Programming the brain with music

I’m sure most people are, by now, sick of me repeating my belief that emotions are merely physical sensations felt in the body, often the viscera. (If you’re not, here’s a good, detailed rundown.) Basically, I see the process as a computational one. Your brain received some input, say, your girlfriend announcing that she’s been having an affair with your brother, and your brain/body outputs emotion in the form of felt changes in the body like a stomach ache, the tightening of the chest, involuntary gnashing of teeth etc.

I’ve been working on a score for a short horror film lately and am realizing how much of my job is to program the viewer’s brain to have an emotional response. So if character is walking towards a house with a killer in it, I use music to ratchet up the tension, to cause chills to run down the viewer’s spine (or some similar symptom of fear.) Am I succeeding at this? In some cases yes, in others no. It’s a delicate art, one I haven’t really figured out. It’s a matter of learning what specific musical “tools” cause what specific emotional reactions. With horror you end up working with a lot of dissonant chords and melodies, even getting into atonal music. (Atonal means there’s no clear main chord that the music can resolve to. This works perfectly for scenes of unresolved ambiguity.)

Ultimately, it would be nice to really map out the connections between music and emotions so that you could literally program people’s emotional by playing a piece of music. Then I could program unwilling victims to become my army of the night, to go forth and commit heinous acts in my name. And when the police arrived at my doorstep and I would merely blush and say, “What, me? I’m just sitting here playing the piano.”


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