Music and awe – food for integration.

I have been reading Iain McGilchrist’s book “The Master and his Emissary” and thought I might share some personal reflections. There is a segment in the book about the right hemisphere, emotion and music, which drew my interest due to its relevance to my own life. This post is also inspired by the recent posts by Norma and Barry, on art and poetry.

For as long as I can remember I have been strongly affected by music, especially the music made by human voices. Hearing certain people sing touches my soul like almost nothing else can do. I am moved, often to tears, sometimes to the point of sobbing – which can be, socially, quite uncomfortable. I have puzzled over this strong response at times, somewhat conscious of being seen by others as an “over-emotional” or “suggestible” person. With time however I have (nearly) stopped being embarrassed by it, and instead I’ve come to appreciate how now and then I get to have these microscopic emotional journeys, right were I sit. And now I have learned something of why, and how, this happens.

As McGilchrist explains in the book, when it comes to processing music, the right hemisphere of the brain deals with harmony, melody, tone, intonation, timbre and pitch-processing. It also has a special relationship to “sad” feelings as well as feelings of connectedness.

Of course, the left hemisphere, too, plays a role in music appreciation and processing (especially, it turns out, for professional musicians who, plausibly, have a more analytical and automated relationship to music they “know”). Certain aspects of rhythm, for example, are often processed in the left hemisphere and due to its affinity for language music with lyrics will involve the left hemisphere. Nevertheless, the way music can evoke emotions in us is a testament to the involvement of the right hemisphere.

Timbre, harmony and rhythm, along with a melancholy theme, seem to be my  required ingredients for this musical “flying ointment”. At the end of this post, I will link to a few of my favourite musical intoxicants, songs that pull all the right strings of the right hemisphere for me.

McGilcrist writes:

“It has been said that music, like poetry, is intrinsically sad and a survey of music from many parts of the world would bear that out – not, of course, that there is no joyful music, but that even such music often appears to be joy torn from the teeth of sadness, a sort of holiday of the minor key. It is what we would expect in view of the emotional timbre of the right hemisphere; and there is a stronger affinity between the right hemisphere and the minor key, as well as between the left hemisphere and the major key. The pre-Socratic philosopher Gorgias wrote that ‘awe [phrike] and tearful pity and mournful desire enter those who listen to poetry’, and at this time poetry and song were one. The relationship between music and emotion is fascinating, and to some degree baffling. Suzanne Langer said that music not only has the power to recall emotions we are familiar with, but to evoke ‘emotions and moods we have not felt, passions we did not know before.”

This ability is a great gift to us. It seems to me that we ought to take every opportunity to broaden our horizons in this way, and that doing so can help further integration. The fact that sadness and feelings of darkness and despair are primarily the territory of the right hemisphere is also meaningful, especially keeping in mind that the left hemisphere is associated with longing for non-ambiguity, certainty and dogmatic belief. McGilchrist  explains that there is a connection between realism and depression. Perhaps cultivating feelings of awe and longing can help to connect us to the world beyond the illusory certainty and self-sufficiency of the left hemisphere, and keep us humble and curious.

Awe is an emotion I feel is very important to the Middle Way. There are some interesting connections between wonder and curiosity, spirituality and skepticism, and I’d like to expand on this further in a later post. In the meantime, here are some songs that inspire awe in me. For me, they all have that peculiar melancholic joy that the right hemisphere enjoys wallowing in.

I think it would be lovely to see suggestions in the comments of music that moves, or inspires awe in you.

Dead Can Dance – “Yulunga” I find this quite awe-inspiring, and the video provides some  dreamy images to stimulate you and imbue with your own associations and meaning. It is also interesting because although it has lyrics, the left hemisphere would have little to work with here as they are entirely an idioglossia (a made up language). Unfortunately the video ends a little bit abruptly, but the journey there is worth it!

Esbjörn Svensson Trio – “From Gagarin’s Point of View” An instrumental song; light and melodic, slightly melancholy and smooth.

Tool – “Right in Two” This is a song that uses complex rhythms and melodies and has beautiful vocals and also some great lyrics to ponder. It inspires a dark sense of wonder in me. A bit of a warning: it does get quite heavy and loud at the halfway mark.

Imogen Heap – “Just for Now” A wondrously creative performance by quirky songwriter Imogen Heap.

9 thoughts on “Music and awe – food for integration.

  1. Hi Emilie,
    Great post! I rely on music a lot to rebalance a life that otherwise relies heavily on the left hemisphere. I play the piano, and all my suggestions for awe-inspiring music come from classical piano repertory:
    Beethoven Sonata no.32, second movement
    Mozart Sonata no.2 in F, second movement
    Bach, Goldberg Variations
    Also a lot of other Beethoven – not just the sonatas but also the piano concertos -, though nothing else reaches quite the heights of awe-inspiringness of no.32.
    Also, somewhere between classical and jazz, there are the incredible early improvised performances of Keith Jarrett – the Koln Concert and the Paris Concert. Unfortunately he had a breakdown and was not able to continue on that level.

