When the Waves Hit You, Weep and Smile

One of the central mysteries of the human experience must be the emotional connection various pieces of music have with our feelings.

One of the central mysteries of the human experience must be the emotional connection various pieces of music have with our feelings. “Feelings,” of course, are already several things all clumped together in our oblong melon-brains. We touch, we feel something and the nerve impulse from that touch goes shooting up from wherever the contact was made and gets translated into useful information fairly quickly. “Smooth” is usually alright, while “hot” is alright up to a threshold, and then most definitely not okay! We feel things about what we see, smell, and taste as well; various emotions are paired with some of those senses… or nothing particularly emotional happens at all. Have you ever had an emotionally-charged drink of water? I sure have! Typically, it happens after a hike that involved me running out of water and really wishing I hadn’t. That first gulp of cool water from the store (hopefully) close to the trail head is a deeply emotional experience, although perhaps not one of the greatest taste treats my tongue has ever known. We see a cat sleeping in their favorite spot, bathed in sunlight and so peaceful, we feel something reassuring, perhaps that we wish we could sleep so profoundly and with so few cares. We smell something awful—a bottom burp from a clueless uncle, a river that smells of the plastics plant up the valley—and a swarm of feelings hit us in a wave: “uggh! why? how could he/they? this place used to be clean! he used to have a clue!” and so on.

But music, to be a physicist for a moment (with apologies to actual physicists), is simply mechanical energy set up by something caused to vibrate at one point in space, thus causing all molecules of air (and dust, for that matter) between the vibrational source and the vibrational hairs and bones in our ears to pass along that energy. This is a gross simplification, of course, but it is also fundamentally true. A stringed instrument might play a combination of notes, each that vibrate at their fundamental frequencies (the number of vibrations per second or Hertz) and at their overtone frequencies as well. A “chord” is sounded and it may, all by itself, elicit an emotional response from the listener. But it is JUST mechanical energy! That feeling happens for reasons unknown within each of our brains. And quite often it happens differently for many of us. You may be moved to tears by the treacle issuing forth from a popular saxophonist, while I might be moved by a Qawwali singer, blending with a harmonium drone, telling the world of his love (although I don’t understand a single word, it is the passionate manner of his work that moves me).

As is often the case, I did a PubMed search on the topic. This time my search was”effect of music on the human brain,” which returned 423 references. Many of the citations were for studies in which some specific effect of audible input (e.g. The observation of theta wave modulation on brain training by 5 Hz-binaural beat stimulation in seven days) was studied. Then I found the following, which at least seemed more broadly attuned to my interest:

Sachs ME, Damasio A and Habibi A (2015) The pleasures of sad music: a systematic review.Front. Hum. Neurosci. 9:404. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00404

In the article, the authors offer up these notions of why sad music often results in pleasurable feelings in listeners

“Sadness evoked by music is found pleasurable: (1) when it is perceived as non-threatening; (2) when it is aesthetically pleasing; and (3) when it produces psychological benefits such as mood regulation, and empathic feelings, caused, for example, by recollection of and reflection on past events.”

 That seems reasonable. It does not, however, tell us why it works, why those vibrations are found to be sad, the replaced by some level of pleasure. That question, of course, is resolved in the increasingly understood, yet poorly understood business of neurotransmitters, electrical signals passed along from neuron to synapse and back in something resembling the speed of light (or at least too fast for us to notice).

There are EEG (electroencephalographic) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies that peer into the brain under various stimuli, including many music studies. What portions of the brain light up, what they are typically doing without musical stimulation, how they seem to connect to other portions of the big grey sponge, all of that is interesting and may point towards an understanding of the simple question posed above. It does not answer the question today, though. It looks there is a bunch of work being done. If I were not trying to make this a relatively simple post, I could easily spend the next four years writing up a dissertation on what is known to date, during which time new stuff would be added to our knowledge.

All I can do today is tell you some of the pieces of music that move me. I’ll give some examples:

A couple of the earliest pieces I remember getting me sort of moved (in a very satisfactory and masculine way, of course, erm, ahem…) were Albatross by Fleetwood Mac (the real, early one, not the fake imitation one that so many people like) and All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix (although written by Bob Dylan). Here they are:

One interesting thing I’ve just noticed about both of these pieces is the “liquidity” of the way the melodies are played over the extremely spare and languid accompaniment from Fleetwood Mac and the quite different, far “busier” accompaniment of the J.H. Experience. But the liquidity of the melodic playing just slays me (and Hendrix’s phenomenal singing does no harm either). The point in All Along the Watchtower that used to kill me when I would hear it on the radio as a teen is the downward, then upward glissandi in the center. Wow!

Around the same time, Blood, Sweat & Tears came out with their first album. On it was a piece that rearranged Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie #1 for a “jazz-rock” ensemble. They did quite a nice job, which only made we want to hear the original. Here’s a nice version from Lars Roos, St. Nicholas Church, Trelleborg, Sweden:


(In fact, this YouTube channel has a ton of live performances from this excellent performance space; have fun: https://www.youtube.com/user/wwwkyrkancom/videos)

There is something sad and pleasurable in this piece, simple as it is. Why? Who cares, honestly, but here I sit, moved to “feel” something from these simple notes and simple harmonies, their mechanical energies captured by a microphone diaphragm and translated into electrons on their way to a digital reinterpretation. Quite clinical, yet the effect is the same.

I first heard Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (the middle movement of his String Quartet, Opus 11) in the cataclysmic ending of the film Platoon. It is a heart-wrenching scene in its own right and the music made it tragic in an almost overwhelming way. The great thing about the music is that it has virtually that same effect on its own. Epically sad for who knows what reason and no less sad for the lack of a rationale.


When arranged for a full orchestra, it is certainly no less moving:

(During the search for nice versions of the Adagio, I found that an execrable thing has been done to this piece by DJ Tiesto. That may lead you to listen to his version and perhaps you will like it but don’t mistake it for the item I am extoling today. Please. Thank you.)

I was talking to a friend a couple of weeks ago about music that basically destroyed us and both of us agreed that Send in the Clowns by Stephen Sondheim was for a complete wrecking ball (nope, no MC on this list peeps!). Here is Judy Collins singing it, although you might have your own favorite versions:


I mean, I’m not even sure what it means on a lyrical level but it is giving me chills as I listen to it play in the background.

Back to my youth. I’ll leave you with this one from Simon and Garfunkel, two astonishing musicians who somehow spent much of their time together acting like complete asses towards each other:


I was young when I first heard it and it seemed impossibly evocative of what it must like to be old. It turns out that being old(er) is a much more complicated experience than can be expressed in any single piece of art. Still, it is damn beautiful!

Of course, I’ve left out tons of music that evokes strong emotion in me and may in you as well. Please feel free to leave some examples in ye olde comment field below.

Author: makingsenseofcomplications

I have an academic background in literature and, separately, science. My career has been in industry in positions of increasing responsibility assisting in the drug development process - one of the most amazing intellectual pursuits of the human mind, among many other amazing intellectual pursuits. I am interested in films, philosophy, history, art, music, science (obviously), literature (also obviously), some video gaming, human behavior, and many other topics. I wish there was more time in every day because we have a world that is full of amazing phenomena that are considered too superficially by too many. Although my first and last names are fictional, I think I believe in all of the stuff you read here, although I retain the right in perpetuity of changing my thoughts about anything written herein.

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