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A Space for Music: Mind Over Music

1. Where Music Comes from

Jamshed Bharucha, provost and senior vice president of Tufts, is both a violinist and an active investigator in the area of music perception. Using the latest medical imaging techniques, he has peered into brains to observe the effects of music. Bit by bit, he and his colleagues are assembling clues about musical intelligence.

All peoples have music, and only people have music. Despite similarities to vocalizations in animals, such as birdcalls and “whale song,” music as we know it in its full richness cannot be found amongst other species. The nature of this mysterious phenomenon has baffled philosophers through the ages. Recently, however, the tools of cognitive science and neuroscience have started bringing to light some intriguing possibilities about the origins of music and its roles in society.

There are strong connections between music and another uniquely human faculty—speech. The modern theoretical foundation for this connection was developed by Professor Ray Jackendoff (see “Why Music Makes Us Feel”). Both speech and music involve patterns of pitch and rhythm. Whether speech derives from music, music derives from speech, or they have some common origin, nobody knows. But the neurological connection is clear: both speech and some aspects of music (notably pitch patterns) engage the same part of the brain, a ridge next to the ears called the superior temporal gyrus.

We know this from studying deficits incurred by patients with selective brain damage, but also from the relatively new technology of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This technology enables us to watch the living brain at work. When people listen to music, fMRI shows us, several brain circuits are activated. Besides the superior temporal gyrus, these include circuits responsible for movement and timing.

Allow me to present my brain. That’s it in the series of images at right, taken while I listened to music. What you see are virtual slices going from the left side to the right side of my brain. The red dots indicate where the most activity occurred. The green circle shows activity in the superior temporal gyrus. The yellow arrow marks activity in the cerebellum, which is involved in timing. The activation of timing and movement circuits as I listened while lying immobile suggests an inherent link between music and movement, as in dance.

Even people who have no musical training, or who claim to be tone-deaf, have musical intelligence built into their brains. Just recognizing familiar tunes requires lots of specialized wiring, some of it innate and some of it developed through learning. As we interact with a structured environment over time, our brains change the pattern of connections between neurons. The result is “implicit” knowledge—things we have learned but cannot explain, like how to ski or how to speak our native language. Musical patterns are learned by the brain as automatically as a baby learns to recognize words.

The encoding of familiar patterns seems to play an important role both in our development of musical taste and in building cultural identity. A widely accepted theory of musical aesthetics is that a successful piece of music generates melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic expectations, based on familiar cultural patterns, and then violates these expectations to varying degrees. In their musical preferences, people seem to seek a balance between the fulfillment and violation of expectations.

Of course, patterns that are familiar in one culture may be completely unfamiliar in another. My students and I have been looking at differences in the brain’s response to music as a function of prior cultural exposure. Our hypothesis is that people who have grown up in different musical cultures show different patterns of brain activity in response to the same piece of music.

People are inclined to think of their experience of music solely in terms of aesthetics and emotion, but those responses are tied into primordial processes within the brain that facilitate communication and social signaling. The tendency of the brain to distinguish between the familiar and the unfamiliar allows music to foster the cohesion and identity of social groups, a function that may help explain the persistence of this distinctly human art.

Ray Jackendoff
Photo: Melody Ko
2. Why Music Makes Us Feel

The linguist and concert clarinetist Ray Jackendoff, co-director of Tufts’ Center for Cognitive Studies, has been a leading thinker in the field of musical cognition since 1982, when he and the composer Fred Lerdahl, of Columbia University, published a book called A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Lately, the two have been pondering a matter that concerns anyone who has ever blissed out at a rock concert, thrilled to a Beethoven symphony, or been stirred by a marching band.

Aside from music theorists, practically everyone considers the primary question in psychology of music to be: What is the relation of music to emotion? We prefer to phrase the question slightly differently, as the relation of music to affect. A passage of music can be gentle, forceful, awkward, abrupt, static, opening up, shutting down, mysterious, sinister, forthright, noble, reverent, transcendent, ecstatic, sentimental, longing, striving, resolute, depressive, playful, witty, ironic, or tense. Few of these can be characterized as emotions per se. The term affect allows us to inquire into this fuller range of possibilities.

