22 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.6: “The Lazarus Experiment”

The Power of Music

In my post about “The Shakespeare Code,” I wrote about the saving, magical power of words. Now this episode concludes with a victory based on the power of music.
This is a gorgeous concept: I hope that every one of you readers has had your heart wrenched, your soul uplifted, and your life changed by listening to live music, especially orchestral, operatic, chamber ensemble, piano, or organ music (I find those to be the most powerful). And if you have, perhaps you wondered what exactly was going on. Why should a particular combination of mechanical waves, setting up patterns of oscillating pressure in air (thanks, wikipedia), make me cry or make me feel like I am in heaven? Well, words do the same thing, and words are also sounds; i.e., mechanical waves setting up patterns of oscillating pressure in air. And any particular set of those mechanical waves, originating at someone else's mouth and ending at my ear, to be processed by my brain, can cause me to cry or laugh or want to die or think I'm in heaven.

 But words are different. Words carry meaning. We could have a delightful conversation about whether the meanings words convey are simply arbitrary social conventions, or whether they have an essential relationship with the sounds of the words themselves. But either way, there is something astonishing about how sound waves cause emotional reactions, even when they have no textual meaning.

Why should a Chopin prelude sound sad? It's not that the series of notes sound like certain sad words (in English, or Polish, or any language). Why should Beethoven's Third Symphony sound victorious? It is only because the rhythms and the instrumentation resemble traditional military music? Or is it more than that? Is all of this also only culturally constructed? A minor scale doesn't necessarily sound sad to someone who grew up listening to scales involving microtones.

I don't know the answers to those questions. But the point is, however music has its effect, and whatever kinds of music have particular effects in certain cultures: music is very powerful.

And in “The Lazarus Experiment,” it is powerful enough to kill.

 This is not an original idea, although used to great effect in this episode. I encountered deadly music previously in The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers: it's my favorite of all her books (so far; Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon are waiting for me at the library right now). But I can't say any more. Even that much is a bit of a spoiler. After you read The Nine Tailors, check out this amazing sock knitted in its honor.

Yet the music in “The Lazarus Experiment” doesn't only kill; it also saves.

By killing the monster (to whom he had already given chance after chance), the Doctor saves Martha, Letitia, and possibly the whole human race.

 Before I go, I do have one more point to make. When the Doctor plays the organ (so much fun!), he doesn't play a piece of music. He just plays random chords as he tries to find just the right combination of pitches that will destroy the monster. Later, though, Martha says that she didn't know he plays the organ. He says, “Well, you know, you hang around with Beethoven, you're bound to pick a few things up.” That's cute.

 But Beethoven isn't really known for organ music. Here is the rather short list of Beethoven's works for organ. Didn't the Doctor mean Bach?


fred putnam said...

Dear Sorina,

An intriguing post. Why indeed? There is a field of research (of course) known as "psychoacoustics" (complete with Wikipedia article) that examines the effect(s) of music on our emotional, mental, even spiritual state. (Although I am not sure how much of the latter they attend to.)

Palestrina, Monteverdi, Byrd, Tallis, Vaughan Williams, (Arvo) Part, &c.--soaring through a cathedral: not merely ineffable, but sublime.

Why should some of this music affect us in one way, but "Lion Man", by Mumford & Sons (fun to watch), or "Breaking the Silence", by Loreena McKennitt (perhaps my favourite contemporary artist), or Vivaldi's Gloria or ... affect us in others?

Or is this question, "worth knowing" as it may be, unanswerable? Is that opacity perhaps a divine protection against the even more powerful manipulations to which we would be subject if the commercial establishment should discover the answers?

I.e., there is a certain amount of research into the identification of beauty--why we find certain faces beautiful (or attractive) and others not. It seems that symmetry of facial features is extremely important, as are certain body types for men and women, but why? Evolutionary hypotheses aside, should we even want to know?

In "Spy Rock", one of the stories in the volume "The Blue Flower", by Henry Van Dyke, the narrator ponders his inability to help one of his companions who spends his energy "spying" on people's hearts (as he thinks), due to his addiction to opium (which is unbeknownst to the narrator):

"How was such a man to be brought back to the real life whose first condition is the acceptance of a limited outlook, the willingness to live by trust as much as by sight, the power of finding joy and peace in the things that we feel are the best, even though we cannot prove them or explain them?" (121)

In that peace which is true,


Iambic Admonit said...

Excellent thoughts, Fred! I agree: perhaps we should not know too much. And even if we knew "all" there is to know about the sciences -- acoustics, biochemistry, neurology -- behind musical affect, would we still know "all" about how and why it works the way it does? And more importantly: would those sciences add anything to a composer's ability to move us? Probably not: how much of those sciences did Bach or Beethoven know?