Mar 19, 2023
11 mins read
35 views
11 mins read

What makes music healthy by Pavel Porubiak

What makes music healthy by Pavel Porubiak

It is widely believed that music can have a positive impact on someone’s mind and can also have healing effects. This claim is further affirmed by studies proving that our mental well-being influences our body, or the way we use music in our lives.

BUT WHAT MAKES MUSIC HEALTHY?

While some say that music was used for its healing effects even in ancient times, or certain ‘groups of tones’ - scales - were forbidden for use by the church in medieval times, while other scales were promoted, this information is seemingly not enough to provide any kind of accurate answer.

Is music healthy because of the instruments used in a song, or because of the scale which was used, or because of its rhythm, or because of the lyrics etc.?

There are many possible answers, with the safest one in existence probably being the one suggesting to “study the great composers of the past”. Yet, while that is a particularly rational answer, the kind of which is very hard to argue against, it’s still not accurate enough to simply give someone advice on what should be observed or learnt to make the music healthy.

At the same time, learning by simply copying suggests a continuous deterioration of the skill. If a composer develops a method and dies, the one after him can’t possibly understand and copy every detail of the method used by his predecessor; and then a new composer comes after him, facing the same predicament. Perhaps a good analogy would be a treasure which is being handed down across generations in a family - no matter how it will be preserved and cared for in each generation, it will be still gradually lost due to the passing of time.

So there is still a need for the contemporary composers to at the very least add their own understanding to the techniques of the past - meaning, they will have to move into the unknown, and somehow figure out what makes the music healthy, and so even the answer of studying great composers may not be enough.

Another way of trying to look at it is to focus on ourselves - perhaps a very healthy person will automatically compose a music with healing effects. Well… history proved that a lot of deranged people actually considered themselves rational, or in other words, healthy, and so this sentence also does not provide an answer which could be accepted in our society where we don’t have a shared understanding on the details of what makes a person healthy in mind.

To me, it seems that pursuing the answer this way actually moves us further away from it, since those answers are based on opinions, theories, and are actually lacking any kind of examples - any kind of evidence.

They way I think we could arrive at a more accurate answer is to use some sort of evidence of what does not make music healthy, since that should at least narrow down the answer - which is always easier than to provide the possibly final one.

Based on my experience, one of the widely shared views is that certain music genres are unhealthy - such as punk, rap, hiphop, or metal - while others, such as classical and folk music, are healthy. The “healing effects” part is usually understood as being synonymous to the calm part.

That, I believe, created a modern culture where the more calm the music is, the more it is understood to have the healing effects. So when there is a music for meditation, it consists of long sea waves with flute, and when there is music for healing your mind, it consists of… long sea waves with flute, and when there is music to make you feel one with the natural course of life, it consists of… you get the idea!

So the cheap answer to make a music have healing properties became calmness. Yet the great classical composers, whose compositions - undisputably at least some of them - have great healing effects, don’t ride on these calm tendencies at all, not even a little bit.

When musicians have to play a classical song, they may need to practice for weeks, in order to get right the changes in the rhythm, the pacing, and sometimes even the very speed of the song. If we listen to the famous Vivaldi’s Winter, it is very much not calm at all.

And so I dare to - as would any author of a blog post who thinks no reader of said post will ever reach out to him - make a bold claim that the healing properties of music do not lie in a certain music genre.

To prove this claim, let me try to oppose myself and say that ‘this is ridiculous, because how you can argue that e.g. metal is healthy.’ Of course, I am also cunning, and I purposely chose this very argument. That’s because there exist another of Vivaldi’s compositions I know of - called ‘Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos and Strings, RV 531 - I. Allegro’. Well, for me, this gets as metal as a classical composition can. The first 25 seconds simply embody the ideals of metal so well that you can easily picture them played not by cellos, but by electric guitars instead, and it would still convey the same meaning. For me, a good metal has a sound which is bold, noble and ruthless.

While your taste in metal, or music in general, as the reader, may differ, you should still have a certain taste, which you are able to put into words. And the main point here is that classical composition may embody the same ideals as a metal song.

Now of course, Vivaldi differs in his treatment of the ideals, and while - I stubbornly emphasize that the first 25 seconds are just metal - the rest of the song balances it out. If this were a normal song in the metal genre, not only would that part be played by electric guitars, but there would be added drums, and after those 25 seconds possibly a long. high notes sung by a female singer.

So the way the ideals are treated may differ, but seemingly - and I think this is true even if you sense a different ideals in metal - the ideals of a given genre are not neccessary what makes the music healthy or unhealthy.

It is perhaps like with paintings - regardless of whether we paint a flower or an elephant, the painting may have a good effect on our mind.

