Imagine: How Music Makes Us Feel, BBC One | TV reviews, news & interviews
Imagine: How Music Makes Us Feel, BBC One
An abundance of talking heads provide precious little insight into how music works its magic
During a previous Imagine about neurologist Oliver Sacks, Alan Yentob listened to Jessye Norman singing Strauss while scanning equipment showed his brain “bathed in blood”. It provided powerful visual evidence that music physically alters our emotions – instantly and dramatically. The job of this latest film was to find out how and why. As composer George Benjamin pointed out, it’s “a mystery that has eluded scholars for thousands of years”. Enter Yentob and a veritable legion of talking heads to clear up any misunderstandings. In the event they ended up exactly where they started.
There is more music than ever before. Most of it simply washes over us, and what connects may have few common denominators. One man’s “Beim Schlafengehen" after all, is another man’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. One of the key failures of this Imagine was its reluctance to interact with the sometimes unpalatable vagaries of public taste. Noel Coward once deemed it “extraordinary how potent cheap music is”, which is presumably why thousands of people every year want things like “Angels” and “My Way” played at their funeral.
We were told that 'classical music has got interesting properties within retail space'
Some acknowledgement of the essential truth in Coward’s remark might have made this a far more interesting 65 minutes. Instead, the programme was partly predicated on a series of slightly stuffy and convenient assumptions, such as that Emile Sande singing “Abide With Me” at the Olympic Opening ceremony is indisputably more moving than, say, “Wombling Merry Christmas”. Not for me it isn’t, and I doubt any musicologist could explain why.
Perhaps inevitably the programme ending up settling primarily for discussing the conscious intentions of composers ranging from Schubert to rising dubstep star Mala. This was interesting, if bitty, and even after all that Benjamin admitted, “I never decide the emotion beforehand and then try to fill it with music,” which seemed about right. That alchemy happens between the notes and between the music and the listener. Nico Muhly talked about being attracted to the “tiny cadences where I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel.” Our reaction to music is not predicated on absolutes and does not exist in a vacuum of keys, scales and “sad notes”.
Mala said that “music can teleport you to the unknown”, but equally it can take you back to the familiar. There was, oddly, very little discussion of perhaps music’s greatest power: to connect with memory and instantly retrieve emotions from a defined time and place. There was also scant examination of the impact of lyrics and voices, no definition made between live and recorded music, and a disproportionate emphasis on music that evokes sadness and anxiety rather than transmitting joy.
Instead there was a lot of essentially extracurricular padding featuring psychologists, musicologists, marketing men and a tick-box list of musicians carefully covering most genres. We learned about writing for film, heard nefarious ad execs discussing how overdubbing different kinds of music changes the feeling conveyed via the images – no shit? – and dipped a toe into the dubious science of Captive Music (the spirit-sapping crap you hear on the phone and in shopping centres). We were told that “classical music has got interesting properties within retail space,” which apparently means that it reduces crime in railway stations. Laurie Anderson (pictured above), looking disconcertingly like Jack Nicholson's Joker, jollied around with machines to little discernible purpose.
Sande talked about responding to the vulnerability of Billie Holiday and Adele, but to borrow a phrase from another artist mentioned in passing, nothing was revealed. Indeed, much of what was discussed could be filed under Yes, And...? The comforting rhythm of the heart brings us to music before we're even born. Classical music has a calming influence on children. Music has the ability to draw the aged out of silence and isolation. There is a deeply physical satisfaction in synching with rhythm, whether it’s a baby with a bongo or deep dubstep. A vicar described all singing as a form of prayer and noted the universal power of hymns, secular or religious, when sung communally. Is there really much difference between Liverpool supporters bellowing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at Anfield and parishioners singing in church?
In short, How Music Makes Us Feel confirmed from numerous angles its founding premise: music does indeed wreak havoc on our neurological impulses and alter our emotional state. But we already knew that. As to the whys and hows, answer came there none. How could it be otherwise? After an hour of mildly diverting prevarication Jessye Norman expressed perfectly why the programme was doomed to failure from the start. “What music does,” she said, “is help you to find your own feelings.” And what could be more mysterious, and wonderful and utterly unfathomable than that?
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