The Five Principal Musical Elements and Their Psychological Effects

The principal musical elements are: rhythm, ­tone, ­melody, ­harmony & timbre.

1. Rhythm

This is the primordial and fundamental element of music. The music of primitive peoples consists solely of rhythm. It is, indeed, what the poet D’Annunzio has called it, “the heart of music.” Rhythm is the element which has the most intense and immediate influence on man, and it affects directly both the body and the emotions.

Organic life is based on various rhythms: the rhythm of respiration; the rhythm of the heart­beat; the rhythm of the various muscular movements; the rhythm of activity and rest; the rhythms of the various bodily functions, not to speak of the more subtle vibratory rhythms of every cell, every molecule and every atom. It is therefore not surprising that the rhythms of music exercise a powerful influence on those organic rhythms, either stimulating or calming them, harmonizing or creating discord and disruption.

The psychological life of the individual as well as that of his body has its various and complex rhythms: the rhythms of elation and depression; alternations of sorrow and joy, of fervour and lassitude, of strength and weakness, of extraversion and introversion. All these conditions are extremely sensitive to the influence of the rhythm of music. There are also certain activities wherein the rhythms of the body, the emotions and music interpenetrate and become fused in one integral rhythm. This happens in dancing, which one may truly call living music, expressed with one’s whole being.

In rhythm itself we must distinguish various elements: chiefly tempo or speed (andante, moderate, allegro, etc.) and meter or grouping of beats. Each of them has its own specific influence; for instance, the more rapid the tempo, the greater is the emotional tension produced. A valuable analysis of the psychological effects of the various metric patterns or designs can be found in the chapter by Howard Hanson on “Emotional Expression in Music,” of the book Music and Medicine.

2. Tone

Every note, while physically produced by a specific rate of Vibration, has at the same time both definite physical and psychological effects. As is well known, sound has great power over inorganic matter; by means of sound it is possible to cause geometric figures to form on sand and also to cause objects to be shattered. How much more powerful then must be the impact of this force on the vibrating, living substances of our sensitive bodies!

Each musical note has a specific quality, which cannot be expressed in words. This quality produces psychological effects, but one cannot ascribe a specific emotional quality to each note, and the various interesting attempts to relate each note to a corresponding colour have not given any sure results, as the asserted correlations varied from individual to individual. More efficacious than isolated sounds are successions of tones in which the effect of each single note is increased by its combination with others of a different pitch.

3. Melody

The combination of rhythms, tones and accents produces those musical “units” or “wholes” which are called melodies. These are the results of the creative activity of the composer ­ an activity which is often spontaneous or inspired. Speaking in psychological terms, such musical creations as well as other kinds of creative artistic production are elaborated in the higher levels of the unconscious, namely the superconscious. Melodies, being a synthesis of various musical factors, are a very apt means for the expression of emotions. They produce on the listener intense and manifold effects. They arouse not only emotions but also sensations, images and urges, and greatly influence the nervous system, respiration and circulation, in fact, all vital functions.

4. Harmony

While melody is produced by a succession of sounds, harmony is produced by the simultaneous sounding of several tones which blend with each other, forming chords. According to the respective rates of vibration of these sounds, the result will be either a harmonious blending or a jarring discord, both of which have definite physiological or psychological effects. Thus we may say that the prevalence of dissonances in modern music, being the expression of the discord, conflicts and crises that afflict modern man, tend with their suggestive influence to accentuate and exaggerate the evil.

5. Timbre

The difference in the nature and structure of the various musical instruments, the human voice included, gives to sound a special quality which can hardly be defined in words, but which is easily recognisable, because it evokes special emotional responses. Everybody who has some musical sensitivity feels the specifically different quality of the impressions made by a violin or a flute, by a trumpet or by a harp, by a soprano or by a bass voice.

A composer, through the skilful combination of various instruments of an orchestra, can produce most powerful psychological effects.

Source: “Music as a Cause of Disease and as a Healing Agent,” from Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Writings, by Roberto Assagioli