As I came out of the Convent to Offenbach, there I lay in the garden upon the lawn, and heard Salieri and Winter and Mozart and Cherubini and Haydn and Beethoven. All this swarmed around me: I conceived it neither by my ear nor my understanding, but yet I felt it, while all else in life I did not feel: that is, the loftier inward man felt it; and already at that time I asked myself: who is that who is fed and nourished by Music, and what is that, which there grows and nourishes and supports itself, and through Music becomes itself active?
Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child (pub. 1835/English translation 1837) - letter from Bettine von Arnim (1785–1859) to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)
Is Music What We Are?
Although musical experiences and skills are universal in all human societies, we still do not know 'what music is for?'. Steven Brown, in Contagious heterophony: A new theory about the origins of music, suggests that music, which is in its most basic sense a means of group communication, could be useful in solidifying social groups. However, that its use has persisted culturally over such a long period suggests that we as individuals may have gained, or maybe are still gaining, some evolutionary advantage from it (see The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (2005) by Steven Mithen). It remains moot whether music and/or language developed as a means of self-expression, that is as a way of externalising thought, or as a means of communication? If the former, then it is possible that, in their structure, language, and possibly music, reflect in some way the way we think. Matt Ridley's book Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human mentions that 'in 1967 a Harvard psychologist, Eric Lenneberg, published a book in which he argued that the ability to learn language is itself subject to a critical period that ends abruptly at puberty'. Clearly music, like language, is complex, governed by rules, and acquired in developmental stages, with all individuals acquiring a basic musical appreciation, and others going on to develop remarkably high skills. Such evidence suggests that music is a consequence of biological evolution and is therefore associated with a specific brain architecture, the so-called 'language acquisition device' which is specialised for the job of acquiring language. Scientific findings indicate that indeed there are discrete brain systems and computations active for particular music experiences and skills, and that these systems are distributed through the left and right cerebral cortex, sub-cortex, and cerebellum. There is also evidence that changes in brain organization and function result from the acquisition of high musical skill.
Dr. David Schwartz and his colleagues at Duke University in North Carolina have suggested that musical structures - chords and scales - reflect patterns found in human speech. "You have many musical cultures that don't have a 12-note scale, they may have five notes, a pentatonic scale, and yet we could not find any that had notes that were not in the chromatic scale or very close to it." The researchers wondered why music was divided into 12 notes - why not 14, or 20, or three? Dr Schwartz and his colleagues believe it is because we are trained by the sounds of speech. The human speaking voice produces certain combinations of frequencies - pitches - and we look for those same combinations in music. Dr. Schwartz says, "We are immersed in it, we are bathed in it, we live in an acoustic environment dominated by speech and therefore speech sounds are going to play a major role in shaping the evolution and development of the auditory system. There is this nice match between mind and world."
Other researchers believe that language development depends on the stage of understanding and reasoning which a child has reached. In other words, that language depends on the development of thinking skills, rather than vice-versa. There is evidence that the crucial factors in acquiring language have less to do with intellect and everything to do with social interaction; that the "give-and-take, push-and-pull" of daily life forces virtually all of us to acquire language simply to live and work together; that as children we tend to acquire the language and accent of our peer group rather than those of our parents; that evolution has produced active players who strive to benefit from the group rather than allowing themselves to be exploited or dominated by it. Putting this in a musical context, while we all know what music we like to listen to even if we have never had a music lesson in our life, very few of us become proficient musical performers without guidance from a good teacher.
In general, we reserve the term ‘musical’ for those who exhibit special skill in performance or unusual interest in music. Obviously, infants cannot meet that performance criterion, but they are musical in other respects. For one thing, they exhibit considerable interest in music, and mothers throughout the world satisfy that interest by singing while they care for infants. In spite of their limited experience, infants have distinct musical preferences. They like some styles of singing more than others, and they prefer consonant music to dissonant music. Much as infants enjoy listening to their mother’s speech, they are calmer and more attentive when she sings. What is most surprising, however, is infants’ precocious perception of pitch and temporal patterns in music. For example, after hearing a tune at one pitch level or tempo, infants recognise it when it is shifted to a different pitch level or tempo. Moreover, infants remember precise musical details when a melody conforms to universal or near-universal principles of musical structure. In the case of atypically structured melodies, infants retain coarse-grained information rather than fine details. It appears, then, that infants begin life as musical beings. Thus, music is not only part of our culture; it is also part of our nature.
In childhood, we learn to express musical abilities in many ways: we sing, improvise, move and dance, perform instruments, describe music verbally and represent music through invented written notations. This behaviour changes drastically and systematically during childhood with the most noticeable improvements occurring between the ages of two and nine. The acquisition of these abilities allows us to understand the development of children’s perception of a variety of musical elements such as pitch, melodic contour, form, tonality, timbre, dynamics, mode, beat, articulation, meter and rhythm. It has been claimed that music instruction has other favourable effects on the development of children. For example, there may be possible benefits of music instruction on the development of cognitive abilities, particularly spatial abilities, self-esteem, personality traits, motor skills and achievement in language and maths.