    1. Hi Emilie,
      Thank you for an informative and interesting thread. I’m not very knowledgeable about music, although I enjoy listening to some classical music, I like Debussey and Bach, I have a recording of the Goldberg Variations, among others. I have a very precious recording made by my late son, Nick, playing Debussey on piano. I can see how playing piano brings balance.
      I am reading Iain Gilchrist’s book, you have helped my understanding considerably, with regard to his work on music. I will search online for the songs you listed.
      I watched a television programme in the ‘Imagine’ series about American musicals, the music is largely composed by Jews, which was a surprise and in the minor key, as though it is embedded in their psyche.
      My son, Simon, trained as a classical flautist, he now composes for the guitar and piano and plays for pleasure now, it is mostly in the minor key, sad and melancholy. He is a gardener these days and makes mosaics during the winter months.

      1. Hi Norma, I have no “real” knowledge of music either, except I do know how to enjoy it, and that is important in itself!

        I am glad you found the post interesting, you can click on the artist and titles if you like and it becomes a link to a video of each song. I didn’t know just how to imbed the video in the post. Of course, if you prefer to just listen and not see the videos I imagine the songs are available on itunes and the like.

        As I mentioned to Robert, I feel that getting the opportunity to learn a musical instrument is a great gift to a child. I can imagine you must be very proud of your children hearing them play. It seems yours is a very creative family! 🙂

        Debussey is one of those composers I have heard a lot about and been meaning to listen to, now I will, thank you!

    2. Thank you Robert, I love classical music too, however I am not at all well-listened (not sure if that is a real term, but one says well-read so why not?) so I am very grateful for those suggestions. One classical composer I do know somewhat is Eric Satie, I love listening to him.

      How lovely to be able to play the piano! One of few real regrets I have so far in my life is that I chose not to learn an instrument when I had the chance to in school. I suppose it isn’t too late to start now, I think about it now and then. Perhaps one day! Thanks again for the suggestions!

  2. Hi Emilie. I’ve just listened to and watched “Dead Can Dance”. Absolutely wonderful, and I loved the footage of the whales! I’ll listen to the other links when I find a quiet moment.

    I know that feeling about being socially uncomfortable about crying either to music, at the cinema or a play (I have to confess, even a football match!). I’m always at it. However like you I’ve come to embrace it and for the most part just let it happen. It brings to mind the following quote:

    “She likes stories that make her cry – I think we all do, it’s so nice to feel sad when you’ve nothing particular to be sad about.
    Anne Sullivan 1866-1936 (referring to Helen Keller)

    I’m drawn to also sorts of music and I love to dance but as Iain McGilchrist suggests like many people I’m particularly drawn to melancholy music. I play the guitar and the songs I keep coming back to are by artists like Neil Young, , Nick Drake who use lots of minor chords and write sad lyrics. I also like to try and play acoustic blues which seems to strike a right hemisphere chord with me! Anyway here are four songs that immediately sprung to mind that I find moving?

    I’ve learnt to listen to the following song sparingly as overplaying it can desensitize me to its haunting melody and unsettling lyrics. I just think it’s such a beautiful song. I’ve listened to it a few minutes ago though and it got me again!

    Radiohead: Nude

    Nick Drake wrote the following song a few months before he completed suicide in 1973. At the time he’d only sold about 3000 albums over a five year period and I feel this song speaks of his isolation, disappointment and frustration. He often used really weird tunings and one of the reasons his live performances weren’t successful was that he’d take about 5 minutes between each song to retune. To me it was worth the wait. I’ve played guitar for over 30 years, and I’ve still no idea how he pulled off his, to me, unique, full-bodied, slightly discordant sound. He gets right in there with his melodies to that spot in your right brain.

    Nick Drake: Hanging on a Star

    Sometimes the power of a live performance blows me away, even if I wouldn’t normally go out and by the music. Mary J Bilge singing No More Drama on Jules Holland’s Later is a good example of this, completely losing herself in the music and the emotions expressed in the words. I find this makes the performance utterly compelling.

    Mary J Bilge: No More Drama

    Finally, many people will probably know this one. It’s a song where above all the lyrics (tied in with the appropriate accompaniment) often make me cry. It’s a song about the battle of Gallipoli in the First World War by a guy called Eric Bogle and was made famous by this cover version by the Pogues. It’s the most moving anti-war song I’ve come across.

    The Pogues: The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda

    1. Hi Barry,
      I love that quote, it is so true 🙂 We should embrace it like you say! I just have to remember to carry a handkerchief at all times..

