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Power of Music

Stefan Sojka - Thursday, June 02, 2016

The following questions were put to our Studio director, Stefan Sojka by a high school student, as part of a school assignment. We thought it might be worth publishing as an interesting take on music and Stefan’s insights.

Q1) When did you get into music and what influenced you to start?

I started playing the piano when I was four years old. Even before that, I had a piano keyboard drawn on a piece of paper that I used to play with, which familiarised me with the arrangement of notes even before I could play. I come from a musical family. My grandfather used to work playing live piano in silent movie theatres and moved on to become a successful film composer once movies had sound. He composed a number of Alfred Hitchcock’s early film scores, including “The 39 Steps”. His IMDB entry is here:http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0064764/

My uncles were composers as well and although my mother was not a professional musician, she still played a number of instruments and surrounded my early childhood with music. We always had a piano in the house. Throughout my childhood, I played ukulele, recorder, piano accordion, French horn, violin, guitar and drums.

Because music came so naturally to me, I never really worked at it, rather I just played whenever I felt like it. In a way this was not a good thing, as I probably could have become far more accomplished had I practiced as much as someone who may not have found music so natural. But I always enjoyed it and I always played music in some form or other.

I made up for this later by attending the WA Conservatorium to study Jazz, which helped integrate a lot of my self-taught and “by-ear” learning and playing. I have played music professionally my whole adult life.

Q2) What was it that made you fall in love with music and makes you continue to love music so much today?

I fell in love with music in the early 70s, because that was such a great era of creativity and expression. Prior to that, bands like the Beatles surrounded my day-to-day life in childhood. In the 70s, there was only one Top 40 chart and every kind of music was represented, from rock to folk, country and pop. Even though my family was heavily into classical music, I was drawn toward modern, popular music. I fell in love with the vocal performances that I heard, as well as the great riffs and arrangements of the great bands of that era.

I loved the emotion in the lyrics, the way the production mixed violins and other orchestral instruments into standard bass, drums, guitar and keyboard arrangements, great harmonies and powerful, emotional vocal deliveries. The music I fell in love with ranged from Elton John to Deep Purple, John Farnham to Pink Floyd and all the other great artists of that era who had amazing song writing skills. Most songs I loved tapped into some kind of emotion or meaning that resonated with me at the time, or were simply great sounding productions.

Ever since then I have been drawn toward powerful, emotional music and intelligent orchestration. As technology evolves, people keep finding better and more creative ways to tap into those emotions and create sounds that stir people’s thoughts and feelings. Computer music has opened up the sonic landscape with an infinite variation of sounds and unlimited combinations of those sounds.

Q3) How do you feel when you play or listen to music? When do you find yourself playing or listening to music most? (When you are happy, angry, stressed, overwhelmed, sad, etc.)

Music creates a whole range of emotions for me – so ‘all of the above’. It can make me laugh, cry, feel confident or insecure (especially when I am playing a very hard piece!) I find myself drawn to playing music when I am feeling down, as it always picks me up. As a professional musician, my job is often to enliven a room full of people, get them singing along, dancing and breaking through their inhibitions, so often the music I play will be energetic, enthusiastic, positive and fun.

I also love to perform songs for specific moments that can trigger memories or bring people closer together, such as a wedding dance or a beautiful ballad. I have often seen people brought to tears during a performance. I have also seen people have the time of their lives and dance all evening.

Q4) What aspects of a piece of music do you think perform these stimulating functions when you listen to it?

Music is a rich and complex combination of elements, from the scales and harmonisations, to the chord progressions, melodies, lyrics, tempo, dynamics and interplay between instruments and vocals. Of course the performance and delivery are also important as they humanise and connect people through the shared experience and the appreciation of the talent and musicianship or the quality and reproduction of the recording.

