Always look on the Bright Side

Always look on the Bright Side of Life… da dum… da dum… da dum de dum de dum…

A AW

The colours, vocabulary and music of our culture are the unconscious expressions of the range of our emotions, including the difference between good and evil.

I have always said that music is man’s finest achievement – it can thrill the soul and excite one’s very being. It can also take you to the very depths of loneliness and despair. Music can also aid relaxation – it is even said it can ‘soothe the savage breast.’

You don’t have to be a fan of classical or popular music to appreciate which does which, but now, there’s a new spin on this well known and well understood philosophy. Psychology researchers have found that uplifting music can also alter our perception of colour, making them seem brighter, more vibrant, than they actually are.

During tests carried out by professor of psychology Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths, London, volunteers who listened to uplifting music judged a grey square as brighter than it really was, while sad, downbeat music made the square appear darker. This has an obvious relevance for therapy because of the effect colour has on mood. [Red makes children more competitive for example, whereas shades of blue have an effect on concentration levels. Shades of green encourage people to think outside the box.] Music therapy is already used to help depressed people feel brighter.

Professor Bhattacharya claims that “brightness is a metaphor for happiness and we have shown music can have a subtle effect on it – depending on whether it is happy or sad.”

For the series of tests instrumental samples were composed in order to negate the effect of any word-association (such as ‘dark’ or ‘lonely’ or ‘happy’ or ‘carefree.’)

Over three experiments carried out with six different groups of 20 volunteers, the researchers found that even relatively short pieces of music could be used as effective emotional triggers for influencing how bright we judge something to be. The tests demonstrated the powerful way in which music can affect not only our mood but also our bias. Importantly, this is the same bias that’s aligned with the way we use and understand metaphor.

With every group, the results were the same, regardless of whether or not the researchers had previously rated the music as happy or sad for the benefit of the participants. Professor Bhattacharya says that merely listening to happy or sad music will affect subsequent brightness judgement – in other words, it is an automatic effect.

A group of Dutch scientists carried out a similar experiment and they rated Queen’s 1978 ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ as the top ‘feel-good’ song of the last 50 years, – it has just the right tempo and lyrics, and is played in the musical key identified as the most likely to produce a happy feeling.

Professor Bhattacharya thinks there is a flow of information between the primary visual cortex and the emotional circuitry of the brain. Given what we already know and have been able to observe, this makes perfect sense. It’s also possible that an individual’s own personal favourites could enhance the effect.

Here are some quick examples, some uplifting, some desolate:

Uplifting:

Don’t Stop Me Now, Queen

Final Movement, Symphonic Metamorphosis on a theme by Weber, Hindemith

Waterloo, Abba

Star Wars Main Theme, John Williams

Depressing:

Vincent, Don McLean

Adagio from Gayane Ballet Suite, Kachachurian

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.