Tuesday, 12 April 2005

Music on the Brain

If you want to give your brain a work-out, listen to music. And if you want a better iPod , use your brain. Those are two implications of recent research into how we hear and appreciate music.

Dartmouth College researchers have discovered that our brain stores tunes and snatches of tunes, and 'fills in the gaps' when we're listening to music without our even being aware that we're doing so. Since songs played on our internal jukebox are note- and sound-perfect, this explains why tunes in our head often sound better than the real thing; it also explains why karaoke singers don't get embarrassed - it's not just the alcohol: their brain is filling in the gaps in their musical performance for them - if not for their long-suffering audience.

Ever have a 'tune in your head' you just can't get rid of? This research shows that this is literally true.

And how does our brain process all this music? According to Harvard Medical School researchers, we don't just process music in some specific part of the brain, when we listen to music the whole brain is being used. Hence part of the reason for the great power of music: it affects all our brain function, perhaps serving as proxy for many of our thoughts, or unearthing many of our most treasured memories.

What's more, say researchers, musical tones go directly to our emotional centres, by-passing our normal cognitive processes: "...music goes much deeper than that — below the outer layers of the auditory and visual cortex to the limbic system, which controls our emotions."

This research really opens the door to understanding the nature of music and why and how it affects us, and it closes the door on those practitioners of noise music who have always claimed the benefit of the doubt. We can wholeheartedly agree with Sir Thomas Beecham who, when asked if he had ever conducted any Stockhausen replied, "No, but I think I trod in some once." There is no argument now for Music for Chainsaws, and the like. We can without trouble identify what is good music, and what is not.

"'Something made of sounds produced by anything' is not a definition of music," as Ayn Rand observed. Rand herself maintained that the crucial aspect of all art is that it "serves to integrate a conceptual consciousness," a claim echoed now by Geoffrey Miller of University College London, who says:
Our brain is constantly trying to make order out of disorder, and music is a fantastic pattern game for our higher cognitive centers. From our culture, we learn (even if unconsciously) about musical structures, tones and other ways of understanding music as it unfolds over time; and our brains are exercised by extracting different patterns and groupings from music's performance.
"It is this very kind of pattern recognition," says writer Kristin Leutwyler, " - which is extremely important for making sense of the world around us — that Keith Devlin suggests in his book The Math Gene gave rise to language and stands behind mathematical ability as well."

So we can now begin to understand how melodies affect us, and why; that emotional responses to melody are an objective response to what we hear; why harmonies, conterpoint and the intelligent use of leitmotifs have such power to move. The door to understanding our responses to real music stands open. How many will want to walk through? Much clearly still needs to be done, but the research Ayn Rand hypothesised in 'Art and Cognition' was needed is now being done.


Blogger Richard said...

"This research really opens the door to understanding the nature of music and why and how it affects us, and it closes the door on those practitioners of noise music who have always claimed the benefit of the doubt."

I read the Science Daily report and nothing in it justifies this conclusion.

I also read the Derek McGovern article. Unmitigated musical snobbery! Of course, it was all tongue-in-cheek... wasn't it?

12 Apr 2005, 16:15:00  
Blogger PC said...

Richard, you said: "I read the Science Daily report and nothing in it justifies this conclusion."

No, it doesn't. The Science Daily Report only talks about the Dartmouth study. The Harvard Medical School research is what I'm discussing in the sentence you quote.

And no, Derek's article wasn't totally unmitigated, as the Harvard Research unperpins: once we understand how music affects us, we can say quite easily what is good or bad based on what effect it has.

12 Apr 2005, 16:37:00  
Anonymous ruth said...

This is one of the areas where I disagree with Rand. I am an honours music (piano) student, and also play violin. If one is truly musical one can see musicality in all genres - even the syncopation of hip-hop. Even my Mother ( a music teacher) likes some Eminem. Personally I do not care for Rach - I prefer Chopin. But y'know...I don't want to argue and I love you really PC .

12 Apr 2005, 20:45:00  
Anonymous BerlinBear said...

Interesting stuff. The Germans have word for the "tune that's stuck in your head". Ohrwurm: "Ear worm". Sums it up nicely I think.

What I don't get is this: If we can, as you say "without trouble identify what is good music, and what is not" why do opinions on what is good music and what is not, or indeed what is music and what is not, differ so much from one person to the next?

12 Apr 2005, 23:49:00  
Blogger PC said...

For further commentary see:

14 Apr 2005, 08:52:00  

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