“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ~Albert Einstein
SPOILER ALERT: People who are left-brainers are better at math, and people who are right-brainers are the creatives. To these left-brain/right-brain “thinkers” I say, “Poppycock!”
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s start having a real discussion. But first, let’s take out the rubbish. Old-school thinking told us that music is processed in the right hemisphere of the brain, the so-called creative side, while math and language, on the left side. Fuhgeddaboudit!
The old-school thinking of a single region of the brain decoding sound is now obsolete, period. We have learned from scientific study that music is processed all over the brain—from the most primitive reptilian zones to the most advanced areas. In other words, performing, composing, listening to, and enjoying music involves all regions of the brain, holistically and globally. Music permeates nearly every region of the brain and its neural subsystems.
Although music is a complex phenomenon, let’s unsheathe our scalpel and dissect music into its many parts: loudness, pitch, tempo, rhythm, timbre, meter, key, melody, harmony, and more. All of these elements impact the brain on both conscious and subconscious levels.
When we think of music, we primarily think of sound; every sound has a unique fingerprint in the brain, which develops early in life. We call this fingerprint timbre.
Timbre is why you can recognize your mom’s voice over the phone. Likewise, Mom associates the person on the phone to you because of your unique timbre. She can also detect emotions, which are packaged in the timbre of your voice. We all know you can’t fool Mom. She knows when you are hiding something from her. Don’t believe me? Trust me: Mom hears everything. As if clairvoyant, she asks, “Is everything alright?” because she hears something in your voice that elicits triggers in her brain. She is an expert in “you” and your voice! Her superpower hearing can and does sense worry, secrecy, or happiness just by the sound of your voice.
Humans are able to recognize hundreds of different singers just from the timbre of their voices. Some of them resonate better in our brains, making them our favorite singers. Timbre, however, is just one among many factors that drive our musical tastes.
Composers can create different moods in a piece of music, be it melancholy or happiness and even romance by using various instruments and voices to achieve the desired effect. They rely on the unique timbre of instrumentation to convey feelings and moods. (Musical arrangers are adept at this as well.) Another device composers use to convey a feeling or mood is the use of tempo. An up-tempo can trigger happiness, while a slow dirge can channel sadness. Therefore, a composer has the ability to affect the listener’s emotions with instrumentation, voice, and tempo, among other tools in their bag of tricks.
Music and sound can spark intense reactions, including the fight-or-flight response. A sudden, unexpected, or loud sound can trigger this most primitive animal-response reaction for self-preservation in humans. There is nothing more basic than this.
Once this fight-or-flight response is ignited in the primitive zones of our brain, an eruption of activity occurs, including the release of adrenaline and cortisol, increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscles at the ready to respond, and many more. Imagine listening to a slow, soft piece of music that suddenly increases in tempo and volume. Doesn’t it get your blood pumping? You might even find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat. This shows us that sound, and music, can actually take control of our bodies—the whole human organism—through the brain’s pathways.
By the age of five, most kids have absorbed the rules of their culture’s musical language and can discern violations of these rules. This is akin to hearing an improperly formed sentence. Hence, even the brain of a five-year-old can hear the discord in:
“About music and the brain from this excellent blog post, learn.” ~Yoda
Brain wiring is laid down in the first few years of life, and this wiring is specific to the child’s culture and subculture. Children become familiar with the scales, chords, progressions, and other musical attributes they are exposed to during their particular upbringing. That does not imply that people cannot appreciate music from other cultures and styles, because beauty is always in the ear of the listener.
Playing an instrument involves the total brain—from the basic primitive parts to the higher-functioning areas, while listening to music is a passive activity. However, it is still considered a high-functioning enterprise. Listening to music involves sound waves reaching the hair cells and eardrum and transposing these waves into electrical signals. Both playing an instrument and listening to music engage broad swaths of the brain, including some overlapping.
Let me digress for a moment to take a look at an all-too-familiar music-related brain phenomenon: that song or song fragment that keeps playing over and over in your head. What is that all about? Welcome to the world of “ear worms.” Don’t worry; they are not the kind of worms you find in the compost pile. “Ear worms”—aka involuntary musical imagery (INMI)—is that experience we all have had when a “song gets stuck in your head” and plays over and over. Oh NO! Not “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” AGAIN!!! Damn those ear worms.
According to the University of Arizona Ear Worm Project, “Over ninety percent of people experience ear worms one or more times weekly; many experience them several times each day.” The Ear Worm Project continues, “The perceptual persistence of a particular ‘musical nugget’ —a melody, rhythm, musical phrase, or set of lyrics—is a sign of both how our brains operate, and how our hearts respond, in relation to music. . . . This project suggests that ear worms offer a valuable window to a richer understanding of the human relationship to music.”
So, as annoying as those ear worms may be, I’m willing to put up with a little more of Iron Butterfly for the sake of science.
“He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.” ~Albert Einstein
Our brains remember songs by utilizing a concept known as memory efficiency. (This is a term used by computer geeks as well.) As far as the human brain is concerned, memory efficiency regarding music suggests that our minds store the most important notes of a song, not each and every note. It appears that when our brains go into remembering, or playback, mode for the song, using the stored important notes, it fills in the rest of the song. It’s like our brains only keep a sketch of the song and then fill in the details when needed. It is an efficient way to remember a song without all the clutter.
Another link between memory and music is that we attach the music to other cues or experiences that happened when we first heard the song. This experiential data attaches to the specific song, which helps us bring up the song (file) at some later time. It also evokes some of the emotions experienced when we first heard the tune, such as pleasure from the scent of “her perfume” (smell) or the peacefulness of the full moon over the beach (sight).
When a pair of young lovers hears a song and all the romantic conditions are right, it often becomes their “song.” As the years go by, whenever they hear that tune, it brings back the memories of love and romance, intermingled with the sights, smells, and other experiences of their courtship. “They’re playing our song!” one says, and together their brains go into a shared jubilee.
Clearly, you don’t have to be an Einstein to love music; just open up your mind and listen to your heart.
“I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin.” ~Albert Einstein