Why do we like music? – Part 1

listening to music
Listening To Music by Petr Kratochvil

Music seems to have a been a part of human culture since the beginning of culture itself. Earlier this year, researchers excavating caves in southern Germany found ancient flutes carved from mammoth ivory, subsequently shown via Carbon dating to be between 42000 and 43000 years old. This means we were making music at least as far back as the time when we shared the Earth with Neanderthals.  But why?

There are several theories for how our proclivity for music-making might have evolved, but most likely is that it arose in parallel with language as both a means of communication and a force for social cohesion. Through song, dance, ritual and ceremony, music helped to bring the people of our tribes together.

Music of the spheres

The word music originally derives from mousa, the Greek word for muse (which I wrote about in a previous essay on artistic inspiration), revealing the classical belief that music was a gift from the gods. This connection with the divine and the associated idea of the heavens being imbued with some kind of inherent music of the spheres was picked up during the renaissance by composers (many of whom were commissioned by the church) as well as artists and poets such as John Milton, who in Arcades, spoke of,

the heavenly tune, which none can hear
Of human mould with gross unpurged ear.

Although now a devout atheist, I have never lost my love of the ecclesiastical music in which, as an enthusiastic member of my school choir and orchestra, I was immersed throughout my childhood. Indeed, to this day, it is works such as Allegri’s Miserere (to which I refer in my novel Connected) that for me most strongly evoke that magical goose-bump feeling, hinting of something special in the way music acts on our brains. In fact, as the exclusive property of the Vatican, the Miserere was, for many years, considered so special that it was forbidden for the score or any copy of it, to leave the Sistine Chapel. Rumour has it, that only after a young Austrian composer by the name of Mozart, attended a concert there and subsequently transcribed the whole thing from memory, did the piece finally escape the clutches of the Catholic Church.

The food of love

Outside of the Church, from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to just about any popular song in the charts since, music has  enjoyed a long and intimate association with the emotion of love. Whether in celebration of its finding, or in consolation of its loss, music seems able to express our feelings of love better than anything.

But what is really going on in the brain when we listen to music?

Since this was one of the questions at the heart of my novel, Connected, I devoured several books on the subject as part of my research. Of these, I found Daniel Levitin’s This is your Brain on Music, to be the most illuminating of the underlying brain science. After laying the neuroscientific groundwork and examining many of the competing theories for how it is that music might affect us so profoundly, Levitin suggests that it is the creation and subsequent violation of expectation in our minds to which music owes its potency.

When I thought about this in more detail, and revisited my own list of goose-bump-inducing musical extracts (similar to the tape created by my character, Martin, in Connected) this explanation seemed to resonate with my own experience. At least part of our appreciation of music comes from recognising certain tonal patterns and predicting where the tune will go next. Sometimes it will match our expectations and we’ll derive a certain satisfaction from this, but at other times, these expectations are violated and, if violated in just the right way, this can stimulate us even more, lighting up our brain’s reward centres and triggering the cascade of thoughts and feelings we associate with good music.

They’re playing our song.

While I find Levitin’s explanation both plausible and appealing (which is why I borrowed it for my book), I don’t think it’s the whole story. The physician, writer and amateur pianist, Oliver Sacks, in his wonderful book, Musicophilia, provides a beautifully written collection of case studies capturing the role of music in the expression and treatment of a wide range of neurological conditions. With touching sensitivity to the plights of the various patients of whom he writes, Sacks explains how music, as it stimulates, connects, or synchronises various brain functions, can prove an extraordinarily effective treatment for a wide variety of conditions.

As a keen trumpeter and member of various jazz, dance and swing bands over the years, I’ve always enjoyed watching the reaction of older members of the audience as the music transports them back to younger and seemingly happier times and places. Even for me, in my somewhat more youthful middle years, certain music – even, rather inexplicably, pieces I don’t recall having heard before – will instantly trigger past memories, some of which might have been buried for years.

“Universal grammar” of emotion or a cultural invention?

Due to the incredible power of music to evoke emotions, trigger memories and heal troubled minds, I had pretty much come to the conclusion that music must be acting on the brain in some kind of innate, organic way. Similar if you like to Noam Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar in linguistics, I had wondered whether music was some kind of universal grammar of emotion – an innate hard-wiring of the human brain evolved for the communication of emotions between individuals and groups…

Chinese Opera
Kunqu Opera – The Peony Pavilion

…Then I spent three hours listening to Chinese Opera.

At the time I was working for a Taiwanese software manufacturer, the founders of which had generously sponsored a production of “The Peony Pavillion” in London’s west-end. As a special treat, all 50 or so of the company’s UK’s employees were “invited” to support the occasion by attending a performance of the first act (3 hours) of this 19 hour cross-cultural extravaganza.

Now, I consider my musical taste to be wider and more eclectic than that of many, but I have to say that the noises emanating from the stage for the interminable duration of that first act, bore little resemblance in my mind to anything I would usually describe as music.

By this I don’t just mean that it wasn’t to my taste. With the exception of one or two short instrumental passages in between scenes, the singing, while extremely skilfully executed I’m sure, sounded to me more like a sack full of cats being repeatedly dunked in cold water. Eerie, mostly high-pitched, and sliding around like penguins on an ice-flow, these inhuman sounds seemed to lack any of the rhythmic or tonal conventions to which I had been previously exposed.

I then realised that my inability to appreciate this music, which in those more accustomed seemed to be inducing all the same effects as I enjoy in western music, must be the clearest indication that music is in fact a cultural invention after all:

…from an early age, we learn to associate musical patterns with emotions. On joyous occasions we become used to hearing particular styles of music. When we next hear something similar, we are pleasantly reminded of those occasions and describe the music as uplifting.

– At least, that was the initial conclusion of my character, Peter, in Connected.

In part 2 of this rather long blog post, I will discuss some fascinating new research (completed after I finished the book) showing that fractals, another key component to the story, also seem to play a role in our appreciation of music.

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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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  1. Great theory. I can see early man developing tunes to belong to the group. I must confess, I don’t listen to music much. Some filters through from television commercials. Shocking when I face that fact. My excuse is that I’m sitting at my computer nearly all day, and I find noise of any sort distracting. I’ll just pop over and read the second part of your blog.

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