Monday, 1 October 2012

Exquisitely Sad Music!

I love listening to all emotions conveyed in music; whether it be thrillingly loud and triumphant, witty and humorous or perfectly serene, and peaceful. But why is it that sad music often has the strange ability to make me feel complete bliss, even happiness?

On a basic level, does this type of music simply help stimulate some sort of dopamine function in my brain? Or perhaps it is more to do with a thought process that allows the experience of sad emotions but in a 'safe' unthreatening way with no actual bad consequences occuring, such as when watching a good film that you know in the end is just 'pretend'. On the other hand I suppose it could be nothing more than the fact that I enjoy the music regardless of whatever feelings it is portraying; the fact that it is sad or tragic is unimportant.

Hmmm - I think I'm probably getting a bit too analytical but that, in a way, is the point I want to make. Great music can be analysed to see how it is constructed etc. but  actually you don't have to undersatand it to enjoy it. These days, most music is only heard in a half-hearted way as background to something shown on TV or the radio playing at work. However, I do find that the more I concentrate on it and engage my brain with it (often helped by closing my eyes) the more ejoyment I can get out of it.

 I could have attached so many pieces to this post but I think this short masterpiece by Thomas Tomkins is certainly one that deserves the full 'eyes closed' treatment. Tomkins was born in 1572 and died in 1656 and is polyphonic music from the Renaissance era. Polyphonic means that each part is as important as any other and this I think, helps to add to the intensity and beauty, with phrases weaving in and out - even more so as it is in five, rather than four parts. It clearly expresses so movingly David's grief at the loss of his son Absalom but the music remains tender and I think, also shows his deep love for his son.

To start with, Tomkins sets the scene and establishes the C minor key. Then the music begins to 'turn the screw' (from bar 23) with David pouring out his grief. Remarkably, E flats are often replaced by E naturals which should create a 'happier', major key feel but somehow it still feels fully minor key. From around bar 40 the expressiveness is notched-up even more as the music becomes more and more chromatic and pleading and David wishes that he had died instead. Strangely, the final bars do settle fully into C major, perhaps as if David is exhausted from expressing so much sorrow and has nothing more to give.


21 comments:

  1. What an interesting post Jerry. I too feel the same about sad music but don't know why either. Maybe it's just the emotion of the song/piece that grabs at our heartstrings but at the same time we can enjoy the beauty of how it's being conveyed. I suppose it's like looking at a sad painting and feeling joy at how beautifully it's been painted. Now you have got me thinking... :-) Take care.

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    1. The painting thought is very interesting Laura.

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  2. Dear Jerry, I do not know how to translate Sad music in Italian....I think this concept is or what we call " musica da Requiem"...?Probably yes!
    In large churches with perfect acoustics for organs monumental, this music has for me a big impact, with choruses that seem  voices of angels.
    I also soothe with these notes  while I shake and  disturbs me metal music.
    To calm myself I have a canone recorded on a tape, which I used a lot during chemotherapy in 1996. It 's the canone of Johan Pachelbel.
    They say the "canone" were made ​​to resonate with the brain
    and the heart and helps for calm and sleep.
    The opposite of disco music! The music that you made me listen on me had an effect similar to the" canone" of which I have spoken.
    Thanks for this post and this topic very interesting!!!

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    1. Thank you Rita, I love the Pachelbel too and I know of several beautiful arrangements for the harp in fact one arrangement is for three harps - lovely! It is interesting about the effect music can have on the brain; I'm sure it can help us all with calming and healing.

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  3. Surprised at the range of tones in such a calm piece. It does have that calming effect but not sad, in fact some of it gave me goosebumps...(does that make any sense)!...to me it does anyway.

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    1. Ann I'm right with you on the goosebumps thing - makes complete sense!

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  4. That was a beautiful piece of music....gave me the chills.

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    1. I'm so glad you liked hearing it Jude.

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  5. Interesante análisis musicológico el que haces de la partitura de Tomkins. La adaptación de la música al texto parece ser completa. La música seria o triste, como tú dices, proporciona un placer tan grande como el de la música divertida, o incluso más. Un adagio siempre me ha parecido más grandioso que un allegro, para entendernos. Estoy pensando en Bruckner, Mahler, Vaughan Williams, etc. Cuando empieza un adagio piensas que ahí va a pasar algo grande o inefable.

