New Notes on the Uses of Music

I have often felt a little envious of my professional musician friends. Not for the obvious reasons (getting to play in a band and get paid for it, or the accompanying status/sex-appeal), but because they had such a direct line to an audience's emotions. Writers can certainly influence a reader's emotions, but only by engaging the person's mind, first. The words have to be processed intellectually before they can be understood and felt emotionally. It's a quiet, thoughtful impact, even when it happens. A far cry from having an entire audience jump to its feet, almost involuntarily, and start moving in response to the rhythm, harmony, and energy issuing forth from the stage.

A brilliant orator might bring an audience to its feet, but the response would be to an idea, even if the idea was emotionally expressed. And the crowd would know what it was cheering about. Ask someone why a piece of music moves them, and they will probably find it harder to explain. For music speaks to a place deep inside of us that feels more than thinks; that knows resonance without questioning the details; that can hear and be comforted by the outpouring of heartbreak and survival in a blues ballad without even knowing the words.

But some researchers suspect that music and words may be more closely linked than I ever would have thought. So closely linked, in fact, that the study of music may actually be able to help ameliorate the language deficits of children with dyslexia.

How is that possible? The exact mechanism of the process isn't clear yet, but researchers at Harvard University have apparently seen a correlation between early-childhood music training and "enhanced motor and auditory skills, as well as improvements in verbal ability and non-verbal reasoning," And that correlation, they say, is even more pronounced in children with dyslexia. Gottfried Schlaug, one of the researchers, told the Acoustical Society of America that the results "suggest that a music intervention that strengthens the basic auditory music perception skills of children with dyslexia may also remediate some of their language deficits."

Those results are also supported by another paper being presented at the Acoustical Society of America meeting next week. Dr. Laurel Trainor and colleagues at McMaster University in West Hamilton, Ontario, have conducted several studies of children to gauge the impact of musical training. In one study, they compared two groups of children: one who were starting music lessons, and one who were doing other activities, like sports. They tested the electrical activity in the children's brains for a year and found that while both groups changed as the children developed, the children taking music lessons changed more ... especially in the areas "related to attentional processing."

"This is significant," Trainor wrote, "because it suggests a mechanism whereby music lessons could affect other cognitive processes, such as language and mathematical skills."

Now granted, music lessons involve a more focused learning process than simply sitting back and enjoying a collection of sounds. But there may also be a link between language and the evolution of music itself--which might help explain the ability of music to impact language processing.

A while back, I read a piece by Natalie Angier in the Science Times about the evolution of both language and the human ear. It appears that eight genes involved in shaping our ears underwent significant change over the past 40,000 years, and that our ability to distinguish and use a complex language evolved along with our more refined auditory infrastructure. "Moreover," she says,

"the avidity with which our auditory sense seeks to organize ambient noise into a meaningful acoustical pattern--a likely consequence of our dependence on language--could help explain our distinctly human musicality."

And a love of music is, apparently, a uniquely human trait. Other mammals, Angier notes, do not really appreciate music, despite the prevalent myth about music's power to soothe the wild beast. "If you give monkeys a choice between music and silence, they choose silence pretty strongly," reported Dr. Josh McDermott of the Center for Neural Science at NYU. 

A similar thought was put forward in an article last December in The Economist on the evolution of music. It explored various theories about why we like and react to music, from sexual selection to group and community bonding. The sexual selection theorists believe that expertise in music evolved because it provided a courting advantage, similar to a peacock's colorful tail--which would certainly seem to be true in terms of musicians' ability to get dates after performances, at least in the rock and roll world. Music may also have evolved as a way to bring groups together as a community. 

But according to Dr. Steven Pinker, a language theorist at Harvard, our appreciation for music may have evolved as a side-effect of our focus on sounds--a focus necessary to develop a complex language. As the article put it, just as a body that's designed to seek sugar and fat for survival finds itself enthusiastic about cheesecake, even though cheesecake itself isn't required for survival, "a brain devoted to turning sound into meaning is tickled by an oversupply of tone, melody and rhythm." So in the course of learning to distinguish nuances of difference in tone, sound and shape of vowels, consonants, and complex verb forms, we may have developed a delighted appreciation for all sounds and tones. 

But even if all those correlations and theories are true, they still don't fully explain why music resonates so directly and brings forth such a range of emotions in people. Why do particular musical sounds move us so? The sounds in a word--even a really good word like "inexplicable"-- don't have the same effect. Researchers are looking into that one, too. But perhaps it's because we have been surrounded by sound far longer than we have known words: Our mothers' heartbeats and swishing blood and fluid even before we were born. The singing of birds, rain on a tin roof, the creaking of a porch swing, or the rustling of leaves by a gurgling brook. The cry of another child, the terrifying crack of lightning, or the scary howl of an animal nearby. 

In the end, maybe the reason we respond to music more viscerally than language is simply because music was actually the first language we ever learned ... before thought, before words, when emotion was all we knew. 

Note: I will be offline for the next week finishing a book project, returning November 3rd.

(Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images)