“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak,” wrote the English poet William Congreve in 1697.
These days, we tend to take music’s inherent charms for granted and often overlook how genuinely mysterious it is that simple patterns of sound vibrations can have profound effects on our minds and bodies. This power of music to on the one hand soothe, but equally to energise, has long fascinated musicians and philosophers.
Most recently, psychologists and neurophysiologists have turned their attention to music, and have sought to measure, and explain in empirical terms, how music can have so much influence over our moods and levels of energy.
A Belgian study published in PLoS ONE has shed further light on how this might work. Marc Leman and colleagues at the Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music and Ghent University analysed the effects of listening to different pieces of music on the walking speed of 18 adults.
Researchers have long known that people will synchronise their steps with the tempo of music – after all, this is why we have marching bands. So for this study, the researchers chose 52 pieces of instrumental music with contrasting moods and styles, but exactly the same musical tempo: 130 beats per minute.
Sure enough, almost all of the participants stepped in time with the music. What was more interesting was that certain pieces of music caused the participants to walk more energetically – to take larger strides, and cover a larger total distance – while other pieces caused the opposite effect.
For the record, the piece of music that created the most vigorous walking in the study was Falik’s Ballad of El Efe, while the gentlest response was to Monsieur Saint-Colombe’s Courante.
After the walking test, the participants were asked to rate the pieces they listened to in terms of opposed pairs of adjectives: was the piece good or bad? Stuttering or flowing? Tender or aggressive? Soft or loud?
Unsurprisingly, the participants walked with more of a spring in their step to music rated as stuttering, loud or aggressive, while gentler, softer, flowing or more complex music had a relaxing effect.
This effect appeared to be independent of musical genre: the list of the most arousing music included classical, techno, world music and house, while the top ten most relaxing pieces ranged from Baroque solo viol music to contemporary Korean dance tracks.
The effect also seemed to be independent of the participants’ own musical preferences – the music had the observed effect whether or not the participants liked that particular style or genre.
Leman and colleagues speculate that this musical effect on the vigour of physical response might happen at an autonomous or subliminal level. This suggests several possible practical applications for the research, for instance in sports performance or physical rehabilitation.
What makes this study relatively unusual is that the researchers then analysed these objective cognitive results in terms of a sophisticated music theoretical model: they attempted to discover exactly what the musical features were that were associated with the arousing or relaxing effects.
Nearly 200 sonic features of each piece were analysed – the loudness of various parts of music, the sharpness of the attack, the structure of the beats, the distribution of pitches and so on – and this musical analysis was then correlated with the results of the walking experiment.
Surprisingly, only a handful of features were shown to cause arousal and relaxation, and these all had to do with the regular structure of the rhythm, which musicians call “metre”.
Put simplistically, music with a march-like rhythm (“binary metre”) causes more arousal, while music with a waltz-like rhythm (“ternary metre”) causes greater relaxation.
So when you next see a batsman stride to the crease or a boxer enter the ring to the blare of aggressive, pounding motivational music, it’s more than just theatre. There’s a genuine physiological effect at work.
And it might be that England’s best chance to retain the Ashes will be to make sure the Australian team takes the field to the sound of the Blue Danube Waltz.
Jonathan Powles is a manager, SAFFIRE at University of Canberra. This article was first published on The Conversation.
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