I’ve been reading a lot about our brains on music, and how supremely intertwined music is in our very being, as humans. As we listen to music, it’s not our ears that actually hear music – it’s our brains. Our ears merely convey the vibrations to our brains, and our brains, through synapse, social conditioning and training, interpret those vibrations and give them meaning and context.
Research into our perception of music and its effects on our brains has made enormous progress in the last five to ten years, with the advent of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging – where the subject’s brain is examined in real time while being stimulated or while the subject is performing a prescribed task, such as playing an instrument or listening to music). Through the use of this investigative technique, our knowledge of the brain and how it perceives and processes music has been rapidly expanding to the point where we know things now that we had no inkling of just a decade ago. For example, making music stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, releasing endorphins, much the same way physical exercise, sex or drugs do. So it really is sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.
Studies of the cultural effect of music, from the time we are in utero, and as we mature, show our predilection for certain kinds of music endemic in our particular cultural surroundings. We in North America and Europe have a natural affinity for Western music because it’s the music we grew up hearing, for the most part, whereas societies in Asia, for example, have a natural affinity for the music built on different systems of musical organization and which for Western ears carries little or no cultural meaning.
A fascinating documentary was made a couple years ago, “The Music Instinct: Science and Song”, whose chief consultant is Daniel J. Levitin, a prominent American cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, record producer, musician, and writer. He is currently James McGill Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada with additional appointments in Music Theory, Computer Science, and Education. This documentary takes us on a journey that shows us the relationship between humans and sound, and along the way we hear from some heavyweights in the neuroscience field, famous professional musicians, anthropologists, neuropsychologists, and music therapists who are putting music under the microscope.
It shows us that the human fetus starts to hear at between 17 and 19 weeks. Through a series of experiments, researchers were able to determine that a baby in utero can hear music and reacts to it in much the same way young children and adults do. And so we start our relationship to music very early, when our mothers listen to music or sing, or play an instrument. Naturally, the music the mother listens to is typically culturally prevalent and is the very beginning of our cultural conditioning to a certain kind of music (i.e., Western traditional music versus Indian raga, or Lebanese classical).
Research finds that the brain actually becomes wired to hear that certain kind of music. And so, we have the very beginnings, the foundation of our musical perception. Our brains are sponges, really, throughout our lives. We’ve all heard the old saying that as we get older we can’t learn new things, but research into this field has disproved that notion. In fact, it is through music that we can affect healing by rewiring parts of the brains of stroke victims, and those suffering from neuro disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and the like. By use of music and rhythm, barriers to movement and communication can be overcome in these patients who otherwise have no other way to move or express themselves verbally. So our brains are constantly learning and adapting.
In the end, music isn’t just an academic pursuit or another activity to get your kid into. It really is part of who we are as humans. This post is just the tiny tip of a huge iceberg on the subject. Take a look at the video below, and maybe check out the whole program and find out what’s really going on in your kid’s head when she practices the cello, or learns a new scale. It’s really quite amazing.