A blog of music and the mind

Exploring Music and Emotions through Bob Dylan’s Work: Part 1

In mid-2007, I was coming away from a two-year campaign of rock-and-roll headbanging, spearheaded almost exclusively by Led Zeppelin. The band had also directed me to the likes of AC/DC and Rob Zombie, but for the most part, those years belonged to the electric riffs of Jimmy Page, the ground-shaking rhythm section of John Paul Jones and John Bonham, and the primal wailings of Robert Plant.

I was headed for a hard break from all that, but I didn’t know it yet. Led Zeppelin was like a fancified junk food for my mind: tasted great but offered me not much that was real. Thinking back on the band’s catalog, maybe Robert Plant brought emotion to his lyrics when he sang them, but Jimmy had an uncanny ability to play over even sad songs without sounding as though he was expressing his own feelings. He’s secretive that way. The truth was that I didn’t go to Led Zeppelin for emotion, anyway. I went to them to rock.

Then I heard Bob Dylan.

It happened by accident. My local classic rock station mostly stayed away from sensitive singer-songwriter poets like him in favor of Van Halen or Motley Crue. On this particular day in July 2007, the station slipped in its token Dylan for the week in the form of “Positively 4th Street,” a 1965 single.

When that organ started up its wistful lament and Dylan began spitting his lyrical vitriol, I felt like the song had infiltrated a part of my mind that had been lying unused until then.

Dylan’s words hit home for me at that time. He spoke us people calling him a failure or  traitor, when he knew that it was the other way around.

Critics have been wondering as to Dylan’s target in the song for the last 55 years. It’s possible Dylan was attacking those from the Greenwich Village folk scene who had criticized him for abandoning their ranks in the mid-1960s and adopting a more commercial rock sound. Whatever the case, “Positively 4th Street” is classic angry, sarcastic, bitter Dylan, feeling hurt at being treated unfairly.

I listened to these lyrics like a student being taught something by a teacher. Yet foolishness remained. My mind quickly flashed to the mildly inane questions:

“How did Dylan know about that breakup I just had?”

“How did he know that I, too, had been treated unfairly?”

“Why are these lyrics penetrating right to my heart?”

My Led Zeppelin phase was over. Bob Dylan had shattered it.

I now needed to know more about him and where he came from so I could understand his pain. Maybe, if I learned about his experiences to that point in his life, I could comprehend why I had responded so dramatically to his music.

Why Bob Dylan?

Pondering these matters now, I know the explanation of “Positively 4th Street”’s power has to do with the relationship of music and emotions. I understand on a superficial level that music made by humans is capable of affecting the emotions of other humans. But how does one create such music? How would you tap into that? How does a person write a song that resonates so strongly with a 16-year-old 42 years after it was recorded?

Just as my first post spurred me to research why we like the music we like, so does the issue of music and mood drive me forward here. I want to know how and why music can so effectively encourage, diminish, or otherwise balance the emotions of our everyday lives.

bob dylan wall

And I want to do it through the lens of Bob Dylan’s music. Dylan has been a resource–a muse, even–of music critics for 60 years, and for good reason. In Bob Dylan songs, listeners will find no shortage of emotional diversity, from anger and sadness to joy and contentment, from isolation and bitterness to resignation and longing.

I’ve listened to nearly everything Dylan has ever released; I’ve ridden the roller coaster of his career from start to present, from “You’re No Good” (1961) to “Murder Most Foul” (2020). I plan to learn a few things along the way, not just about music and emotions, but maybe about what Bob Dylan really means to me.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. You can read part 2 here.

Music and Emotions: The Basics

I’m sure anyone who actively listens to music knows that it can play with our emotions quite easily. I feel the anger and outrage right alongside Bob Dylan in “Ballad of Hollis Brown” (1964), the sad acceptance of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (1973), and the apocalyptic melancholy of “Blind Willie McTell” (1983).

To expand upon those examples, I want to reference a 2020 study performed by the University of California, Berkeley. Scientists there wanted to discover the same answers I’m now seeking. They played an eclectic mix of songs from all kinds of genres to 2,500 American and Chinese people to gauge their emotional reactions. Even in these two disparate cultures, the researchers found that “The subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped within at least 13 overarching feelings: amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.”

