Chopin’s “Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2” begins with a subtle, timid B-flat, leaps to the distinctive major sixth, and then launches into a beautiful, yearning melody. On the top left, Chopin writes express dolce or expressively sweet. With an andante tempo throughout the piece, the left hand keeps a steady beat, providing a backbone to the right hand’s dreamlike melody that seems to want to fly away. With growing intensity, sets of chromatic notes interweave the familiar motif, washing over the stable 3/4 rhythm with suspenseful resolve.
As one of Chopin’s most recognizable pieces, “Nocturne” has become synonymous with tranquility. Back when it was first published in the 1800’s, the piece quickly established itself as the most pleasing song to play for guests at evening salons. In fact, it was played so incessantly that professionals stopped performing it (Lederer 2008). Even today, this neutral tune is widespread. It can be found playing in elevators, grocery stores, and on-hold answering machines. A simple search on Youtube for “Nocturne” yields nearly three million results, with various performances getting tens of millions of views. Pages of videos tout it as a study aid and relaxant (Just Instrumental Music 2015).
As I grew older, I realized that there was scientific merit to the claims that “Nocturne” relaxes its listeners. Although Chopin wasn’t specifically researched, a 2005 study published in the European Journal of Anesthesiology found that music aided the healing process in surgical patients. Patients who listened to new-age music after undergoing surgery felt better, required less morphine, and had less cortisol, the “stress” hormone, in their bloodstream (Nilsson 2005). Similarly to “Nocturne,” much of new-age music offers an ambient, constant harmony and a slow and steady rhythm. Though surprised, I wholeheartedly understood why the patients felt soothed by the Chopin-esque music.
In my first year of college, I found myself staring at the ceiling of the ice rink. The ground was icy cold, and I couldn’t feel anything but the almost indiscernible pain in my left side. Vaguely aware that the length of my arm was behind my back, I threw myself to the side and popped back my shoulder. The pain shot through me, paralyzing me with shock. Upon realizing that I had absolutely no control over my floppy arm, I broke into tears.
From then on out, I don’t remember much. My memory jumps to the hospital. Alone. Nobody knew I was there. It was the end of winter break. My college friends were still at home. My family and high school friends were across the country. The emergency room doctors and nurses paced in front of me without so much as a glance. Confronted with the silence of solitude, I began to grasp the unforgiving situation I was in. My tears grew more ferocious and aggressive.
Please, make it stop.
I don’t know how many hours passed, but somewhere, far away in the muddle of the emergency room, I heard a B-flat leading tone and the familiar leap to the major sixth. It was “Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2.” My hysterics subsided as I strained to hear the piece. The nurse picked up her phone, cutting short the song. It was just a cell phone ringtone! But that was all I needed. Though the awkward pain of my arm persisted and I was still alone, I understood that it would be okay. Somehow, Chopin had worked as a far better painkiller in those twenty seconds than morphine had over the past few hours.
Since then, I have often wondered why Chopin brought me so much comfort. I realize that the connection between music and comfort could not have been a strange one-off occurrence; the experiences of the patients in the 2005 study are documented evidence of what I had felt when I heard music in the emergency room. However, while the study demonstrates a relationship, it fails to outline a reason. Some may argue that the patients felt less stressed because of the placebo effect or because music was a distraction. Yet, those suppositions do not explain the lowered cortisol levels in those patients and, arguably, me. The observable shifts in physical metrics lead me to believe that something much more complex must be happening when I listen to Chopin—beyond shallow enjoyment.
Objectively, we hear music when its sound waves trigger a chain of dopaminergic transmissions from ear to brain. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter dubbed in popular science as the “happy molecule,” is released and creates a feel-good moment. Quickly, the signal reaches our brain stem, the part of the brain that evolved the earliest (Chanda 2013). The brain stem controls mechanisms responsible for survival and thus reacts to audio in the most primal way. Because we humans have similar survival instincts, here in the brain stem, we can find the lowest common denominator between most humans’ (including my) perceptions of a piece like “Nocturne.”
It turns out that “Nocturne” is like candy to the brain stem. Housed in E-flat major, the piece’s overall tone is one associated with happiness, like birds chirping on a beautiful Sunday morning. It is important that “Nocturne” doesn’t contain many dissonant intervals, naturally found in animals’ warning calls, since these calls tell us to prepare a fight-or-flight response. The brain stem is thus wired to trigger a stress reflex when we hear such intervals. (Juslin 2008). As anyone can imagine, listening to a song that subconsciously evokes ancient memories of vicious wolves on the hunt is not a relaxing experience. The fact that Chopin avoids stirring up these images in his piece and opts instead for happier sounds helps explain its overwhelming and widespread appeal. Our instincts love it. But instinct alone cannot fully explain the remarkable effect that a 20-second excerpt of “Nocturne” had in the emergency room. There are plenty of songs that avoid dissonant intervals. Most popular songs on the radio are comforting for that reason. However, no other snippet of song would have helped my anxiety in the same way. Chopin has a special effect on me. There must be another reason I find his piece so calming.
Anthropologists believe that music was our first language. Just as birds chirp to one another, our ancestors used songs to communicate with one another, recognize the relationship between mother and child, and facilitate group bonding (Schulkin 2014). We, as modern humans, are still predisposed to listening for meaning and messages embedded in songs like “Nocturne.” The message inside “Nocturne” is perhaps how it differentiates itself from other pieces. In fact, there was even a study that found parallels between the structure of other Chopin compositions and human speech (Poon 2015). While I couldn’t find a study that specifically analyzed “Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2,” I turned to my knowledge of music theory, accumulated from my years as a musician. The message must be in the score.
