There is a silence in the auditorium. They are getting ready to begin. The overture: the bristles of the bows stroke the strings thunderously, the melody is pronounced with fervour. Hairs stand on end, the audience inhales deeply. The brass starts. The conductor leads the dance with an unbridled arm movement. An imposing echo of the 78 instruments generates an emotional roar. Childhood memories, happiness, involuntary smile and a racing heart. Music moves us.
In our brain, the same pleasure centres are activated as when we eat chocolate, have sex or inhale cocaine. But not only does it cause us joy and happiness, music is especially successful in awakening our most primordial fears. Piercing violins make us feel persecuted and vulnerable in the best Psycho style. Adrenaline is quickly released: airways dilate, vessels constrict, fear is accentuated. Music alters our body.
From Bone to Flute
The relationship between humans and what we recognize today as music goes back over 40,000 years, to the beginnings of our civilization. Our ancestors back then were already playing bone flutes and percussion. Almost all known human societies have had music, suggesting that our appreciation for it could be innate. Even two-month-old babies seem to turn toward pleasant sounds and turn away from dissonant ones.
Given its universality, could music have aided human survival? Did it confer any advantages or benefits? The evolutionary-biologist’s question. Some researchers suggest it may have helped in courtship [first Palaeolithic serenade?]. Others say it promotes group cohesion, just as it does today [like going to a concert with friends]. It may even be a simple happy accident [Hi Bob Ross], an auditory delight, which coincidentally ended up creating a cerebral rumba.
Fireworks in Our Heads
And when I say rumba, I am not exaggerating. When we listen to music, several regions of the brain, normally associated with other cognitive processes, are activated. In fact, the composer of the famous Boléro, the Frenchman Maurice Ravel, suffered from brain degeneration and multiple regions of his brain were damaged. And although he was unable to write music again, he kept listening to it and creating operas in his head. Music and language are closely related.
Another composer, the Russian Shebalin, lost the ability to speak and understand languages but retained the ability to write music until his death. Music and language in fact share many things: both are forms of communication and each has a syntax, or rather, how to combine the elements that compose them (notes or words). A region in the frontal lobe seems to facilitate the construction of music as language. The border is blurred. The phrase “music is a language” has more certainty now.
The ultimate destination of the Concierto de Aranjuez is the auditory cortex, in the temporal lobe of our brain. Here, different cells respond better to different frequencies. This organization is known as tonotopic, it is a kind of map, in which the position determines the sensitivity of the cells: from left to right, low to higher-pitched sounds. But the response to music is a bit more complex than this. For example, the activation of the brain when listening to a note depends on where that note is in the melody; If we listen to a C at the beginning, the activation will not be the same as if we listen to it after an F, even if it is the same note. Therefore, the pattern in the melody affects the way our neurons are activated. Harmony is more associated with the right temporal lobe, as is timbre, since patients with damage or whose right temporal lobes have been removed cannot distinguish very well, for example, between a guitar and a saxophone.
This response to music also depends on the person’s training. It has been observed that people who practice an instrument, or even those who listen to music frequently, rewire their brains to dedicate more neurons to music processing. This may explain why we recognize familiar melodies, or why people with Alzheimer’s disease can remember music from years ago.
It must be said that just by pressing play in our mind to that favourite song, we activate many of the areas of the temporal lobe that are activated when we really listen to it. It is as if when listening to that song, the neurons were the “vinyl” where the song is been recorded. Those neurons that were stimulated the first time are configured to be activated in the same way every time we imagine that song. Every time we remember something, we are actually trying to recreate the original stimulus in our brain.
Musicians’ brains go even beyond what was mentioned above, the brain is drastically rewired to provide a greater focus on playing music. Practising several hours a day over many years causes neurological responses to music to differ from those of “non-musicians”; several regions of the brain are overdeveloped. Their auditory cortices are larger [up to 130%!] and therefore so is their response to sounds; they have greater sensitivity. And this is even more drastic if you start at an early age with music. Just imagine the brain of someone who started playing an instrument as a child.
A leak, the mosquito’s buzzing, the electrostatic noise of a radio or shrill voices, all these noises we musicians feel more intensely, they provoke us face spasms. In addition, because of the precise and coordinated use of fingers and hands, the motor regions are also enlarged. The corpus callosum that interconnects the two hemispheres of our brain is also larger in musicians than in “non-musicians”, due to the fact that the former, especially pianists, have to coordinate both hands in a very precise way and each hand is controlled by a motor region in each hemisphere.
Music, Song… Emotion
Laughter, tears, chills, shivers, jumps of emotion: music. Listening to music makes our bodies go wild: changes in our heart rate, blood pressure or breathing, among many other effects. And this physiological “dancing” is constant regardless of the person being studied. It has even been shown that the emotional response is unrelated to the auditory part. People with damage to the auditory cortex, even if they are unable to recognize songs or distinguish between two melodies, no matter how different they are, experience the same emotions when listening to music as healthy people. This means that the temporal lobe (where the auditory cortex is located and sounds are processed) is necessary to understand a melody, but not to induce an emotional response. Sound processing and the resulting emotions are not linked! Emotions occur in the subcortical part and involve aspects of the frontal lobes as well. And it doesn’t end there, the emotional response is different for two consonant [harmonious and pleasant] notes, such as the warm sound of a “perfect fifth” [music interval, e.g., playing a C and a G], than for dissonant notes that are considered unpleasant [such as a C and a C#]. Consonant (pleasant) chords activate the orbitofrontal area of the right hemisphere which is part of the reward system. Such is the excitement we get from music that, at that moment when we feel a brief rush of euphoria when we hear a great song, some of the same reward systems are being activated as when we eat or have sex. Pleasure.
In short, music does have a biological basis, and the brain has a functional organization for it. Many regions of the brain are involved in the appreciation of music and many more when performing it. Musicians have more developed regions. Thus, learning rearranges the brain, making it more sensitive and efficient and increasing the size of some parts of it.
Perhaps it is not such a bad idea for children to take music lessons during the vacations or, better yet, to start playing an instrument at an early age.
- Balkwill, L. L., & Thompson, W. F. (1999). A cross-cultural investigation of the perception of emotion in music: Psychophysical and cultural cues. Music perception: an interdisciplinary journal, 17(1), 43–64.
- Schneider, P., Scherg, M., Dosch, H. G., Specht, H. J., Gutschalk, A., & Rupp, A. (2002). Morphology of Heschl’s gyrus reflects enhanced activation in the auditory cortex of musicians. Nature neuroscience, 5(7), 688.
- Trimble, M., & Hesdorffer, D. (2017). Music and the brain: the neuroscience of music and musical appreciation. BJPsych international, 14(2), 28–31.
- Weinberger, N. M. (2004). Music and the brain. Scientific American, 291(5), 88–95.