On a psychological level, music connects on many levels and stimulates a wide range of functions in the brain. It taps into the language faculty and also logic, pattern recognition and mathematics. It triggers emotions and memories, bonding and pleasure, even transcendent or spiritual experiences. I believe this is because music has the ability to connect and stimulate so many parts of the brain that it can overwhelm the senses, leading people to feel like they have felt something beyond the normal realm of day-to-day experience.

Specifically, within a piece of music, there are certain elements that may be more likely to stimulate the mind and the senses. Certain instruments, like cellos or violins can evoke emotion with just a few notes. A composer or producer with a talent for knowing how music works, and with technical knowledge of harmony and tone, can create any mood they might wish. Film music is a perfect example of how flexible music is to target particular moods, from a battle scene to a love scene, a comedy or a tragedy. It all comes down to the instrumentation, tempo, harmony and all those other musical factors that combine to connect with our human minds, which have evolved and been acculturated to respond to music in a way the composer or performer has intended.

Q5) What would your life be without music? Can you imagine your life without music? How is music so much apart of all our lives?

Music is a part of me. It plays automatically inside my mind, whether I am awake or asleep. All those neural pathways have been forged over many years, and all those connections between music and life experience have been made, so it is impossible to see myself absent of that. Music on its own is powerful enough, but when combined with memories and experiences, emotions and ideas, it is integral to the very essence of being human. I am sure that many thousands of years ago, the beating of drums in time and the singing of resonant tones in a group are what helped humans evolve tribes and then entire civilizations. As we have evolved, our perception and appreciation of music has become more nuanced and interwoven with our highly complex culture, behaviours and rituals.

Music is used at almost every important moment in our lives, from lullabies to nursery rhymes, happy birthday to Christmas carols, weddings, celebrations and funerals. Music brings crowds together for festivity and action, war and peace. It is used to help sell products and lifestyles. It defines our social position, expresses our shared emotions and accompanies our daily activities. Even the most non-musical person will have the radio on in the car while driving or will enjoy the drama of a movie, perhaps without even noticing how much the music has been used to enhance their experience. Karaoke is a perfect example of how everyone has been influenced by popular music and has a desire to express their selves musically. Even if they have little or no ability to do so.

And, of course, music is a very important part of human courtship, with love songs and dancing together being the means by which couples connect, fall in love and share their lives and their memories together. One can easily lose count of how many songs have been written about falling in love on the dance floor.

Q6) Do you believe that music has the power to ‘heal’ or be used as ‘therapy’ for people with physical and mental problems? Explain why you do or do not believe this.

Music has an important role to play in healing on many levels. This is almost an entire topic within itself. Songs with meanings and messages can carry people through difficult times, or even help people to transform their lives, as the music forms new pathways in the brain, reinforcing positive thoughts, reminding people what is important in life and providing inspiration and healing messages.

People who have difficulty relating to others can connect and build confidence through music. There have been recent stories of people using choirs or dance troupes of intellectually disabled people to help them grow and lead more fulfilling lives. Music can be used to help people find purpose, if they have lost their way. Music is played at the gym to motivate people to exercise and stay fit, which extends life, heals and builds self-esteem.

Similarly, music can have negative consequences. Songs and sounds that reinforce negative emotions or support negative or destructive thoughts can create problems. Some particular styles of music are directly connected with violent sub-cultures or disturbed behaviour.

Music is a very powerful influencer and has the capacity to encourage unhealthy attitudes through aggressive or ‘dark’ sounds and lyrics. Some people with emotional problems might be helped by listening to music they relate to and comforted by the fact that they are not alone, if the musicians are feeling the same way, but they need to be careful not to be drawn into a vicious cycle of reinforcement, as opposed to a healthy, sympathetic role that the music might otherwise play.

Some love songs that promote unrealistic expectations of relationships can lead to heartbreak and depression when real life doesn’t match the values and ideals of the song. A lot of love songs tend to exaggerate the emotions of love to extreme degrees, like claiming that the singer will lay down their life for their partner, or love them forever. Some love songs even express ideas that border on stalking or obsession. Interestingly, many of the people who write and sing these songs tend to have rather unstable relationships, so the listener might question the true worth of the exclamations being made, or at least listen with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Q7) Have you heard stories of music having the power to heal, be a useful form of therapy, or even experienced it yourself?

