Music’s Emotional Power

Jerry Lucky Commentary May 2012

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2012 All Rights Reserved


Hand’s up all of you who’ve shed a tear while listening to your favorite piece of music.

Don’t be shy. I would be surprised if we all haven’t done it at some point or other. One of the

amazing qualities of music is its ability to bring out the deepest emotions in us. And sometimes

try and fight it as much as we can there is no stopping it. It’s almost like it has an internal control

over us.


I work in advertising and the research tells us that the most popular and some would say effective ads are those “Happy-Sad” ones that are often produced by fast food chains. It’s usually about some heartwarming event or episode in a person’s life that we can all relate to on a certain level. These are notorious for moving people to tears and they’re usually not tears of sadness, but of happiness.


Music I think goes one step further; it can not only produce those emotional responses, the happy-sad ones, but also the really sad ones. Here I think of the various requiems that have been written over the years to commemorate someone’s life at their funeral. Music designed to elicit or satisfy an emotional response.


Years ago I used to sell musical jingles to advertisers and I did a lot of research into how they work because I wanted to know more about it and what I learned is that music can be extremely manipulative. Have you ever watched a certain scene in your favorite TV show or movie without the music? Did you notice how it seemed that all the emotion was taken away? The scene was still there, the acting was still there, even the words were still there, but without the music it just seemed flat. Which is kind of funny really because in real life, if that emotional moment were happening to you, I doubt there would be any music playing? This in some way highlights just how powerful music can be in setting the mood of what we’re seeing.


One of the things I learned about selling jingles is that fundamentally music is a series of expectations and then resolutions. A composer uses these elements to craft a flow, a kind of melodic roller coaster. Then in addition to that certain chords, in particular the “fancier ones” like augmented or diminished chords reach deep into our souls to draw out fundamental feelings. And then lastly certain instruments themselves illicit certain qualities; horns embody colours like red and are hot while strings are yellow and warm and certain piano sounds are very blue and cool. In the end it’s the various combinations of these elements along with the actual note-structure that can push us over the edge. When it works it’s quite amazing. Then as if that wasn’t enough, we bring our own “baggage” to everything we listen to. Previous listening has an impact, our childhood, our experiences, everything adds to the mix.


Now for all my bluster and veneer, I’m a pretty emotional guy. As I said at the outset, I will shed a tear while watching a commercial. There is something emotionally satisfying when all the elements come together and that :30-second story works. The same is true for music. I can remember watching the Symphonic Yes DVD and while they were performing And You And I, the music was cascading in sweeping musical crescendos and grand majestic chords and I sat there on the couch with tears welling up in my eyes. I have no idea why, other than what I was watching and listening to worked so deeply within me that it took control of my emotions and before I could respond I was almost weeping! I had a similar response the first time I sat through Transatlantic’s The Whirlwind.


This fascinates me. It fascinates me because even though I know all about why it might be doing it…it still does it! It fascinates me because of the power that music has over our emotional buttons. And I would suggest this is more true of Progressive Rock music than any other rock genre. I can’t categorically prove this, but it seems to me Prog has a special place in driving emotions simply because of the largeness of its musical pallet. Prog is unique and perhaps is still most closely associated with classical music, another genre that is known for its emotional power.


Now I’m sure there will be some “manly” naysayers in the crowd saying this doesn’t happen to them. That would not surprise me. But I wonder…has it never happened to them because they’ve never truly listened and enjoyed a piece of music for all it’s worth? Has it never happened to them because they have consciously fought back the tears? Has it never happened to them because they’ve never allowed themselves to become so involved with the music? I wonder?


If that’s the case though, I think they may be missing out on one of music’s biggest gifts to us.

At least that’s what I think.


Jerry Lucky