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    1. Francesc I agree with what you say about movements marked Adagio also of course Bruckner, Mahler & Vaughan Williams - you are a very enlightened Spaniard ;). You have me thinking - adagio's by these three composers - how about 2nd movement from Bruckner's symphony no.8; Mahler no.5 (of course) and do you know the Adagio from RVW's Concerto Accademico??

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    2. El adagio de la sinfonía nº 8 de Bruckner es de los movimientos más profundos, místicos diría yo, de la historia de la música, pero el de la sinfonía nº 9 no lo es menos. De Mahler, aparte del Adagietto de la sinfonía nº 5 (podremos nunca separar Venecia de él?), pondría el de la sinfonía nº 3 y el de la 9. Desconozco la obra de Vaughan Williams que me citas, pero la sinfonía nº 7 contiene alguna de la música más desolada que he escuchado. Y me olvidaba de Sibelius.

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  6. What a wonderful post, Jerry!! So many times I put this kind of music when I paint. To some people its sad, for me soothing and relaxing! Thank you for sharing.

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  7. Hum, I have to say, I don't like it. In fact, I love the classical music, but I can't stand opera in a way, sorry Jerry.

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    1. I sometimes think music is like food, Bob - we don't all like the same things but it is such a huge topic there is always something for everyone.

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  8. I adore exquisitely sad or achingly beautiful music such as this Jerry. There are so many pieces in that category but some that immediately spring to mind are Albinoni's Adagio, Pachelbel's Canon, Dvorak's Song to the Moon from Rusalka, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, Jessye Norman singing When I am Laid in Earth from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs. Of course I could carry on with a very long list :-) I also recently discovered a new to me piece by Alan Hovhaness called The Prayer of St. Gregory for chamber orchestra and trumpet.

    How to define the effect such music has and why sadly some people remain totally unmoved by it is a mystery to me, the brain is such a complicated organ but I know that personally my life would be diminished without it.

    As I write this we are listening to a wonderful, not at all sad ;-) version of Bessie Smith's Careless Love by Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton delighting and reminding me of how lucky we both are to have such a diverse and wide ranging taste in music.

    Thank you Jerry, an interesting and thought provoking post.

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    1. That's a cracking list of candidates for the sad music category. The Purcell is hard to top for sheer beautiful sadness - like the Tomkins, I think the intensity is notched up with that wonderfully chromatic bass line.

      I didn't know the Hovhaness so I googled it - its very beautiful; people often think of the trumpet as an instrument for fanfares but can sound so solemn when played quietly. My all time favourite is the Larghetto from Elgar's 2nd Symphony which is in the style of a funeral march and this uses a trumpet in a similar way; I alwayus end up a gibbering wreck! It was dedicated to the memory of Edward VII but it sounds so intimate that I think there were other thoughts going on in Elgar's mind too. Talking of Elgar the short piece Sospiri does exactly what it says on the tin as it means 'a sigh'.

      Perhaps the most desperate music I can think of is the last movement of Tchaikovski's 6th symphony given greater impact by the fact that the previous movement sounds so lively and thrilling and like it should be the finale. Yes, Careless Love isn't sad but in a way I think still 'counts' as it still sounds so bluesy in style. Take care Jan

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  9. Beautiful peices of music such as this one, make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, as they do when I see a beautiful painting.Why music has such an imediate and powerful impact on our emotions, is I believe partly due to endorphins produced as a response to certain stimuli,..such as music. They are certainly responsible for hightened states of emotion. I'm sure it's propably more complex than this, but for what ever reason music embraces, excites, or calms us,I know that my life would be lessened without it..Amongst the many classical pieces of music I listen to when I'm painting, I also listen to recordings of birdsong, which is also music to my ears!!:)
    Warmest regards.


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    1. Thanks Breathtaking. the endorphins response sounds very likely to me. If you liked the Tomkins you might find the Crucifixus by Lotti has the same 'neck-hairs' effect; it certainly works for me!

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    2. Thank you Jerry, I will do as you suggest.It's not one I know,
      so I'll look forward to listening to it.

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