The Psychology of Music

In a previous post, I mentioned how text messaging can be a very distracting tool for students. From my own experiences, I’ve seen people at the library and in class text message continuously, distracting them from what’s really important. I’ve seen the same thing happen with music. Practically every student has an MP3 player and/or laptop with music downloads. Using these devices while studying, or in lectures, has proven to be a threat to school performance. But for others, music stimulates the brain and allows one to focus. At the workplace, many employees are listening to music at their cubicles.

A study at the University of Windsor studied the effect of music on software engineers. The researchers collected data from 56 participants (male and female) and observed their work performance over five weeks. The results indicated that when music was absent, quality of work was the lowest and projects were taking a lot longer to complete. The researchers concluded that music promoted a positive mood and improved acuity.

There is one potential flaw to this study – were the projects the same difficulty when comparing presence of music to the control? If easier projects were assigned to the subjects when they were listening to music, then no practical conclusions can be made from the study.

However, other analysis demonstrates that music has a positive effect on how our brain functions. A study was conducted to test the ability of mice to learn new things. When the mice were exposed to heavy metal music, they actually all started attacking each other. When mice were exposed to classical music, there was a clear observable improvement in perception. This experiment poses an interesting question, how do different types of music affect our performance? Are there significant differences between music genres when assessing quality of work?

Music is a lot more powerful than we think. In fact, music has been used as a means of therapy. Researchers observed that patients who listened to calm, classical music experienced significantly less post-surgical throbbing than those who did not. Exposure to music helps autistic children stay calm and maintain composure during stressful situations. Even in plants, studies demonstrated that plants exposed to jazz or classical music grew healthier compared to those exposed to rock music, which grew droopy.

But music has also demonstrated negative effects. Music can be a distraction tool for many while working, walking, running, driving etc. Just like text messaging, it makes you unaware of the environment around you. Having an impaired perception of what people are saying around you could be very dangerous. The American Psychological Society found a strong correlation between violence and music. Youths who listened to music with violent lyrics were linked to more aggressive and dangerous behavior. A study by a sociology professor found that higher rates of suicide were present among those who listen to old country music.

Although I have mentioned a variety of conclusions that have been formulated by analysis of music studies, there are a few points to consider that could potentially question the validity of these results. Many studies use small sample sizes that do not reflect the population. In addition, there are many other variables that could be present that skew the data. Thus more research is required to accurately develop conclusions regarding the effects of music. However, many of these experiments have been reproduced to provide very similar results.

I’ve noticed that the link between work or school performance and music generally varies from person to person. Although studies do show that there is a general positive correlation, data should be dug deeper. For example, what types of music have the best and worst effect? Are there any specific professions that music has an overwhelmingly positive or negative effect? We have already seen a few studies that demonstrate opposite effects when comparing classical to heavy metal music exposure.

However, funding a study of such nature would be very worthwhile because this could provide a lot of value to educational and work institution policies. Permitting the use of music could improve employee output and productivity. It wouldn’t even cost the company anything because of the free accessibility of online radio. Even then, who doesn’t have a mobile music device these days? Perhaps we may even see universities allowing the use of personal music during examinations (of course these students would have to be closely monitored). After all, exams technically are supposed to test our knowledge and ability to apply concepts in real world situations (what they actually do is another topic of debate). And in real world situations, we would probably be listening to music, so why can’t we during exams?

Tamworth Country Music Festival

So unfolds another Tamworth Country Music Festival. A ten day period where people manage to keep on smiling, while ignoring the extreme summer heat. It is a marathon to survive so seasoned festival goers plan their days accordingly.

This is the thirty-eighth Tamworth festival and as a Tamworth girl myself, I have experienced more than thirty of them. Some of those years missing were given to living in other countries. But I have managed to travel back for most of the others if living interstate or elsewhere.

Memories of my first festival, then a three day event, are somehow some of the clearest of my childhood. As a young girl wearing a long floral dress, I sat in the front row at the 1973 Golden Guitar awards at the Tamworth Town Hall. I watched the stars collect their awards, while swinging my little legs, too short then to reach the ground. I knew everyone on the stage though and every word to their winning songs.

My father was very involved in the early days of the industry and these ‘stars’ were family friends, dropping in from time to time to play music with the folks. In those days, the life of a country artist was to tour for about nine months a year, towing their caravan around this great land. Then it would be a time to rest, regroup a little and head off for the next year.

