Pondering the emotional wallop of strings and music in general

arts and entertainment, music

I’m a member of some of those all-you-can-eat, er, all-you-can-listen-to online music services and I’m constantly amazed at the fun and beautiful music I stumble across.  Once, on a goofy whim, I did a search for the string “Chicken” and found a shockingly cool selection of funk, pop, and jazz songs.  More recently, I did a search on “waltz” since I’ve grown increasingly enamored with this music and dance form.

One of the beautiful songs that cropped up was First Impressions, featured on the album “Appalachia Waltz” with cellist virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma.  You can hear a sample by clicking on the player below and can enjoy other serene and joyful songs and learn more about the album on this Amazon.com page.

This simply-structured and sensitively-performed song packed an emotional punch for me, just as so many other songs have done in the past.  And this got me to thinking:  What is it about the instrumentation and orchestration of songs that moves me… and moves so many millions of others?  I’m not even taking into account lyrics here, which involve a whole different (albeit related) issue.  Just the sounds.

In particular, there’s something about strings, in my humble opinion.  From soap operas to scary slasher movies, they set a tone… causing us to relax, to reminisce, to regret, or—in the case of Halloween Part 13 and such—to feel uneasy, on edge.

What causes this?  Is it purely associative? (e.g., that we’ve grown to mentally link the sound of strings with certain corresponding actions and emotions)  Or is it specifically acoustic… something in the timbre of stringed instruments that heightens and shapes our emotional involvement?

*  *  *

Sometimes I feel guilty for responding the way that I do.  Particularly, if you’ll forgive my bluntness, when I’m forced to watch chick flicks and hear the crescendoing strings, I want to reach for my metaphorical barf bag.  I am annoyed by the cliched themes, musically and otherwise, and know that I’m being subjected to a rather transparent effort to manipulate my emotions.

But in many other circumstances—even when I suspect that the music is designed specifically and bluntly to shape my feelings—I cannot help but be moved.  Sarah McLachlan’s When She Loved Me from the “Toy Story 2” movie is a classic example.

I don’t know how much of an effect the story setting and lyrics had (probably not insubstantial), but I literally teared up.  And yes, there are those strings again!

*  *  *

I wonder if any studies have been done about the emotional effects of specific musical instruments and arrangements… perhaps even by culture or other demographic.

Your thoughts?

UPDATE on January 14, 2006:
The power of BLADAM is simply astounding.  Clearly in response to this entry featuring a music clip from Yo Yo Ma, the musician has now been named a U.N. Peace Ambassador!

UPDATE on April 5, 2009:
Embedded additional song (“When She Loved Me”) via Lala.  Updated other embedded song due to technical glitches; now serving “First Impressions” via Grooveshark.

UPDATE on March 7, 2014:
Re-embedded both songs via Grooveshark.

4 comments… add one
  • Miss Kumquat Jan 15, 2006

    Even the kumquat knows that Yo Yo Ma isn’t known for the violin…  And she doesn’t even like classical music.  Tsk, tsk.  😛

  • Adam Jan 15, 2006

    Miss K, congratulations!  You caught my intentional switchup in my blog, and you’ve now won 50% off your second-year BLADAM membership.

    Thanks for being a member, and keep up the fine work! 😀

  • Adam Jan 15, 2006

    Oh, and Alicja… thank you for the links! 

    And I agree with you that it’s certainly not just strings that are emotionally manipulative ;-).  Percussion does indeed come to mind as another master tool of the film trade (and, of course, thousands of years back as well).

    About cultural differences… I know there must be some, but if you listen to modern popular music, it’s amazing how similar much of it is around the world.  No doubt in large part due to the pervasiveness of American culture, of course :-).

  • Adam May 11, 2009

    A belated raspberry, Alicja, and Simone, indeed, nearly all of Yo-yo Ma’s stuff is awesome!

What do you think?