Scientists have recently realised that with the brain’s plasticity, music can be used to heal an injured brain. Using brain-imaging techniques, they are discovering just how much of the brain is activated by music and are using this knowledge for motor, speech, language, memory and cognitive rehabilitation. Music is also being used to treat mood disorders and as a complementary treatment for all kinds of other therapies.

If you Google “Music Healing”, you will find ample scientific evidence of music’s use in therapeutic applications.

I have seen the transformative effect of music in my own performances and my own life. I have seen people experience ‘break-through’ moments during my performances. I have observed the pacification and connection of crowds who might easily have turned aggressive or violent if not for the particular choice of song being played. I have personally used specific songs at pivotal moments in my life to reinforce my decisions or carry me through a particularly difficult time.

Q8) Do you believe that music can empower a very diverse audience? Expand on your opinion.

When a diverse group of people get together, music can unite and empower them, but it is a challenge to connect everyone. If the tastes of the audience are too diverse, it might be hard to get them all to appreciate the same music. However, there are standards and styles that one might say are universal, like a symphony, or a power ballad, ‘stadium rock’ or a song intended for disco dancing, that all have broad appeal, simply due to their recognisable tones and rhythms and their use in a particular situation.

In modern times, musical styles have become extremely diffuse, due to the Internet giving people access to far more musical influence than ever before, from all over the world. This creates the social and musical phenomenon of sub-genres, where narrow demographics might appreciate highly specialised or specific musical styles. The more this happens, the more difficult it might be to empower a diverse audience with one type of music.

One effect of this style diffusion is that mainstream music has become very stylised and similar. Those who have access to mass media channels are trying to maintain their control over people’s tastes by carefully controlling and limiting the range of styles available to the general public. This has the effect of making music sound like it has been created for the ‘lowest common denominator’, with simplistic beats, lyrics, chord progressions and arrangements. This might work on a large proportion of the younger audiences, but it is also likely to alienate many people who might recognise the cynicism of the music producers, reject the commercial music and seek out more satisfying and rewarding, personally appealing and probably less popular music.

Q9) How is music interpreted differently by different individuals?

Music is very subjective, since it does impact so many aspects of a person, so one song might mean something very special to one person and not really mean that much to another. Different people might find different tones and rhythms appealing. Also, the more a person understands music, or is taught to appreciate the different aspects of music, the more they might get out of it intellectually, as well as emotionally.

Cultural differences may also affect how people interpret music. A Western orchestra sounds completely different to a Chinese orchestra, and the history and culture of a society will be embedded into the music that the orchestra plays. In historical times, music was used to send armies into battle, so each opposing side would have a completely different reaction to each other’s music. One might say that bagpipes are quite harsh, loud and offensive to listen to, but Scotsmen will be filled with national pride when they hear or play them.

The music of our youth tends to be remembered fondly as we get older, so we often prefer the songs we grew up with to the songs that our parents or younger generations grew up with. Music is often used by each successive generation to help them feel more advanced, ‘cooler’ or more sophisticated than the generation before (or after). It is almost certain that as each younger generation gets older, they will continue to believe that the music they grew up with is superior to their parent’s music – and to their children’s music.

Q10) What do you think about music being referred to as a ‘universal language’? Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

Music definitely is a universal language. When you consider that we don’t necessarily understand or remember all the words to songs in our own language, yet we still can enjoy those songs on many other levels, it is easy to see how music can cross cultures, break down barriers and bring people together.

The explosion of ‘world music’ over the last few decades is testament to this. Festivals can be held where the artists who perform can come from all over the planet and speak dozens of different languages – even within the same band. Still, the experience can be very satisfying, with everyone in the audience dancing, singing along with any repetitive parts that they do pick up and appreciating the variety and complexity of so much diversity of music and the cultures that gave birth to it.

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