We've been to hear two events in the Sound Mind series where the Cheltenham Science Festival invades the Music Festival. The first was Does Music Make you Better?, which I've already written about.The other event was The Sound of Melancholia and was billed in the programme as:

Stephen Johnson and Robert Winston explore the relationship between music and the emotions, from the ecstatic highs to the soul-searching lows. Using a range of audio samples and case histories, they focus particularly on examples of pathological sadness — historically termed ‘melancholy’, more recently called ‘depression’ — and reflect on how, paradoxically, this finds expression in some of the most beautiful music ever written.

Prof. Ray Tallis had to stand in for an unwell Robert Winston, but it wasn't a problem as we could have listened to Stephen Johnson for hours. He talked about the experience of some major classical composers who battled with severe emotional problems, and also how they composed to help others survive depression or repressive regimes. He himself He illustrated this with 3 examples:Beethoven piano concerto op.110

  • Beethoven helped others (particularly Brantanos) with depression by playing for them
  • he consciously helped others with his compositions
  • like Shakespeare's "giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name" his music helps his listener understand their emotions better and help inspect them.

Sibelius 4th Symphony

  • writing this helped Sibelius work out his darkest shadows, loosening their grip, and creating a new possible future
  • therefore a help to others with depression, including Stephen himself.

Shostakovich 5th Symphony

  • Shostakovich was in danger with Stalin and needed to rehabilitate himself with the murderous regime
  • the Symphony was a remarkable balancing act that kept Stalin happy, but still told the people through it that life was as bad and fearful as it was (but that they couldn't ever say for fear of being purged)
  • despite the risks, he felt he had to write it to help others -- and indeed many Russians report it did help them survive, despite being some of the bleakest and violent music written.

It might not be obvious, but listening to music that reflects the darkness and shadows -- reflecting depression or melancholy -- works better than upbeat or joyful music.