As I’ve continued to listen to “Nocturne,” I’ve come to realize that this piece tells the story of happy endings. Chopin uses a form in which the main melody repeats several times throughout the piece. The first presentation of the melody is beautiful, simple, and has an almost childlike innocence. When I first hear this melody, I see a girl with brown hair and a billowy red dress dance among the stars (think the movie La La Land). Her lips tilt slightly upwards, smiling secretly to herself. She is as pure as the melody. But as the song continues, the melody repeats again—each time with more and more elaborate ornamentation. The tempo quickens. The wrinkles in her dress deepen. The piano crescendos to a roar. The darkness behind the girl pulses, threatening to pull her into the void. Here Chopin jars us. Dissonant and obnoxious, the chromatic ornaments he uses next are the most stressful sequences one can play on a well-tuned piano. They are comprised of the same sequence that make up the theme in “Jaws,” a song associated in popular culture with a menacing and monstrous killer. The girl pauses, frightened. Yet, Chopin quickly resolves the discomfort with major chords. In fact, this piece is distinguished by the brevity of its dissonant sections, which last for a measure of seconds before quickly being covered up. As in a classic Disney movie, despite the conflicts in the middle, the ending is always positive. The happy heroine returns and conquers. The girl in the red dress dances again.
The dancing girl is not the only vision I see when I hear “Nocturne.” There are many others. The harmony is a comforting undertone of consistent rhythm and uplifting notes. It is a mother rocking her child to sleep. The cadenza is a flourish of high notes. They are the stones skipping delicately across Lake Tahoe during peaceful family vacations. All of these associations are lovely trinkets I gather when I listen to Chopin. I typically perceive a comforting montage of images that bleed into one another—some more explicit than others. But no matter what, it is always as if I relive each sweet moment for the first time.
Emotions, memories, and music all go hand in hand. Music activates the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for simultaneously processing memory and emotion (Jäncke 2008). This means that music easily brings emotional thoughts and memories to consciousness. The same neurons that process a specific memory are being activated again when we hear that song. If the song is happy, it evokes happy memories. Then, our happy memories heighten the perceived happiness of the song. This causes a cycle of positive reinforcement. This mechanism drives the Hollywood scene in which happy couples squeal, “This is our wedding song!” Perhaps this is the key part of music’s universal appeal. Songs provide an emotional scaffolding upon which individuals build their own memories and stories. Once that association is made, whether consciously or subconsciously, it is one that is hard to break.
Ultimately, the scenes of the dancing girl, my comforting mother, and our family trips are overshadowed by my favorite one: the story of how I learned to play “Nocturne” on piano. It had been many years since I formally took piano lessons. I had transitioned to playing oboe in orchestra, so I never planned to touch the piano again. Yet, the lingering B-flat, the distinctive jump to high G, and all that follows haunted me with a beautiful sweetness. I found myself standing in the living room, squaring up to the dusty piano in the corner. I opened the cover slowly, gingerly sat down, placed the printed sheet music upon the stand, and began. At first, my notes were clunky and awkward—not at all like the beautiful piece I knew. I refused to give up, though. I wanted to create beauty myself.
Learning was an intimate process. The lazy afternoon sun gave a golden glow to the living room. Dust motes swirled in front of the sheet music. As my fingers pressed tenderly against the piano keys, everything fell away. My body swayed back and forth to the overarching beat, as I kept time with my whole being. My left hand bounced across the lower registers while my right hand twirled with the melody. It lingered lightly on the higher register notes and slammed down in the more yearning sections. Although I played until long after the sun had set, the chords kept me warm in their embrace. I liked thinking that they were what drops of sunlight would sound like.
It took weeks, but ultimately, I did it. The moment I realized I could comfortably play “Nocturne” in its entirety I jumped up from the piano bench and cheered. I was so proud of myself! I could create beauty.
My memory is jogged. In the muddle of the emergency room, I hear a B-flat leading tone and the familiar leap to the major sixth. As the soft notes make their way to my ear, I begin to see the landscape of “Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2.” The chords, consonant and sweet, reveal to me the beautiful dancing girl. The familiar melody takes me back to those lazy afternoon practice sessions. The fading sunlight replaces the emergency room fluorescents. The rising hills of the harmony guide my left hand across the piano keys. I feel warmth on my skin. I see the wrinkled sheet music on the piano stand. I hear the bittersweet notes—in them, the story of a girl who was hurt and would heal. I am strong.
Chanda, Mona Lisa, and Daniel J. Levitin. “The Neurochemistry of Music.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17.4 (2013): 179-193.
Jäncke, Lutz. “Music, Memory and Emotion.” Journal of Biology 7.6 (2008): 21.
Juslin, Patrik N., and Daniel Västfjäll. “Emotional Responses to Music: The Need to Consider Underlying Mechanisms.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31.05 (2008): 559-575.
Just Instrumental Music. “Chopin – Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 (60 MINUTES) – Classical Music Piano Studying Concentration Reading.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 19 February 2015.
Lederer, Victor. Chopin: A Listener’s Guide to the Master of the Piano. Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus, 2006. Print.
Nilsson, Ulrica, Mitra Unosson, and Narinder Rawal. “Stress Reduction and Analgesia in Patients Exposed to Calming Music Postoperatively: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” European Journal of Anaesthesiology 22.02 (2005): 96-102.
Poon, Matthew, and Michael Schutz. “Cueing Musical Emotions: An Empirical Analysis of 24-Piece Sets by Bach and Chopin Documents Parallels with Emotional Speech.” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (2015).
Schulkin, Jay, and Greta B. Raglan. “The Evolution of Music and Human Social Capability.” Frontiers in Neuroscience 8 (2014).