Friday, February 19, 2016

Manipulated by music

Here's my music psychology column from the latest issue of Sapere magazine.


Does Alex, the ultra-violent delinquent in Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, find something in Beethoven that matches his psychopathic tendencies? Does Beethoven perhaps even incite them? We’re left to guess. It seems more than mere coincidence however, that 16 years after Stanley Kubrick’s notorious movie of the novel, musicologist Susan McClary argued that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, one of Alex’s favourites, articulates a rapist’s rage.

That suggestion drew much criticism, even derision. But behind it seems to lie the suspicion that music can influence behaviour, for better or worse. It’s an ancient idea. Aristotle felt that the wrong kind of music can lead a person astray, while the right kind cultivates good citizenship. Such convictions meant that music was strictly regulated in Athens and Sparta. The Greeks organized their music in terms of modes – a little like our major and minor scales – and Plato insists that the Dorian mode is the one to induce bravery and resolve. Armies have long marched to war to the sounds of martial music, whether it’s the skirling of a Scottish bagpipe or Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” blasting from the attack helicopters in Apocalypse Now.

That’s just one arena in which music is thought to manipulate mood. Ever since efficiency became the mantra of the modern workplace, employers have hoped that music will boost workers’ productivity. There’s a great deal of wishful thinking and shoddy science in this field, but some serious study too. The stereotype is of factories piping music to workers engaged in robotic routines, but in fact much of the interest is in using music to boost creativity. One study in 2012 found that workers in a computer software company solved problems faster and had better ideas when allowed to listen to music of their choice: a sign that positive mood makes for better work, rather than an indication of specific links between the type of music and productivity. The effects were small, though, and almost non-existent for expert workers.

Retailers have a strong interest in this stuff. Can music make people buy more? I’m afraid so. It’s been shown that certain musical genres enhance our receptiveness to – and what we’ll pay for – certain products. We’ll pay more for mundane products like toothbrushes and light bulbs when we hear country music, and more for products connected to “social identity” (jewellery, pin badges) when listening to classical music. But sellers beware: get the musical choice wrong, and it’s worse than no music at all.

Friday, February 12, 2016

On being "harsh" to Babylonia

Never read the comments, they say, and indeed it’s often a depressing experience. But it can be instructive too. I’m a little astonished, but better informed, by the comments below my piece for the Atlantic on Babylonian astronomy. It had honestly never occurred to me that merely by suggesting we not call the Babylonian astronomers scientists I would be deemed to be dissing them. From what I’ve seen, this historians will not have anticipated his misconception either.

It speaks volumes, though, about our cultural preconceptions. The idea seems to be that if you deny someone is doing science then you’re saying they are ignorant fools dabbling in a load of superstition. Oh crikey – how did the public perception of the history of science ever come to this? What have we done to land us here? Who is to blame? It seems that all those scientists cherry-picking from the past to hand out medals for getting things “right” really have captured the conversation, if the popular conception is that if you don’t get a pat on the head for being a “good scientist” then you fail the test.

Actually this really is a bit depressing. I’m not sure even where to start. Maybe just with this: when we say that we are not going to mine the past for congruence with the present, we are not dismissing that past as worthless ignorance. On the contrary, it means that we are taking it seriously. (And that, incidentally, is why modern “astrology” seems to me not to be perpetuating but in fact to be undermining its tradition. To pretend that astrology is a serious business today is, even if unintentionally, to do an injustice to its historical context.) So let me just say it again: Babylonian astronomy was not an “imperfect science” but a self-contained intellectual framework woven into the rest of their culture.