Music is a powerful force. It can make us cry, and make us laugh. It can empower us, inspire us, anger us, motivate us, and change our perspective on the world. Sound can help to unravel the mysteries of our universe, and take us deeper within ourselves as human beings. A great song can hold a place in our heart that is uniquely precious, and yes, a great song can change the world.
Not only can sound achieve all these amazing things, it can effect us on a deeper, more subconscious anatomical level. Music has been proven to improve creativity, improve motor and nonverbal reasoning skills, boost our vocabulary, improve productivity, help us utilise energy more efficiently when we exercise, slow our pulse, lower our blood pressure, reduce levels of anxiety and depression, and alter the way we interpret others. Thousands of studies have probed the influence of music on our brains, from babies in the womb to the elderly, and the results are uniformly spectacular. This ancient art form has both directly and indirectly shaped every one of us - our thoughts, our feelings, our actions - and the world around us would be an altogether different, altogether darker place without music.
One 2010 study conducted by researchers from BMS College of Engineering in Bangalore, Malaysia, reported that subjects experienced a dramatic reduction in stress and a marked increase in physical relaxation when they listened to music that played around 60 beats per minute. In classical music, such a tempo is written as larghetto, which translates to not very fast or somewhat slowly.
The figure of 60 BPM is not coincidentally a cause for feelings of relaxation and ease. The average adult human resting heart rate is approximately 60 to 100 BPM, with a reading toward the lower end of the scale typically occurring during deep sleep. Individuals who consistently record readings of around 60 BPM are usually physically fit and healthy, such as young athletes.
The human heart beats more than 3.5 billion times in an average lifetime, at around 100,000 beats a day. The heartbeat of a human embryo begins at approximately 21 days after conception, at a rate near the mother’s (75 to 80 BPM). Such tempos are engrained into our being from our earliest moments; every single one of us lives to a beat, a beat that changes moment to moment and yet is omnipresent. A beat that can exhaust or relax us, and which will only stop at the precise moment of our death. Our heartbeat and its rhythm are two of the most personal elements of our being.
Music is always set to a beat, too. Genres that make us move, like disco and pop, are typically performed at around 120 BPM - a convenient double time to our resting 60 BPM reading - an energising rhythm that makes us comfortable and happy. Meanwhile, genres like dub and the aptly named downtempo are relaxing, soothing styles of music that get down to the 60 to 90 BPM range on a regular basis. And styles of music like techno, jungle, and drum and bass electronic music - intended to be played for large crowds over extended periods of time, delivering intensely stimulating, energising impact - can be played at anywhere from 150 to 200 BPM.
All of these figures achieve their desired effect by design, not by coincidence. Anyone who has ever experienced the insistent doof, doof, doof, doof of four-to-the-floor trance music in a club or festival environment can attest to the phenomenon: masses of bodies moving like waves that rise and fall in a synchronous pulse along with the beat. Raves like these carry on for hours upon hours, long into the early morning and often beyond. There is a distinctly hypnotic element to it all. Such electronic music is almost always centred around a drumbeat that goes and goes and goes, and in a live situation everybody in attendance is pulled along for the ride. Think of the remarkably apt name of the genre: trance. Everybody is compelled to move to the beat, just as every day feet subconsciously tap along to the radio whenever music is playing.
The omnipresent streaming service Spotify knew the scientific link between our heart rates and musical beats when they announced their Running service in May 2015. Their app records your running tempo using the accelerometers built into your smartphone, before converting your running cadence into a BPM rating and automatically generating playlists of music which match that precise tempo. Spotify even offer songs called Running Originals, created by artists like the Dutch DJ Tiësto, which - in lieu of a fixed tempo per song - dynamically adapt to your running pace.
Other services like RockMyRun and PaceDJ have offered similar functionality before, but Spotify - who have over 75 million users - are by far the highest profile company to enter the sports tempo-tracking market. The idea behind these algorithmic DJs is that keeping pace with the music will be a motivating factor, where it is easier to avoid letting your speed fall because the music keeps you going. In Spotify’s words:
“Running in time with the music makes you feel more energetic, more motivated.”
Runners and indeed athletes in most any field have been employing heart rate training for years. With this technique, using simple formulas for calculating one’s heart rate reserve (the difference between your resting heart rate and your maximum heart rate), different exercise ranges are calculated. Each zone corresponds to a particular amount of effort exerted, and services like Spotify Running aim to motivate athletes to push a little harder into each challenging zone, as cleverly curated music pushes them forward and sets the pace. Musicians like Underworld, deadmau5, and Calvin Harris become musical personal trainers, always helping you go further.
