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Though infrequently, I sometimes choose to listen to music as I work. More often than not, this ends up being the music of the soundtrack to an indie Mac/PC game called Starbound. (It’s still in beta, but it’s a real gem. Watch a trailer if you ever happen to have time.) The game itself centers around the exploration of an infinite number of massive procedurally-generated worlds, and I find that the orchestral music does an amazing job of evoking the vast expanse of space while creating a warm sense of wonder and awe. Go ahead and listen to some of the following track as you read – it quotes the game’s main theme, which I’ll also link to at the bottom of the post. You should definitely listen to the second one too, but not while you’re reading – it’s more involved.

Why does most of the music lend itself to being good work music for me? I suppose it’s partially because all of it is instrumental (though vocals, probably synthesized, play a small harmonic part in at least a couple songs) and a lot of it progresses slowly. Overall, many of the pieces have subtle melodies. This is surely in part because the composer created the music with the intention of it being background music, unlike modern instrumental music or classical music – complex music that tends to distract me and make me almost unwillingly focus on its harmonies.

Strangely, in spite of how relaxing they are, the songs don’t immediately put me to sleep when I’m working, though they surely would if I was instead lying in bed. Also, they don’t usually cause my thoughts to run off on tangents about the game itself. Instead, they serve to calm my mind and help me to concentrate on the matters at hand. I tend to listen to the soundtrack mostly when I am doing math or computer science homework, both of which I find that I can do on autopilot, unlike more mentally involved pursuits such as reading. The entire soundtrack also happens to be either 4 or 6 hours long depending on whether or not one counts songs that are coded into the game but not actually implemented, meaning I always have plenty enough material to listen to. The individual songs can be repetitive but never in such a way that they become grating.


The game’s beautiful main theme which is frequently quoted in its other songs (including the one above):



Music and Species

A friend recently sent me a link to an article, claiming that he believed I’d be interested in reading it. He was right. The article in question (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/150313-animals-music-cats-tamarins-psychology-science/) was about other species’ reactions to both human music and music tailored to their tastes. I’ve long thought that animals did not have a taste for music. To me, it seemed like they listened only causally, learning information about their habitat in order to survive. I’d never considered the possibility that animals could listen aesthetically.

The studies detailed in the article dealt with music as heard by cats and monkeys. After realizing that human music did not have positive effects on animals, researchers decided to try to create music that would fit the tastes of these very different animals, with some interesting results. Cats ended up reacting well to their music. Also, the monkeys (tamarins, to be specific) that were studied by the other researchers were shown to be affected by the music they heard.

The music that pleased the cats was composed partially of sounds that cats would typically associate with contentment. Some sections included purring, while others contained recordings of kittens suckling. The monkey music, on the other hand, was inspired by the sounds made by the monkeys. It consisted largely of high-pitched squealing. Agitating music made the primates anxious whereas calming music mellowed them out.

These animals’ reactions to the music cause me to wonder exactly what it is about human music that appeals to humans. Typically, the music we listen to is not in an extremely high or low pitch range to our ears, and I’m sure that that is true for a reason. Music also frequently contains topics that we can relate to and communicate feelings that we have often experienced. In a way, this is what the music made for the other animals did as well. The music played for the tamarins essentially contained an imitation of a singing tamarin communicating its feelings to others, and the cat music contained samples of sounds that call to mind situations with which cats are familiar.

In light of the above, perhaps music is really just an outgrowth of all animals’ basic need for communication. Since it’s vitally important to be able to signal one’s thoughts and feelings in the wild (as well as to be able to interpret these signals when they are given by others), it seems natural that this communication may have been the basis for the music we know today.

The Last Song Ever Played

I’ve spent over five hours today in a van with seven other people, most of whom I’d never previously met. We’re all heading to John’s Island, South Carolina for a six day spring break service trip. We’ve grown to know each other rather well in our time together in the van. Just recently, we decided to try a little activity – each of us was allowed to choose a song for a van playlist. We were allowed only one song, and each person’s song was supposed to be something to which he or she felt a strong connection; the songs were supposed to embody their respective people. The driver put it a different way, somewhat changing the meaning of the task. He said, “If you could play one song for everyone in the world before music disappeared forever, what would it be?” The result was an interestingly diverse group of songs, some more meaningful (in my opinion) than others. I think that some people were responding more to the original question than the modified one, and the whole thing was somewhat rushed and I’m sure each of us could think of many more candidate songs. Either way, the final playlist is below:


Place to Lay My Head – Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors – link

Coffee – Copeland – link

Sanctuary  – Frank Ticheli – link

For the Longest Time – Billy Joel – link

It Ain’t Yours to Throw Away – Nashville Cast – link

Deathbed – Relient K – link

Ballad of Love and Hate – Avett Brothers – link

Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen – link


The song selection strikes me as interesting. For the most part, the songs are somewhat folksy and acoustic. They also tend to have philosophical or religious themes. The fellow in the van that chose the second song on the list claimed that he admired the song since it was reflective of a simplicity of life that he desires but finds hard to reach at Davidson (or in the busy world in general).

