Psychology and Song

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By Steven Prasinos, Ph.D.

Published in THE NATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST,  Jan/Feb 2019

No culture has ever been found that lacks music (Storr, 1992). On cave walls there are prehistoric images of figures dancing and drumming. A 40,000 year-old flute has been unearthed.  From weddings to war, music is central to most rituals (Campbell, 1995).  Music is a profound psychological phenomenon, characteristic of the human species (Levitin, 2006). 


We can define music as an organized sequence of sounds. Because it is a sequence, music does not exist at any one moment. Rather music requires a listener, over time, to perceive changing sonic patterns. These patterns include shifts in pitch, rhythm and harmony. The listener organizes the tones into a whole. Music, then, is a field of tones that requires a listener to exist. 


Music is not only a perceived sonic pattern. It is also a felt sonic pattern.  It affects us physiologically. It can alter, for example, breathing, blood pressure and brain waves (Sauter, 2010).  Music has such physiological effects because hearing requires resonance.  That is:  To listen is to vibrate with. This “vibrating with,” or entrainment, can be observed, for instance, when an unstruck guitar string vibrates with a struck one. All listening engages the body. We are literally moved by music.  Moved, at times, where we might tap a foot or even get up and dance. Ole`!


So music moves us physiologically and, of course, emotionally.  Indeed, music is an organization created to elicit feelings in the listener (Berendt, 1983).  Music is emotional because, as we entrain with a sonic sequence, a corresponding physiological sequence is induced which replicates emotional arousal. Music and emotion have a similar structure: Both flow. Both vary in tone, intensity and harmony. As Hegel says, music is an analogue of our inner life (Storr, 1995). 


Listening to music, therefore, is an organized vibration journey.  The listener cognitively orders tones and is physiologically aroused along an emotional arc.  We are organizing the music and the music is organizing us. Music’s ability to re-organize us gives it healing potential. For millennia shamans, priests, and artists have used music to heal.  As Samuel says in the Old Testament: “Seek out a man who is skillful in playing the harp when evil is upon you and you will be well.” Music is emotional medicine (Webb, 1998).


When, in song, we add lyrics to music the healing effect is amplified. In “Over the Rainbow,” for example, the song takes us on a mind/body journey towards acceptance of yearning. Or in “Amazing Grace” we travel an arc that awakens us to the possibility of redemption. Music can arouse and release dormant feelings which can then be accepted. It can help the ego integrate the repressed. 


The composer, then, “scouts” human experience and says: This sonic sequence reveals how I organize my feelings (Storr, 1992). This is how I organize grief. This is how I organize hope. This is my path to joy. The listener is given, through a mind/body sonic sequence, a map for negotiating emotion. This musical map guides the listener. No wonder we are so grateful to our musical heroes. They help us feel less alone.


So the vibrating field of music entrains with the listener who, due to the very nature of listening, must also be a vibrating field. Our responsiveness to music reveals that we are vibrating fields.  Indeed, to be alive is to be a vibrating field (or “soul”). Like music, we are flowing vibration fields that vary over time in tone, rhythm and harmony.


We are regularly entraining with one another’s fields, usually unconsciously.  In psychotherapy there is a conscious intention to entrain.  Resonance is the heart of therapeutic rapport. Put another way: “To know a man is to know his melody” (Asian proverb). Truly listening to (vibrating with) someone is spiritual because it expands ones sense of self (Prasinos, 1992). Therapist/patient resonance enables the patient to vibrate in a new way. To “sing” a new song. 

 

We are all musical: Flowing, dynamic vibration fields seeking harmony.  We long to find our songs and share our songs.  To do so we must heed St. Benedict’s advice and “listen with the ears of our heart.”  To love is to listen and to listen is to love.


Steven Prasinos is a psychologist and singer/songwriter in private practice in Woodbury CT.  He can be reached at stevenpras7@gmail.com. References available upon request.