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Thursday, March 3, 2011

What American Idol can teach us about How our Emotions Pace Music

So it’s that time of year again.  And whether you have been anxiously awaiting your opportunity to cast your lots for your favorite American Idol contestant or not, there is always something that can be learned from the smash hit show.  Hopefully we can illustrate not only how we can use music to control our state of mind, but also what our singing faves should be doing in order to remain in the competition for the top American Idol.

As I sat watching the first episode of American Idol, I was left to wonder...why on Earth would anyone choose to sing a slow ballad.  Granted, we do not ever want to see a faster song done poorly.  But come on!  If your song selection doesn’t move us in a positive direction, then your phone lines are going to be quieter than my daughter sneeking a few games on my iPhone.  And I can guarantee she is not voting your behalf.  Here’s the danger of picking a slow ballad:  If you end up following someone who just did a decent job with a fast song, you’re hosed!  A fast song lifts the emotional and mental state of the audience.  A slow song by contrast will bring the audience back down.  You never want to bring down an audience that is supposed to be “inspired” in order to vote for you.  At best, you can hope to follow another ballad who either a)followed a fast song or b)was really pitchy Dawg ( btw, I love the “Randy-as-Simon” thing they are trying).  

A far better strategy is to pick a song that is a faster pace and moves the audience.  If you follow a slow song, your song will seem uplifting relative to the slower tempo of the previous ballad.  And if you follow a fast song, at least your lips were not preoccupied with the “kiss of death” so that they could perform the song to the best of your ability.  Now of course, nobody likes a manic performance American Idol, so contestants shouldn’t pick something too fast pace.  And it IS a singing competition, so yes you still better be able to sing.  But does tempo really affect the listener and if so, how can we use this to take control of our state of mind?
Lets look briefly at a couple examples that illustrate this.

To start off the show, Clint Jun Gamboa performed a version of “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder.  As fans of the show, we like to see it kick off hoppin’, and that song certainly bounces.  His choice of song however would have allowed him to perform at any point of the night, and come across to the fans in a positive uplifting manner.  The next performer, Jovany Barreto performed the ballad, “I’ll Be” which has to be a “kiss of death” regardless of how well you can sing it.  It serves as a perfect example to my previous point that whenever a slow ballad follows a hopping song, it inevitably results in a let-down for the audience which is sure to garner only a few votes from his closest family and friends.  So Jun got the audience going, and Jovany lets them down.  But the next performer Jordan Dorsey chose a slightly faster rendition of an Usher song,  “OMG.”  Interestingly enough, though his performance was infinitely inferior to Jovany’s version of “I’ll Be” it comes across with less negative impact because the audience was already brought down by Jovany.  If Jordan survives, he will owe Jovany the best dinner he has ever eaten- and based on Jovany’s build, the boy can eat!  

Now let’s look at what happens when you pick a fast song.  Half way through the show Scotty McCreery performed a Tim McGraw classic that you’ll have to forgive me for not knowing enough about Country Music to know the title of.  Again another example of a singer safe doing a ballad because he followed another let-down ballad.  He is followed by a mediocre (though the judges appreciated it) version of Bruno Mars “Just the Way You Are” sung by Stefano Langone.  I was unimpressed; however I have to admit I was uplifted and felt more awake and refreshed because his song choice had a quicker pacing.  

And for heaven’s sake, pick a song that represents the kind of artist you want to be - unless you’re hoping to be a ballad singer.

We could whip out any number of studies that have been done that illustrate that the tempo of music affects our state of mind.  But this would be pointless, because each of us already has some personal experience with this.  We have all heard the pounding rhythm of a techno beat and felt our heart and brain pick up its pace.  Whether you were experiencing an irritated lift or a joyous one akin to a Night at the Roxbury, you probably felt your hearbeat quicken, your blood pressure rise, and your mental acuity increase.  Perhaps you have had the luxury of a massage in a spa - certainly they were playing a slow paced New Age piece that quickly caused your mind, body and emotions to relax.  And I assure you that you will never hear a Barry Manilow classic if you are at a football or hockey game.  Instead you will be blasted with the loudest version of some rock, pop, or techno song designed to get you geeked out of your mind.  So how can we use this information to improve our lives?

Well, it’s all about taking control.  Say you are trying to wake up and get going in the morning.  Well, while it might be soothing to awaken to soft, melodic songs, you will probably want to shift gears once you crawl out of bed and put on something that is a faster pace.  The genre of music is not too important, but the tempo is critical.  Ideally you would want to build up to something that makes you want to dance...or cheer on your favorite team (though this will probably annoy the heck out of your spouce).  On the otherhand, if you find yourself needing to relax and unwind, then you should pick a slower paced song.  Perhaps a slow ballad, some slower baroque pieces, or yes even spa music works.