Our farm was rarely without a caravan sitting in a paddock. Buddy Williams, Stan Coster, Rick and Thel Carey, Jimmy Little, and numerous others dropped in regularly, some staying on for a few months. One morning, Thel Carey came in from her van, talking about waking at two in the morning with a new song in her head. I stood there, listening to her, and thinking how great it would be to write a song. I was about six years old. Almost three decades passed before I finally wrote my first song.

Things have certainly changed in the thirty-eight years of Tamworth festival. No longer do I recognise every second person walking down the street for example. Mind you, with all of my years of roaming, I do run into someone I know at every venue I go to. This is a great joy of Tamworth for many people, running into old friends, catching up, hearing fabulous music and sharing in the good will of the festival.

There are so many festivals within the festival too. There is the mainstream one where, if you are a follower of commercial radio and country music video clips, your wishes will be satisfied with opportunities to see all of the stars, live in concert at various places. There is also the glamour of the Golden Guitar Awards attached to that scene, with the red carpet and all that stuff.

There are poet’s breakfasts every day in the clubs. These draw a huge crowd. So do gigs for the loyal fans of traditional Australian country music, in the bush ballad scene. Both of these experiences are an integral part of the festival.

Of course there is also the rapidly growing scene of modern music in Tamworth now too, which is horrifying and enraging many country music devotees. In order to attract a younger audience to town, many popular acts from mainstream music are being invited in. The amount of energy being put into this debate is pretty interesting at the moment and there are valid points from both sides.

Personally, even though my own tastes in music are very diverse and not at all limited to country, I do miss the old flavour of the festival, with old timers singing ballads in the main street, the chook man with his menagerie of friends, the one man bands who wandered around delighting everyone and the guarantee of hearing songs you would recognise from years gone by.

As far as the debate goes though, I do find it interesting that Nashville type music has been accepted completely into the Australian Country Music scene, yet so much hoo-ha is going on about other music coming in. While the Nashville sound is not particularly to my own personal taste, I am respectful of it as music and of those who are drawn to it. There is certainly an audience for the Nashville music at Tamworth Festival. Yet this style is also responsible for hugely changing the face of the festival and has been accepted without too much debate. It is not Australian Country Music, though many artists now feel a need to sound this way, perhaps to attract a more international audience. And that is their choice.

Australian Country Music was originally more about ballads, and stories of the land and its people. But all genres are merging more and more each year. And we cannot hold back change. Change is inevitable, a guaranteed part of life.

So it is not surprising that different styles of music have been creeping in over the years. Some of the talent on Peel St is phenomenal, coming from the more indie sounds. These days, there is an audience for all types of music in Tamworth, not just traditional country music. There is definitely an audience here for indie, folk, blues, pop, jazz, rock, anything. That is the beauty of the Tamworth crowd. It may be mostly country music fans, and that is the ideal for a country music festival, but it is not only country fans anymore. These additional people also bring goodwill and money into the town.

I guess it is about finding a balance for the continued success of the festival. I don’t know all of the answers, but I do know that Tamworth is one of the most friendly and joyous festivals. And if it can be managed well, with country music still being the main theme, then the fringe festivals that are growing within the festival can still work. This will satisfy the needs of all who come to town.

The alt. country scene, for example, has been steadily growing for years and is the one I spend the bulk of my time enjoying. It blends country with blues, folk, swing and soul. The talent in this genre is fantastic, with each act developing their own sound, rather than ending up sounding like everyone else. I am always open to seeing any new music at Tamworth, but especially in this category. Check out The Junes, Cyndi Boste, Karl Broadie, or Den Hanrahan if you would like to get a feel for this music. My own music also fits into this category a little, with a folk influence.

And of course in Tamworth, we cannot forget the camping world. Some of the best music I have heard here over the years has been from the campground. As I visit friends who camp in the same spot each year, swimming daily in the gorgeous river, music permeates from all directions. It truly is a wonderful, fun time.

My own main gig this year was beautiful. I am not interested in gigging every day of the festival. I enjoy being a part of it, definitely, but I also like to enjoy some freedom of time during the ten days, to discover unexpected hidden joys. So I did a few enjoyable spots, as part of other gigs, and I loved my main gig greatly. I rarely play at pubs these days, they are just not my thing. The venue I chose was perfect, a small theatre with beautiful acoustics and a welcoming vibe. It was an intimate gig, as intended, and I loved every minute of it and the bond shared with the audience. I am so glad to have chosen to do it this way.

