By D.B. Fry

The Author

Dennis Fry was Professor Emeritus of Experimental Phonetics at the University of London. His publications include Learning to Hear (with Edith Whetnall, Heineman, 1970); Homo Loquens (Cambridge, 1977); and The Physics of Speech (Cambridge, 1979). He founded and edited the quarterly Language and Speech and contributed widely to other journals in his field. He combined his academic life with another as an active semiprofessional musician: he was an experienced string player, possessed a fine baritone voice for lieder, oratorio and opera, and conducted small orchestras and operatic groups. He was for 20 years a Governor of the Sadlers Wells Foundation.


In the thirty years or so since this monograph was published, ‘world music’ – music from non-Western cultures – has gained a far larger audience. With this has come some increase in the understanding of the different effects that music can have. Some of these may be conditioned, others may be more universal. For example, chanting and other forms of music associated with religious or spiritual practices seem to produce comparable results in people from different cultures.

Professor Fry, however, seeks to clarify the effects Western music has, and in so doing, bring some clear-sightedness to the sometimes semi-mystical opinions that can surround music in general. When we learn that both a concentration-camp commander and an inmate of his camp can appreciate Beethoven, we know that there is nothing inherently ‘superior’ about music. It also encourages us to find out what is really happening when music tugs at our emotions or makes us want to dance.

Some Effects of Music

In Western Europe the effects of music, insofar as they are studied at all, are considered to come within the scope of aesthetics. Music is thought to be important because it is one medium through which we are exposed to the beautiful and to whatever is consonant with ‘good taste’, and until quite recent times those concerned with music would certainly have maintained that only ‘good’ music could produce good effects while ‘bad’ music would have either bad effects or no effect at all.

Even in contexts where, ostensibly at least, the concern was not with aesthetics, as for example among those interested in ‘music therapy’, there was a strong tendency to believe that only ‘good’ music was likely to have a therapeutic effect.

This very limited view of music has begun to break down under the pressure of changes such as the rapid spread of jazz and pop music and the development of electronic music.

New directions

Naturally, the devotees of these kinds of music tend to develop their own aesthetic, but no one could deny the very powerful influence which these newer kinds of music have, nor successfully account for it on what was formerly held to be an aesthetic basis.

The new music, in all its manifestations, has compelled many people to become aware that music can and does have a wide variety of effects.

This is one more illustration of the general principle that relatively little can be learned about a subject by approaching it exclusively from one direction.

There is a growing realization that a great deal of fresh information and many new insights are to be gained from adopting a wide, cross-disciplinary approach to every subject of study and music is far from being an exception to this.

Psychology and physiology

The aesthetic view of music was basically a psychological, even in part a philosophical one, but it disregarded many of the psychological effects of music.

Moreover, the human being is so constituted that psychological effects are accompanied and indeed mediated by physiological effects.

In the case of music there is also obviously continual interaction between the physical character of the musical stimulus and its physiological and psychological effects so that a more thorough study of music would demand at least the combining of a physical, physiological and psychological approach.

Modern science has relatively little information about the links between physics, physiology and psychology and is certainly not in a position to specify how the effects are related in music, but most scientists would recognize here a gap in scientific knowledge and would not want to deny the fact of a connection.

A need

The main purpose here is simply to point to some directions in which such an approach to music might lead and to illustrate them where possible by means of musical examples. These are drawn almost exclusively from the work of classical and romantic composers but this is only because such music is the most likely to be familiar to an audience.

Although the history of music as an art form is not very long compared with the history of man himself, nearly every period for which there are historical records offers some evidence of the making of music, however simple or crude the means employed may have been. Evidently there is some need in man which can be met by various forms of music.

Differences of music

No doubt there are other ways in which the need can be satisfied, yet music itself has some features which mark it off from at least other artistic forms. While the visual arts, sculpture, drawing and painting, are all basically representational, music by its nature can scarcely be so.

Imitation of natural sounds plays so small a part in music as to be negligible, whereas natural forms and sights have through the centuries constituted the raw material for the painter, however far he may sometimes wish to move in the direction of ‘abstract’ art.

Music is sharply differentiated also from poetry and from literature in general because it does not depend on the use of human language. While music in the course of its history has developed conventions and notations, so that it is not unusual to speak of the language of music when referring to musical form and even, to a certain extent, when discussing the ‘content’ of music, yet musical expression is a very different matter from the use of natural languages in speaking, listening, reading and writing.

The use of language would be impossible without some fairly widespread agreement about the nature of our perceptions of the external world and about the ways in which we reason on the basis of those perceptions. The conventions and constraints which link words with ‘reality’ and thus form the foundation for the use of natural languages have no parallel in music and there is a sense in which music is quite free from such requirements.

Musical thought

It presupposes very little more than that most human beings have some physiological functioning which we call hearing and that this can be affected by a very wide range of different sound effects.

We are obliged to accept that there is some activity possible for the human being which we may call musical thought, but we have no means of predicting or even stating how such ‘thought’ is related to the sounds of music.

The existence of this mental activity does incidentally present something of a challenge to the ‘linguistic’ philosophers who have for a long time been trying to persuade others, or perhaps it is only to convince themselves, that words and thoughts are identities and that there is no thinking which is not simply operating with language.


The feature which is most specific to music, however, is that it is an activity which is linked with time in a special way because it reaches us through the sense of hearing.

The patterns of music are necessarily spread out in time while visible patterns are displayed in space and can therefore be taken in at one time.

This does not mean that in music, and in auditory things generally, events that take place simultaneously are not important. In fact one object of this lecture is to show that music does produce effects by feeding us stimuli through many channels at one time.

