The Music Instinct: Science and Song

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Elena Gillespie reports on Daniel Levitin's PBS film The Music Instinct: Science And Song and explores new directions in music cognition theory.

Long ago when I was caring for a woman dying of Alzheimer's, she gifted me with a beautiful rendition of a classical piece of music on her piano. I remember that moment clearly; mostly bedridden, she had wandered downstairs in her nightgown, drawn to the magnificent baby grand piano in her library. Ghost-like, very beautiful with long silver hair, she was now completely divested of speech by the disease. She was living out her days in the Michigan backwoods, her house full of old photos of her posing with presidents and with curios bearing the US State Department insignia stuffed in vast cabinets. Her days of glory were now long past; she had been a mover and shaker on the Washington DC diplomatic scene in the 1950s.

She played the piece flawlessly in its entirety without music; it might have been something by Erik Satie. I had been hanging over the curve of the piano, enthralled, moved by her grace and technical brilliance; after she finished she stared at me silently for a moment, and then wandered back upstairs. She died not long after this episode, but I was always struck by the secrets of the brain that allowed her to keep the music in her head when all else had dissolved away.

In his second book on music cognition, "The World In Six Songs," Daniel Levitin Ph.D. contends that six templates can describe the foundation of the world's repertoire of songs. While this contention may or may not have credence, Levitin flavors it by excluding instrumental music and focusing primarily on vocalized, Western pop music. He opens his argument by complaining that the lyrics to The Eagles' "Hotel California," the SoCal ode to the '80s, are completely opaque to him. Not the best way to start out with a jazz fan.

So expecting to be yelling at the TV during Levitin's PBS documentary, The Music Instinct, I was pleasantly surprised by his having corrected many of the omissions and logical frailties from his book. Mercifully, he doesn't focus much on neuroanatomy or physiology, other than pointing out that the old theory of a central "music center" in the brain has been dismissed in favor of a vast range of nerve types and disparate centers being responsible for processing music. He brings in all the big guns, both musicologists and musicians: Steven Mithen, Oliver Sacks, Steven Pinker, Sheila C. Woodward, Daniel Barenboim, Yoyo Ma, singer Bobby McFerrin, and even Brian Greene, the string theory physicist.

There has been a sharp rise in the study of music cognitive processing in the new millennium. Rather than dismissing it as purely for entertainment value—which is an exception in the world's history and cultures—a varied band of scientists are investigating how we process music, hoping to shed light on the brain's still considerable mysteries about how we think, learn, work and play.

The effects of music on health have actually been studied for longer than music cognition. Hospital recovery rooms are now offering live music, and for well-documented reasons. Increased levels of dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters of pleasure and balanced brain function, have been consistently demonstrated while listening to music. It can relieve depression, improve the immune response and even have beneficial effect on reasoning ability. Most research has been conducted using classical music, but in most if not all cases, only transitory effects have been seen.

But as we can figure out from attending any live music event, there is so much more to it than that. The highs, the lows, the frissons, those moments when your skin shivers and you are momentarily transported to another emotional state when listening to your favorite artist—all are part of the experience. But not when listening to, say, a Lebanese traditional love song, unless, of course, you are Lebanese, and you grew up with it. Why is that?

With the development of new techniques such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positronic emission tomography) scanning, studies of how the brain functions in real-time have taken a quantum leap forward, some of them being applied to how music is processed. Sheila C. Woodward of USC has shown that fetuses in the womb begin responding to music at 17-19 weeks gestation and that they most strongly respond to consonant, not dissonant intervals: 3rds, 4ths, 5ths and octaves. She has also shown that babies cry in consonant intervals, regardless of cultural background. This appears to be hardwired in the human brain, although we can be conditioned to respond to dissonant frequencies as in the above quoted Lebanese love songs. Babies also respond most strongly to steady tempos. But after that, musically, we are a blank page until we learn the "cultural rules."


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