I sit now in a great café that serves organic tea and coffee. It is somehow peaceful in here despite the waves of music floating in from Peel St, where buskers sing day and night. By day, it truly is a cacophony. A different sound emanates from every ten metres or so. Some musicians have power and amps, some brave souls try to be heard acoustically. The tree-lined streets are closed off and pedestrians wander block after block, listening to all that Peel St has to offer. It is a wonderfully crazy thing to experience.

My favourite time to experience Peel St, however, is late afternoon or early evening. The heat of the day has departed, as have many of the poor exhausted buskers. Then there is music only every fifty metres or so. Bands set up and play for hours in the cool of the summer nights. While many people are sitting in the air conditioned clubs at this time, eating their smorgasboard dinner, I prefer to grab some noodles, wander the street until I find the right music and a tree to sit against, and make myself at home. As I did this a couple of nights ago, I was delighted to come across The Slimy Brothers, some friends from a previous festival. They entertained with their great tunes and harmonies, as the summer night unfolded all around me. After that we wandered down the street hearing more sounds, particularly enjoying the Perch Creek Family Jugband. They have been enjoying fast growing popularity in recent years and anyone who has heard them will know why.

So if you have been tempted to get yourself to the Tamworth Country Music Festival, I do hope that you treat yourself to the experience in coming years. Every January this lovely Australian country town more than doubles in size, accommodating the warmth of its visitors. There is music for everyone, even those who don’t like country music. And let’s face it, in the cities and coastal areas there are plenty of people who don’t. But in the inland areas of Australia, there are very few who do not love the sound of country tunes.

There are country skies so vast they will take your breath away, country smiles so genuine that everyone is made welcome, and of course, there are country tunes, some that even manage to sway the most ardent anti-country music types.

I hope to see you here sometime. But now, best I get back in amongst it. There are toes to be tapping. Oh Tamworth! You simply have to experience it to know it. Go on. Do yourself the favour.

Approaches to Learning Music

Music is natural to us. We can sing the melodies of popular songs without ever taking a lesson. So why do most people who take music lessons to learn to play an instrument not get very far. It’s because of the way most music teachers teach. They teach you how to read music for your instrument. You aren’t learning how to play music, you are learning how to read music. Learning to read music for simple songs is not that hard but learning to read the complex musical notation for the up to date songs you really want to play is much harder. There are three approaches to learning to play an instruments.

1. Learning to play by ear

2. Learning to play by reading music

3. Learning to play by understanding music

Learning by ear is the way most of us learn to sing. We learn to sing songs just by listening to them. Many successful professional performing musicians, who can’t read music, have used this method. People who do karaoke usually can’t read music but can perform popular songs that would look very complicated as written music. Having a good ear for music is the most essential skill a musician can have. For the many successful musicians who are blind reading music is not even a option.

Being able to read musical notation is a valuable skill. It was invented to so that a musical work could be documented and passed on to others. Before that, the only way to learn a piece of music was to hear someone else play it. With the age of recorded music there was a new way. Music has become very portable. We all can have our favorite music to listen to over and over again. Learning to read music for simple songs is not that hard. The problem is that the musical notation for the popular songs that we want to sing or play is not simple. That popular song that you learned to sing so easily by ear has complex and difficult musical notation.

Music theory is the approach that teaches us how music works. All music is based on a few simple building blocks and rules. What seems to be hundreds of different songs reduces down to a much smaller number of musical formulas. Learning about the building blocks of music and the rules for using them simplifies music and makes it much easier to learn. It sounds technical but it’s simply knowing how groups of notes produce sounds. For lead or melody playing it’s understanding scales and modes. Not just official scales but pentatonic and blues scales and other groups of notes that give a particular sound. For harmony and chords it’s understanding the groups of notes played at the same time to back up lead or melody. Even if you play by ear and can’t give a names to these groups of notes, you still have to know them.

What’s the best blend of the three approaches to learning to play an instruments. It depends. If you want to play classical you will put a strong emphasis on reading music. If you want to play rock, blues or jazz, you need a good ear and a knowledge of the groups of notes that give you the sounds that you want. There is nothing wrong with learning to read and write music. It’s a very valuable skill but you shouldn’t let it hold you back. Many popular musicians can’t read music. Once they come up with a hit song, someone who can read music converts it into music notation. Who do you think gets paid the most?