romantic art) or like drinking black coffee (as opposed to blackberry smoothie or vanilla milkshake).

It does not mean, however, that a piece of music or a song should be “classified” either as “emotional” or “thinking”. This is by no means a black-or-white world. There are thousands of records that have the characteristics of both of these categories in various proportions. The best music, to me, is the one that has both the “emotional” and the “thinking” components; and all of the above examples, of course, do contain both – it is just that one of the parts prevails over another. And it’s up to the listener to decide which one.

My favourite band is Sigur Ros. Why? Simply because they have mastered what I call the “avant-garde pop” genre. Their sound is pop enough for my taste but without being clichéd and sterile. You can listen to their songs purely for their “emotional” component yet an attentive listener will find many subtle details in their music that can satisfy a “logically oriented” person. The same is true of Radiohead. Or any other band that makes “musician’s music”. Because bringing out human emotions is a worthwhile undertaking but doing so tastefully and artfully is an even greater one.

P.S. All of the above is just my own thinking. It has no pretensions to be anything else. Music is subjective. Just like our tastes in liquid refreshments.

Alex Tiuniaev is a composer, producer and songwriter from Moscow, Russia. He composes music for various media (mainly, video games and online media) and releases original recordings in the ambient, electronic, rock and experimental genres.

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