Why Beauty Matters:
The Transformational Experiences of Art and Music upon the Human Soul
A JOINT RESEARCH ESSAY AUTHORED IN 2012
BY Cyrus Manasseh, Pamela Schmidt
We recognize the great exultation with the life of great artists like Beethoven and we realize that all artists praise and exult life. (Agnes Martin and Dieter Schwartz 1992)
We can define beauty as a combination of qualities such as shape, color, form, or sound that satisfies aesthetic appreciation within us; these can be said to be the aggregate qualities of an experience that give pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind and spirit.
Art and music affect our consciousness by giving us experiences that can challenge the viewer through emotional, spiritual, ethical, intuitive, and psychological processes. Their transformative power is based on the view that beauty does not reside in any object but within the experience, one has with it. The brain’s circuits flooding with neurochemicals which create heightened euphoric feelings simultaneously intensify these feelings. Through this, beauty awakens us and has the ability to create positivity and transcendent experiences.
Beauty originates from our intuition and feelings. We often feel and sense beauty more than we can see it. When we are in the presence of beauty, we subjectively inhabit a sacred space of creation. We hear it in the sounds of nature, in the sounds of waves crashing on a beach and when we look up in a night sky with stars. Our senses respond to this immersion of light, color, and sound which enchant the eye and ear. As such, the immediacy and visibility of beauty can astound us. Through our pleasure in perceiving it, we come to rest, are silenced, and are placed in awe by its qualitative and structural features. When beauty opens our hearts it releases in us our ability to care for what is just and true. The triumvirate of western values—truth, beauty, and goodness—have long served as the foundation for positive human development and for many of us, our experience of beauty takes us deep within ourselves to the most intimate sense of who we are and what we have endured. In its various forms and manifestations, beauty has profound neurological and psychological impact and is the ultimate attractor and healer that helps us to transcend negativity. It is restorative and inspires us to heal, repair, and move forward.
From the beginning of civilization, musicians and artists have created dynamic work inviting us into a divine realm and transcendental world. Beauty has a spiritual foundation and the capacity to create connectedness.
As a baby regards a mother’s face, this first acknowledgement, combines familiarity, bonding, and beauty. The baby’s concentration increases the positive connection. This connectedness lies all around us and in fact, is palpable in everyday life. We experience it in our contemplation of what is pleasingly familiar and in the ability to see the sacred in the world. Yet often to see beauty, and be inspired by this experience, we need to make time, decrease the distractions, and allow this to occur. The practice of meditation can facilitate a slowing down of our thoughts and provide a way to regard the world from a calmer perspective so that beauty can be seen.
The immersion into beauty has the power to stimulate optimal experiences described as “flow states”. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is being able to reach a state of effortless concentration and enjoyment where the individual is fully engaged and energized. (Dhiman 2012, 24-33) “When a person is able to organize his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve”. (Csikszentmihalyi 1991, 40) Csikszentmihalyi’s research describes the process of flow and how our neurochemistry is profoundly affected by this level of consciousness. Memory based upon previous experiences responds and evaluates the novelty of what is being seen. In our recognition of beauty, we respond to cultural and universal values, which have been part of our cultural and collective consciousness.
Beauty serves as a respite from the intensities of life by providing a respite from the chaos. It is a positive deference reminding us that beauty is innate and accessible. Beauty is restorative in how it helps us return to nature and the rekindle our spirits.
Creative innovation has been inspired by the pursuit of beauty. Throughout human history, art and music have evolved as a means of transcending our human experiences. This has been central to our evolution. During Paleolithic and Neanderthal periods, beauty has been represented through the design and creation of musical instruments, ceramics, and cave paintings. Again the creative process manifested through murals, musical instruments, ceramics, and among the Sumerian, Asian, Greek, and Roman civilizations. The scope of human creative skill spanning over 40,000 years is vast and there is much evidence to support this.
Artists and musicians heal us from the negative aspects of our world by allowing feelings to be expressed and shared. We value the process and the virtuosity involved. As humans we have an innate appreciation for expertise and virtuoso displays in art and music. Virtuosity inspires us and is a catalyst for regarding the world differently. It helps us see what human potential exists and what is possible with perseverance.
