Music Messing with our Heads

I recently devoured a great book called “Quirkology” by Prof Richard Wiseman, whose experiment measuring how fast people walk in different cities around the world showed (unsurprisingly) that the pace of walking has got faster (to find out which cities were faster than others, and other weird and wonderful experiments, buy the book!)

This increase in pace mirrors an increase in musical pitch over the last few centuries – as the pace of life gets faster, Middle C gets higher! In Baroque times, (around 1700) Middle C was a full semitone lower – this is why I have to transpose in my head when I play baroque-pitch harpsichords.

When I’d go dancing, it would distress me musically as the sound systems would regularly play music at about 5-6Hz higher than it should have been – I wondered whether this pitch-shift was intentional, and people would unwittingly dance more / drink more as a consequence of this increase, or whether the sound systems were just rubbish, no-one was experimenting, and only freaks like me would suffer?

My freakiness is Perfect Pitch, a strange affliction/gift that means I can correctly identify notes, chords etc., and tell someone what key they are speaking in – where it starts to get a little strange is that I’ve found that people who speak in, say, F major, appear to be quite persuasive and good at motivating, whereas people who speak in B minor appear to be quite negative in their outlook – I’ll go out on a further limb here, and mention that everyone seems to have a key they normally speak in, and others that they modulate to depending on their situation/company/mood – this is something I’ve done since I was a kid, but last weekend at the Food 2.0 wrap party, I mentioned that someone was speaking in Bb major, which resulted in strange looks and a request to blog about it, hence the post.

…but one digresses (as usual). Continuing the pacing theme, in the 90s, music at 135bpm was considered ridiculously fast, however, in the noughties, we happily imbibe 160bpm without missing a beat (no pun intended) – there’s not that much more room in terms of tempo, (before it becomes pitch) so what happens next?

How fascinating that music affects us so deeply!  During (and after) my music degree, I performed some (very) empirical research. As a lifelong insomniac, I wanted to find out a way to get to sleep easily. The relaxation tapes I purchased were fine in terms of the NLP-type hypnotic language used etc, however, the background music kept me awake!  After reading all kinds of weird and wonderful research that music at 60bpm, the average resting heart rate, can sometimes have a calming effect on the body, I decided to test that out by composing – and engineered music that would relax me by using this tempo and also choosing the keys that I personally found calming.  Well, it worked on me, because I fell asleep writing it, and had to compose some of the stuff in double time (how frustrating).  What was even stranger was that it appeared to work on other people, too…

I’d be very interested to hear any thoughts on music and how it affects humans (or other animals – I remember New Scientist running a piece about chickens listening to Pink Floyd) – and I’ll put some samples  up online soon (will blog with link) so you can have a listen.   LJ x

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4 thoughts on “Music Messing with our Heads

  1. Great article LJ. Very intelligent 🙂

    I don’t know if you’ve already tried this, but iTunes can store the BPM for every single song in your Library. On a Mac, there are some great Dashboard Widgets (such as Tempo) which enable you to click along in time with the music, then have that BPM reading automatically transferred into the song file inside iTunes.

    From there, using Smart Playlists, you can have iTunes automatically group together songs of a particular BPM. So for example, you could have a Smart Playlist called 60 BPM, or one called 150-159 BPM. It’s a really cool way to view/filter your music Library.

    Possibly sad, but I made a Smart Playlist called 83 BPM. This playlist contains 20 songs, all of which have the same tempo as the indicators of my car. Hours of fun 🙂

  2. I wonder if the same principle would hold true for cats and if so what tempo music I should play to put my cat to sleep? And what keys would be soothing to a cat?

    Alternately, do you suppose that the 60BPM would make me sleep soundly enough as to not wake when my cat a) knocks things off every shelf in my house and/or b) fights with the other neighborhood cats through the closed window?

  3. Since I spend a lot of time in Finland, I’m always amused that Finns speak at the bottom of their vocal ranges.

    When speaking Finnish, the women are definitely in the gruff range. However, these same women, when speaking English, speak at a much higher pitch. When I draw their attention to this, it’s always a laugh.

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