A Little Thinking Music
"Words are the pen of the heart, but music is the pen of the soul" said Shneur Zalman. "Ain't it funny how a melody brings back memories/takes you to another place and time/completely changes your state of mind" croons the old country ballad. "Give me the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away" says the classic blues song. We are a species obsessed with these compositions of sound and rhythm. We call it the universal language and provide it the role of conveying our emotions without the restrictions of a linguistic system, we say that it has the ability to trigger memories and change moods. Why do our brains react so powerfully to music? How do we process it and what purpose does it serve? These are some of the questions I set out to answer in my little musical odyssey.
When you hear a piece of music, the ear converts the sound waves into vibrations in specific parts of the inner and middle ear. These vibrations are then translated into action potentials that travel through the eighth cranial nerve to the brain stem, the thalamus, and the auditory cortex (1) . It seems that the brain takes a song and translates it into it's own neurosymphony-sending electrical impulses to various parts of your brain. These varying patterns of impulses generate thoughts, feelings, and emotions (3)  . It sounds almost as though we store various different patterns of these impulses in our brains and when the same pattern of sounds matches a pattern of impulses, it triggers a set of images. The interesting thing is that the same set of frequencies or pattern of impulses generates different images for different people. For instance, when I hear the Beatles' Yellow Submarine, I think of Mr. C, my fifth grade teacher, his old record player, and rock and roll Tuesdays. When my roommate's brain registers the same pattern of impulses, it brings up the memory of her family's tan colored Volkswagen Rabbit. When I hear Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, I hear raindrops and soft footsteps, while another person might hear rays of light falling on water. We all have distinct visions of the same pattern of sounds. Neurobiologists, like Harvard's Mark Tramo, have yet to figure out exactly how this comes about (3)  .
Music is one thing that stimulates and utilizes most parts of the brain (2) . Both the right and left hemispheres are involved because while one codifies lyrics the other tackles melody. According to Michael Tramo in his recent Science article, "the brain does not have a specific musical center", it involves parts of the brain normally utilized in other types of thinking (4) . It makes sense then that music has the ability to generate emotions and memories, it actually stirs these sections of the brain. Because music is not visual or tangible, our brains can not use those senses to interpret it. Perhaps that is the reason the music draws on so many aspects of the brain to be heard and understood. The mechanisms of the ear and the auditory cortex bring music into the brain but it is a combination of many brain functions that help us to fully understand it. Along with the pleasure of sound we get memories, images, and thoughts. We enjoy music so much because it stimulates and exercises the entire brain.
Although everyone has differing experiences of this form of expression, music is commonly identified as the 'universal language'. Perhaps, the common enjoyment and understanding of music lies in the fact that we are all born with an ability to "process music" (5) . Why is this so? What purpose does it serve humans as biological systems to be able to listen to and enjoy music? I think that in the beginnings, in most early civilizations, music and musical instruments were a form of communication. We sing, because, like other animals, we need to relate our perceptions of the world to one another. But we also listen to music for the pure aesthetic of it. It has recently been discovered that even the Neanderthals had flutes that were used to play melodies for entertainment. There is something about the beauty of music that appeals to our brains. It probably has something to do with the fact that listening to music involves relatively effortless enjoyment. When reading a book, one has to concentrate on the subject, the formation of the words, the plot, etc. But one does not necessarily have to do anything while listening to music. The stimulation that these patterns of sound generate in our brains in turn produce images, memories, and thoughts without us having to make a conscious effort. It could be argued that the I-function box experiences music vicariously through the other parts of the brain.
For a long time now music has been thought to be good for people. The Mozart Effect Experiment, though not proof positive of anything, did suggest that children who study music or play musical instruments, enhance their math and language skills (4) . Exercise makes things stronger, so it makes sense that studying music, which exercises the language and cognition centers of the brain, would enhance their performance abilities. An interesting aspect of music, however, which has only recently been explored scientifically, is its healing capabilities. Melodic Intonation Therapy is being used on stroke victims to help them recover from language aphasia. Therapists have their patients sing what they wish to say in very particular tones or pitches. The right brain stimulates impulses in the damaged left brain and in doing so helps it to regain its abilities (5) . Patients' improvements are better and faster with this type of therapy than with ordinary language and speech therapy. Music is used to soothe babies in intensive care units, ease the pain of patients who have experienced to severe trauma, jostle the memories of Alzheimer's sufferers, and prepare athletes mentally and physically for games (3) . Although more research needs to be done to discover the details of why musical therapy is so effective, it is clear that we respond psychosomatically to these strangely powerful noises.
It would seem that there is something inherent in our brains which makes music an essential for survival. It isn't so much that we would die if we never heard a single note, or hummed a tune, or played a melody, but that our experiences of everything else would be slower, less vivid, not remembered as well. Music thoroughly exercises and stimulates the brain, and in doing so, makes it stronger, more capable, and more in-tune with the world inside and outside it. So, in agreement with the ABBA song, that I danced to as a kid,
I say thank you for the music, the songs I'm singing.
Thanks for all the joy they're bringing.
Who could live without it? I ask in honesty, what would life be?
Without a song or a dance what are we?
So I say thank you for the music for giving it to me.
1) Neuroscience for Kids-The Musical Brain 
2) Music Making and the Brain 
3) Music on the Brain 
4) Newshour: Brain Music 
5) Music and the Brain 
6) How Your Brain Listens to Music 
7) Scientific American: Explore!: Exploring the Musical Brain 
8) MEHB - Music's Effect on the Human Brain 
9) Music and the Brain 
10) Preliminary Report on the Effects of Musical Intonation Therapy 
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)
01/26/2006, from a Reader on the Web
i think your right. even though i'm only 13. i have a thought and music does help us! i think it's amazing how it goes thorugh our ears and lets us generate memories and pictures iniside our head. as well as feelings and emotions. every person should be entitled to that and because we can create music not only with our mouths but with instruments to. WOW! things have changed really quickly for the better good. i'm sorry i'm leaving such a long note but i really appreciate you writing this it has helped me with my science fair report tremendously and i thank you! sincerly, zoey c.