Music speaks to the soul. Whether you listen to pop, rock, country, or classical, you know that music can influence and enhance emotions. In fact, recent research has shown that listening to music is more successful than prescription drugs in decreasing a person’s anxiety before undergoing surgery. Music can improve the function of the body’s immune system and reduce levels of stress. In addition, music therapy, when combined with standard care, is a successful treatment for depression. Music affects the physical body and the mind.
Music motivates people. Whether being used to increase the intensity of a workout or to push work speed to meet a critical deadline, intense music has the power to motivate us. My running playlist, for example, always has “Eye of the Tiger” near the end. Something about hearing that song during the last 3 minutes of an exhausting run always manages to push me through to finish strong. Another personal favorite is the “William Tell Overture.” During my college days, when I would have a deadline, I would always listen to this piece while typing up my rough draft. The music would swell with intensity and by the Finale, my fingers would be pounding away at the keyboard as if possessed, pulling my thoughts from my head at a rapid-fire rate. The most unusual part of that experience was how coherent and organized my words would be. It was as if the music lent structure to my thoughts.
I still type with music as it helps to drown out background noise while providing a cadence for my fingers to follow. Sharing an office, however, means that I occasionally need to hear when other people speak to me. Therefore, it has become a recent habit to type with only one ear bud in leaving my other ear free for communication needs. What I have discovered while doing this is that, with modern stereo recordings, I am only hearing half of the piece. Different parts are recorded on different channels to give the listener a surround sound effect that, when the music is listened to appropriately, makes the music more interesting. With one ear bud out, it changes the music.
Some of the changes are simplistic and unimportant, like missing the “echo” of a trumpets call. Other changes, however, lessen the intensity of the music by removing the descant or an important counter melody. Hearing music this way is not as balanced. It is not exciting and is obviously incomplete. Some pieces are changed entirely. Imagine listening to the folk favorite “Dueling Banjos” without hearing both instruments. The banjo playing would still be impressive but the feeling of lighthearted competition would be gone. The two parts of music seem to interact, as separate entities, yet exist solely to complement the other. Just like life, the music must have both a heart and a mind to live completely. With an ear bud out, a full half of a duet is lost. Consider hearing only Christina Aguilera’s part of the “Say Something” duet with A Great Big World. The song would lose its passion and be emotionally flat.
When we hear music, as it is intended to be heard, it speaks to our entire being because music is one of the few ways we have to tie the past to the present. While “Eye of the Tiger” has a pretty good beats-per-minute count to set a steady running pace, I respond to the song on an emotional level based upon my past experience with that song. Who can forget watching Sylvester Stallone overcome incredible odds in Rocky? Plus, during the very first 5K I ran, that song came on my iPod during the very last tenth of a mile on a down hill stretch. I finished that race strong so now, when I hear that song on my run, my obstacles seem to diminish and I know, deep in my heart, that I can push through and finish strong. It is the emotional reaction that makes me push harder, not the actual song. That emotional reaction is a mental cue to remind me that I can accomplish anything. The same is true of a traditional Gospel song, “I’ll Fly Away.” When I hear that song, memories surface of times when I experienced great bereavement due to a community tradition of using that song during funerals.
A friend once told me that our mind inherently wants to use our past experiences to temper present experiences. That is why, she suggests, that we have such powerful memories of our past. Memories must have a deeper purpose or otherwise, we wouldn’t remember some events as strongly as we do. Our mind knows that the past and the present are meant to sing together, like a duet. However, for it to be a duet it must be comprised of two parts and we must hear both parts. If we go through life with one of our metaphorical ear buds out because we are afraid of missing part of a conversation, we lose the opportunity to connect with our past experiences because we are not fully listening.