Wired for SoundAs long as 42,000 years ago, homo sapiens were making music—and not just chanting and beating on their chests. Millennia before Man-the-toolmaker figured out the principles of the wheel or the lever, he was carving finger holes in bird bones and hollowed-out pieces of mammoth ivory and blowing through them. Archaeologists have recovered some of these amazing artifacts in southern Germany; one can only imagine the melodies they played.

While musical tastes and aptitudes might be subjective, the same music appears to affect different people in the same ways. Why is that?

Four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Plato wrote of the critical importance of music to the moral, intellectual, and spiritual development of youth: “Rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful.” Almost a thousand years later, the Roman philosopher Boethius defined music as a mathematical discipline “related not only to speculation but to morality.”

“There is no greater path whereby instruction comes to the mind than through the ear,” he wrote. “When rhythms and modes enter the mind by this path, there can be no doubt that they affect and remold the mind into their own character.” He went on to describe one of history’s first recorded instances of musically induced rewiring, when Pythagoras used music to calm a “frenzied youth” about to set fire to a house.

Modern neuroscience is taking serious note of the phenomenon that underlies Boethius’s anecdote. While musical tastes and aptitudes might be subjective, the same music appears to affect different people in the same ways. Why is that?

“Intersubject Synchronization of Brain Responses During Natural Music Listening” (an article that ran in Vol. 37, Issue 9, of The European Journal of Neuroscience, May 2013) describes an experiment that identified some of the specific brain systems “that support the processing and integration of extended, naturalistic ‘real-world’ music stimuli.”

Those 40,000-year-old bone flutes were found alongside stone tools, ornaments, and ritual objects, suggesting that even in the depths of prehistory, music served a communal function.

Under the direction of Dan Abrams, a postdoc researcher at Stanford University, experimental subjects were hooked up to brain-imaging equipment while they listened to excerpts of symphonic music. Then they listened to distorted versions of those same pieces of music—once with the rhythmic components obliterated, so that all they heard was a “harmonic wash of sound,” and then a second time with the rhythms kept intact, but with different notes.

The scientists found that the listeners’ neurological responses were synchronized: the same key brain regions (the bilateral auditory midbrain and thalamus, the primary auditory and auditory association cortex, the right-lateralized structures in frontal and parietal cortex, and the motor planning regions) were activated in each of the listeners at the same points in the music—even more so with the naturalistic music than its nonmusical variations. This is significant because it suggests that it is the holistic experience of music that triggers those like brain responses, not just one or another discrete component (rhythm, harmony, timbre, melody).

Those 40,000-year-old bone flutes were found alongside stone tools, ornaments, and ritual objects, suggesting that even in the depths of prehistory, music served a communal function. It still does—soldiers march to it, club-goers and dervishes dance to it, church-goers sing hymns in unison.

The full (paywalled) article may be accessed here; a fascinating interview with the study’s lead author, Dan Abrams, is available for no charge here. In it, Abrams notes that his study may have important clinical implications. Before we can understand the brains of people who are wired differently—for example, people with autism—we need to understand the wiring of typical brains. The patterns and mechanisms of musical processing provide important clues.

Leave a comment

Social

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

You have successfully subscribed to our mail list.

Too many subscribe attempts for this email address

* required