In movies, the visual action is supported by music to guide our emotions into the mood of the storyline as it moves from scene to scene. In pop or even complex "classical" music videos, the visuals usually distract from the music often to the point of annoyance. Why is this?
Like all forms of fictive, value-oriented art (novels, drama, et al) films activate powerful emotional reactions from us if we relate passionately to fascinating places, meaningful events and psychologically developed characters. Especially if we identify positively with certain characters, we can vicariously merge into their thoughts and behavior and feel as they feel. This merging experience is also present when we watch a serious, emotionally moving play, but it can be most intense when viewing a movie precisely because of the accompanying musical soundtrack which, like all music, affects us both emotionally and physically at the same time. Many film scores can stand alone as distinctive works of art and be enjoyed without the visuals or storyline, but this is because music is a separate art form of its own.
Unlike the other fine arts expressing identifiable values perceived through one or more of our senses (painting to sight, sculpture to sight and touch, etc.) music does more than stimulate us by way of actually existing physical external entities. Music affects the totality of our emotional center through sounds that are perceived through our sense of hearing via the physical structure of our ears, but it cannot be seen, touched or even environmentally imagined as when reading a novel; thus, it communicates straight to our natural temperament as well as to the acquired level of complexity, sophistication and intellectuality that make each of us unique.
Furthermore, and here is a major point, musical overtones — vibrations of tonal frequencies — go simultaneously to the corporal body as well as to the emotional brain center, so, for example, low-bass frequency tones can be "heard" in the area of the coccyx, other frequencies "heard" in the sternum, and so on. With music, the body itself is a primary, directly receiving, active participant in the totality of experience. The contents of the other arts are received through one sense organ or another and transmitted first to the brain's neural system, which then automatically assesses positive or negative value before sending physical signals to the body. Music is different!
It's because the body is directly affected as instantaneously as emotions (the mind) by music that we dance to it, or tap our feet, or bob our head in time with it. The body moves with the rhythm and tempo of music at the same time the emotions are "moved" by the tonal sound patterns and pauses. Melody, harmony, rhythm, repetition, major and minor modes, volume, tempo, dissonance, resolution, and instrumental combinations all work together to create moments of anticipation, rest, excitement, familiarity, surprise, or serenity, finally culminating in a climax that (if positive) leaves us soaring with energy and hope or silently renewed in the sacred center of our soul. This simultaneous double stimulation explains music's singular power to affect us as an instantly integrated mind-body experience. We can follow the story in a novel (another time-span art) and pick it up later, but music demands our undivided attention from beginning to end because it engages both mind and body equally and concurrently.
This is the reason so many if not most music videos don't work. Music can support visuals, but visuals cannot usually support music. When we hear music, not only does all of the above differentiate it from the other arts, it also inspires images in our own mind stimulated by our very personal reactions to tempo, volume, melody, dissonance and every other attribute of music's makeup. When we watch performers play or sing, that visual prevails and does not conflict with the music they are physically playing or singing because the sound and the one(s) emitting the sound are one and the same. But when other visuals are presented along with the music, even of a singer or musician walking silently through the park or clouds sailing by with music now in the background, it disturbs our own natural imaging process.
Less sensitive, imaginative, or musically astute people may not be bothered by this, especially if they are inured to the experience by longtime or repetitive viewings of disconnected listening-imaging phenomena. It also should be noted that functional brain imaging shows music directly influences the brain's limbic system, structures of which are involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. It is further understood scientifically that hard-pounding percussive forms like "Hard Rock" and "Rap" or overly loud what can be termed "Scream-Singing," for example, activate the brain's lower impulses — sex, kinetic energy, etc. — by breaking and/or deadening the higher faculties of cognitive integration. These types of music as physical sensation are enjoyed by many people, but they do not embrace neocortex functions that include conscious thought and language, so these pop forms will not encourage mental imaging. In other non-beat or volume driven musical forms, however, unless the images flowing in front of their eyes happen to coincide with a listener's own imaging processes (rare), artistically-poetically inclined individuals or those with refined musical knowledge tend to feel discomfort because of the mismatch between what they are seeing and their own natural mental-emotional reaction to what they are hearing.
Because everyone is different in musical taste and experiences, one way to explore this subject on a personal level is to close both eyes and listen to music of different genres without visuals, then watch and listen to the same pieces (if they exist) with non-musician-or-singer-performed but added visuals of various kinds in video form; YouTube offers all of this. Music is multifaceted and, seemingly, mysterious; this is part of its appeal. But it's fun and self-revelatory to experiment around and discover what music inspires mental participation — images — as well as audio pleasure. Try it!
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader's Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." Read Alexandra York's Reports — More Here.
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