A Chopin a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Discover how Chopin's music can work wonders with well-being

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Dr Sylwia Makomaska

Ciel-Terre (2011) by Bang, Hai JaKorean Art Museum Association

Can listening to Chopin’s music be good for our health? New research in music psychology and therapy shows that Chopin's tunes can evoke positive emotions, improve your psychological well-being, regulate emotion, and even reduce stress.

Chopin’s music forms a kind of bridge between the soma (the bodily response) and psyche (the mental response) of its receivers. This unifying effect also relies on each listener's unique personal history.

Fryderyk Chopin in the salon of prince Antoni Radziwiłł (1888) by Rudolf SchusterThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Therapeutic power

New studies into the power of Chopin's music emphasize aesthetic pleasure. The pleasurable sensation of listening to Chopin has a therapeutic effect in such states as heat stroke, sunstroke, chronic pain, unrest, depression, and schizophrenia.

The positive effects of such experience can be long-lasting, meaning they're closely related to the brain's neuroplasticity, and the brain-regions responsible for the control of emotional reception and subjective feelings.

A hypothetical “musical medicine cabinet” might contain Chopin’s Berceuse in D flat major Op. 57. It has been remarked that this piece has a relaxing and calming effect on the body.

Frédéric Chopin, Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57

Burg Scharfenberg at Night (1827) by Ernst Ferdinand OehmeAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

As befits a lullaby, it can send listeners to sleep, which makes it useful in several types of therapy. According to research, the Nocturne in E flat major Op. 9 has a similar effective power on patients struggling with dementia. 

Train in the Countryside (circa 1870) by Claude MonetMusée d’Orsay, Paris

Marketing charm

Interestingly, this nocturne is also broadcast in the Pendolino trains operating in a luxury line run by Polish State Railways.

The piece is employed in the Polish company’s brand building, but also indirectly contributes to a greater comfort of travellers, which can obviously be regarded in terms of well-being. 

Raoul Koczalski (piano) - Nocturne No. 2 in E flat major, op. 9 No. 2 (1936) by Raoul Koczalski (piano), ℗ Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft 1936, and the Shellac ProjectDeutsche Grammophon

A ‘Chopin’ a day keeps the doctor away

Equally important is a daily relation with music in which we make the choice of repertoire. At the time of writing this text, Nocturne in E flat major Op. 9 No. 2 is one of Chopin’s most listened-to works on streaming platforms.

View near Monasterio de Piedra, Aragon (1856) by Carlos de HaesMuseo Carmen Thyssen Málaga

Does this mean that contemporary listeners look to Chopin for solace, peace, and calm?

"A METAPHOR OF THE PAINFUL-Solo Show of Tan Ping" Exhibition Scene (2008.11.17-2008.12.01) by Tan PingToday Art Museum

Catch the ‘flow’

Submerging yourself in Chopin’s music may leads to the experience of ‘flow’. According to psychologist Mihàly Csíkszentmihályi, in the state of ‘flow’, a given person engages in an activity so much as to ‘lose’ themselves in it.

This can be listening or performing music. This state helps such frequently critical situations as social isolation or unrest, feelings which most of us have recently associated with the covid-19 pandemic.

A poster promoting recitals from Fryderyk Chopin's Birthplace in Żelazowa Wola, available via streaming (2020) by Darek Komorek, Marta BuchowieckaThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

We should not forget that ‘flow’ leads to a feeling of happiness, and from there, it is a straight road to an achievement of well-being, even in a time of crisis.

By Bill EppridgeLIFE Photo Collection

What is well-being?

Well-being is a state of happiness and satisfaction, without a sensation of negative stress, and generally good physical and mental health.

Musical activities are a useful tool in achieving positive effects.

Walc Des-dur Chopina (21st Century) by Elżbieta WejsflogThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

What mechanisms lie at the basis of optimal well-being? Positive psychology emphasizes the role of human resourcefulness and a person’s ‘good sides’, which translate into a meaningful, and simply said ’good life’.

It appears that well-being can be achieved by small steps. Positive emotions, which we all need to experience every day, play a large role in this process.  

Sunday Chopin RecitalsThe Royal Łazienki Museum in Warsaw

Music’s influence on the emotions and state of being

In September 2010, the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ Festival of Contemporary Music saw a premiere of a piece by pianist Jarosław Kapuściński.  Where is Chopin? was an attempt to trace Chopin’s music in the minds and on the faces of listeners in various parts of the globe.

The 31-minute piece was inspired by Chopin’s cycle of Preludes Op. 28. It was accompanied by fascinating visuals. Three simultaneous monitors showed faces expressing various emotions.

