The (Strange) Powers of Music

In Vienna, a teenage girl drowned herself, clutching a piece of paper with lyrics on it. In Budapest, a shopkeeper killed himself and left a note that quoted the same lyrics. In London, a woman overdosed while listening to a record. At the centre of all these apparently unrelated suicides, the culprit was a music track by the name of Gloomy Sunday: the Hungarian Suicide Song.

It was composed by a struggling, Hungarian music artist by the name of Rudi Spitzer, in the extreme depression post a breakup with his girlfriend. It ultimately took his own life.

This music track has been attributed to hundreds of suicides all across Europe.

Rudi Spitzer. Image Credit: MentalFloss

Although this might just sound like an extreme case, the overwhelming power of music is well documented. It has been, and is still being used for both the good and the bad. What makes music so overwhelmingly powerful, and perhaps, influential, is the fact that the emotions and sentiments portrayed in a music track are not distorted by cultural differences.

A recent study confirms this. To make a long story short, people with absolutely no knowledge of a language can accurately point out the emotions portrayed in a music track composed in that very language.

Regardless of the fact that the tremendous psychological influence of music has only been recently discovered, both Indian classical and western music theory always incorporated psychological influences of music.

For example, take the ‘raga’, the fundamental framework of Indian classical music. Each ‘raga’ is supposed to be played or sung at a specific time of the dayWhy?

For the simple reason that a ‘raga’ played or sung at the correct time of the day heightens the intrinsic emotions present in us in that part of the day.

This increases its musical appeal to the audience. Coming to Western Music Theory, specific combinations of melodies and notes are used to make a piece of music sound depressing, jovial, and so on. (You can understand I’m not qualified enough to speak on that).

Well, music can also help you fall asleep. Definitely, that’s a well-known fact. Many of us might remember sweet childhood memories of our parents using music to make us fall asleep. I myself used to do that.

But there’s a height of professionalism. Researchers have now identified the most relaxing song in the world. It’s a music track by the name of Weightless, composed by an English musical trio, Marconi Union.

“This eight minute song is a beautiful combination of arranged harmonies, rhythms and bass lines and thus helps to slow the heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress.”

So that’s the song that can make you fall asleep the fastest. Faster than just another piece of “relaxing music”. Just in case, don’t listen to it while driving. You might just fall asleep!

Then someone said, why not use music for our vested interests? And indeed they have. The use of music as satire, and for mocking the enemy can be traced back to the American Revolution.

Remember the song Yankee Doodle? It was originally composed by soldiers of the British Army during the American Revolution to mock the “dilapidated” dressing style of the Americans (whom they called the yankees) as compared to the strictly red coat formal dress of the British Army.

The red coat uniforms, as worn today. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Well, we all know that the red coat formal uniform of the British Army actually served as a disadvantage in war. Because it’s just not the best thing to wear for camouflage!

It’s just another form of psychological warfare. However, it was only Adolf Hitler who understood the true potential of the use of music as propaganda. Hitler made use of musical works glorifying German legends, such as the works of Richard Wagner.

Richard Wagner. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

His operas glorified ancient German knights, which Hitler then co-opted for himself. The widespread use of music is also traced to be a way to indoctrinate Nazi philosophy into young Germans.

Further forward in history, communist States such as the USSR and China have also used music for political propaganda. The Soviet Union, being very much aware of the wide appeal of music, banned those that roused emotions against the USSR, and instead promoted those which glorified their principles.

Music continues to be used as a means of projecting “soft power”, and also in public diplomacy.

We might like to reconcile ourselves by saying that all these scenarios might just not fit into our daily lives. Let me prove you wrong.

Remember the last time you saw a horror scene? Maybe merely excluding the playback music might make the scene appear a bit less scary.

Maybe, excluding the soft background music from a solemn funeral might not make you so emotional. Maybe, getting rid of the playback music from an advertisement might not make it so appealing to us. Psychologists have figured out wonderful ways to subtly influence our choices, and marketers and movie makers take full advantage of it. It affects us all.

