The magic of music

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Music is the best storyteller. Music is poetry set to sound: a marriage which makes us feel with unrivalled intensity.

Many a nostalgic tear has been shed in the name of music. Music is magical. It can awaken a memory, take us back to a place, a person and transport us in time. Musical astral-travelling - an amazing sensation. It is special.

Does music make us human?

According to journalist Micheal Blanding, Charles Darwin in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, suggested that 'music taps into brain circuits deeply rooted in evolution and widely spread across the animal kingdom'. Modern theorists disagreed, believing humans to be the only species with the cognitive ability to move to a beat outside of their individual self. Scientists knew other animals could create a beat - for marking territory or attracting a mate through rhythm - but they believed animals could not move to a beat which was not of their own making. And then came along a cockatoo named Snowball, who threw that theory out the window and showed his dancing ability, to many different beats. This led the music neurobiology expert who danced with Snowball, Aniruddh Patel, to suggest there is a connection in the brain between moving to the beat and being able to vocalise complex sounds (something both humans and cockatoos can do). A link between language and dance, explained by special connectors between the front and back of the brain - the bits that plan and those that process sound.  But then, some researchers found a sea-lion who could bob to any given beat, and further studies found elephants. Given our fellow primates, monkeys, can't dance in the same way (as far as we know) it has scientists stumped as to what is going on. But dancing to music certainly isn't what makes us human.

Music and our brains

Music may not be what make us human, but it does change our brains. Neuromusicology, a fairly new area of research, studies this exactly thing: the scientific effect of music on our brain. Sensationally, the research findings are showing that music impacts every single part of our brain.

Take musicians for example. Areas of a musician's brain work better than the areas of the brain of those who don't play or make music. The areas controlling working memory, auditory skills, and cognitive flexibility are superior in the brain of a musician. Their brains also work holistically. The left and right sides of the brain of a musician are connected and more symmetrical; and they respond more symmetrically when listening to music. And those nerve fibres which transfer information between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the corpus callosum, are much bigger in the brain of a musician. Making and playing music, unlike any other activity, brings your left and right brain together to work in complete harmony (sorry, I could not resist the pun).

This may be why many studies link music to better understanding and mastery of mathematics, reading comprehension and language. Many years ago, I read an article about a research study where (if I am remembering it correctly) a classroom of students were divided into two, and half were given their normal number of maths classes, and the other half were given less with some maths classes substituted by music lessons. At the end of the study, the latter group had higher results in their mathematics examinations, and a better understanding of maths. The results are not surprising given Albert Einstein (according to his wife) used to sit and play music when he was stuck on a mathematical problem. He had a great love for music.

'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

Music and love

We all know music moves us both rhythmically and emotionally. Music impacts every single part of our brain, yes, but it seems to tickles the cerebellum, which is the region of brain that looks after your motor control (and your ability to dance) in a significant way; and it also stimulates in a big way the limbic system, which drives our emotions. This is why music moves both our bodies and our hearts.

Back to Darwin and The Descent of Man (1871) where he states that it is:

'...probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.'

So our ancestors used musical courtship and mating calls like other mammals, insects and birds to attract a mate. And we still do, just in a different way. As Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D. points out in his blog Thinking on Music: 'It is hard to ignore the enormous quantity of love songs our species has produced.' So true. Perhaps it is an evolutionary drive that makes love songs so popular and prevalent and is the reason why 'we remain instinctively attracted to songs of love' (Thinking on Music) and many are played to court and serenade, and accompany love making.

Music and culture

In a podcast about Hearing, Healing and Havana, Musician and Anthropologist, Associate Professor Adrain Hearn explores the healing and cultural power of music. Interested in the intersection between music, food and medicine, Hearn studies the traditional healing ceremonies in Cuba and discovers the vibration of music activates the healing properties of plants. This is pretty spectacular!

He also explores the importance of drums in preserving culture and their role in conveying values. Hearn explains that when over 2 million people were forced to move to Cuba from West Africa between 1750 and 1850, they bought their drums with them. They were used to maintain culture and identity. There are three drums, which relate as a family unit: mother, son and baby. The drum of the son, responds to the drum of the mother, while the baby drum cries on top of the drumming dialogue between mother and son. It is through this practice of drumming, that children learn to wait until their mother has finished talking, before interrupting - in the same way whoever is playing the son drum has to wait until the mother drum has finished before responding. As Hearn discovers, drumming is not just about music, there is an entire set of values bound up in a drum. 

Music and philosophy

Music and philosophy have always gone hand in hand.  According to Brain Pickings, two months before turning 14, one of the greatest philosophers of our time, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

'Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.'

His wisdom at such a young age, echoes the thinking of ancient Greek philosophers.

'Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything; It is the essence of order and lends to all that is good, just, and beautiful.' Plato
'Music directly imitates the passions or states of the soul…when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a long time he habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.' Aristotle

Music changes our behaviour. 

Modern day philosopher Jason Silva in one of his recent stream of consciousness, speaks of music as a 'collective experience synchronising people...and purging us' and refers to music as 'electronic buddhism where self vanishes'. 

So very true. Music transcends self, providing relief from cosmic sadness. 

Music and storytelling

For me the pure magic of music, is in its storytelling ability. This is the bit I am really interested in. Music is a universal language that allows us to feel, connect and communicate beyond any differences of culture, language, gender, religion or race. Music can tell a story with our without words. A piece of classical music can take you on a journey, build suspense, drive toward the climax, reach that intense moment and leave you emotionally spent like any great novel.

In one of my first blog posts I talked about the areas of our brain impacted by storytelling. Both for the story teller and the listener a story activates your brain like you are actually experiencing the events in the story. This is why music has the ability to bring people together - even strangers. The listeners are connected by their brain waves being on the same frequency, similar to what happens when an oral, non musical, story is shared.

Stories, just like music, activate the limbic system. Perhaps, already stimulated by the music itself, this part of the brain gets extra activation with the story the music is telling. Like a double dose. Perhaps this is why it is so intense? I am not sure. I can't find any research on this, but hoping someone is looking into it.

One of my favourite songs is Rod Stewart's The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II). This song, almost spoken, has always had an impact on me. I almost feel like I knew Georgie (perhaps because I have listened to this song so many times and I know it word for word). It is a tragic tale of a young boy from a small town, who leaves for the big city after his parents reject his sexuality. A story where Georgie finds acceptance, friendship and love, before an unexpected death, caused by being at the wrong place at the wrong time (reflecting the theme of his entire life). It is actually a true story, Georgie was a close friend of Rod Stewart.

The words alone, removed from the music, are a powerful story. Coupled with the melody of the song, the harmony of the instruments, the timbre of Rod Stewart's voice and the pain in Stewart's voice as he sings the tale, this song always moves me. (You might have to close your eyes and listen to it or the official music video might move you to tears - of laughter. Gotta love the 70s, a white suit and those dance moves).

For some reason, it just feels right to end this with an everlasting message from Georgie Boy.

Georgie's life ended there/But I ask, who really cares/George once said to me, and I quote/He said, "Never wait or hesitate/Get in kid, before it's too late/ You never get another chance/'Cos youth's a mask but it don't last/Live it long and live it fast"/Georgie was a friend of mine//

Rod Stewart, Killing of Georgie (Part I and II), 1976.