I also think that this would be an interesting question to turn to others in the class- if music was going to cease to exist tomorrow (don’t worry, it probably isn’t), what song would you have the world listen to? If, rather than choosing a certain song, you had to describe the style or message of the song, how would you characterize these things? Rather than choosing something that’s very technically impressive but not truly meaningful, I, personally, would choose something very emotional and uplifting. It’d get huge bonus points if it’s musically interesting, of course, and it’d have to be at least decently enjoyable to listen to, but that wouldn’t be my main concern.

Draft Assignment #1- Musical Chills

I consider myself very fortunate to have led a life in which I’ve always been encouraged to pursue my passions for music. I’ve had the privilege of taking part in the performance of some beautiful pieces as part of both the Davidson College Chorale and a community choir at home known as the Broad Street Chorale. Through this, I’ve gained first-hand knowledge of a peculiar power of music with which not all people are entirely familiar. Music, in certain situations, can bring about “chills,” or the release of dopamine in the striatum, though more research is in order regarding the potential reasons for this.

Some pieces that I can remember off the top of my head that have caused this sensation in me are Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, Eric Barnum’s Adoramus Te Christe, and Craig Courtney’s While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks. All of these contain certain chords that, when struck, give me a chill and simply leave me in awe of their beauty. The first time I performed the O Magnum Mysterium with a large chorus, I almost began to tear up. The other songs are likewise very emotional in nature, a fact that likely contributes to the effects that they have. Additionally, the chords in the above songs that really move me all happen to be major or minor ninth chords, and they also occur at dynamic high points in the pieces that are generally preceded by large crescendos. It hardly seems coincidental that these things hold true for all three pieces. The role of the crescendos seems rather obvious in building anticipation and it may be possible that the dissonances and consonances created by the ninth help to bring about the chills and goosebumps.

When I decided to look around the internet for information on this phenomenon, I came up with quite a few articles on the topic. One of them provided a fair bit of insight regarding potential reasons for the physiological response. Somber music can cause a fear response in the amygdala. The brain, however, quickly realizes that there is no reason for fear, calming it. As a result, the chilling sensation remains, but the sense of fear itself does not. The web page itself also mentions a scholarly article from a science journal regarding a study that linked intense emotional response to music to the release of dopamine. The study also demonstrated that that, in addition to the peak itself, the anticipation of the musical climax played a very large part in the perceived thrill. It may be possible that the brain’s reward center is activated when the brain correctly anticipates a certain musical cadence, as the ability to make predictions based on sounds is certainly a valuable one.

Also, according to another study performed by researchers at UNC Greensboro, it seems that people are much more likely to experience chills if they have what is described as an “open” personality – that is, they are people that are willing to try new things and entertain new ideas. This may not necessarily be a directly causal relationship, as those with open personality types generally tend to be more interested in music and the arts in general. Perhaps it is their interest in music rather than their personality itself that makes the reaction more likely to occur. In order to tell, a study would have to be conducted on open musicians and open non-musicians, but to my knowledge, no such study has yet been performed. Though it may seem somewhat intuitive, I find the effect of a chill to be far more pronounced when I am singing beautiful music than when I am simply listening to it. This leads me to believe that they may be at least partially tied to musical participation.

Though some studies have been undertaken to illuminate the darkness surrounding musically-induced chills, the exact mechanism through which they occur remains somewhat murky, making them somewhat of an enigma. Until they are more thoroughly investigated, they shall retain that captivating air of mystery.

Ambient Noise and Productivity

This past Monday, while marveling at the uncharacteristically warm January weather, a friend and I decided to do homework outside on Chambers lawn. While reading an article for a Writing 101 assignment, I couldn’t help but notice all of the sounds around me and how they were affecting my mood. Once I became attuned to all that was around me, I noticed a great deal of sounds that I hadn’t previously noticed. People nearby were practicing frisbee, dogs were running around and barking, small children were yelling and playing, the bell tower was chiming periodically, a light breeze was rustling the leaves in the trees. All of the noises around me served to make me feel at ease, which helped me to concentrate on the task at hand (once I stopped sitting there trying to distinguish them all). (more…)