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The Power of Music

Why we are unable to resist the effect of sound?

Music is like the key to our souls: It directly affects our mood and our emotions. It can make us laugh and cry, make us dance, give us goosebumps and yet also help us to sleep. But what exactly is music? What's behind this phenomenon that nobody can resist and which is as old as mankind itself?

As far as music is concerned, the first question is always this: What do you like? We all know which kinds of music we like and which we don't. Musical tastes reflect individuals' backgrounds, personalities, lifestyles and age.

Almost even more interesting, however, is the question of which melodies and rhythms appeal to us - even beyond our direct perceptions. Music affects several parts of the brain and has direct access to our feelings and our instincts. It stirs our emotions and acts more than just as a stimulant - it actually soothes our soul, and in some cases actually behaves like medicine. This is because it still has access to our innermost thoughts, where logic and speech are no longer able to go. Music therefore often creates an opportunity when other routes are barred, for example in Alzheimer's or stroke patients.

Order to chaos

But what actually is music? And what happens in our heads when we hear it? This is a question that's not so easy to answer. For an observer from another planet, what we humans call music would be nothing more than a complex mixture of wavelengths of varying degrees of mathematical coherence, based on small fluctuations in air pressure.

Music can actually only happen in our heads. That's because our brain has the extraordinary ability to bring order to the chaos that surrounds us. It's almost like a miracle: Our sense of hearing converts air vibrations into nerve impulses and our brain allows us to create sounds and tones in our consciousness. It sorts them into chords and filters out rhythm and melody from the chronological sequence of recurring sounds. The magic of music therefore really lies in an extremely creative act of the human brain!

No matter how different the music around the world may be, musicologists have discovered one universal rule of thumb: Regardless of the culture and musical style, pieces are usually composed so that their themes last around three seconds - exactly the amount of time needed for the human short-term memory to form an impression before it is processed or rejected.

Playing with our emotions

Music even affects us when we're not consciously listening to it. After all, unlike the eyes and mouth, we are not actively able to close our ears. We barely actively perceive this "functional background music", as it is known, even though it is influencing our emotions. The fact is, discreet jazz music in our favorite café, the gentle background music in the department store or the muted melody of the "Girl from Ipanema" in the hotel elevator are simply there to hide an unpleasant silence. Music makes us feel better and more secure, a fact that not least has a positive influence on consumer behavior. Advertising also makes use of this effect.

Film music: emotional fireworks

The film industry is a particularly adept player of the "emotional keyboard". Whether it be Hollywood or Bollywood: Customized music underpins and accentuates the effect of moving images tremendously, sparking real emotional fireworks in the audience's brains. Everyone knows the classic example: Even before "Jaws" burst onto our screens, the deep, staccato string sounds of the main theme stirred up ancient feelings of unease, even horror, that nobody can escape.

Why do some melodies give us goosebumps?

Evolutionary biology is likely the key to why certain sounds trigger certain emotions in us. Deep, growling sounds, bordering on the sub-sonic spectrum, may remind us of the growling of a large predator (like a tiger) just before it attacks, and are therefore deeply associated in our instincts with the labels "Look out! Danger!". The same is also true for very different sounds. Sequences of shrill, high-pitched, staccato sounds (like in the murder scene in the Hitchcock classic "Psycho") could be reminiscent of human screams or the warning calls of birds. The same logic also applies to pleasant melodies that offer peaceful and calming sounds, such as the twittering of birds or the peaceful babbling of a brook.

As old as mankind

Music has such a deep effect because it is as old as mankind itself. Long before we were cultivating fields, we were playing the drums and dancing around the fire. Drums and flutes made from bone are also some of the first testaments to mankind's affinity with music. The oldest artifacts are around 30,000 years old. And conversely, our modern-day music still contains patterns that are redolent of sounds that our ancestors understood long before language: shouts, laughter, sighs. The melody and tone of sound says much more than words.

The magic of volume

The intensity of the effect of music on our brain and our bodies depends greatly on its volume and tempo. Loud music and fast rhythms can produce a very intensive, ecstatic hearing experience and encourage us to dance: The music pervades the body and mind and allows us to forget the world around us. We don't just dance to the music, but also IN the music. Quieter sounds with deep basic frequencies, on the other hand, have an extremely calming effect. Examples of these include Tibetan singing bowls or Australian didgeridoos. They take musical experiences to a very physical level by transferring their vibrations directly to the human body.

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