Michael Tilson Thomas: Why Is Music So Good At Conveying Emotion?

Mar 9, 2018

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Decoding Our Emotions.

About Michael Tilson Thomas's TED Talk

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas traces the history of classical music, revealing its power to present a variety of complex human emotions.

About Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas is a conductor, pianist, and composer. He is currently the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, artistic director of the New World Symphony, and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. In 2010, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts. Tilson Thomas has won ten Grammy Awards for his recordings.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Musicians are people who have a natural ability to exist within the world of emotions and, in someway or another, try and relate that to other worlds that seem to present themselves. But certainly performers are not scared of emotions which, of course, many people are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOZART'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 23")

GUY RAZ, HOST:

This is Michael Tilson Thomas. He's the music director for the San Francisco Symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

THOMAS: We find the music an easier, more comfortable place for us to reveal what we're really feeling - things that we'd think, oh, that's far too embarrassing for me to put into words. I'll seem too sappy or sentimental or whatever. But inside of the music, it's possible for us to confess to those things in a way that's very generous, very real and allows us to hold on to our sense of balance with the bigger picture of the whole world.

RAZ: What do you feel when you hear classical music?

THOMAS: When I hear classical music, I experience overlapping streams of different senses of time - different kinds of forces operative inside of music, which, it seems to me, very much match up to the sort of way in which our basic psyche is constructed. You know, when we're looking at the world, we're making a judgment. How much is that an intellectual decision? How much is that a completely instinctive emotional impression? How much do we trust our heads? How much do we trust our hearts from moment to moment? And music is constantly shifting in its examination of those forces. And, of course, music has a whole language as part of itself which is called harmony, which since many hundreds of years has been exploring the complexity of emotional states and the way it's possible for you to feel happy, apprehensive, resentful, expectant all at the same time.

RAZ: And for classical music, that language of emotion has evolved over centuries and centuries, as Michael Tilson Thomas explained from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

THOMAS: Every musician strikes a different balance between faith and reason, instinct and intelligence. And every musical era had different priorities of these things - different things to pass on, different whats and hows. So in the first eight centuries or so of this tradition, the big what was to praise God. And by the 1400s, music was being written that tried to mirror God's mind as could be seen in the design of the night sky. The how was a style called polyphony, music of many independently moving voices, that suggested the way the planets seemed to move in Ptolemy's geocentric universe. This was truly the music of the spheres.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSA PROLATIONUM, KYRIE: KYRIE ELEISON II")

HILLIARD ENSEMBLE: (Singing in Latin).

THOMAS: This is the kind of music that Leonardo da Vinci would have known. And perhaps its tremendous intellectual perfection and serenity meant that something new had to happen. A radical new move, which in 1600, is what did happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "L'ORFEO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Ah, bitter blow. Ah, wicked, cruel fate. Ah, baleful stars. Ah, avaricious heaven.

THOMAS: This, of course, was the birth of opera, and its development put music on a radical new course. The what now was not to mirror the mind of God but to follow the emotional turbulence of man. And the how was harmony, stacking up the pitches to form chords. And the chords, it turned out, were capable of representing an incredible varieties of emotions. And the basic chords were the ones we still have with us - the triads, either the major one...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO NOTE)

THOMAS: ...Which we think is happy, or the minor one...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO NOTE)

THOMAS: ...Which we perceive as sad. But what's the actual difference between these two chords? It's just these two notes in the middle, right? (Playing piano) It's either E natural at...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO NOTE)

THOMAS: ...Six hundred and fifty-nine vibrations per second, or E flat...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO NOTE)

THOMAS: ...At 622. So the big difference between human happiness and sadness - 37 freaking vibrations. (Playing piano).

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Can you describe a piece of music that makes you sad?

THOMAS: Well, there are different kinds of sadness. There is music that expresses reactions to some tragic circumstance. And there are pieces by Mahler and Beethoven which explored this kind of craggy, oh, my God, no-no-no sort of world of denial. And they are sad in a conflictful (ph) sort of way. But there's also music that is sad in a more radiant, transcendent way. And I find it so interesting that, very often, when people experience something which is profoundly beautiful, which seems to be right on the edge of the highest perfection one can imagine, that they had this experience of tears coming into their eyes. They - maybe they're smiling, but they still have tears in their eyes.

I've always asked myself, why is that? And I think it's because in the contemplation of something that is perfection, that something in our mortal nature says, and this can't possibly last. As much as I would like to hold onto this and be in it forever, I know that that can't be so. So there's the sense of loss and some kind of underlying sense of longing, of wishing one could somehow hold onto it or be assured of returning to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

THOMAS: As man began to understand more his complex and ambivalent nature, harmony grew more complex to reflect it. Turns out he was capable of expressing emotions beyond the ability of words. Now, with all of this possibility, music - classical music really took off. It's the time in which the big forms began to arise, and the effects of technology began to be felt, also, because printing put music - the scores, the code books of music - into the hands of performers everywhere. And new and improved instruments made the age of the virtuoso possible. This is when those big forms arose - the symphonies, the sonatas, the concertos. And in these big architectures of time, composers like Beethoven could share the insights of a lifetime, a piece like Beethoven's Fifth basically witnessing how it was possible for him to go from sorrow and anger...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

THOMAS: ...Over the course of a half an hour, step by exacting step of his route, to the moment when he could make it across to joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

THOMAS: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Michael Tilson Thomas - he's the music director of the San Francisco Symphony and conductor laureate of the London Symphony. You can see his full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMOTIONS")

BRENDA LEE: (Singing) Emotion, what are you doing? Oh, don't you know, don't you know you'll be my ruin?

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show this week, Decoding Our Emotions. If you want to find out more about who is on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. And you can listen to this show anytime by subscribing to our podcast. You can do it now on Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman and Rachel Faulkner with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Diba Mohtasham. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.