But the hearing mechanism, by its very nature, is time dependent in a way in which vision is not. One consequence of this, as we shall see later on, is that music can make use of a number of different time scales in weaving the threads that make up its complex patterns, focusing our attention now on one thread, now on another or influencing us in a variety of ways by the subtle interaction of its diverse strands.

Music in legend

The effects of music as recorded in legends and stories cover a wide range, from the enchantments of Orpheus ‘with his lute’, through the destruction of the walls of Jericho to the much more recondite influences known to Saadi, El Ghazali, Rumi, Chishti and many others.

Here we shall be concerned only with what Western science can discover about the effects of music on the individual human being. If we listen to any wide range of Western music, we can see at once that there are three basic directions in which the effect of music is felt.

Head, heart and feet

Anthony Hopkins, whom many of you will have heard ‘talking about music’, has expressed this very graphically by saying that some music is aimed at your feet, some at your head and some at your heart. In most of the music that is familiar to us the three elements are of course combined to some degree, but the balance between them changes frequently and it is almost invariably the case that one of the three is predominant.

The classical symphony is a good illustration of this fact. The usual first movement, with its ‘sonata form’, is fully effective only if the structure is followed with the head. The slow movement which generally follows has a largely emotional effect and the third movement, minuet or scherzo, is explicitly called by a dance name.

The last movement takes a variety of forms and quite often provides a balance between all three effects, a combination of the elements. The rondo, for example, which was a favourite last movement form with classical composers, stresses the structure by the repeated return to the first and principal theme; at the same time it usually depends on well-marked ‘tunes’ and is generally strongly rhythmical.

It is not at all surprising that a musical form which so effectively exploits the multi-channel nature of music as does the symphony should have survived for so long.


Examples of the contrasting types of music in successive symphonic movements are to be found in all the classical and romantic composers, from Haydn and Mozart through Beethoven and Schubert down to Brahms, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky and Elgar.

A single work which we might take as an example is Beethoven’s Second Symphony in D Major.

The first movement is built on a series of subjects, themes or ‘ideas’ which could not really be called tunes; their appropriateness for the purpose resides in the fact that they are eminently suitable for transforming and modifying in the course of the development section of the movement, that is to say that they are generally short, they have wellmarked features of rhythm and melody and remain easily recognizable through the changes they undergo, thus giving the ear and the brain a good chance of following the musical form.

With the second movement, a complete change comes over the atmosphere, produced by a long, broad, sustained tune.

The third movement is a scherzo, in which the listener is predominantly aware of the rhythm, and in the fourth movement we come back to the well-characterised tunes or themes which draw our attention to the musical shape of the movement.

Form, rhythm and melody

On the basis of this example, we can be more specific with respect to the three principal effects of music: the appeal to the intellect lies mainly in the musical form; the element which makes people want to dance is the rhythm and the emotional effects come through the melody and the harmony.

Naturally it is impossible to think of any piece of music which does not embody all three, but each element has its own time scale and in fact the time spans which are involved do not overlap with each other.

Musical form, which employs the most extended time scale, depends on times which are always greater than the longest pulse in a rhythmic pattern; the shortest rhythmic beat is longer than the period of any of the vibrations which are the basis of melody and harmony.


It is not difficult to see, in principle at least, that the human organism may well contain receptors tuned to these different ranges, and indeed to others about which science as yet knows nothing.

Viewed in this light, music certainly constitutes a multi-channel input to the human being and in this no doubt lies some of the power which it exerts over a large part of mankind.


Even the practiced listener is generally very little aware of the means by which emotional impressions are conveyed to him by the singer and certainly has no idea how far the first-rate performer may go in the direction of ‘playing tunes on the harmonics’.

A most interesting and impressive example of this can be heard in the recording by Gigli of the two arias from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The aria ‘Il mio tesoro’ is one in which the melody is full of movement and activity, rising and falling phrases and rapid scale passages expressive of active devotion and readiness to spring to the defence of the lady concerned.

The other aria, ‘Dalla sua pace’, in the first section at least, is an expression of devotion of another kind, expressing sympathy but quiet, reflective and almost static in character.

Two effects

In singing these arias, Gigli produces two remarkable effects by the selection of harmonics. In the first, he places over the top of the melody, for much of the time, a single prominent harmonic which rings out through whole long phrases, like an affirmation of constancy accompanying the readiness for action.

The melody of the other aria itself expresses repose, certainty and stability, and here in the harmonics Gigli reverses the process, at each phrase or part of a phrase selecting a different harmonic, producing a kind of arpeggio on the harmonics which complements with movement and variety the rather static character of the melody.

It is naturally difficult for the average listener to detect the presence of particular harmonics or of a specific range of harmonics in the singer’s tone, but it is possible by the use of electronic filter circuits to isolate and make audible any desired frequency range. In this way we can, as it were, open a window on a part of the tone and so make given harmonics quite obvious.

When this is done with the Gigli records so as to reveal the harmonics between 2200 and 3000 cps., for example, the effects that have just been mentioned become apparent.

A multi-channel input

It was said at the beginning of this lecture that the information we have in the West about the effects of music is very incomplete; this account of some of them cannot in any case be more than a brief indication of a few interesting facts that have come to light, but perhaps it will serve to show directions in which it may be profitable to explore.

One thing which is beyond doubt is that music does constitute a multi-channel input to the human being; all the time we are listening we may well be taking in the musical form by way of the intellect, the rhythm through the body more directly, and the melody, harmony and tone colour through our emotional receptors. We can certainly say that ‘if music be the food of love’, it is also the food of many other things in the human being at the same time.