And so, what I want to get at here is why and how music can hold such sway over us.

Music and Pleasure

A good place to start is the research-based assertion that, for our brains, music acts as a controlled substance of sorts. It is generally thought that musical information enters the brain and encourages it to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure.

My first reaction to this is that music sounds suspiciously like drugs in this context. I did just compare music to a controlled substance. But it makes sense. Like alcohol, good food, sex, and certain illicit drugs, music makes our brains and bodies feel just fine, like everything is okay with the world.

What’s interesting about this is that grouping music in with those other pleasing consumables suggests that music can also be addicting. A 2017 study by Adiel Mallik et al. found that giving the anti-addiction medication naltrexone to subjects prevented them from drawing any pleasure from hearing their favorite songs. In this context, that apathetic mental state is referred to as musical anhedonia, and it’s apparently found naturally in about 5% of the general population.

The UC Berkeley study notes one vital detail related to this: that mental arousal from hearing music is one thing; which feelings a piece of music arouses in people is endemic to the party hearing it. In other words: the entire world might agree that Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is meant to be morose or depressing, but individuals will decide whether they draw pleasure from feeling that sadness.

Music and Other Emotions

Pleasure is one of the major emotional ways that humans experience music, but there are many others to discuss, as well. The gatekeeper that seems to make any of this possible at all is the brain’s neocortex, which permits us to engage in highly refined mental activities such as perceiving stimuli, using reasoning, and processing language. People who are able to respond emotionally to music (which is most of us) are believed to have stronger connections between the neocortex’s auditory cortex and the emotion-regulating region.

We see from this that it takes a real group effort from our brains’ disparate elements for us to feel emotion at hearing music. And pleasure is not the only way we experience music. Music may also surprise us, for instance, by not progressing in a way our brains have come to expect. Music can generate literal action in us by making us want to dance or drum our fingers to a beat.

jazz girl

Humans also tend to model their demeanors and behavior on the emotions of the music they are hearing, as in: Dylan’s “From a Buick 6” will never not make me smile and give the car just a little more gas while I’m cruising the backroads.

Music and Memory

And, of course, many people know about the power of music to evoke memories, even ones from long ago. Memories of favorite music have been found to remain in the brain even when other memories have failed due to old age or any other reason. The brain is able to create musical memories due to the collaborative, large-scale effort among its components to take in and process music. That processing leaves connections and other imprints of the music all over the brain.

That’s a layperson’s description of how musical memories work, but it makes sense even on that level. Whether it’s Dylan or any other musician I love, I can almost always recall some specific memory of a time and place when I first started enjoying a certain song. Many people anecdotally report being able to do this.

For context, here are some examples from my own experiences, with Dylan songs in this case:

  • When I hear “Queen Jane Approximately” (1965), I think of the year 2010, when I first listened to the album that came from, Highway 61 Revisited. I was in college, and the sounds and feelings of Dylan’s first legitimately great album made me feel like I had a new friend in the world.
  • The Levee’s Gonna Break” (2006) reminds me of my 2014 Northern California trip. I was driving back up State Route 1 from San Simeon to my hotel in Monterey in the twilight hour of 8 or 9 o’clock. That was a long-haul drive, and for whatever reason, I played that song on repeat for most of the journey.
  • Shot of Love” (1981) takes me right back to the summer of 2011, when I first listened to that song and the album named for it. That was an idyllic summer for me, for no reason other than the fact that I had the time to read some great books and listen to a lot of meaningful music.

 What’s fascinating about musical memories is that they also seem to retain the emotions we experienced when the memories themselves were created. As such, people can go back and listen to this or that song and actually relive the memory in a certain kind of way, to ride the wave of nostalgia for a few moments.

I don’t mind taking on some bittersweet flashbacks now and again. I’ve done it many times. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” instantly conjures the excitement of my solo crusade up and down the Northern California highways, while “Shot of Love” flashes the hot summer of 2011 through my head. In a matter of seconds, I can recall the images and feelings of those times, and I take comfort in revisiting them once again.

