American cultural icon Dick Clarke, who hosted American Bandstand from 1957 to 1987, is credited as introducing rock and roll to broad audiences. In his show he enthused, “music is the soundtrack of our lives”.
With the loss of musical greats like David Bowie, who passed away after a short battle with cancer on 10 January 2016, we are prompted to reflect on the impact of music on our lives and what part songs play in accompanying us through our lives.
Music fosters what psychologists call social relatedness, “Social relatedness refers to the potential of music to show that one belongs to a specific social group; to make listeners feel related to people who like the same kind of music; to make listeners feel connected to their friends; or to help listeners gather important information about others”, Thomas Schäfer in the ‘The effect of social feedback on music preference’.
The social impact of music is so great we gather in droves to share experiences with friends at music festivals, gigs, and pubs, and quiet (or raucous) nights at home. Music permeates through the human experience regardless of culture or beliefs. Wherever humans are found so too music and art is present.
Not only a social experience, music has the capacity to help “resolve our deepest inner conflicts” as explained by Leonid Perlovsky, visiting Scholar at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University. Perlovsky points out that for thousands of years, philosophers and scientists have been trying to understand why music puts us in touch with the “state of our soul”. Charles Darwin perplexedly gave up, concluding that music’s effect on human emotion was an incomprehensible mystery.
New research in the fields of neuroscience and social psychology has begun to unpick the reasons why music resonates with our experiences so much. The results of a multitude of experiments suggest that music alleviates cognitive dissonance (where being confronted with inconsistencies or contradictory ideas or values in life causes us stress and discomfort).
Leonid Perlovsky explains, using love as an example:
“With love, we’d like to fully trust it. But we know that to fully trust is dangerous – that we can be betrayed and disappointed. With death, one of the most difficult contradictions of all is our longing to believe in spiritual eternity and our knowledge that our time on Earth is finite.
Is it any coincidence, then, that there are so many songs about love and betrayal? Or that we are drawn to sorrowful songs in times of mourning?”
Listening to music that resonates with our experience can help us reconcile difficult feelings and thus emotionally develop. Studies conducted too by Xide Yu and Tao Liu at the Sun Yat-Sen Universit, support this assertion, “music plays important roles in evolution and development of human cognitive functions such as intelligence, language, and memory and in turn affects human social behaviours, for example, emotion management, self-identity, and interpersonal relationship”.
So it is true, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast” – The Mourning Bride, 1697 by playwright and poet