All this brings us to the final question: why is it that music is so appealing to us, humans? A probable explanation might be the fact that it reinforces our emotions.

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We tend to listen to gloomy music when we are sad, and music which is upbeat when we are much more cheerful.

It also acts an emotional outlet. When we often want to express emotions but cannot, we listen to music that portrays such emotions. For example, when we are outraged, but cannot express this emotion, we tend to listen to music that is heavy and aggressive.

Music also possesses the power to cultivate emotions in us. Listening to upbeat music when sad can often up your spirits.

Another possible reason might be that it is encoded in our genes. The Genetic Music Project has codified into music the genes that define depressing diseases, and indeed do they sound depressing.

Yet, to say the truth, researchers do have sleepless nights pondering over what in the world it truly is that makes music have its general appeal to all of us.

And I don’t think we are gonna have an answer too soon.

The Time Theory of Ragas

Sitar, sarod, tabla, sarangi, raga…: today, they are common words ever in the Western Society. All that concerns with Indian classical music.

Indian classical music has developed through complex interactions between different groups of people, different in race and culture, throughout the history of India.

It is a tradition in which improvisation is what sets you apart from the rest. The written word is not the order of the day, therefore, it is believed that much classical music has been lost throughout the ages. 

Indian classical music, till today, is passed on by the guru (teacher) to the shishya (student).

However, all is not lost. There are many references to musical traditions in historic texts, often with description and detailed, written discussions of classical music.

Classical instruments, such as the sitar, sarod, tabla, sarangi, etc. are generally believed to have fallen into much use during the Early Vedic Age in India. Something of that time that still survives is the raga. 

In music, a set of eight notes make an octave. More technically speaking, if note Z is an octave higher than note Y, it means that the frequency of Z is exactly double that of Y.

raga is like a protocol for music. It lays down a set of rules to be followed while moving up or down the scale, the notes to be played, the notes to be ignored, and so on. 

Within the apparently strict-looking framework of a raga lies scope for tremendous improvisation. After all, as I said before, improvisation is what sets you apart from the rest in classical music. Let me give you an example to help understand. 

Suppose, a raga says that the only notes that can be played are: C#, D#, E, F, A and B. I can now arrange these notes in whatever sequence I want, by changing their order, repeating them, excluding some, and so on. Here are some examples:

  • C# A B F
  • A C# D# C# C# F A B
  • A B C# D# E A F F B
  • and so on.

There is one more thing about ragas that is unique. Before moving on further, please make yourself aware that there are countless ragas in Indian classical music, each with its unique style. And something else.

Each raga has an associated mood. 

The sole purpose of following a raga while playing an instrument, or singing vocals, is to impart a certain mood in the listener. Only if the listener is engrossed in the mood of the raga, only then can he/she feel the strange, calm feeling that one gets while listening to a raga. I have experienced it myself, and it’s a feeling that’s beyond the power of words to be described.

However, there’s a catch. For that, maybe you should ask the psychologist in the university. He’ll say this.

It is easier to impart a certain mood in a person’s mind at a particular time of the day. 

Well, whoever devised the ragas of Indian classical music seemed to be aware of that! Therefore, each raga is meant to be played at a certain time of the day. 

An infographic depicting the time of the day a particular raga is meant to be played. If you’re having difficulty in comprehending this, click on the image to lead to an interactive infographic. Image Credit: ITC Sangeet Research Academy

On a personal note, I play the sitar. It’s an instrument whose existence is gravely at stake, something I’m not at all pleased about. Having said that, I currently know to play three ragas: Bhairav, Yaman, and Khamaj. 

  • Raga Bhairav is meant to be played in the early morning (6 – 8 am).
  • Raga Yaman is supposed to be played in the evening (6 – 8 pm).

I have attended quite many concerts of classical music, and the maestros do follow these timings. I have played these two ragas both during the correct time, and also during the incorrect time. The difference is striking. 

Also, there are seasons associated with each raga! But that’s a story for another time.