“Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand.” These are the words of the legendary musician, Stevie Wonder. It goes to show the extent of the impact of music not only regarding entertainment but also regarding its psychological effects. Music has the power to stir the deepest of emotions and thoughts. In the recent past, the study of music psychology has increasingly become the focus of psychologists and other researchers who opine that there is a positive co-relation between the functioning of the psychological processes and singing, composing or merely listening to music (Zbikowski, 77). The same was certainly the case during the era of slavery.
At the time, millions of Africans, especially from West Africa, were forcefully brought to America leading to broken family and societal ties. The situation was exacerbated by the harsh treatment that they faced from the whites. As a result of this desolation and misery, there was a new culture which was an unintended consequence of slavery. Part of the culture touched on music. The most popular music genre during that era was blues which later evolved into jazz. Music became not only a means through which the slaves remained connected to their African heritage but also as a form of psychological therapy to divert and channel their pain and emotions respectively (Patel, 56). That tradition has continued to this very day.
Background of Jazz Music
Before having a look at how blues and jazz music offered a form of spiritual and psychological healing, it is important to have a background look at the origins of the music and its subsequent evolution to date. In the period between the 15th and 19th centuries, Europeans more so the British procured African slaves who acted as a source of cheap labor to develop their new found lands in the Americas. The slaves brought with them some aspects of their cultures to the New World. Song and dance were of particular importance to the slaves as they helped them keep in touch with their traditions. The imposition of Christianity and the western culture on the slaves provided a platform for the two distinct sets of culture to merge which had a profound effect on the evolution of music.
The cultures of the slaves were by no means homogenous despite a majority of them coming from the West African region. It is this diversity in culture and languages that provided the impetus for the creation an eternal music culture. Some of the slaves came from the Congo-Angola region; their musical culture was characterized by polyphonic songs. There were also slaves from the West African savannah which covered areas from Guinea to the coast of Senegal and as a result, musical culture of these slaves had been heavily influenced by the religion of Islam. Their music was, therefore, laden with stringed musical instruments as well as ornamental songs. The other group of slaves originated from the rain forest region of Ghana and Nigeria hence their music was punctuated with polyrhythmic tunes.
The integration of the two sets of culture gave rise to Negro spirituals. This was experienced extensively in the West Indies islands of Haiti, Cuba, and Trinidad. Some aspects of
Negro spirituals can still be heard in modern Jamaican music. The Calypso spirituals as they are commonly referred to were often laden with social and political messages which served to illustrate the socio-political situation that the blacks faced at the time. The fact that such songs had been christened as spiritual mean that they were laden with messages from the Bible which the Africans took to strongly. The Bible gave them some form of religious escapism. It gave them hope, and it is perhaps the reason why the theme of an everlasting life in paradise is often used. It is important to understand that to the slaves; religion provided some sought of a hide out from their sorrows. Negro spirituals also served as a form of therapy to the distraught slaves. Consequently, the Negro spirituals can be classified into three; responsorial songs, slow melodies and syncopated melodies. Each of the three evoked varying emotions among the blacks.
Negro spirituals gave rise to gospel music. The genre of music was mainly in black churches. Gospel music was not an exclusive enclave of the African Americans. White Protestant congregations had as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century created gospel songs. The difference is that black gospel songs had evolved to include a mixture of religious folk hymns and dance music which borrowed heavily from traditional African dance culture.
Perhaps the most distinct genre of black music is the blues which traces its origin in the South where a majority of the slaves were to be found. A testament to its unique nature is the fact that rather than develop early on during the period of slavery, blues music came into being following the abolition of slavery in 1865. However, this genre borrows from the slaves’ work and gospel songs including Negro spirituals. Even after the emancipation of the slaves, most of them did not have equal opportunities as the rest of the society. They remained poor, uneducated and often had to do without basic needs coupled with widespread segregation. As a result, the term “blue” came into being. It is in line with the emotions that the color blue expresses; sorrow, loneliness, and depression. As such, blues music was distinct from the rest of black of music regarding its ability to not only bring out rhythm and dance but also express emotions and struggles that the African Americans faced in their day to day lives.