The psychology of music has been especially concerned with understanding how music is perceived, organised, remembered and performed. Perception begins when the sensory system is stimulated by acoustic information. Principles of perceptual organisation group together sounds according to pitch range, temporal proximity, similarity of timbre and harmonic relationships. The organised sounds are then interpreted by the listeners’ knowledge of musical structure. This enables them to identify the style, generate expectations and form an interpreted memory representation. Performing music, whether from memory or from a written score, requires the performer to generate conceptually well-formed units and motor programs for their execution. The currently available research shows that humans have an impressive repertoire of musical abilities. Some of these abilities are basic and are not strongly dependent on explicit musical training. They are present in infants and they can aid experienced listeners when hearing music in a novel style. At the other extreme are special skills acquired through years of assiduous training.
Science has offered new approaches for enhancing musical performance. Early studies largely focused on the alleviation of performance anxiety and how to survive it. More recent research is directed at assisting the performer in improving their abilities, in order to meet multifaceted demands on skill in both practice and performance. These include not only technical abilities but high level abilities including musicality, artistic insight, as well as emotional conviction and expression. Methods for musical practice are being refined in order to achieve better results more quickly, involving more effective memorising, incorporating deliberate goal-orientated schedules, massed versus distributed practice sessions and individual differences in learning preferences. Skills previously thought of as ‘gifts’ such as sight-reading and improvisation have come under study. Managing the physical demands of performance is also being examined with physical fitness training, the Alexander technique, osteopathy and yoga. New studies suggest that neurofeedback training to elevate slow brain rhythms can improve high level abilities such as musicality, interpretative imagination, stylistic accuracy, communication, as well as the overall quality of performance.
The belief that music has the power to heal the mind and body appears in all human cultures. Aspects of such concepts have begun to be examined recently in scientific studies. In the past 50 years, some forms of music therapy have gained acceptance for behavioural problems, based on social science concepts of music’s influence and role in human life and society. More recently, the growing adaptation of brain research methods to the study of musical cognition has encouraged exploratory research into biomedical applications of music. New findings suggest that music can stimulate complex cognitive, affective and sensorimotor processes in the brain, whose functions can be generalised and transferred to non-musical therapeutic purposes. Rhythmic entrainment of motor function can actively facilitate the recovery of movement in neurological patients afflicted with stroke or Parkinson’s disease. Rhythmic sounds act as a ‘sensory timer’ entraining brain mechanisms controlling the timing, sequencing and coordination of movement. Recovery of speech functions can also be facilitated with music, apparently exploiting strong timing mechanisms in music as well as possible similar or shared brain circuitries for music and speech. In addition, a small, growing body of research suggests music may facilitate perception and organisation of behaviour in autistic children. The use of music in pain therapy has been widely reported although the mechanisms underlying the effect of music on pain perception is not clear. New concepts of music in psychotherapy focus on facilitating coherence in executive functions through cognitive reorientation and emotional processing. New frontiers in this area of research include the effect of music and rhythm on the critical aspects of timing in learning, attention and memory.
N.B. The references below indicate the wide range of activities in the Music and Brain field. Some of the work is based on theoretical ideas which have proved difficult to substantiate experimentally, the ultimate scientific test. Some sites have a clear financial interest in promoting the so-called 'Mozart Effect'. For this reason, if for no other, the reader should approach some of this work with care and a healthy scepticism. We have included these unscientific links to demonstrate the richness of the field and also the wide range of benefits ascribed to the influence of music on man.
Brian Micklethwait's blog quoting from Matt Ridley's book Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human
Music and the Brain - Washington University
Music and the Brain - Ellman Music
Music and The Brain - Laurence O'Donnell
Music on the Brain
Research Shows Correlation Between Music and Language Mechanisms
How Your Brain Listens to Music
The Genetic Mystery of Music
The "Mozart Effect" -
Research on Music and the Developing Brain, and More
Music Leaves its Mark on the Brain
Left in Music - Musicians' brains may use language modules listening to music
Build Your Baby's Brain through the Power of Music
Building Baby's Brain - The Role of Music - a printable article in pdf format
The Richards Institute of Education And Research - Music-Brain-Child Development Articles
Musical training improves a child's ability in spatial-temporal reasoning, which is important in mathematics and science education
The American Music Therapy Association
Music Making and Wellness
Brain disease shaped Boléro - Ravel's last music bears the mark of his deteriorating brain
Music, the Brain, and Williams Syndrome - Rare disorder offers insight into the genetic basis of cognition
Food, sex and music linked in brain scan
Music and Brain Information Database (MBI)