La Siesta (1911) by Joaquín Sorolla y BastidaSorolla Museum

These emotions were actual listener reactions to Chopin’s music, filmed at concerts given by Kapuściński in 12 cities: Tokyo, San Francisco, Wellington, Sydney, Seoul, Beijing, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Helsinki, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Mexico City.

Viewers watched a kaleidoscope of emotions on the faces of other listeners. Though living in all corners of the world, they were bound by the experience of powerful emotional responses to Chopin

Jarosław Kapuściński, Where is Chopin?

Longmont, Colorado (1980) by Robert AdamsFundacion MAPFRE

What mechanisms lie at the basis of such diverse emotional reactions? We turn here to the psychological model BRECVEM(A). It points to eight possible mechanisms in operation, with a deliberate order mirroring the degree of their complexity (from the least to the most complex). 

Physical Requirements for Being an Artist 2nd- Enjoy Yourself in Every Condition (2000) by Chang, JiaKorean Art Museum Association

B like brain stem reflex

The brain stem reflex is an automatic response of the organism to sudden or loud changes in music. It’s an aural reflex to surprise, which is universal and may trigger, for example, fear or happiness.

R like rhythmic entrainment

Rhythmic entrainment is the effect of body rhythm (e.g. pulse or breathing) synchronization with the musical pulse. This mechanism may contribute, for example, to increased or decreased stimulation, but may also evoke a feeling of belonging and community with those listening to the same music. 

Rhythmic entrainment also translates into feelings of happiness, transcendence, power, nostalgia, sadness, calm, or tension.  

Denver, Colorado (1966) by Robert AdamsFundacion MAPFRE

E like evaluative conditioning

Evaluative conditioning occurs, for example, when a given musical piece had co-existed in the past with another stimulus (either positive or negative in effect).

Chopin Frederik Francois 1810-1849.LIFE Photo Collection

When a given person hears the same music, but in differing circumstances, they experience the reactions originally associated with the extra stimulus, even in its absence. The arising associations have an individual character, as they are largely dependent on receiver experience. 

Guitar on a table (1915) by Juan GrisKröller-Müller Museum

C like contagion

Affective contagion works relies on a listener recognizing their emotions expressed in music, and subsequently reacting to them empathically. So, if they are listening to ‘happy’ music, they feel happy, and if listening to music expressing sadness, they ‘catch’ sadness.

V like visual imagery

Visual imagery reveals itself in the form of ‘pictures’ appearing when listening to music. They mediate in evoking positive, but also negative emotions.

Dance of the Haymakers (Music is Contagious) (1845) by William Sidney MountThe Long Island Museum of American Art, History, & Carriages

E like episodic memory

The music we listen to may also elicit specific memories coded in the so-called ‘episodic memory’. This type of memory stores information on specific events from a given person’s life.

The receiver usually has the impression that it is the music itself which releases autobiographical memories, which in turn evoke given emotions (e.g. happiness, sadness, or nostalgia).

Poster of the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition (2020) by Studio MoonmadnessThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

M like musical expectancy

Musical expectations arise from the tendency to anticipate the course of a musical piece. When listening, the music either abolishes or confirms the listener’s expectations, which in turn forms a basis for emotive reactions. 

This mechanism is specially strong when the receiver is well-acquainted with the piece and can foresee exactly its ‘future’. Here,  something extraordinary or surprising, for example in an original interpretation, can be a source of emotive response.

Considerable research shows that a confirmation of expectations usually translates into a feeling of fulfillment and peace, while the reverse may cause a feeling of astonishment, irritation, deception, uneasiness, but also, curiosity.

Guitar and Newspaper (1925) by Juan GrisMuseo Reina Sofia

(A) like aesthetic judgment

Here, the basis for emotive reaction is a reflective evaluation resting on aesthetic judgement. It is the most cognitively advanced process that explains how aesthetic emotions are evoked in music particularly as an artistic domain, since they occur at higher levels of cognitive function.

The BRECVEM(A) model extends from the least conscious and most bodily forms of affective reactions to basic emotions (e.g. happiness, sadness, and fear), to more complex emotions (e.g. pride, nostalgia), to emotions arising from an epistemic (i.e. knowledge-oriented) evaluation of aesthetic emotions (e.g. admiration, wonder, and awe).

Chopin Fryderyk by UnknownThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

It explains why a single, unique piece can resuscitate such varied reactions, but also points to a number of universal mechanisms of cause-and-effect. Undoubtedly, mechanisms considered in this model intermix in reality, and without close analysis, pointing out a predominant one is difficult. Everything depends on the listener and the situation in which they come into contact with the music of Chopin.

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