SO IF NOT THE IDEALS, THEN WHAT MAKES THE MUSIC HEALTHY?

Another such are may be the instruments themselves. Perhaps an electric guitar is not the most sacred choice, and perhaps some instruments with a long history, such as erhu, are the answer. But then, fortunately, we live in the era of Youtube. An era where you can hear - let us stay within one genre for the examples - a rendition of a metal song on folk instruments or even medieval instruments. At the same time, some classical compositions were given the metal treatment, being played on an electirc guitar, with the player just shredding the notes as fast as possible.

And if you listen to these examples, you notice that some metal songs really don’t do better even when played on medieval instruments, and that some classical compositions, even if played on an electric guitar, are actually more structured, and - as absurd as it is - calming you down more than a lot of the mainstream pop music.

So going by trial and error, even if you were to do your own research, possibly comparing classical compositions you find healthy with another genre, I think you would also find that the choice of instruments, while certainly having some effect, is not the most critical aspect in determining whether music is healthy or not.

So when we go beyong ideals constituting a music genre, and the instruments used, I believe we are left with only one thing - the very skill of the composer. A skill, which may not be particularly tied down to a certain group of composers, or a music genre. I think that we understand this fact in other areas of life very well, and so if we use them to make an analogy for this phenomenon in music, it gives an answer.

One of these areas is landscaping, for example. I think that there a lot of opinions and tastes on which environment we prefer to be in, but these environments have some things in common - they are structured, they have seemingly priorities of what their author wants us to notice first, they are neither too empty nor too full, and all the things in them blend exceedingly well together, and harmonize well with each other.

This set of rules seemingly goes also for what we consider nice clothes, nice houses or even nice movies. What this concludes for me is that there are certain properties in things which we like, and not only like, but that make us feel good, and not only feel good, but also calm us down, make us think more easily, and, by extension, make us more healthy.

All those things, in order to be nice, also take skill. A skill which is connected to, let’s say, healthy concepts in our minds. And that I think provides an answer which can be followed or proved again by observation - all these musical compositions we consider healthy need a great amount of skill when it comes to composing, and also connect to the healthy understandings which actually a lot of people share.

So I think that is the answer of what should be studied in order to make a healthy music, and it does not have anything to do with just making music which sounds calm.

BUT HEALTHY MUSIC IN NOT JUST A WAY OF COMPOSING.

It is also possibly the last shared understanding of our global society, it’s about the last thing we can still agree on. There is not even a widely accepted definition of what it means to be good or bad - or even the acceptance of those terms actually. Yet we still believe in the same definition of what it means to be healthy.

It’s so bad that being a musician in the pop genre must be an absolutely dreadful occupation! You want to connect with everyone, but your audience has no longer any shared beliefs. So the only thing you have left is to sing about being happy, being sad or actually put there some lyrics which can be interpreted in multiple ways.

And it’s a true story. Once, a popular UK music band called R.E.M. made a hit called Losing My Religion. The lyrics were vague enough to not be canceled, yet still carrying a strong message. But after some time the band did a song even its band members themselves disliked, called Shiny Happy People.

It could have been the case because probably nobody would call the pursuit of happiness an artistic evolution, or a way to achieve deep, substantial lyrics.

Yet this pursuit of happiness is the direction a lot of the modern music is “evolving” to. The way to connect people became to sing about being rich, being the boss and being the next best thing. A lot of the current music became a tool for dreams, not a tool for coping with the reality in a better way.

The issue is that an artist who wants to be popular has, to a certain extent, sing about the shared understanding and beliefs in society. But our society no longer shares certain views, or even accepts certain topics on a global level. As a result, our lack of shared culture is indirectly promoting the music with shallow lyrics and shallow perspectives, since such a music is the only one our society is able to widely accept on a global level. Anything else faces high risk of being shunned down in this or that country, by this or that group of people.

I used to wonder why certain songs in modern culture are sometimes so shallow and repetitive, attributing it to the artists themselves, thinking they are so empty that even their songs are like that. But even the artists are the victims here.

All of that creates a cycle in which our culture first largely pushes artists to create shallow music, which promotes ideals that are very stressful and not compatible with a fulfilling life (such as fanatically pursuing nice cars and money), which in turn affects the artists themselves, pushing them more into constant excitement which may mean in some cases even drugs, then those artists are idols of the new generation, and said generation, impacted by that, will go on to create a more shallow culture.

And, all of it, is very unhealthy.

Which is the reason for, I believe, a sound argument that a healthy music, and a focus on more healthy music may be able to break the vicious cycle of our shallow culture.

More from Carry Forth Tradition