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Music for Moods and Memories
a simple melody affects us more than we may realise

There aren't too many times when we don't hear music. It is one of those aspects we have become so used to that life without it would seem rather empty. Many restaurants play a selection in the background, pleasant tunes that mask the clatter from the kitchen, but not so loud that they interfere with the small talk of clientele. Supermarkets pipe it through the store to accompany shoppers as they fill their trolleys. We listen to breakfast shows on the radio and play a CD in the car on the way to work. On occasions it can be an annoyance, especially when the same irritating tune jangles over and over through the phone earpiece while we're in a queue waiting for a connection. We increase the volume to fully appreciate our favourite melodies at the end of a hard day, then yell at the kids to turn down the racket blaring from the stereo in their rooms. Like it or not, music in our day is a fact of life.

Along with everything else, musical appreciation has evolved over the years, from classical and folk to jazz, rock, heavy metal and rap. Each type was developed to suit a specific time in history and reflected the attitude of the people who lived then. Not all would have appreciated the new, preferring the old style they were comfortable with rather than the cacophony of "modern" music. Fortunately, that didn't dissuade composers and musicians from experimenting with different sounds and arrangements to satisfy a growing population of music-hungry listeners. Add to this the technology to make recordings, and people are able to appreciate a single tune or an entire concert wherever they are and whenever they want. Music has come of age and is here to stay.

Interestingly, there is more to a piece of music than just a catchy tune and maybe a lyric. The key it is played in triggers a specific mood. A composition solely in a minor key would be sombre throughout and is likely to leave the listener feeling sad or melancholy. Major chords are bright and uplifting suggesting happiness and contentment. Use a combination in an arrangement and the different phrases almost tell a story on their own, taking the mood up and down throughout the composition. Vary the tempo, or include meaningful words in appropriate places and this reinforces the sentiment to send quite a powerful message that few could ignore. As a simple example, watch one of those feel-good movies like "Sleepless in Seattle" and notice how the background music increases both pleasure and pathos. It's not just any sound that matters. Actors speak, doors slam, there may be traffic noise in the background. These are important because they tell the actual story; but it's never quite as moving without the music soundtrack. Remember the old silent movies - no sounds at all, not from the film anyway; but there was usually a piano somewhere hammering out melodies varied to suit the changing moods of the storyline. I doubt cinemas would have been too popular if the only accompaniment to the movie was the fidgeting of the audience and someone in the next seat munching popcorn.

So, what is it about musical notes strung together in a specific order and played in differing rhythms that affect feelings and attitudes, behaviour even? A certain tune may remind us of old experiences that we are tempted to repeat just by hearing it again; but what about the first time? Take dancing for instance: which came first, the urge to jig around, or the music that stirred an inexplicable need to? We had a pet cockatoo who would dance and bob to the beat of the 1812 overture playing in the background of a TV commercial for the Army Reserves. We didn't bounce around the room when we heard it, so he wasn't mimicking us. Neither were the actors performing in time to the music, so there was no association there. And if we played the entire overture on the stereo, the only part he danced to was that same, brief musical phrase that had set him off in the first place. What about dogs which seem agitated and begin howling when they hear a few notes in a certain pitch, yet generally ignore most other music? Apparently sequences of musical notes communicate more than just a simple tune. They send messages, subliminal signals commanding both people and animals to react in a particular way.

We not only respond subconsciously to these triggers, but often employ them deliberately to stimulate us in our daily lives. Those tedious chores like ironing and cleaning are easier to tackle with the right kind of music. When she was young and while doing the weekly wash, my wife liked to play her Greek album, just one in particular. There were others in the same ethnic style, but apparently they weren't laundry music. I listen to all kinds when I'm cooking - 1930's dance bands, Beatles, Def Leppard, Mark Knopfler, sometimes classical. I'm not sure why I choose one type over another - maybe it's the mood I'm in at the time; or could it be the atmosphere I wish to create because that's the way I want to feel? I like to think the food tastes better for it - Credence Clearwater soup followed by roast beef and Bad Moon Yorkshire puddings rising!

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