Home > Uncategorized > Shall I Listen? Music and Mood Regulation

Shall I Listen? Music and Mood Regulation

As is known by friends, colleagues, people following me on social media platforms like Twitter, and anyone who reads this blog when I publish a posting, music has been an integral part of my life. Although I appreciate other forms of expression, there’s something about music that can move me like no other medium. Even when a more visual medium, such as film or television, evokes strong feelings, there’s usually some non-diegetic spectre that takes me over the edge. As well, I’ve used music as a basis for my doctoral work from the perspective of Library and Information Science, with an interest in how we conceptualize musical similarity, and the degree to which genre-based categorization influences such perceptions and our tastes.

Despite my keen interest in music, there are times when I don’t listen to it as often as I normally would, or when I hardly listen at all. Although it’s gotten somewhat better, I’ve dealt with this state of mind recently; of not treating myself as often to music as I normally would. What prompted this posting was something that happened earlier this week, although this was certainly not the first time it has happened of late. I took out my iPod at the bus stop near home, all set to listen to something. And then I listened to nothing, arriving at my destination and putting my iPod away without even pressing “Play.” It’s a paradoxical state, I suppose, given that one of the reasons why people listen to music is to regulate one’s mood or emotions (Clarke, Dibben, & Pitts, 2010). Can’t I just listen to Strauss’ Heldenleben or Bowie’s “Heroes,” and feel ready to take on the world? Isn’t that exactly what I should do to give myself a boost, as it somehow usually does if I find just the right thing? This posting is a brief reflection on the role music has played in my life, which was also perhaps spurred by a lecture I heard this week by Berthold Hoeckner on “Music, Media, and Memory.” It was a fascinating and complex talk on the ways in which forms of mechanical reproduction that came to the fore in the early 20th century (in particular sound recording and cinema) tried replicating human memory, with some references to Walter Benjamin’s ideas.

Almost always, music has been able to provide me with a range of wonderful feelings, from elation to comfort (even if it’s from “sad” music). I have vague memories of hearing and enjoying some of the classical long play (LP) albums my mother would play. In some cases, as with Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, I would even run around the house, my own imaginings very different from those intended to be conveyed within the “story.”  This older music somehow made me feel something, even if I didn’t know the names of the specific pieces. For some reason, however, I at some point developed an aptly youthful coolness towards classical. That is, until my first year of high school, when I rediscovered some of those old favourites tucked away in a two-drawer chest. My mother had moved on to cassettes, some of which were recorded from the aforementioned albums. But something prompted me to look for the music that had captured my childhood imagination, even if I can’t remember exactly what. It began with an enthusiasm for Russian composers, eventually followed by an enthusiasm for Germans, with some likely spins of discs for composers from other countries as well. I finally connected names of compositions and their creators with those aural memories, and even began a collection of my own, first on cassette, then eventually on compact disc (CD), when it became clear that the classical selection for the former was becoming increasingly slim.

So there I was, listening to the likes of Prokofiev, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov, and then Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss, and then various others (such as Berlioz) who had their own appeal. Maybe it related to my childhood, or maybe they somehow reminded me of music from movies I liked, or maybe it was some of both. But then there was the reality of small rural town life in the Midwest and being an adolescent, topped off with living outside municipal limits and having parents who were older than practically everyone else’s. When it seemed like everyone else was listening to poppy synthy crap or hair metal, I felt like I would probably end up becoming the last advocate ever for classical music… an odd brew of false prestige and genuine love. Whether on bike rides or walks, in the countryside or in town (where we moved when I was 16), I would encounter others my age, who would occasionally ask what I was listening to. Maybe some of them said a good thing every so often, but I generally got (or at least remember more clearly) questions and comments wondering how I could listen to such stuff.

Along with my dislike of current recommender systems, which more or less draw upon genre (or, rather, algorithms that are used to interpret user behaviours), I consider the aforementioned experiences as another foundation for my research interests. More specifically, how could I have found music similar to what “everyone else” was listening to, and that I would have liked as well? Although this was quite a while before recommender systems or me knowing anything about information science, I actually did wonder how I could “fit in” more. I suppose I could have just pretended to like what I thought everyone else liked, but I wouldn’t have been me, and the ruse would’ve cracked eventually. But I did pick up on a few things that sounded reasonably good to me during high school dances; most especially some older “rock,” as well as whatever was playing when someone I liked danced with me. And, as the 1990s started to arrive, some rap.

When I arrived at university, I came with my well-established love of classical (or at least certain composers), as well as some classic rock (including The Doors, with some convincing from my much-older brother) and some rap. During my time there, I found that there were other people my age who also listened to classical… and other genres, too. That one could, for instance, encounter a music major who wears a Bach t-shirt one day, and a Metallica t-shirt the next. My first two years at university, I was lucky to share living spaces with other students who had a diverse range of tastes, including a music major from New Orleans.

After university, I’ll just say that the things I started figuring out during my time there, at least regarding musical diversity and similarity, continued to expand. Over the decade-and-a-half since obtaining my Bachelor’s Degree and beginning my PhD, I was lucky to keep finding more “non-classical” music I enjoyed. Somehow, hair metal even sounded good (although I still dislike poppy synthy stuff). I kept finding more connections, whether intended by musicians or somehow formulated in my own mind, among specific works from “very different” genres. This blog has quite a few stories about the initial thrill of such discovery. And I am definitely not the last person who will carry classical music and opera forward. Constantly coming up are younger performers and fans (and composers, too), a number of whom are even more avid about classical music than me, and who have an aptly hip sensibility to keep it dynamic and alive.

I can’t count how many snippets of musical memories, along with the circumstances in which they occurred, emerged in writing this. Many of them come from good times, whether the highs I’ve felt from the thrill of hearing something new (either a piece I’ve never heard before, or a striking interpretation of a pre-existing favourite), or events for which certain music was in the background. As described near the beginning, however, I haven’t felt as much like listening to music… or at least the usual things that help boost my mood. Typically, I can listen to something that I’m pretty sure will perk me up, make me feel motivated to get through some difficult tasks or the day, and it will work. But for the time being, I’ll just say that using music as a mood regulator doesn’t work as much as it has done typically. The possible reasons seem to vary: maybe I’ll enjoy something too much, even though I feel I don’t have the mental luxury to indulge in it; feeling overwhelmed and numbed by music that usually spurs me to feel like I can accomplish things; or not wanting to listen to anything that might break through the toughness I feel I need to maintain to keep pushing through things. In other words, based on my understanding of the lecture I mention at the beginning of this posting, might the memories and desires I associate with these pieces (or at least the interpretations of them carried in objects for listening) be too much? Certainly, being able to interact with other people has helped the most. But it’s difficult when I can’t get the usual burst from music otherwise. In any case, I’m hoping to return to some form of equilibrium.

Ich soll lauschen.

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