Even though I now know why humans are able to recall the past from music, I still find the phenomenon incredible. This makes me truly stand in awe at the power of music.

Applying the Science of Music and Emotions

I’ve learned quite a bit about music and emotions from the research I’ve presented here. The above is not an exhaustive detailing of all there is to know about this subject, but I feel I have a decent foundation now to think about my favorite music in new ways. I understand why my relationship to music is so strong, and, based on the research, it’s likely due to factors beyond my control. I have some robust white-matter connections in my neocortex, like billions of other people on the planet. Science says that music and mood come down to simply that.

However, looking back on this, there’s a certain negative feeling I get when I consider that we can boil down human emotions to the biological processes in our brain matter; putting emotions that way seems to lend our collective humanity a sterile, laboratory-type quality. I know it’s a much more attractive standpoint to refer to emotions as something other than what science can describe, something more human and relating to the “heart.”

To get into any of that would be beyond my scope here. I would only say that, although science can explain the relationship between music and emotions quite efficiently, I don’t think of my white matter when a song is affecting my emotions. I am a human, and my feelings ebb and flow through me as they do with anyone else. I tend to leave them there, in their natural habitat.

With all that covered, I feel prepared to move on to a discussion of how Bob Dylan’s most interesting work has connected with me emotionally over the decade-plus that I’ve been listening to Dylan. I know intuitively what those feelings are, but it will be something else entirely to convert that information into a consumable form for an audience.

Regardless, I hope that’s an adventure you take with me. That part of this post will appear soon, and when it does, I will update this post to link there.

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    You said it so well regarding music and in here especially about Dylan’s . I shared similar feelings albeit with differences as this would not be difficult to understand. This might be similar to food and wine pairing , everyone’s taste and liking are vastly different . I remember Joyce Carol Oates once said listening to ( especially his voice ) is an acquired taste. I am really impressed and admired with your ventures into Dylan ‘s career .
    Similar feelings in that exactly I relate to your saying the song one first listened to associated with the happenings at that moment in time . Bob’s song as I come to realize after listening all these years came from his own life and personal experience. Granted he would paint it and might disguise his feelings . But that’s exactly I felt why he is so intriguing. Yet I used his voice and lyrics to my own appreciation and most inner thought as he had articulate it for me . Like it was written in my soul from him to me so to speak . Your first song +ve 4th St was one of my favorite as well.y first exposure was Like A Rolling Stone. He might have as scholars pointed out he wrote it with Edie Sedgwick in mind . I did not know that as a 17 year old . But the fuck do I care? I thought it was about me . As they say the rest is my history . I rambled on a bit . Before I signed off let me say that no other songwriter is so good with switching words around in different versions or on stage as Bob could . Totally changed the scenery and mindset of the protagonist as well as his ease of switching pronouns so as to suit his purpose at keeping thing a vague as Baez wrote and sang to him. Oh I just found out that she pulled a prank on him when Bin asked her to sing it to him backstage at the RTR tour . He was mesmerized by it afterwards but she told him it was written to her husband Dave . I wasn’t into artists personal life before but I did eventually. Lol.

    • Michael

      Couldn’t agree more. Bob reads a lot and has for his entire life. His influences are obvious, I think, but as you say, his own life must have also informed even his most complicated songs. I personally would not want to probe into whether Blood on the Tracks was about Sara, since that is private to him. It very likely was about her. But you’re right: he disguises his own feelings in the songs. They still come out as sad, however, many of that album’s songs, and his audience can respond emotionally to them because of that.

      Looking forward to publishing part 2, where I will go more in-depth on individual Dylan songs. Stay tuned for that in the next few days! And thank you very much for reading 🙂

  2. Mary R

    Wow. Alot of interesting facts ive learned here. Yes, Some music takes me right back to certain times in my life. Some happy; some not. The latter makes me turn it off immediately. Other songs make me cry because it brings about Feelings having to do with the present. You really know how to bring information to a point and let people think You’re an excellent writer!

    • Michael

      Thanks for your support, Mom 🙂

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