By Cindy Cardwell
“Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues. And feeling good was good enough for me.”
–Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee”
It’s hard not to feel good when a great song comes on the radio, even if you’ve been listening to it for decades on vinyl, eight-track, cassette, CD, and now on a brand-new iPod. Indeed, the medium hardly matters—in a pinch, even a shopping mall’s Muzak version of a favorite song can numb present concerns in an intoxicating flood of bittersweet memory. Nor is the experience unique to music, of course. Great art such as Monet’s “Impression: Sunrise” has the power to grab a viewer forever, whether seen in a Parisian gallery or on the side of a stained coffee mug.
Over time, we build up relationships with songs, paintings, and other pieces of art. They become friends and confidants, sources of hope and comfort and joy. But just as with human relationships, first impressions make a big difference, and some elements of music and art are just more likeable than others.
“The common perception in our culture is that minor keys evoke sadness, while major keys evoke happiness,” says Michael Angell, D.M.A., who teaches music composition at UAB. “But major and minor chords are, in and of themselves, not particularly happy or sad. It’s the sense of flow, of tension and release, that provides the satisfying feeling we get from certain musical phrases. But there are tones which when played together are perceived as stable and calm in our ears. These sounds are the basis of chords that are used at the end of musical phrases, providing a sense of finality—the equivalent of a period in written language.”
Before that rest comes, however, a good piece of music needs some tension, says Angell. “Some tones, when played together, have frequencies that clash,” he explains. “The tones are doing battle in our ears.” Composers in the late 19th century, such as Strauss and Schoenberg, were masters at creating these battles in the middle of their works, then bringing about peace just in time, Angell says. “They stretched the tension almost to the breaking point and then, when the end of the phrase comes, it’s such a release that we feel a strong sense of relief.”
Visual artists use color to manipulate their audiences in much the same way. Warm colors—red, orange, and yellow—are lively and eye-catching. Cool colors—green, blue, and purple—are soothing but tend to recede into the background.
“Color is a very powerful and expressive tool,” says Gary Chapman, M.F.A., chair of art and art history. “But it’s the context that gives it meaning. You can’t limit a color—for example, red could represent death, but it can also be erotic and beautiful. In the same way, green can represent nature, either as a beautiful leaf or mold.”
But the artist doesn’t have complete control over the reactions a work may bring about in its viewers, Chapman notes. In fact, the same piece may bring both pleasure and pain. “Imagine a painting of a big blue truck. A boy and a girl walk up to the painting and start to cry. You assume they are crying for the same reason, but in fact, the boy is crying because he aspires to buy a truck like that one day. The girl is crying because a truck like that ran over her dog.”
So is there a secret to transforming art into joy? “I think the most important element to happiness in art is the cathartic process for the artist,” says Chapman. “If the artist has done that really well, then it also makes other people happy. That’s the magic of art.”
Jane Love, a child life specialist at UAB Hospital, takes advantage of this magic to help pediatric transplant and heart disease patients. In the hospital’s playroom, children can paint and color, among other activities, as a way to both escape and engage their environment. “The children are often here for a long time awaiting a transplant,” she says, “and they need to do things that make them feel like a normal kid their age.” And the soothing power of art is not limited to children, Love notes. Siblings and parents often come in to the playroom to work on their own creations. “It’s kind of like a good book takes you away from what’s going on,” she says. “The coloring and painting can do that.”