From the murals in the Neanderthal caves in Lascaux, France to the experience of being inside the galleries of the Prado Museum in Madrid, we see rich and diverse examples of human mastery. Interestingly, this mastery however, does not always derive from the domain of the able-bodied experts and there is much evidence to show that many individuals challenged by physical and psychological obstacles have demonstrated vast abilities in reaching the heights of their potential. We are humbled by the level of their perseverance and talent often evidenced by the profundity of their work.
While the experience of art and music often has the power of immediacy in making us feel good, the additional experience of making art and music also relates to experiencing pleasure. In this way, the maker and the appreciator can both benefit. It is important to note that the final product can also be valued for its novel or innovative approaches (for example, this is to be seen in the work of John Cage, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Yoyoi Kusama) and that if skillfully rendered inspires awe.
Many studies have shown a correlation between the engagement in the arts and psychological and physical healing. The therapeutic effects are evident in research provided by the medical community. One interesting example that documents music’s powerful therapeutic benefits involves a study showing that when music is played through a patient’s earphones while undergoing surgery, less anesthesia is required. (Lepage et al. 2001) Another recent example of using music as part of a treatment modality involves research conducted at the Cleveland Clinic in the USA where neurosurgery was conducted on patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. (Carr 2001) The patients remained awake during surgery while wearing earphones listening to soothing music to decrease stress during this complex procedure. Additionally, research published in the Clinical Journal of Pain described a study that assessed the usefulness of music intervention for patients with chronic pain. (Guetin et al. 2012) Eighty-seven patients with back pain, fibromyalgia, inflammatory disease, or neurological disease were included in the study. Forty-four received at least two daily sessions of music listening plus their standard treatment, and then pursued the music intervention at home until day 60 using a multimedia player. At day 60 in the music intervention group, this technique enabled a more significant reduction in pain and significantly reduced anxiety, depression and the use of anti-anxiety medication.
These results confirm the value of music intervention for the management of chronic pain, anxiety and depression. Listening to music can help older adults reduce their levels of depression. Music is a non-invasive, simple, and inexpensive therapeutic method for improving life quality. Another research study was conducted involving 50 older adult depressed patients. (Chan et al. 2012, 776-83) The participants listened to their choice of music for 30 minutes per week for eight weeks. Depression scores were collected once a week for eight weeks. Their levels of depression reduced weekly in the music group, indicating a statistically significant reduction in depression levels due to a cumulative dose effect found over time in the music group compared with the non-music group.
As early as 40,000 years ago in Europe, creative human transformation had begun. Ancient people left evidence of their musical instruments. (Wilford 2012) Flutes made of bird bone and mammoth ivory uncovered in the Danube Valley, Germany which were determined to be 43,000 years old showed how Neanderthals had learned how to capture music through their sensorial perceptions: the auditory. Throughout civilization, musical instruments have been found inside caves, sacred spaces, and at archeological sites. Music has been an important tool for soothing individuals, unifying the tribe, and communicating with the divine. It has been a catalyst for rhythm and dance because music is not just only auditory, but is motor-based and inspires movement.
Moreover, sounds engage us in ways that words do not. Culturally, music and art help us by stimulating imagination and spirituality transforming us into healthier beings. Thus, music is an international language that extinguishes boundaries.
Neanderthal cave paintings discovered in the Nerja Caves in Malaga, Spain were carbon tested. It was determined that the paintings were 42,000 years old. (Mac Erlean 2012) The images were representational and show the intentions of the artists. The artist lived in a world of animals, survival, and hunting. The skills involved in crushing certain rocks to get color pigment and mixing this powder with enough moisture to create a paint paste shows the artistry involved. These paintings reveal how humans visually represented imagery through their sensorial perceptions.
T he subjective experience of music connects closely with our emotions and how we feel. The experience of listening has the power to induce feelings of well-being. Music can inspire us to dance, sing, and deeply enjoy what we are hearing. The adage that music can "soothe the savage breast" is well known and scientists have determined that there is a strong relationship between acoustic wave frequencies and emotional states. Due to this, music alleviates anxiety and distracts people from their emotional and physical pain. Biologically, music regulates the brain's limbic system by releasing numerous accompanying neurochemical changes. The elegance of these cadences and changes profoundly affects the individual. It can create an impetus that can distract from negative feelings and ameliorate the influence of past negative memories. Music in fact increases relaxed states of consciousness by decreasing the release of stress hormones. Scientists have determined that people in a relaxed state and a good mood are far more able to concentrate, appreciate beauty, and develop innovative or creative thoughts.