Why does music move us?

By , February 24, 2010 5:32 pm

How is it that the combination of sound waves that we know as music can have such a moving effect, asks Roger Highfield.

By Roger Highfield
Originally published in the Telegraph: 7:00AM GMT 23 Feb 2010 – Click here to see original story

In the most basic terms, sound is merely a pressure wave that ripples through air. So how does the combination of sound waves that we know as music become, as Tolstoy put it, “the shorthand of emotion”? Or, to put it another way, how can mechanical vibrations have such a moving effect?

The answer, according to Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct, lies not in the notes themselves, but in our brains. Last week, I hosted an event with him at the Royal Institution, at which he explained to a packed audience why listening to Lady Gaga – who was wowing the audience at the Brit awards at that very moment – was just as demanding as Bach or Beethoven.

Whatever your favourite kind of music, your brain has to work hard to make sense of it. Its remarkable skill at pattern detection will take the extraordinary richness of a note on a piano or flute – which is crammed with harmonics – and magically collapsed it in our heads, so that we perceive it as a single note rather than a forest of overtones.

“We are pattern seekers,” explains Ball, “and music helps us to find patterns in sound. We come equipped with all sorts of rules of thumb to make sense of what we hear, and those are the brain mechanisms that we use to organise sound and make sense of music.”

Medical scanners have shown that this process is not limited to one part of the brain. Different aspects of music activate different areas: we use our temporal lobe to process melody and pitch, our hippocampus to recover musical memories and our “rhythm-processing circuits” to fire up motor functions (which might explain why it is hard to sit still when listening to Lady Gaga, or tunes with similarly propulsive beats).

Interestingly, the brain gives out the same signal of confusion when it encounters examples sentences of that sense make don’t, like this one, as music whose “syntax” seems wrong, as when the chords don’t seem to fit. And if you study how we react to patterns of notes, you find there is something special about a pitch that is double the frequency of another – the interval better known as an octave.

The biggest question, however, is whether this kind of mental circuitry is designed specifically to handle music, or if songs and tunes are just “auditory cheesecake”, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker puts it – sounds which accidentally generate pleasure, via neural systems that evolved to respond to other kinds of stimuli?

The disappointing truth, says Ball, is that we just don’t know. But we do know that the way we learn to appreciate music is profoundly affected by how were raised. A few years ago, Ball wrote in New Scientist about how music seems to have a national character, probably as a result of the rhythms and cadences of each different language. The English tend to vary the pitch of their speech, and the length of their vowels, more than the French, and their composers follow suit in the rhythms and intervals they use. On the latter measure, Elgar was found to be the most “English” composer – which perhaps helps explain why his Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 is at the heart of the Last Night of the Proms.

Similarly, concepts of what is harmonious boil down to a matter of convention, not acoustics. Many old fogeys struggle with modern music and complain that it is dissonant. “Actually, dissonance – horrible clashing notes – has always been in music,” says Ball. “Listen to Beethoven and Chopin, which are full of it. It is a matter of convention: what we regard as consonant now was thought dissonant in the Middle Ages.” The augmented fourth (the spine-tingling interval in West Side Story’s Maria) was thought sinister in medieval times, when it was dubbed “diabolus in musica”. We still find it slightly unsettling today – which is perhaps why the music of Black Sabbath relies on it heavily.

Towards the end of our meeting, I asked Ball whether music’s effects on the brain can be harnessed for good. It was a perfect set-up for him to examine the so-called “Mozart effect”: the belief that playing your infant classical music will make them brainier. He cited an experiment conducted in 1996, when one of the “Megalab” mass experiments run by The Daily Telegraph and the BBC showed that playing babies Blur worked better than Mozart. The important thing was not the music per se, but the fact that it put the children in a good mood.

For Ball, the definition of the “music instinct” is that we are predisposed to make the world a musical place. Apart from the tiny proportion of the population who really are tone-deaf, it is impossible to say: “I am not musical.” Even if it may seem that way whenever you get dragged along to the karaoke.

* Roger Highfield is the Editor of ‘New Scientist’