One might think that affects ought to be ascribed only to sentient agents such as people and perhaps animals. So what does it mean to say a string of notes is playful or sentimental? This question has a scope wider than music. How can we characterize a novel, a poem, or a painting (especially an abstract painting) as cheerful, static, or playful? It doesn’t necessarily mean the characters or objects in it are cheerful, static, or playful. Nor need we be talking about the emotions of an author or performer, since we can describe a natural landscape as gloomy or wild.

This problem is not confined to aesthetic experience. To call something boring or valuable ascribes to it a putatively objective characteristic akin to its size or temperature. Yet something can’t be boring if no one is bored by it; something can’t be valuable if no one values it. That is, such descriptions covertly involve the reactions of an observer. We propose that the affective terms applying to music are of this kind: a listener deems a passage of music mysterious if it is judged to evoke a sense of mystery in the generic observer—usually with the listener him/herself taken to stand in for the generic observer.

“Evoke” here does not mean “cause to experience.” Aside from masochists, people don’t normally want to make themselves sad; yet people flock to hear sad music. People have flocked to Hamlet and Oedipus Rex for centuries, too. A solution to this puzzle is that the perception of both music and drama is framed: it is approached with a mindset distinct from ordinary life, like a picture in a frame. Listeners can choose how much to invest themselves in the material within the frame and how much to remain detached; the emotional effect is greater the more one invests in the framed material—while still recognizing it as framed. Composers and performers have similar choices: one need not feel sinister to compose or perform sinister music.

Beyond the general frame of aesthetic experience, music partakes in other wide-ranging sources of affect. One is the affect that goes with admiring virtuosity of any sort, be it by a violinist, an acrobat, a star quarterback, or an ingenious criminal. Another is the affect provoked by nostalgic familiarity (“Darling, they’re playing our song”), which is shared by familiar foods, customs, and geographic locales, among other things.

There are also circumstances in hearing music where the frame is dropped altogether, described perhaps as “losing oneself in the music” or “getting swept up in the music.” This sensation, too, is not peculiar to music. It appears, for instance, in states of religious ecstasy, sexual abandon, and mob behavior.

Some aspects of affect in music are easily attributable to general characteristics of audition. A clear case is the startle reaction to sudden loud noises, which carries over to sudden loud outbursts in music. Some sounds are inherently pleasant (songbirds) or unpleasant (buzz saws), and music with similar acoustic character invokes similar affect.

Equally clear are musical phenomena that simulate affective characteristics of vocal production. For example, low-pitched sounds evoke reactions to large animals, and high-pitched sounds evoke smaller animals.

At a larger scale of organization, we find a source of affect that is shared with language: what might be called “rhetorical effects.” A simple example is the use of repetition as a source of intensification, such as the music for “I love you, I love you, I love you” in the Beatles song “Michelle.” Related to this is use of a musical refrain to which the melody returns, perhaps parallel to the use of refrains in the rhetorical mode of evangelical preaching.

Looking at still larger scales of organization, consider the treatment of extended musical forms. A piece may begin with an introductory passage that sets a mood from which the rest of the music departs, such as the “vamp” at the beginning of a pop song. There may be stretches of music where nothing of consequence happens, and tension is built only by the passing of time and the sense that something has to happen soon.

These larger structures have a great deal in common with structure in narrative and drama. The “vamp” plays much the same role as scene-setting in narrative; one is creating a mood and waiting for the action to begin. The plot of a novel or play often involves a slow building of tension to a climax, followed by rapid denouement. Often the resolution is postponed by long stretches of inaction, or alternatively by deflection to a subplot. We conjecture that both music and language make use of idealized event structures by which humans understand long-range connections of tension and resolution. In short, many (though not all) affective qualities of music and their integration into larger frames are shared with other aspects of human activity and experience.

Adapted from “The Capacity for Music” (Cognition, May 2006).

Illustration by Darren Hopes

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