The Next Big Leap in the Evolution of Music

How music morphs into technology, and thereby becomes superfood for body and mind


In a previous article, we mused about the possibility of robots taking over the place of humans in music production. Today, Stefan M. Oertl, a music psychologist concerned with musically induced peak experiences, takes a look at the future of (electronic) music and paints a vision of music becoming superfood for the body and the mind.


The digital wave helped push music to the next level of production, sound design, and distribution. While we have come to understand and utilize that kind of technology, I propose that an ongoing second evolutionary wave was set in motion by the digital era, which is still in its infancy: an entirely new type of music–with a new mechanism of action.

“Abandon all traditional beliefs, ye who strive to enter the ultimate space of experience!”

(in loose reference to the inscription over the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno)

In music, there is a thin line between the sentiments of the divine and the dismal. Just about everyone knows that music has the power to incite instant emotional responses: It can make us experience ultimate happiness or deepest sorrow. At times, it motivates us to the extreme, rendering us euphoric through the gentle touch of a single note or a pumping bass rhythm.

Music can be a vehicle to transport us safely through the experience of altered states, opening the door to incredible mental adventures. Music is not just entertaining, saddening, or uplifting. It can alter our perception of reality in an instant and carry us far beyond emotions to universal, crystal-clear visceral sensation. At certain moments, music can push us into the present so forcefully and unexpectedly, depriving us of all thought of past and future, that we experience an approximation of the present in its purest sense, freeing us from all earthly stress. Within the safe environment of sound and music, many willingly succumb. Nothing else counts during that short moment except the feeling of perfection and bliss.

Well-crafted music has pharmaceutical properties, and can produce effects comparable to strong stimulants, depressants, or even hallucinogens. As with the use of any drug, caution is advised! While music has great power, it can become addictive and destructive, both mentally and physically. Right at the very same passage during the second movement of the opera “Tristan” by Richard Wagner, conductors Felix Mottl († 1911) and Joseph Keilberth († 1968) collapsed on their stands and died. Music toes the dividing line between the physical body and the psyche. In the extreme sense, it can claim lives.

While these examples are rare, they highlight the potential magnitude of the force of music. In many regards, music is a magic potion with the power to thrust our bodies and minds well beyond their limits. This begs the question: How we are able to gain perfect control of its effects? I claim that conventional music psychology is still a long way from pulling off a solid general model of emotion, experience, and function–simply by not looking at the big picture.


What Is Music

No matter how you look at it, an exact definition of music is as elusive as clouds in the night sky. We all know what music is when we think about it. But if asked to define its general nature and purpose, we’d probably fail miserably. From my personal point of view as a music psychologist, music is one of the very few extremely powerful means to affect our feelings and transform our conscious and subconscious thinking patterns in the most beneficial way.

Findings in music psychology suggest that music originates from a basic human need for entertainment. Music can influence the social behavior of groups, creating a sense of community, forging social bonds, and fostering positive interactions. Raves are a modern-day example for that. Electronic dance music is designed to have an ecstatic effect on its audience. Crowds dancing at clubs or outdoor venues seek altered states of consciousness, often heightened by a synesthetic multimedia fusion between sound, visuals, stunning decorations, and spectacles like laser shows and fire acrobatics.

A rave creates a space for connection through rhythm, transcending social boundaries. In his book, Trance Formations, religious scientist Robin Sylvan goes so far as to claim that rave culture around the world manifests signs of a new spiritual movement. This is not surprising considering the historical background of religious music dating back many millennia, whose purpose was to help worshippers forget their day-to-day concerns and transport them into the realm of the spiritual.

No wonder gifted composers, producers and DJs can become superstars. But as we all very well know, music in the wrong hands is a drag.

Approaches towards Functional Music

We are forced to listen to music at the mall, in waiting areas, in restrooms, and in elevators. You will find music in virtually any conceivable environment. Music is supposed to carry out a function, to transport a subliminal message like getting you motivated to buy more stuff, or instigate a certain mood. So far, any attempts to turn music functional in a precisely controlled way to a considerable extent have failed. Music doesn’t necessarily instigate the same mood in all people, but there is evidence that music has an influence on general purchasing behavior. I personally feel inspired to cry out loud when I’m forced to listen to something I don’t like, which happens most of the time, I’m afraid.

