August, 1942. Leningrad, besieged and filled with starving inhabitants, barely holds out against the force of the Nazi invasion. People are queuing up for soup made of boots and book bindings. Hitler has chosen the 9th of the month to celebrate the fall of the city, and a ball has been planned in advance. In a symbolic act of defiance, the Russians decide to hold an orchestral concert. The piece of music they choose for the finale is Dimitri Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony.
At the Cheltenham Music Festival's The Sound of Melancholia last week, composer Stephen Johnson recounted this story, describing how a musician who had played in the 1942 performance was moved to tears decades later when asked to retell the effect of this powerful symphony played on such a definitive night.
Johnson describes Shostakovich’s music as “some of the bleakest, darkest, saddest music” that he has ever heard. It's counterintuitive, but Johnson suggests that the desolation in Schostakovich's music, resonating with the desolation in the hearts of the Russian populace, served to bolster their spirits at the time.
The premise postulated by Johnson and neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, who co-hosted the event, is the oft-repeated idea that music, by conferring a narrative structure to emotion, brings emotion closer to thought. "There is something about seeing your own mood reflected that allows you to let go of that feeling," says Johnson.
This is arguable. Depending on the degree of depression, a melancholy piece of music might just as easily push the sufferer over the edge as prove cathartic to their angst. As Tallis, who was standing in for an absent Robert Winston, pointed out, there is a complex interplay between the emotion the composer attempts to write into the music, that conveyed by the music, the listener's interpretation, and the listener's mood. Given this complexity, it seems rather a leap to draw the broad conclusion that melancholy music will mend melancholy minds.
An experiment carried out on Sound Mind’s audience clearly showed the disparity We were each given a response sheet, on which we marked our response to three clips of classical music. Asked to gauge both the emotion we thought the music was meant to convey and the emotion we ourselves felt, we were given the choice of "joyful", "sad" and "neither". The experiment was not very rigorous: the demographic of the room was certainly biased towards the more senior generations, and the respondents from this group were all self-selecting. Also, looking at the numbers, it was clear that not everybody answered every question.
Of course, the binary nature of the choices were never going to capture the nuances of human emotional response to music. Still, the results were interesting. Broadly, people seemed to be fairly sure about the emotion a piece was meant to communicate – for instance 91 per cent agreed that a clip from one of Shostakovich's work was meant to convey sadness. They were, however, far more divided about the emotion it elicited within them. The most conclusive agreement was that a clip of Paul Schoenfield's Dog Heaven made 56 per cent of the audience feel joyful – not an overly compelling figure.
That experiment was the substantial scientific component of the evening, possibly thanks to Winston's absence. A scientific explanation of how music and mood interact was sadly lacking. When asked to talk about the brain processes involved, Tallis replied that while brain scans can show us which parts of the brain are receptive to music, they do not take us much further.
The response was reminiscent of Tallis's New Scientist article on consciousness, where he stated that there is a "deep philosophical confusion embedded in the assumption that you can correlate neural activity with consciousness".
Disappointing though this is, Tallis might have a point. If the evening's pop-up experiment is representative of the variety and range of responses that the same piece of music elicits in different people, it can hardly be expected that a brain scan will explain what is happening.
While we may have plenty of proof that music moves us emotionally, the conclusion of the evening's discussion seemed to be that scientific research has a long way to go to understand the complexities of our interaction with it. And if that isn't enough to make you feel melancholy, have a listen to some Sibelius. Or maybe some show tunes, depending on your mood.