Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Forms and Moods (Part I); Reflections on Life; by Payman Akhlaghi (2014)

Reflections on Life: Forms and Moods (Part I)
By Payman Akhlaghi (Short Essay, Draft 3)

(*) First published at on February 5th, 2014, under  Reflections on Life: Forms and Moods (Part I).

Music affects us. Colors, smells, and shapes impact our mood. Perceptible, or rather perceived, patterns of sensory data, i.e. the form of the objective world, communicate something to us. These are packages of information, which whether implicit and ambiguous, or explicit and unequivocal, sensually immediate or cognitively mediated, may and often do alter something about our mind, our understanding of the world, and our mood. I learned this long ago, and at least in my experience, not even a knowledge of this fact would make us completely immune to the effects.

I remember a few years ago, when I learned a good lesson in certainty, and humility. It was one sunny afternoon in LA, and we were driving with a close friend, speaking casually about a variety of topics, listening to music. It was the CD of a composer whom I very much liked to appreciate at the time. At some point, my mood and thoughts turned unusually negative. She, herself a musician, noticed the change in my attitude, smiled, and suggested that I should change the music. I followed her suggestion with secret reluctance. As a musician and music student, with a demonstrated flair for music analysis, I was resistant to accept that my formulated thoughts, even the logic of my thinking, could have been in any fundamental way influenced by that music. Naturally, I was in for a big surprise, and we would have a laugh about it.

The moment the new music played, the universe was all sunny and bright! A broad smile pulled up on my lips, and my world was all green palm leaves and the proverbial unicorns. I had to put back the first music to make sure that it was not a coincidence, and it wasn't. The darker mood, melancholic sentiments, and negative thoughts had to do something with the first music and my impression of it. Of course, my knowledge of music could give me a relative degree of cognitive detachment compared to the general audience, but fortunately, I would continue to be sensitive to the effects of music, as varied they might be from one person to another.

Most people understand the power of music when it's the subject of their focus. But I always ponder its influence on them when they are not aware of it, especially true for film music. Far stronger than a memorable tune, we are influenced by the atmosphere that the timbre, texture, rhythm and harmony create for a scene, on par with the overall hue of the images. Students of film music might have heard of the "substitution" experiments, when the music of a known cinematic excerpt is replaced by a few other styles of music. The effect is absolutely hilarious. (Imagine the Star Wars opening with a banjo music, or the Persian folk piece, Baba Karam! You get the idea.) The impact of the scene is fundamentally altered with each substitution.

(*) This was an original memo.

(*) On the effect of mood and the biases of judgment, see the excellent "Thinking, Fast and Slow", by Daniel Kahneman.
(*) On cognition and emotions see David Burns' "Feeling Good".
(*) As I recall, a film music scholar, Mr. Wellbey, as I recall, demonstrated the "music substitution experiment" many years ago before a class of musicians at UCLA. The contrast of impressions could be highly dramatic.
(*) The "music substitution experiment" was described in Claudia Gorbman's 1986 book, "Narrative Film Music", by now a standard source on the conceptual studies of film music.
(*) I was glad to read that scholar Daniel Levitin, in his excellent "This Is Your Brain on Music", offers that the impact of the musical timbre on our listening experience might have even heightened in our time. It had been very much true of my overall experience as a musician.

© 2014, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

(*) Payman Akhlaghi is a composer, pianist and piano teacher based in Los Angeles. His repertoire covers Classical music, as well as Persian (Iranian) Music, Pop Music, and Film Music. For information on the lessons in the Greater Los Angeles area, including Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Encino, Brentwood, etc. please call: 310-208-2927. Thank you.

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