Blues consequently became the foundation of other popular genres of music such as Jazz, Rhythm and Blues (RnB), the country as well as rock n’ roll music which were a reflection of the societal struggles that the blacks faced at the time. Blues is a living genre of music as evidenced by its continued evolution to this day.
Jazz music traces its origins in New Orleans, which has been described as the melting point of sounds owing to the diverse cultures of the blacks and other races that were present in the port city. After the emancipation of the slaves, African American music grew exponentially. It can be attributed to the increasing availability of musical instruments (Patel, 78). Jazz, at the time, referred to as ragtime, became associated with the middle class and the African American working community. Apart from New Orleans, jazz music was popular in other parts of the South which are a testament to its reverberation in the African American community; a majority of them were to be found in the South. Just before the onset of the First World War, jazz music instruments became typified by the clarinet, guitar, and the Tribune.
Elements of Blues and Jazz Music That Have a Psychological Effect
As alluded to earlier, music, especially blues and jazz, has a profound effect on human psychology. The objects that blues and jazz music use to elicit these psychological emotions are the elements of the music itself. The first element is the collection of pitches which is commonly referred to as scale. Blues music often consists of eight scales that are more often than not representative of various cultures such as African or Indian. Rhythm also allows an aspect of music to be repeated severally. The building blocks to rhythm are beats and meter. The repetition that occurs is important in creating a spiritual effect. Pitch organizes sound based on the frequency. Melody and harmony are also important elements of blues and jazz music. Melody refers to the sequence of musical notes that often create a sense of satisfaction while harmony is concerned with the chord progressions (Zbikowski, 133).
These elements of music are usually subjective hence are dependent on individual interpretation. It is this ability to be subjective that makes it possible for such music to be used as a form of psychological therapy in specific disorders such as mood disorders. Consonance in music creates a sense of cohesion and the prospect of relaxation. The key in music is the primary element that has the effect of eliciting emotional reactions in people. Keys help to build up varying levels of tension in a piece of music. These varying tensions can be associated with either happy or sad emotions.
Psychology and Blues Music
Our innate nature as human beings means that we are emotional, physical and spiritual creatures which necessitate that we form social groups through which an individual can be identified. Such social groupings include family, race and ethnicity. In that respect, music plays a vital role in the formation of such groups. This is because of music has the inherent ability to act as a medium for complex human emotions and thoughts. One such example is the unity that African Americans had during the era of slavery. They were brought together by music which not only acted as a source of motivation and killed monotony at work but also as a channel to voice their struggles and frustrations in the hands of the whites.
Another recent example in which rock n’ roll; an offshoot of blues music, was used as a form of escapism for the day to day struggles was in Britain. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, there were serious economic shortfalls that led to a fall in the standards of living followed by an increase in the levels of unemployment. As a means to oppose to her policies and express their emotions of anger, Britons became more engaged in rock n’ roll music.
It would not be an overstatement to say that without jazz music, America’s civil rights movement of the 1960s would not have been successful (Patel, 95). Songs became the anthems for the call for civil rights civil rights in the country. Popular songs during the movement included “We shall overcome”. To the leaders of such movements, music became a
crucial object with which to rally African Americans into action. Ultimately, music has a positive effect on human psychology by default rather than by design; in its inherent nature, jazz and blues are a social art that brings people together. Being in a social grouping has been proven to have a positive psychological effect even on people with psychological deficiencies.
Musical psychologists have also illustrated that music especially blues; due to its ability to elicit emotions, has a profound effect on our moods and emotions (Patel, 95). It can affect an individual’s train of thought while imparting new ideas to them. Individuals with wild temperaments have been shown to react positively to slow and relaxing music such as jazz and blues. There has also been a positive co-relation between individuals with bipolar disorders and their ability to create good music. It acts as a testament to the bond between human emotions and music.