The hypnotic effect of music as observed at any rave does not come from rhythm only. For hundreds of years, pioneering scientists have studied the involuntary effects of auditory stimulus on subjects. These include Ivan Pavlov, whose dogs would salivate whenever he rang a bell that he had previously rung at meal times, and the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s much-debated experiments using hypnosis at Salpêtrière in Paris during the late nineteenth century. As noted by Oxford Journals, Charcot used gongs and tuning forks on patients to provoke cataleptic fits, one of his so-called stages of hysterical hypnosis. Describing his methods, Charcot explained:
“I have these two hysterics take a seat on the sound box of a large tuning fork. As soon as I set the fork vibrating, you can see that they fall into catalepsy. When we stop the vibrations, they fall into somnambulism. If we begin new vibrations with the tuning fork, the catalepsy reappears. Is this strange fact … due to the excitation of auditory sensitivity, or that of sensitivity in general? We don’t know.”
Elsewhere in the nineteenth century, the psychologist Aldred Warthin at the University of Michigan concluded, while observing listeners of the intense music composed by Richard Wagner as they experienced all-consuming rapture, that they were “in a condition of self-induced hypnosis” caused by the music. The profoundly influential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed his own concerns about Wagner’s compositional techniques on multiple occasions, with many allusions to hypnotism, calling the composer a “mesmerist” and “a master of hypnosis.” Similarly, the physician Max Nordau stated:
“[Wagner’s] music was definitely made to charm hysterics. Its powerful orchestral effects create hypnosis - in the Salpêtrière hospital one often hypnotises patients with the sudden hitting of a gong. And the formlessness of the endless melody corresponds to the sleeping wandering of the mind.”
Interest, wariness, and aversion to music’s biological effect on listeners has continued to the present day. The Dutch-born American physician Joost Meerloo wrote about music in his 1961 book Dance Craze and Sacred Dance, characterised by a decidedly ambivalent attitude to the then-developing style of rock music. He stated that “the contagious rhythm of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is “a form of rhythmic mass hypnosis.” He also expressed his concern that rock music “may go over into the madness of oblivion and self-destruction.” One wonders what Doctor Meerloo would make of today’s trance and house music, designed as it is for the express purpose of eliciting transportive release.
In 1985 Ozzy Osbourne was sued based on the accusation that his song Suicide Solution had caused a teenager to attempt suicide as a result of the song’s “musical brainwashing.” The case was thrown out on freedom of speech grounds, but the rise of subliminal back-masking, prevalent in much of the heavy metal music of the time, became a widely contested topic of debate. The parents of two teenagers who shot themselves in the ’80s blamed Judas Priest, claiming “satanic incantations are revealed when the music is played backwards.” Their expert witness - a marine biologist - concluded that he could make out the words “do it” backwards in a song, and although the case was not successful, the idea of heavy metal as a form of potentially lethal brainwashing had become widely accepted by many. When teenager Richard Kuntz killed himself while listening to Marilyn Manson in 1996, his father testified before a US Senate Committee to argue that the New Orleans singer had employed musical brainwashing and was responsible for his son’s death. The media subsequently blamed Manson for the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
Brainwashing and music have a closely linked history, but beyond cheap cashing in on demonic themes, there is modern work being done that ties scientific musical phenomena with physical change. Binaural tones have been studied since the mid-nineteenth century, and have been claimed to aid in relaxation, meditation, creativity and other desirable mental states. These tones (also called binaural beats) are auditory processing artifacts, or apparent sounds, caused by specific physical stimuli, where two tones - one in each ear - are played, each at a differing frequency.
The effect on a listener’s brainwaves depends on the difference in the frequencies of each tone, for example if 400 Hz was played in one ear and 440 Hz in the other, the binaural tone would have a frequency of 40 Hz. Binaural tones are a controversial topic among many and remain largely unverified scientifically, though some of the more optimistic studies have stated that these alien-like, weird sounds may simulate the effect of recreational drugs, improve athletic performance, help people to memorise and learn, stop smoking, lose weight, and cure erectile dysfunction.
Steve Goodman, a noted Glaswegian dubstep producer who records under the name Kode9 and runs the influential electronic record label Hyperdub, is also a Ph.D philosopher who in 2009 published his first book, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Exploring the use of acoustic force and its effect on the populous, Goodman described how sound is deployed to set moods of dread and fear by governments and riot police, and used as a weapon of offence and torture during warfare. From the book’s description:
“Sonic weapons of this sort include the ‘psychoacoustic correction’ aimed at Panama strongman Manuel Noriega by the U.S. Army and at the Branch Davidians in Waco by the FBI, sonic booms (or ‘sound bombs’) over the Gaza Strip, and high-frequency rat repellants used against teenagers in malls.”
