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Positive Feedback ISSUE 2
august/september 2002


Music, Emotion, and Lisa Gerrard
by Roger S. Gordon, CPA


What is art? That is a question that philosophers have loved to pose to scientists over the centuries. The philosophers posed the question because they knew there was no quantitative answer. Thus, their rivals, the scientists, with all their answers, were stumped. Recently, however, the scientists have gained the upper hand. Dr. Ramachandra’s group at the University of California at San Diego has learned what makes great visual art. According to Dr. Ramachandra’s group, great visual art is great because it causes extra stimulation of the visual receptors in the brain. As an example, suppose you looked at a photograph of your Aunt Gertrude and then looked at one of Picasso’s modern paintings, you know, one of the ones that has two eyes on the same side of the face. For most people, looking at the photo of Aunt Gertrude is a non-event. Yet the same people, when initially viewing the Picasso will be mentally jolted. They won’t know why, but there is something about the Picasso that makes them take notice of it. What Dr. Ramachandra’s group has found is that looking at Aunt Gertrude’s photo triggers a single series of neuro-responses in the brain. However, viewing the Picasso triggers a multiple series of neuro-responses. In controlled experiments, it can be shown that viewing two eyes on the same side of the face triggers a much higher rate of firing in the visual receptors than just seeing a normal face. By measuring brain responses to certain primitive visual images, Dr. Ramachandra’s group has derived a series of principles that underlie all great visual art.

After one of his public lectures, Dr. Ramachandra took questions from the audience. One of the questions was "could a series of principles that underlie all great music be derived?" Dr. Ramachandra’s answer was that he did not see why a series of principles could not be developed for music. However, his group had not yet gotten into that research area.

So, the possibility exists that there are certain aural primitives—certain sounds or combinations of sounds, that cause extra stimulation of the auditory reception areas of the brain. Is that how musicians are able to affect our emotions with their music? Is that why a good singer, singing "Oh Danny Boy" can bring an audience to tears? Is that what makes Beethoven such a great composer; i.e., he unconsciously used certain aural primitives that evoked emotional responses in his listeners. Interesting questions, to which we do not yet have the answers.

While listening to my stereo late one night, I started pondering about music and emotions. The lead "Audio Discourse" articles in Positive Feedback Online Issue 2 had mentioned a number of different categories into which music listeners can fall. I fall into the emotional category. I listen to music because it effects my emotions. It can make me sad, elated, melancholy, or happy. Music can sound so exquisitely beautiful that it brings tears of joy to my eyes. Listening to Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum or Stabat Mater can restore equilibrium to my soul. Yet other people, listening to the same music, don’t experience the same emotions that I do. Apparently, while most people respond similarly to visual art, the response of people to music is much more varied. A case in point can be seen by the response of people to Lisa Gerrard.

Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry were the two founders of the music group Dead Can Dance. Their albums were much praised in the audiophile press for the outstanding sound of their recordings. The group disbanded officially in 1998, but both Lisa and Brendan had started solo albums two years prior. 1996 saw the release of Lisa’s solo album, The Mirror Pool. Lisa followed this by another album, Duality, with Pieter Bourke. More recently Lisa has contributed to a number of movie soundtracks such as Ali, The Insider, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down. Lisa and Hans Zimmer shared the Golden Globe award for Best Soundtrack for Gladiator.

If you go onto and read the reviews of Lisa’s CDs that are posted there by the public you will be struck by the dichotomy. Most of the readers think Lisa is the greatest singer in the world and that one should spend the rest of eternity listening exclusively to Lisa’s voice. A few nay-sayers counter with "what are you people listening to?" "mediocre voice", "nothing special", "constant wailing". There are, obviously, two diametrically opposed camps with very few people in the middle. Why?

The answer may lie in Lisa’s background and her singing style. Born in 1960 in Melbourne, Australia to Anglo-Irish parents. Raised in a multi-cultural and very rough part of Melbourne. No formal music training. Self taught on the accordion and Chinese zither. Started singing avante- garde music in Melbourne pubs at the age of 17. Teamed up with Brendan Perry in 1980 and moved to London. Music career launched in 1983 when Lisa and Brendan, now known as Dead Can Dance, received record contract from small independent label 4AD.

The music of Dead Can Dance has been labeled as Gothic, Trance, Ambiance, and World music. Its music was based on medieval, Renaissance, North African, and other non-western sources. On the eight Dead Can Dance albums, Lisa only sang in English on one track. On the other tracks where she sang, she sang in her own, make-believe language. As little children, many of us made up our own language which we sang to music or our own little tunes. We all grew out of that, except Lisa. Listening to her sing, you might think she is singing in a language from the Middle East. When she was growing up, there were many Turkish and other Eastern Mediterranean immigrants in her neighborhood. Lisa commented that when she visited the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul for the first time "it was like being home." Thus, her language sounds like a Middle Eastern language. Why does she sing in a make-believe language? To her, words distract from what she is trying to convey through the music. Her voice is just an instrument which she uses to connect emotionally with the audience. Words that the audience could understand would only interfere with her ability to connect.

So what messages does Lisa try to connect to her listeners? Having listened to all of her official recordings (the unofficial bootleg concert CDs number over 50) I would say that each song has a emotion or feeling that she is trying to convey. As an example, the music used in the final scene in the movie Gladiator is a song written and sung by Lisa. The hero, Maximus, is dead and in Elysium—walking through green fields with the sun in his face and his murdered son coming towards him. Lisa’s brother had died four years prior and had left behind a two year old son. As Lisa sang the final song, Now We Are Free, she imagined her brother being reunited with his son. That joyous spirit is clearly evident in the song.

I could go through Lisa’s discography listing the songs that I feel have the most emotional content. However, by talking with other Lisa admirers it has become apparent that while each admirer is emotionally touched by Lisa’s music, each admirer has a different list of favorite tracks. This is not what you would expect. If you were to ask a large group of people what were the best three tracks on R.E.M.’s Out of Time album, there would be a consensus. That is not so with Lisa’s albums. Intriguing.

So, is it possible that there are aural primitives to which people respond? Can a musician over time or intuitively learn to use aural primitives to communicate emotions and feelings to an audience? Time will tell.

In the meanwhile, give a listen to some of Lisa Gerrard’s music to see if she is able to make a connection with you. For the new Lisa listener, I would try either of the Gladiator CDs. I prefer the More Music from Gladiator, but either one will do. The Mirror Pool is also recommended, but be forewarned that the music is on the melancholy side. The best three Dead Can Dance albums are usually considered to be Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, The Serpent’s Egg, and Aion. Any of the albums will do for an introduction, though the compilation CD A Passage in Time contains their most popular songs, mostly from these three albums.


Dead Can Dance

Dead Can Dance

Garden of the Arcane Delights (45 rpm)

Spleen and Ideal

Within the Realm of a Dying Sun

The Serpent’s Egg


Into the Labyrinth

Toward the Within (live concert)


A Passage in Time (compilation of previous albums)

Box Set 198 —1998 (3 CDs and 1 DVD of Live Concert, CDs contained previously unreleased material, out-takes, and as well as previously released music from the above albums)

Originally issued on vinyl (which does sound better than the CDs)

This Mortal Coil

It’ll End in Tears

Solo Album

The Mirror Pool

With Pieter Bourke



Gladiator (Decca289 467 094-2)

More Music from Gladiator (Decca 440 013 192-2

Ali (Decca 440 016 967-2)

The Insider (Columbia CK 63918)

Black Hawk Down (Decca 440 017 012-2)