Music establishes this connection by enabling an individual to internalize the thoughts and emotions of the composer and subsequently making them their own. Blues music is the best in establishing this connection as it requires lyrics, melody, and beats which the genre is rich in. The process of listening and identifying a certain emotion aroused by a song may eventually lead to the emergence of a spiritual connection or a certain persona. In effect, music helps to transport one from the realm of reality to an outer mental space which is more often than not illustrative of a better state than the sad emotions embodied in jazz or blues song. Such an effect has a positive impact on helping an individual relax. It is, therefore, no surprise that slaves made use of works songs which enabled them escape mentally from their present harsh realities.
Music’s powerful psychological effect has more often than not been used to rally people to war or rebellion. In fact, music has been cited as one of the means with which major slave uprisings came to fruition. Despite horrific tales of war, many of the atrocities have also been conducted under the beautiful and relaxing humming of jazz music. An example is the national anthem of France, the Marseilles, which urges the French to arm and be prepared to face the enemy.
In the modern day, the testament to the positive psychological effect of music is the fact that it is increasingly being used in schools to help children especially those in kindergarten and lower grades relax. It is in line with research that has shown that there is a positive co-relation between playing instruments and improved cognitive abilities in children. In fact, research has shown that children that tend to be involved in soft music such as jazz and blues often perform better in complex subjects such as the sciences and mathematics.
Similar to the case of freed slaves, who had to engage in blues music to redeem their self-esteem that had been battered by societal stereotypes, active engagement in soft music has been shown to have a positive impact on children’s self-esteem. It is especially in the case for children with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It is attributed to the fact that engaging in music bridges the gap between the affected children’s active and downtime periods. As such, by engaging in music, the downtime period becomes increasingly engaged hence reducing instances of monotony while increasing the level of self-confidence (Patel, 107).
The study in effect acts as an illustration that jazz music increases the propensity of improving psychological stability at a higher rate when the ensuing emotion is negative as compared to when the emotion in question is positive (Cooke, 155). In light of the above, it is clear that jazz music and by extension blues, music was critical in improving the psychological stability of the freed slaves. It is because the blacks as opposed to the other categories of the demography suffered the most in the era of slavery and even in the period following its abolition.
It is also the case even in the modern day where despite the imposition of civil rights, a mild form of racism persists. It would, therefore, be correct to state that the evolution of black music from work songs to blues and consequently jazz was necessitated by the dehumanizing conditions that the African Americans faced rather than it being a natural evolution of music. The argument is certainly reinforced since music genres from other races that did not undergo as many hardships as the blacks have not evolved as much. In fact, black music evolved too much to the extent that it engulfed the music of other races such as that of the whites.
In light of those above psychological and spiritual benefits of music especially jazz and blues, there has been an emergence of music therapy in the formal clinical setting. Therapists using music as a clinical tool are certified by the Certification Board for Music Therapists in the United States. Music therapy is increasingly being used to address psychological deficiencies such as depression, and anxiety as well as mood and personality disorders.
Ultimately, it is in the era of slavery between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries that the foundation for modern music in the American society was formed. Slaves did not pick up music merely for its entertainment value (Zbikowski, 100). To them it was a form of a much needed psychological therapy that offered them a chance to escape from their present realities. Music provided psychological and spiritual healing though breaking the monotony of treacherous work that they engaged in as well as providing a platform for which they could form social grouping which has been shown to have a positive co-relation to psychological stability. Jazz music traces its origins in the early twentieth century. The genre of music acted as a vent in which African Americans could express their emotions and struggles since despite slavery having come to an end, discrimination was still rife (Cooke, 157). To the credit of black music especially blues and jazz; whose evolution has continued to this day, music is now increasingly being recognized as a formal means of providing psychological therapy.
Cooke, Mervyn. The Cambridge companion to jazz. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print
Patel, Anirrudh D. Music, language, and the brain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print
Zbikowski, Lawrence M. Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis. Newyork, Oxford University Press, 2004. Print