      I’m glad you liked Dead Can Dance! There is another lovely song of theirs, “Host of Seraphim”, which is from a documentary called Baraka and which is also mind-blowing. It falls for me in that category that you also mention, of songs that should be listened to sparsely, in this case due to the sheer intensity of feeling that is conveyed. I can also wholeheartedly recommend a live performance of theirs which is available on youtube, called “Toward the Within”.

      My sambo (sambo is a swedish word for a permanent partner you live with but aren’t married to) loves Radiohead, and I enjoy their music a lot, especially live performances. I haven’t listened to the Pogues except for “Fairytale of New York”, thanks for reminding me!

      Mary J Blige… wow, she happens to be one of my favourite vocalists! I love classic R&B and Soul music, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin is what I grew up with. Modern R&B is perhaps not my favourite but there is something about Mary J Blige’s voice that really gets me. It isn’t “perfect” like for example Whitney Houston’s, but Mary has so much emotion and depth! I think I have all of her albums and there are a lot of songs she has done that are perhaps not so great in themselves, but almost all of them are made special by the way she sings them. One of my favourite performance of hers is her duet with Elton John at one of his shows. She starts off a bit intimidated maybe and then seems to just forget where she is and goes bananas. It makes me happy to watch 🙂

      Nick Drake, I haven’t actually listened to him but I have heard Jeff Buckley, whose music I love, compared to him many times. So I will finally get round to giving him a listen! Thank you!

  3. Hi Emilie,

    What a wonderful discussion. I listen to lots of music for lots of reasons like, fun, comfort, relaxation, stimulation or to induce an emotional state (such as melancholy) but I always want to be awed. The awe can come from many different sources, for example it might be the sheer complexity of a piece or conversely the overwhelming simplicity.

    To refer to the conversation that you are having with Barry, I don’t cry at music very often (I don’t cry very often) but some artists and songs are guaranteed to get me going, especially Otis Reading and Nina Simone. It is not necessarily the content of the song, it is just their voices – I am welling up just imagining Nina Simone’s voice.

    For other music that provokes awe (in me, at least), I’ll give some examples:

    Nine Inch Nails – Happiness in Slavery

    Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor

    Aphex Twin – To Cure a Weakling Child

    The Ramones – Do You Wanna Dance

    Patti Smith – The Changing of the Guard (Bob Dylans version is good too but Patti’s is better!)

    This list would be different if I did it tomorrow, I am sure. Also, thanks for everybody else’s suggestions, another aspect of my musical taste is that I am never satisfied and am always looking for new things to listen to.

    Finally, with regard to the left and right hemispheres of the brain. I would anecdotally suspect that any major intellectual leap has to be strongly supported by significant creative and imaginative input. An obvious example being Einstein, I am sure that he could not have developed the General Theory of Relativity without the right hand side of the brain. I am sure the same must be true for theoretical physicist that are working today, they can’t make the leaps that they make on logic and reason alone – otherwise computers should be out performing them by now.


    1. Hi Richard,
      that you for your comment and your suggestions! I agree that one’s list changes from one day to the next, and mine keeps expanding with all of the cool music I have been introduced to in these comments.

      Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, I am with you there! I will look at your other songs as well, the only Aphex Twin song I know is “windowlicker” which has certainly left an impression on me but I am not sure if it is good or bad!

      Your last paragraph raises a very important and interesting point. I often wonder about those same things. I read that Kekulé who discovered the chemical structure of Benzene did so after dreaming of a snake swallowing its own tail. Also Watson who co-discovered the DNA-double helix had a dream about spiral staircases which reportedly nudged him in the right direction. The right hemisphere must of course function in most people even in a culture that is “left-centric”, so it would be rather surprising if these influences didn’t occur. I wonder though what the effect of our “left centrism” may be on technology that we have today. For example, the fact that we are having this discussion is a testament to the fact that the internet can tie people together. But could it be even more so in a more balanced society? And what if things such as smart phones, etc, were invented by someone who was more in touch with their right hemisphere? I feel that there is a feedback loop in effect, which is very difficult to analyse, where people who think a certain way invent something (the analytical people perhaps do more inventing), it gets widely adopted and people start to mould their lives and ways of thinking around it, and thus they think even more in that way, and invent new things that get widely used… and so on. To the point where I can’t even really imagine how things could be different. This is something I would like to explore further, ways of peering outside of the left hemisphere world and seeing new possibilities. Reading and writing science fiction is one tool for this!

  4. HI all, I have listened to a few of the songs you listed, I especially enjoyed Dead Can Dance and the Nick Drake song, many composers have names new to me, it’s a generational thing! I used to like the Rolling Stones though! The Rachmaninov piano concerto pulls on the heart strings, I heard it played in the Albert Hall a while ago now, and was ‘in awe’. The threads show how much interest there is among us for music, of all varieties. I like your comments Emilie about dreams and creativity.
    My daughter recently made a website for my son’s compositions, not with the aim of selling them, but to share the enjoyment we derive from it.

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