The power of music upon human beings is a mystery.  Why should a collection of sounds of specifically related frequencies, occurring in a particular order be able to exert such power over the way we feel. Courtesy of the BBC News online magazine, I discovered today that two studies recently carried out by American universities showed that music has the power to provide solace when we’re feeling down.  Amazing that it can do so, but probably not surprising since we’ve all experienced it.

What was interesting was that the two studies produced such contrasting results. The first, conducted by the University of Missouri, showed that more than a quantum of solace could be found by playing cheerful, upbeat music.  For me it also needs to have a strong driving beat too.  Much as the sentiment of Bobby McFerrin‘s Don’t Worry, Be Happy is in the right place, it’s way too laid back to give me any sort of lift, whereas in contrast The Ballad of Vilcabamba by Bill Bruford with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez is good raw material for smile creation.

Contrast this with the second study, conducted by a group of academic institutions including no less than the University of California, Berkeley.  This found that those in negative moods may find their healing through music which expresses a similar mood.  Now I’ve never been a fan of Leonard Cohen, the crown prince of pessimism, but looking through my music collection it’s certainly easier to find “comfort in melancholy” as Joni Mitchell puts in Hejira.  Her earlier album Blue is full of promising material.  Then there is the constant ache of Paul Buchanan’s voice in The Blue Nile, another regular visitor to my playlists. Miles Davis‘ Kind of Blue has featured before in these blogs, and then there’s the Blue Nights album by Bruford & Levin’s Upper Extremities, where the colour plays out in various hues across the track listing.   Today’s earworm has been provided by an American blues singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt.  Can there be a sadder song than her biggest hit?

So how do we reconcile the two studies?  I’m no musicologist so you won’t find the answer here, but I can add another quirky note.  Walking across the Market Place in Durham this evening I encountered this busker.  His expression and demeanour tell one story, but from his disproportionately small recorder he filled the space with melody that would have had any foot tapping along with him. Maybe a third study is required that says it doesn’t matter what type of music it is.  It’s all good.


I can’t believe I resorted to a Neil Diamond song for the title today.  What came over me?


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