Goodman is of course correct in his observations. In 1989, U.S. troops in Panama City aimed loudspeakers at the Vatican embassy where Noriega had barricaded himself, blaring deafening music day and night to anger him and prevent him from sleeping. Among the songs they chose for Noriega’s listening pleasure were Nowhere to Run by Martha and the Vandellas and Linda Rondstadt’s You’re No Good. The Waco compound of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians was bombarded with ear-splitting recordings of both music and assorted recordings that included bagpipes, seagulls, dying rabbits, sirens, dentist drills, and Buddhist chants. And in 2005 it was widely reported by the international media that the Israeli airforce were employing deafening sonic booms - caused as their low-flying jets passed the speed of sound - as a method of psychological warfare in the Gaza Strip. Elsewhere, high-frequency blasts of audio at 2,100 Hz to 3,100 Hz at 150 decibels have been used to dispel crowds and dissuade looters, including during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Sonic warfare is very real and very dangerous, and goes to show that audio frequencies can be employed for ill-gotten gains after all. Yet sound is largely used for good; at the more positive end of the sonic spectrum, we have mantras. Mantras are defined as “sacred utterances”, and have been used for over 3000 years in spiritual practice. Believed by many to have extreme psychological and spiritual power, a mantra may or may not have syntactic structure or literal meaning; the spiritual value of a mantra simply comes when it is audible or present in thought. The sacred Sanskrit syllable Om - a central mantra of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism - was labelled in ancient India as the “cosmic sound” that initiated the creation of the universe.
When humming a sound such as aaaaa, the physical vibration can most keenly be felt in the stomach and chest region; similarly, ooooo and mmmm stimulate the throat and skull regions respectively. When these three syllables are combined, we achieve Om or Aum as it is otherwise known, which - when chanted successfully - activates the stomach, spinal cord, throat, nasal, and cranium regions. These powerful sonic repercussions are still held by millions today as being spiritually all-encompassing, and even dangerous. Beginners to mantra meditation are rarely encouraged to begin with the singular Om syllable, due to its perceived effect.
Cymatics - the study of visible sound - has been effectively applied to visualise Om mantra chanting. Typically in cymatics, the surface of a plate, diaphragm, or membrane is vibrated by audible noise, and the regions of maximum and minimum displacement are made visible by a varied coating of particles, paste, or liquid. Different patterns emerge in the excitatory medium depending on the geometry of the plate and the driving frequency. I encourage everyone who reads this article to watch the video embedded below, which uses a CymaScope and a 1981 recording of the Om mantra being chanted inside the Great Pyramid of Egypt, in order to show the power of the cosmic sound in action. The results of this ancient chant coming to life before our eyes are amazing, awe-inspiring, and unforgettable.
It is particularly fascinating that elliptical shapes are the primary ones which are displayed in the above video. Elliptical paths are the routes planets take as they orbit stars such as our sun; such celestial bodies do not travel around the sun in perfect circles, rather in oval shapes. The stars themselves also move through the galaxy in the same elliptical patterns. Therefore, elliptical shapes are essentially a visual representation of the way in which celestial bodies respond to gravity, the force that binds everything together and sustains life as we know it. The significance of Om in ancient religion as the sound of our universe’s beginning, and the correlation of its cymatical visualisation to gravity and the movements of our universe are food for thought indeed.
Cymatics is a fascinating field, and one can get lost in the visualisations that have been filmed for many pieces of music. Some artists, such as the electronic mastermind Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin, have even included visualisation in their own songs by other means. Using spectrograms - a visual representation of the frequencies of a particular sound - James imprinted two songs from his Windowlicker single with images. The title track features a spiral pattern that evolves towards the end of the song, while ΔMi−1 = −αΣn=1NDi[n][Σj∈C[i]Fji[n − 1] +Fexti[n−1]] (usually shortened to Equation for obvious reasons) features a terrifying spectrogram of James’ own face, smirking with his trademark sinister grin. It’s hilariously geeky, interesting stuff.
From allowing musicians to encode their self-portrait into compositions, bringing our ears the apparent sound of our entire universe and its origins, giving us the motivation we need to work, create, or push ourselves, intimidating our enemies in warfare, carrying us away in a hypnotic trance, curing our ailments, and even just providing plain old emotional release, sound and the way we create and interpret it is a fascinating subject. Music has been with us since the dawn of our species, and the profundity of its impact cannot be overstated.
Great music brings us to worlds beyond our knowledge, opens them to us, invites us in, and changes us forever. Music has shaped both you and I; it has helped us to make sense of our world, and helped build that world around us. Keep that in mind, the next time you press play on a piece of music that means something to you. Whatever the reason for that emotional connection may be, have no doubt that there is a reason. There are psychological and spiritual planes by which the only entry is through music. Let it take you there.
If you enjoyed this article, please support Innocuist by subscribing to our email newsletter. We are a small independent blog, and we would love to have you as a reader. Our emails are only sent out occasionally when new articles are published, so you'll never miss the latest posts.
Thank you for reading!