But What is Music?

Walking down the street in the city the other day, I noticed the words on a t-shirt in front of me, which said 'music is how feelings sound'. This statement struck me as being true. Musical tastes are also very personal, yet music can bring a whole room or even a city together. I challenge anyone not to get into a marching band at a parade playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (John Sousa) and I'm not even American!

 An Emotional Language

Yet some scientists think that music  doesn't serve a purpose and is hijacking the emotion, language and movement parts of the brain.

video for "Spinning Around". (2000)Credit: Wikipedia

Kylie Minogue

Renown Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, describes music as 'auditory cheesecake'. Neurologist Oliver Sacks however, in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain believes that music goes further than language as a means of emotional expression. He believes  that intrinsically we are a musical species. In this rather 'fabo' book ,he also talks about people with William's Syndrome who generally have IQ scores of around  60, but have incredible ability to remember songs and can have musical savant (genius) like skills. Then there are other people, with what Sacks calls 'amusia' who.....well think of your favourite piece of music, that lifts you off the floor and blows you out the window; to them it sounds like pots and pans banging together.

Music Can Change Your Brain

Springsteen performingCredit: Wikipedia

Bruce Springsteen

No doubt music and mood are related. Think about driving to work in your car thinking, 'another boring day of drudgery', when some boppy tune comes on the radio, something really sappy....like Walking on Sunshine. I don't know about you but I start bopping about  ...as much as you can while driving on the highway, locked to the steering wheel. Everything shifts and outside looks brighter and better and I find myself waving at people I don't ever know. Or you are cooking dinner, making something hot and spicy, just cutting the onions when Adelestarts to play on the TV music channel and soon you are weeping into the dinner, thinking about some pimply boyfriend who dumped you when you were 12. Later the family complains the tacos  were too salty, but you don't care because you just watched a movie which featured I am woman and you are feeling empowered (get the drift?).

Music and Ambience

Imagine going to a movie and there is no music, would we be so immersed in the story, and transported to another place? Imagine watching the film Titanic without crying to the theme song  or uplifted by the grandiose, anthemic Pirates of the Caribbean tune. Music provides a signal to us about how we should feel and it's power to creep into our brains is often hard to resist. Think of horror films which often feature brooding music full of threat, screaming guitars or dangerous dark  pulsating themes to chill the spine and cool the blood.

Long before film, ancient cultures like the Australian Aborigines used music as the soundtrack to their storytelling rituals, which has undoubtedly allowed their culture to survive for thousands of years. Other traditional cultures like Indian and Arabic, also have a long musical tradition which is quite different to the 'Western' style. Traditional Indian music for example doesn't have chords, is often improvised and is not harmonious to our ears (this of course is a matter of perception).

Listening to music that does not conform to our 'musical schema' can however, cause unpleasant sensations. A very severe musical incident occurred on Thursday, 29 May 1913, when Stravinsky's “The Rite of Spring” was performed at a theatre in Paris. The music which features prominent use of dissonance, asymmetrical rhythms, constantly changing time signatures and off-beat accents, caused the audience to riot.

Musical Superpowers

Try to put yourself into the shoes...I mean ears, of  Bob Milne who featured on a Radiolab segment. This guy has musical superpowers that no other person is known to possess. Not only can he play extremely challenging piano pieces, but he can converse and tell jokes at the same time. But, that's not all! Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Betterman, put him to the test and he is able to hear at least four orchestras in his head at the same time! And indicate, exactly where each piece of music is, at any point! (people like this are the reason I gave up the piano!).

Another interesting phenomena is auditory pareidolia. This is when people play songs backwards and claim to hear messages. Some songs of course do have messages, which have been intentionally added by the process of backward masking. The first song with deliberate backward masking was Rain, by John Lennon, with the message: "Sunshine … Rain … When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads". Pink Floyd also added a backmasked message into Empty Spaces  "Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the Funny Farm, Chalfont..." Other supposed messages are mind illusions,which American science writer Michael Shermer says are due to faulty perception of patterns by the brain.

Music and Time

Patsy Cline

Patsy Cline at Four Star Records in March 1957.Credit: Wikipedia

Music can also tell you a lot about the time period in which it was created, or perhaps the class, or subculture that a person belongs to. Like the music of the 1950s, when rock and roll was getting started. Such music was often upbeat or sentimental, which is not surprising when you consider the world had been through two world wars and was eager to forget the horrors of the past and look to the future. And today we often categorise people by the music they like, such as: the heavy metals heads, the rappers, the country nuts and those that listen to hip hop.

Getting back to music and emotion, do you ever notice how someone, say your best friend can be crazy about say Bruce Springsteenor Lady Ga Ga and yet such  music just leaves you cold or gives you a headache? Perhaps it's because we all have different brains, wired up by different genes and experiences and very individual emotional responses. That's how I see it anyway.

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