Music, noise and emotion

During the 1740s and ‘50s, the Mannheim court orchestra received numerous accolades. It comprised 50-55 top-quality performers from all over Europe, and under the inspired direction of Jan Stamic (Johann Stamitz) it elicited intense emotion from its audiences. For instance, as the music swept from low notes to high in a sustained crescendo – the “Mannheim Rocket” – men cried out with passion and women fainted. Stamitz and his successors, and their orchestra, were major influences on Haydn, Mozart and indeed every significant composer in Europe during the latter half of the eighteenth century.

On first acquaintance with these accounts I was mildly amused. Surely the descriptions of audience responses were exaggerated? Or were the yelling males and fainting females trying to convince onlookers, and each other, of the sensitivity of their souls and their receptiveness to music? By later (even early 19th century) standards, the Mannheim orchestra was small. Even in a confined performing space it couldn’t have made a particularly loud noise. Today, the sound of a chamber orchestra can be pleasing, but scarcely overwhelming. It would be hard to find a 20th century listener whose heart-rate was accelerated more than five percent by a “Mannheim rocket”.

If you’re old enough to remember the heavy rock and heavy metal bands of the 1970s – Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Motörhead – indeed, if you’re attended concerts by any present-day band, you’ll know how effective noise is at eliciting emotion. Many of the songs we associate with those bands were excellent and the virtuosity of their members was admirable, but above all they were loud; deafeningly, even painfully loud. And you could see the audience encouraging the players to rack the volume up even higher. I never saw anyone in the audience faint, but the overwhelming majority of those attending were intoxicated by the music, singing and dancing along with the band.

There’s nothing to amuse us in this account. The descriptions aren’t exaggerated. These heavy-metal audiences were having a high old time, with no hint of pretence. They weren’t trying to convince anyone about the sensitivity of their souls or their receptiveness to music. And neither, I now believe, were the Mannheim orchestra’s audiences.

We live in a very noisy world. We’re accustomed to noise, all around us, every day. Silence is rare, and when we experience it, it feels weird and unsettling. But the eighteenth century world was different. It was quiet. Apart from occasional severe thunderstorms, or volcanoes, or cannon-fire if you were too near a battlefield, the loudest thing you’d ever hear were the church bells. The Mannheim orchestra might have been small, but when it played a rising crescendo in a confined space it must have reached a volume louder than your local church bells.

And here’s the crucial point: loud storms and volcanoes would inspire superstitious dread and awe in most people in the 1750s, cannons would inspire fear, and church bells would inspire spiritual elevation. The loudest noises evoked the other-worldly, the transcendental, the awesome. So is it any wonder the Mannheim orchestra aroused such intense emotion? Stamitz’s music had the same effect during the 1750s as Black Sabbath’s had during the 1970s. The loudness of music, and a fortiori its intoxicating effect, can only be judged relative to the noisiness of our environment. Loudness is one means (not the only one but an important one) by which music stirs our emotions and can take us to spiritual heights.

There’s nothing particularly new in this conclusion. Look at anthropologists’ accounts of the means whereby preliterate communities prepare themselves for battle or drive out evil spirits. The chanting and drum-beating are almost invariably rhythmical, even occasionally melodic, but above all they’re loud. You can’t raise your fighters’ spirits, or drive out demons, by being quiet and subdued.

Of course, quiet music can also pack an emotional punch. Consider the effectiveness of Beethoven’s use of a full orchestra playing quietly. Contrasts in loudness, like contrasts of tempo, key and all the rest, are essential for many forms of music-making. But it’s always the loud stuff (albeit punctuated by quieter passages and even silences) that speeds up the heart and heats the blood. Let’s be grateful for the gift of loudness!


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