Music brings a tear to your eye |

Music brings a tear to your eye

Lisa Keating, Ph.D.

Music is in the air in Carson City. Throughout the summer thousands have attended various concerts around town. The Capital City Music Series at the Pavilion in Mills Park is a collaboration between the Upstage Center Theater, Brewery Arts Center, in partnership with the Carson City Redevelopment Authority and the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Neville Brothers are wrapping up this year’s series Friday, Aug. 29. Sunday Concerts in the Park, which are free concerts, also sponsored by the Carson City Redevelopment Authority, are in the legislative plaza. And, Fridays@3rd Street concerts continue through August.

Attending these concerts in Carson City is more than just listening to music. In our small community it provides us a chance to socialize with neighbors and friends while we are entertained. Participating in events like these makes us feel part of our community and promotes a sense of belonging. And, these series seem to have something for everyone: country, jazz, blues and Mexican heritage music. Throw in available food and drinks and expanding your mind was never more painless!

Standing at one of the concerts this summer, watching musicians play one of my favorite old songs, I got a lump in my throat, and I was struck with nostalgia. What is it about music that can lead us to such highs and lows of mood?

From a psychological perspective, there are both simple and complex answers to this question. The simple part is that music evokes an emotional response. Research shows that fast music and music played with “major keys” is associated with happiness and helps elevate us to a positive and energetic mood.

Slower tunes, and music played with “minor keys,” tend to make us feel sad or melancholy. For example, a famous Music Psychology study (Frey, 1985) found that 8 percent of crying episodes are set off by listening to music.

Music also provides us with a historical or narrative chronology of our lives. During the 1960s, songs were a way for people to express their feelings about the Vietnam War. “Danny Boy” brings tears to the eyes of many war veterans who remember battles, or lost comrades, when listening to this song. My Aunt and Uncle still listen to “I left my heart in San Francisco,” to recall the pain of the time in their lives when their relationship was necessarily long-distance.

For all of us, specific songs remind us of old loves, teenage angst, births and deaths, eras in our life, or even just a great road trip. Hearing these songs again brings back the feelings associated with these memorable events.

Just as songs can lead to feelings of joy and sorrow, a new large scale study (sponsored by the American Psychological Association, 2003) found that listening to songs with violent lyrics led people to increases in aggressive thoughts and feelings.

The complex side of understanding how music affects us has been studied for decades by music psychologists. (Yes, there really are music psychologists). They believe they will need several more decades to completely understand how music is processed in our brains, and how music affects our emotions.

Music is believed to have existed long before formal language began. What may have started as simply rhythmically beating a stick on a stone has evolved into melodic strumming of guitars, violins, and pianos. Evolutionary theorists note that of all noises, humans have always been most sensitive to the sound of the human voice. Our brains are intricately designed to communicate and detect emotion and meaning in each others’ tone, pitch, and pace of utterance. It is with these sensitive listening abilities that we find meaning in music’s high and low notes, tempo and tone.

Researchers study the brain and body’s response to music through MRI and PET scans, EEG ratings, blood pressure, hormone levels, skin response, and breathing rates. While they have not found a specific “music center” in the brain, they have found that music increases our brain’s activity levels, affects our emotional responses, and impacts our body’s activity and energy level.

Because of these responses, music is now often used to help stroke victims improve their memory and brain functioning, and music can help those with chronic pain to lower the intensity of their hurt. Listening to uplifting music over time can help lower depression. And, music therapy is being used with Autistic patients to improve their emotional functioning.

For all people, music leads to an increased ability to retain information in long-term memory. This is likely why I have forgotten much of what I learned in algebra but still know all of the words to “Crocodile Rock.”

So, you see, enjoying the summer music series in Carson City is not just fun, it is good for your mood and your brain. Who knows, by going to a concert this summer with someone special, you may be creating a new musical memory. Decades from now, when you hear the song again, you may take a walk down memory lane: remembering a beautiful night with someone special, surrounded by your fellow townspeople, listening to great music, under the bluest skies in the world.