There are lots of music apps out there that make big claims with functional music, to help you de-stress, to get you in the “zone,” to boost athletic performance, guarantee an immersive music experience–you name it. Mostly, they work with standard types of songs from a playlist with a little bit of enhancement here and there to keep the tracks interesting, or they utilize generative music that sounds like a tune out of a Pac-Man-era computer game. None of that will hit the mark. First of all, the right music has to be designed perfectly from the inside out. That means there needs to be an understanding how music really works. We already know that, you are saying? No, we don’t, really. Every time we listen to the same piece, it has a different impact on us. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Different music strikes people differently depending on chemistry, mood, environment, sound quality, tonality. When we go to a club and listen to a song that inspires us to dance, that’s great. But even that effect is not even close to my understanding of anything functional. Besides, we cannot always be in a club. The bottom line is, for a deep and significantly functional impact of music you can’t just provide one-serves-all songs from common playlists, even if enhanced by some technical mumbo jumbo, and expect them to work.

Functional music that nails the spot for a maximum and lasting effect needs to be fine-tuned to the respective psychophysiological state of the listener. For that, we first need to fully comprehend the meaning of each element within a song. The ultimate goal is the creation of a musical syntax of sorts, from which function and effect can be attained. So first and foremost, music itself becomes the new technology. What’s more, we then can bring in place some technical mumbo jumbo for the fine-tuning. In the strictest sense, we are no longer dealing with music per se, but with a new medium that gives the impression of conventional music on the outside. On the inside, it follows a completely different working order.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
(Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law)

Electronic Dance Music and Loops

Let’s look at the genre of techno as an example for what I just said. I am a highly trained instrumentalist and composer. I can say that I know the spectrum from baroque to pop music, but during all my musical explorations through musical form and structure, I find the concept of the loop to be the most curious one, and even the most complex in many regards. Tightly looped structures can push the music experience to the next level, as many of us very well know from the clubbing experience, and then beyond. So it’s not just what you perceive on the outside, namely primitive makeup and musically impoverished content. No, the loop is a key to an entirely different musical experience. If you know how to control its giblets, you hold one of the major keys in your hands to make music genuinely functional.

I know quite a few people who attend raves for therapeutic effect and also, after a night of dancing away, leave the venue in a better physical condition than when they arrived there. It appears as if the music chopped their thought processes and memories apart and shuffled them around into a new and cleaner order. The same holds true for their bodies.

In terms of structure and effect, electronic dance music follows entirely different rules than most traditional music styles of Western society. It bears the great potential to be the next level in the evolution of music, with a deeper impact on body and mind than most of us can dream up. Think of applications for athletic performance enhancement, the intensification of motivation and focus, getting into the zone without drugs, stress reduction, and deepest relaxation. I hope that even music applications in the clinical field will emerge in the near future, such as noninvasive treatments against ADHS, memory breakdown, or depression, to name just a few.

A New Chapter in Music Psychology

So what is needed here is a novel approach towards music psychology that abandons traditional beliefs. The mechanics of an optimal experience of music are only sparsely covered now. To date, none of the serious researchers are eager to burn their fingers with this scientifically elusive and tricky matter. We have come to live in a world of quantification madness within the field of science. But what is needed is a method in addition to psychophysiological data readings by which we can dig deeper into the core matter of our musical awareness–so deep that we enter the playground of the subconscious mind. Only with analysis methods that reach beyond our physical boundaries and factual sensor readings will we be able to solve the riddle of genuinely functional music: tunes that serve a significantly beneficial psychological or physiological purpose.

I am not saying that reaching into the logic of the subconscious cannot uncover hard facts. Actually, the subconscious level reveals a sound order of its own, once all its contextual levels have been deciphered. In music, it has become clearly evident that we are dealing with a very distinct set of nonlinear rules leading to certain mental states of experience, over the entire spectrum from intense euphoria to deep relaxation.

The Inevitable Destiny

Digital technologies have initiated what I regard as the greatest paradigm shift in the history of music. By that, I don’t mean the virtually endless possibilities for music production. I see entirely new types of music leading us into intense spaces of experience born from original and fresh thought processes by young composers and producers. We are already witness to a rapidly increasing social steering towards electronic dance music. But this is only a first appearance of the wave. Ultimately, music will turn into real magic. A future of yet inconceivable musical wonders lies in wait at the gates.


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Disclaimer: Stefan M. Oertl is the original founder of Re-Compose, a venture that explores the potential of electronic music. We get our teeth into structure, psychophysiological effect, and an overall optimal experience. From that knowledge, we build products. We work with top-tier research partners from academia to industry.

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