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Although research into how and why music affects individual listeners in particular ways has been accelerating and broadening in recent years, the value of surveys containing anecdotal evidence of emotional, intellectual and psychological responses to music has tended to be self-limiting, focusing on a problematically small numbers of participants.

Originally published in Sweden in 2008, this near-500-page compendium casts its net considerably wider, drawing on responses to music of all genres and styles (both live and recorded) by more than 960 people over two decades of investigation. Compiled and annotated by Uppsala University psychology professor Alf Gabrielsson, Strong Experiences With Music foregrounds subjective responses to music in both passive and actively engaged scenarios, and attempts to provide a multi-faceted analysis of the multitude of experiences being described. It is a fascinating, if initially indigestible proposition (Gabrielsson himself cautions that the book ‘is not suitable to be read at one stretch’) and one that is drilled into and dissected from a variety of angles in order to substantiate the claim of its somewhat gnomic subtitle, ‘Music is much more than just music’.

What is immediately apparent is the intensity and intimacy of responses to every conceivable musical style. No less striking is how often they allude to a notion of personal transformation and, even more so, of transcendence, acknowledging time and again music’s ability to bypass the reflex barriers of learned cultural, social, and religious mores to inject itself straight into both head and heart.

Gabrielsson sieves and sifts the material with forensic exactitude, and the result is multi-layered and imposing in its complexity, with responses cross-referenced throughout as different analytical criteria are brought to bear. While the real power of the book is to be found in the obviously deeply-felt testimonies, Gabrielsson’s attempts to make sense of the findings are invaluable in mapping out the vast and varied landscapes it opens up. Touching on music psychology, music education and musicology, the result is a remarkable distillation of 20 years’ work that provides a rich source of evidence for future investigations.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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