Prone to Wander

This is Your Brain on Music

Since South by Southwest is in full swing here in Austin this week, I thought I’d pay a little tribute to one of our favorite human obsessions: music.

So why do you get goosebumps sometimes when you listen to music? How can it affect you emotionally, even make you cry, when it seems like nothing else can? The answer may be a little bit science, a little bit soul.

As early as 17 weeks, most humans begin hearing (and feeling) vibrations of the heartbeat and can hear music very clearly from within the womb. From that time, your brain is incredibly and deeply wired for music. We are born with cries that are very musical – they’re not monotone. Our ears come equipped with a processing center where little hairs register different pitches and frequencies and fire off neurons all over your brain. Neuroscientists have observed that music literally engages neurons across almost your entire brain, and not just in one part.

Music is intimate. We can say a spoken phrase, or play a musical phrase, and those waves quite literally hit your eardrums and reach your brain – we can physically touch each other through sound.

Music has been scientifically linked to stimulating recovery and healing in patients with a range of emotional and physical problems, and even increasing the overall intelligence of children and adults. Music is used heavily in speech therapy, for those recovering from strokes, and elderly dementia patients (due to the deep memory recall associated with music). In fact, the brain functions required for performing music yourself actively stimulates more of your brain at once than almost anything you’ll ever do – it’s one of the most complex activities on earth because of the number of things you must, do, hear and observe all at once in order to coordinate the musical experience.

So why did we evolve so powerfully toward music throughout history, and not some other art? I personally think that the answer lies in community and participation. In ancient times, music could allow an entire tribe or group to participate in one unified emotional or community experience. It connects groups together in a way that not many other things can. It’s also a way to encode information about a cultural identity – including stories and messages about who we are – and pass them down through generations in a memorable way. Even more than the spoken word, we can remember melodies and our emotional responses and feelings tied to those memories, in order to share those same things with others.

I think that music is a fascinating phenomenon because it can simultaneously create a unique cultural or individual identity, but also bridge seemingly impossible gaps across groups and cultures. Despite our differences, music is a universal experience that humans are all hardwired to share together. The emotional response that music can inspire has been proven to communicate across even the most disparate cultural boundaries. In fact, one scientific researcher took some western piano music to a tribe that had never heard music other than their own, and they were still able to categorize and identify which piano pieces seemed happy, sad, or scary. Their test results were exactly the same as ours.

Interestingly, this emotional response to music lies in science and math. Music conforms to a limited number of mathematical rules – you expect these rules to manifest themselves in expected patterns. When they don’t resolve the way you expect, this stimulates an emotion. Musicians can create these little surprises within a song by using minor notes, missing notes from an expected pattern, or beat syncopation, for example. This mirrors our daily lives as well – the strongest emotional responses that we have in our lives often occur when things happen that we don’t expect. Perhaps music serves to remind us that the most deeply meaningful parts of our lives are the unexpected parts – however happy, sad, frightening, or outright frustrating those things may be.

Beyond personal and cultural human implications, music has been observed in animals and even within the cosmos. Many animals communicate through musical patterns of sound, the most complex of which are birds and whales. The musical frequencies measured in outer space are typically too low for the human ear, but when transposed to higher frequencies, scientists have discovered that certain events and phenomena generate sound waves in a predictable way. For example, black holes have their own pitch – B flat, to be precise.

In The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene explores the possibilities behind String Theory, or the theory that all matter is composed of tiny oscillating strings and waves of vibrations, which make up all things in the universe. Differences would be created by length, size, width and frequency of each oscillating string or wave. You can use the strings on a guitar or a violin as an analogy to this – different pitches and notes can be created by shortening, thickening, and the frequency of plucking of each string.

Music is fascinating in that it is something that is “explainable” from a mathematical and scientific perspective, but it also undeniably hits a chord (no pun intended) in the very core of our souls. What if Brian Greene and string theory is right? What if the fundamental building block of the universe is essentially varying degrees and frequencies of oscillating vibrations? Perhaps we’re all tied up in some kind of grand song being played across the universe. That is beautiful music to my ears, indeed.


Some references/suggestions, if you are as interested in this subject as I am:

This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin.

Music Instinct: Science and Song. 2009 documentary film directed by Elena Mannes.

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. 2003 edition by Brian Greene.

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