Naturally Musical

Viewing landscapes “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it.” That quote is from pioneering American landscape architect Frederik Law Olmsted. But it could apply equally to music listening. It’s well known that music encourages a mood, can support a sense of well being, and associates with place. But many environmental specialists and health researchers claim similar benefits from natural environments.

People use personal stereos (smartphones with headphones) to adjust their responses to environments. Music sociologist Tia DeNora, asserts that this kind of personal listening is “by definition, a highly individualised solution to the problem of wellbeing” (p.67). She draws on those who advocate an “ecological perspective” on health and well being. Once we broaden health and illness to an understanding of “the interconnections between belief, social practice and physical embodied phenomena” (p.22) then it’s easy to accept that a cultural intervention such as a piece of music has an influence on well being.

As evidence of this complex of interrelations she refers to the placebo effect. If you believe a piece of music is good for you then it may have just that effect, under the right conditions, much as a walk in the countryside is healthy, if we believe it.

This positioning of music within a wider sphere of experience reminds me of the claims made by those who feel that the division between nature and culture is obsolete. We are now in a “post-natural” world where such distinctions are less relevant. For advocates of the “post-natural,” engagement is key. So too is the concept of an interconnected whole, for which ecology provides the model, particularly as experienced through a “relational sensibility.”

If the concept of the “natural world” is to be useful, we would have to say that nature includes us. It’s made up not of independent objects as if encyclopaedia entries, but sets of interdependent relationships: the butterfly on the twig in the breeze, with the birds, the sun and the rain. For some, to apprehend such relationships is to form a strong bond with the natural world.

In any case, some scholars think that the mechanisms by which music affects our emotions (and our well being) derive from human responses to the natural environment, as if musical sounds are derived from calming and alarming sounds in our environment that signal safety or hazard. According to psychologists Patrik Juslin and Daniel Västfjäll, emotions are what alert us to something really important — threats, safety and other causes of fear and pleasure. Sudden noises, loud sounds, dissonance, quick rhythms, high pitched sounds, deep rumbles, and changes in any of these patterns provide automatic cues that something important, dangerous, large, or threatening is happening or about to, and produces “increased activation of the central nervous system” (564) as a kind of reflex. This is primitive and animal-like brain-body behaviour. It seems that music is built on these fight or fright sonic cues and mechanisms, controlled, exaggerated, moderated and reinforced by further layers of experience, perception and the whole apparatus of culture.

Presumably spatial experience implicates similar basic, raw reflexes — looking down from a height, approaching sharp objects, sudden movements, and threatening gestures, but by then you are already in the danger zone and other responses kick in. The emotional intensity accompanying sound acts as preparation and warning. Think of the arousal induced by a persistent fire alarm, even when there’s no visible danger.  A similar  dominance of sound over space may be evident in the case of comforting, soothing, and homely spatial experiences.

Therapists and creative professionals also draw on media that reinforce the character of the natural world. We don’t always want to be soothed, but if we do, online meditation, relaxation and sleep aids are available. They typically invoke nature scenes to relieve stress and induce relaxation: feeling the warm sand beneath your feet on a deserted beach, approaching a clearing in the bush and smelling the eucalyptus, entering a garden with birds and flowers, listening to a babbling stream, etc. In recordings designed to induce a meditative state these are accompanied typically by music. So music and environment are related in many ways, and the relationship between the health benefits claimed of each may help to inform the other.


DeNora, Tia. 2013. Music Asylums: Wellbeing Through Music in Everyday Life. Farnham, England: Ashgate

Juslin, Patrik N., and Daniel Västfjäll. 2008. Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, (31)559-621.

Nicholson, Carol J. . 2004. Elegance and Grass Roots: The Neglected Philosophy of Frederick Law Olmsted. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, (40) 2, 335-348.


Share Button

Richard Coyne is animated by the cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media. He enjoys architecture, writing, blogging, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups. Richard’s research is conducted within the Digital Media Design research group. He collaborates with John Lee, Martin Parker and a team of about 10 PhD students and research associates. Research themes interact with project work in a suite of digital MSc programmes. Richard researches and teaches in information technology in practice, computer-aided design in architecture, the philosophy of information technology, digital media, and design theory. He inaugurated the MSc in Design and Digital Media, in which he also teaches. Richard is Academic Director of the MSc in Design and Digital Media, and Programme Director of the MSc by Research in Digital Media and Culture. MSc in Design and Digital Media MSc by Research in Digital Media and Culture MSc by research in Digital Animation Richard is author of several books on the implications of information technology and design with MIT Press and Routledge. His research has been supported by AHRC, EPSRC and SCRAN. Richard’s research demonstrates the value of a broad interdisciplinary framework for examining the relationship between computing, design, and contemporary cultural theories. He is currently investigating the way we configure spaces through the use of pervasive mobile devices, such as smartphones, iPods and GPS. Richard is developing this theme through the sonic metaphor of tuning and phenomenological concepts of mood. He recently completed a book for the Routledge Thinkers for Architects series entitled Derrida for Architects, and is co-investigator on a major funded project on mobility and aging entitled Mobility, Mood and Place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *