Why do we enjoy music if it doesn”t seem to have a clear biological utility? Is it the last thing we forget? And, above all, how does it get us excited?
In moments when Ana is overcome by emotion, he tells me, sometimes she feels the urgent need to listen to the Adagietto of Symphony 5 by Mahler. It seems to him, as he hears the first notes or plays them easily in his mind, that the whole orchestra knows the secret of his most intimate afflictions, and this comforts him in a way that is difficult to explain, as if that music expressed everything. That words can”t tell you how you feel
Music, she continues, often makes her feel that she is participating in something higher that envelops her and “pulls” her out of herself. At the same time, it has the ability to reveal an unsuspected inner strength to you.
The deeply emotional power of music is perhaps “the supreme mystery of human science”, in the words of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.
“It is the only language – he wrote – that has the contradictory attributes of being both intelligible and untranslatable.”
CHOPIN IN THE JUNGLE
In the 1930s, Levi-Strauss spent a long time living in the Amazon rainforest in precarious conditions.
As he recounts in his book Tristes Tropics, there came a time when fugitive visions of the French countryside began to assail him, which his memory recovered and which until then had not given any value.
Nor could he get rid of a melody that kept coming to his mind: “For weeks, on that plateau of western Mato Grosso, I was not obsessed with what surrounded me – which I would never see again – but a recurring melody that my memory impoverished: that of study number 3 of Opus 10 by Chopin, where, in a mockery of the bitterness that hurt me too, it seemed to me to sum up all that I had left behind.
It is very strange that all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, have music playing in our heads. And that it is synchronized sometimes with the one that someone next to us begins to sing.
Or that the brain suddenly plays a melody or musical fragment that it has not thought about in decades. Why at that moment and that melody? What leads the unconscious to choose it among thousands?
Those musical phrases that arise without us invoking or controlling them, even when we sleep, would prove that, regardless of the inclination that each one feels for music, it constitutes an essential part of our inner life.
Music seems to run through an autonomous system, independent of consciousness. “That would explain the fidelity and the seemingly indelible quality of musical memory, as well as the fact that music is not affected by the ravages of amnesia and dementia”, reflects the neurologist Oliver Sacks in his book.
The investigations point to a “musical intelligence” detached from the conventional one.
WHAT IS MUSIC FOR?
Sensitivity to music, the fact that our auditory and nervous systems are exquisitely tuned for it, remains a great enigma for scientists considering that, from a strictly biological point of view, they do not seem to contribute to survival.
Steve Pinker, a prominent experimental psychologist expert in language perception and development, believes that musical abilities – or at least some – are possible thanks to the collaboration of brain systems that have already been developed for other purposes, that is, they would be secondary products. of other capacities.
The theory is that there is no single “musical center” in the human brain we “build” music in our mind using different parts of the brain.
MUSIC AND LANGUAGE
For some scholars, the origin of music is related to that of language.
In fact, there are profound similarities between the way the brain processes music and language speech has intonation, rhythm, “melody”.
However, there are still many doubts about this possible common origin.
Sacks explains that to his patients suffering from expressive aphasia, who have lost their speech, he sings “Happy Birthday” and they, to their own amazement, join him, often even with the lyrics. “The words are still ”in” them, somewhere, but it takes music to bring them out.”
The same happens with some autistic children, who are able to sing or understand what is said to them if music is played.
Even people who stutter tend to sing fluently, and they can get around their stuttering by singing or speaking in a tune.
Similar experiences are sometimes experienced in restaurants: a waiter may list a very long list of dishes, but if he is asked what he said after this or that dish, he may not be able to extract that data from the sequence he has in his memory, and he has to repeat the whole list.
RHYTHM TO ORDER CHAOS
For the psychiatrist and music lover Anthony Storr, “if we could understand how music originated, perhaps we could better understand its essential meaning.”
All we can deduce is that it has played an important role in social interaction, as religious rituals and war songs prove. In fact, even today, a funeral or a party without music is unthinkable.
In all societies, music unites people. And this link seems to be achieved by rhythm, which synchronizes minds and bodies even if we are not paying attention to the music, we tend to keep the beat and respond to the rhythm with movement.
Somehow, as Nietzsche wrote, “we listen to music with our muscles.”
Oliver Sacks explains that when he is swimming leisurely, Strauss”s waltzes tend to sound in his mind, giving his movements an automatism and precision that he would not achieve by counting.
The funny thing is that research shows that motor responses to rhythm precede or anticipate the external rhythm itself: that is, we extract astonishingly precise rhythmic patterns from everything we hear, which we then foresee.
There is a universal propensity to infer a rhythm even when a series of identical sounds is heard at constant intervals. We tend to hear the sound of a digital clock, for example, as “tick-tock, tick-tock” when in reality it sounds “tick, tick, tick, tick.”
It is as if the brain needs to organize information in a pattern of its own.
WHEN THE MUSIC SHOWS UP UNINVITED
We are attracted to repetition. As if there is something neurologically irresistible about her, perhaps because in our own body we experience rhythm in breathing, beating or sexual intercourse.
“We want encouragement and reward over and over again, and in music we get it,” says Sacks.
It should not be surprising, then, that we are exposed to certain excesses, such as the irritating compulsive repetition of musical phrases that sometimes arrive without invitation and stay as long as they want even if we do not like them. It”s like the music is caught in a kind of loop, a tight nerve circuit that it can”t escape from, ‘says Sacks.
What characteristics make one melody more catchy than another? It is not known. One wonders if this phenomenon that Sacks refers to as “ear worms” is not something modern, or at least much more common than before.
There is no doubt that the musical harassment that we suffer many times in public spaces and the extreme availability of music through new portable equipment cause a certain strain on sensitive hearing systems.
YOU CAN GO OUT OF TUNE AND ENJOY
The neuroscience of music has paid little attention to the affective side of music appreciation, but music appeals to the emotions as well as to the intellect.
Many of us cannot appreciate or even perceive certain formal aspects of music, but we enjoy it very much, and we can enthusiastically sing melodies sometimes very out of tune without it preventing us from feeling happy.
All of us, in fact, are more prepared for certain musical aspects than for others. Pitch-sensitive people, for example, instantly recognize a note, as most of us see a color.
Others, however, are never able to identify it. The surprising thing is that even in this case you can be very sensitive to music.
On the contrary, others also have good ears, they are exquisitely sensitive to the formal nuances of music, but they do not care much about it or consider it an important part of their lives.
Freud, it seems, never listened to music. On the only occasion that he wrote on this subject, he commented that “a rationalistic or perhaps analytical bias in my mind rebels against the fact of allowing myself to be moved by something without knowing why it affects me like that and what it is that affects me.”
It has since been suggested that some people seem to avoid the emotional effect of music for fear of the intensity of the feelings it can arouse.
In fact, many classic myths speak of this power: the captivating songs of the sirens was what attracted the sailors to the misfortune; the Greeks also gathered to hear Orpheus playing the lyre in ecstasy, thus putting the terrible Cerberus to sleep; Indian women surrendered upon hearing Krishna play the flute.
But why is the sense of hearing so linked to feelings? Storr wonders: “Is there a relationship between the fact that, at the beginning of life, we can hear before we, see?”
Being so accessible, we can get to trivialize music and not give it hardly any importance in our daily work. But it probably has a more prominent role than is believed in our lives.
IS MUSIC A SUPERIOR PLEASURE?
The neuroscientist Francisco J. Rubia mentions music as something essential in his life, “and not only listen to it but practice it”. It is, according to him, “a pleasure different from normal pleasures, superior to them.”
Other authors, including Nietzsche, argue that it improves the appreciation of life: it not only takes us away from suffering for a moment but rather sharpens the sense of participation in life, gives it meaning and makes it ‘something which is why it is worth being in the world. “
The experience of music, so elusive to words, can be lived in this sense as a kind of revelation that takes us into the mysteries of man and the cosmos.
ITS BENEFICIAL EFFECT ON CHILDREN
It is not clear that a child accustomed to listening to Mozart is smarter or becomes a better mathematician, but there is evidence that listening to music regularly and, above all, actively participating in the creation of music, stimulates the development of different areas of the brain that have to work together to listen to or perform music.
In addition, according to psychiatrist Anthony Storr, people who received a proper musical education in their childhood are more likely to be happy and productive.
He shares with Plato his idea expressed in “Timothy” that music is “a heavenly sent ally that orders and harmonizes any dissonance of the revolutions within us.”
WHEN ONLY MUSIC WORKS
Some people with severe neurological ailments react strongly and specifically to music therapy.
Thanks to music, especially music with a strong rhythmic character, Parkinson”s patients can sometimes move easily and fluently. While it sounds, they return to the speed of movement that was natural to them before the illness.
Oliver Sacks describes numerous cases in which a person suddenly experiences a musical or artistic talent after a stroke or other injuries to the left hemisphere.
The most plausible explanation for these and other phenomena for now is that when some brain functions are damaged, others that are normally suppressed or inhibited are released. Sometimes, for example, the loss of language is associated with an increase in musical skills.
Musical perception, sensitivity, emotion, and memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared. It is as if the music flows through other channels than the rest of the information.
The objective of music therapy in these cases is to keep the person rooted to the world, to arouse emotions and associations that allow them to recover their identity. When almost everything else leaves you indifferent, music can make you react emotionally.
That it is possible to win the attention of these patients and keep it for a few minutes is in itself extraordinary. The effect can last for hours or days.
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