31 Aug 2016

The emotional power of music

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:10 pm on 31 August 2016

Science tells us music is not only the food of love, it can make wine taste better and relieve pain. Physics professor John Powell, who also has a master's degree in music composition, looks at the science of music in his new book, Why You Love Music.

Elbow performing The Birds in 2014

Elbow performing The Birds in 2014 Photo: You tube

“Give a psychologist a list of your ten favourite songs and you’ll get a good assessment of your personality” - John Powell

In the 1990s, psychologists honed what are known as the ‘Big Five’ personality traits – Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

John says they then were able to match those personality traits with types of music – and found that people who shared musical taste also had similar personalities.

“People who like reflective and contemplative music – like jazz, classic, folk and blues – are generally high on openness (intellectually), and are generally poor at sports, good with words and politically liberal” John says.

This goes back to our teenage years when social cliques were formed, he says.

Although most of us feel the deepest (and a lifelong) love for the music we listen to between the ages of 15 and 25, it’s never too late to embrace a new form of music, John says. It can be as simple as choosing to do so.

“If you marry somebody who’s into Parisian swing jazz from the 1940s and they play a lot to you, you’ll start coming up with a mental pattern of what’s going to happen next in that music. You’ll become comfortable with it and you’ll start to fall in love with it.”

The digital age, by allowing access to so much music, can keep some people from venturing beyond what they know and like, while offering others infinite possibilities. John finds that young people now have more eclectic taste than those in the past.

“Nowadays, if a 20 year gives a playlist to another 20 year old, quite often you’ll have Sinatra followed by rock followed by African drumming - and I think that’s really marvellous.”

It's not news that music has the power to invigorate or relax us, but John takes the idea further. He says music holds the keys to our body’s “inner pharmacy” and we can use it to exercise some control over which chemicals our pharmacy is dispensing.

“If I was falling asleep in a motorway I would probably put something like [Brian] Eno’s ‘Babys On Fire’ on – which is very driving, rhythmic music and exciting and fun – or things like ‘Carmina Burana' [composed by Carl Orff].”

John Powell

John Powell Photo: supplied

And when John wants to order up some mood-elevation from the ‘inner pharmacy’?

The second movement of Joaquín Rodrigo’s 'Concierto de Aranjuez' - “very chirpy and sunny and a tonic for everybody.”

John Powell is the author of Why You Love Music.