Following text excerpted from The Ultimate Killer App: The Power to Create and Connect Chapter 3.
…Music is a bewitching art because it seems to engage areas of our brain that integrate emotions, memory, language/communication, and motor skills. Music not only stimulates more areas of the brain, it resonates to the very core of our physical being, especially when we dance and sing.
Through the ages philosophers and artists have often argued over which of the arts is preeminent and most venerated.[i] The ancient Greeks lauded poetry, Leonardo da Vinci exalted painting, and Michelangelo favored sculpture as the most sublime art of all. I have to side with philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s judgment that music portrays the inner flow of life more directly than the other arts,[ii] and Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously said “Without music, life would be a mistake.” With music we dance, we sing, we communicate, we synchronize and coordinate, we contemplate, we remember. Sometimes we even fall into an otherworldly trance. Reggae icon Bob Marley perhaps puts it most simply when he sings, “One good thing about music, it gets you feeling okay…”
Reflect, for a moment, on how we interact with music: how we remember and respond to certain melodies over time; how a particular song or melody can replay constantly in our mind’s ear, even to the point of distraction[iii]; how particular melodies and harmonies can make us feel joyful or sad, fearful or fearless; how some individuals can see musical pitches as colors; how a particular shuffle rhythm can make us relax with a resting heartbeat, or an up-tempo straight beat can make our hearts race. Interestingly, humans are unique among primates in being able to tap their feet in time to a rhythm, an activity that involves a process of meter extraction so complicated that most computers cannot do it.
E.O. Wilson argues from an evolutionary perspective that creating and performing music is instinctual, one of the true universals of our species. Anthropological studies of tribal cultures show the extent to which singing and dancing is a natural activity in various communities, seamlessly integrated and involving everyone.[iv] In many of the world’s languages, the verb for singing is the same as the one for dancing; there is no distinction, since it is assumed that singing involves bodily movement.
Functional brain imaging shows that playing and listening to music involves nearly every region of the brain and nearly every neural subsystem. Learning to play a musical instrument even alters the structure of our brains, from subcortical circuits that encode sound patterns to neural fibers that connect the two cerebral hemispheres and patterns of gray matter density in certain regions of the cerebral cortex. One neuroscientist [Harvard’s Gottfried Schlaug] has shown that the front portion of the corpus callosum—the mass of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres—is significantly larger in musicians than in non-musicians.[v]
Music is also powerful in its impact on human feeling and on perception. This is why movie soundtracks have the sublime capacity to enhance our multisensory experience. Music is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms. We have all experienced the pleasures of music and neuroscientists have found that music is strongly associated with the brain’s reward system through the release of dopamine.
The emotional power of music is also reflected in that most time-honored form, the romantic love song. One researcher who analyzed the lyrics of the year’s 10 most popular songs listed in Billboard for two eras, 2002-2005 and 1968-1971, found that 24 of the 40 songs in the modern era — 60 percent — and half the songs of the classic era were devoted to the subject of love and relationships.[vi]
In The Descent of Man Darwin surmised that “musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus, musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively.” Beyond love and sex, music in politics and revolution can become a national anthem, a rallying cry, or a military march. In a communal celebration, such as Mardi Gras, music becomes an expression of collective joy and celebration.
Music is a language, not only an aural language but a written one. Music invokes some of the same neural regions as language but, far more than language does, music taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward, and emotion. The mental structure in music requires both halves of the brain, while the mental structure of language only requires the left half. In this sense, music is even more powerful than spoken language and is its likely precursor. Music may have prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become human. Singing and instrumental activities might have helped our species to refine motor skills, paving the way for the development of the exquisitely fine muscle control required for vocal or signed speech.
Not surprisingly, studies have found that children who take music lessons for two years also process language better. Music therapy using listening and instrument playing has been shown to help people overcome a broad range of psychological and neurological problems. Patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, in whom movements tend to be incontinently fast or slow, or sometimes frozen, can overcome these disorders of timing when they are exposed to the regular tempo and rhythm of music.
In This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin offers evidence to support the view that musical ability served as an indicator of cognitive, emotional and physical health, and was evolutionarily advantageous as a force that led to social bonding and increased fitness. Levitin writes:
The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about…connections.[vii] (emphasis added)
Medical research into two specific neuro-developmental disorders reveals an interesting neurological link between music and social development. Williams Syndrome (WS) is a rare genetic disorder that causes physical and cognitive deficits, such as heart defects, stunted physical development, brain abnormalities, low IQs, high levels of emotional anxiety and various learning disabilities. However, WS individuals also exhibit high levels of sociability, gregariousness, and an affinity and talent for music. In contrast to WS are the family of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), such as Asperger’s syndrome. Individuals with ASD exhibit deficits in sociability and an inability to empathize. In general, they also display no emotional affinity for music. As Levitin explains, complementary syndromes such as these, which neuroscientists call a double dissociation, strengthen the putative link between music and social bonding.
Historically and anthropologically, music has been involved with social activities. People sing and dance together in every culture, and one can imagine them doing so around the first fires a hundred thousand years ago. This observation dovetails with E.O. Wilson’s narrative of the campfire as the focus of social and community development cited in Chapter 1.
In Music and the Mind, psychologist Anthony Storr stresses that in all societies, a primary function of music is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together. As Storr explains, in modern culture the choice of music has important social consequences. People listen to the music their friends listen to and people who listen to the same music form friendships. Particularly when we are young, and in search of our identity, we form bonds or social groups with people whom we want to be like, or with whom we believe we have something in common. As a way of externalizing the bond, we dress alike, share activities, and listen to the same music. It becomes a mark of our chosen identity. This ties in with the evolutionary idea of music as a vehicle for social bonding and societal cohesion. Music and musical preferences become a mark of personal and group identity and of distinction.
As a powerful biological, psychological, emotional, and communicative medium, music reinforces the ties that bring us together and then bind us. Think of two musicians playing together, jamming, or playing a structured piece – the music is heard as one indivisible expression. A duet can become a trio, then a quartet, a quintet, and finally a full orchestra or big band. The possibilities for creative variation multiply with collaborative input. There is nothing more enjoyable to jazz aficionados – players and audiences alike – than an artful improvisation on a theme that becomes a new musical exploration of the unknown. Philharmonic audiences, likewise, are thrilled by the grandeur of an orchestra that plays as one.
I have deliberately highlighted the role of creativity in music because it provides strong evidence for the synergistic power of creating and sharing (connecting). The power of creative art is that it connects us to one another, and to larger truths about what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.
[i] Granted, this judgment may be largely influenced by the era in which the art is technically applied. Certainly film has been a dominant art form of the 20th century, while others claim that virtual gaming will be the preeminent creative art form of the near future. Nevertheless, I will stick with the universality and simplicity of music.
[iii] For some inexplicable reason as I write this, the song “Winchester Cathedral” keeps repeating in my head. A song I most certainly have not heard replayed for at least 50 years, and yet, there it is playing back in my memory. Not my first choice!
[iv] This points out the modern travesty of dividing communal music performance between virtuosi and the rest of us listening in the audience. The communal drum circle is much more in tune with our nature.
[vii] Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, p. 188. For a lovely graphic illustrating the myriad brain functions that music engages, which I cannot print here due to copyright issues, go to http://www.fastcompany.com/3022942/work-smart/the-surprising-science-behind-what-music-does-to-our-brains?