The following are excerpts from: "Music and the Brain: the neuroscience of music and musical appreciation" 

                      by Michael Trimble and Dale Hessdorffer


    Somewhere along the evolutionary way, our ancestors, with very limited language but with considerable emotional expression, began to articulate and gesticulate feelings. In other words, meaning in music came to us before meaning given by words.

    The mammalian middle ear developed from the jaw bones of earlier reptiles and carries sound at only specific frequencies. It is naturally attuned to the sound of the human voice, although has a range greater than that required for speech. Further, the frequency band which mothers use to sing to their babies, and so-called motherese or child-directed speech, with exaggerated intonation and rhythm, corresponds to that which composers have traditionally used in their melodies..

    One of the differences between the developed brains of Homo sapiens and those of the great apes is the increase in area allocated to processing auditory information. The first musical instrument used by our ancestors was the voice. The ear is always open and, unlike vision and the eyes or the gaze, sound cannot readily be averted. From the rhythmic beating within and with the mother’s body for the fetus and young infant, to the primitive drum-like beating of sticks on wood and hand clapping of our adolescent and adult  ancestors, the growing infant is surrounded by and responds to rhythm. 

    The suggestion is that our language of today emerged via a proto-language, driven by gesture, framed by musicality and performed by the flexibility of expanded anatomical developments, not only of the brain, but also of the coordination of our facial, pharyngeal and laryngeal muscles. 

    A highly significant finding to emerge from the studies of the effects in the brain of listening to music is the emphasis on the importance of the right (non-dominant) hemisphere. Thus, lesions following cerebral damage lead to impairments of appreciation of pitch, timbre and rhythm and studies using brain imaging have shown that the right hemisphere is preferentially activated when listening to music in relation to the emotional experience. 

    The link between music and emotion seems to have been accepted for all time. Plato considered that music played in different modes would arouse different emotions, and as a generality most of us would agree on the emotional significance of any particular piece of music, whether it be happy or sad; for example, major chords are perceived to be cheerful, minor ones sad. The tempo or movement in time is another component of this, slower music seeming less joyful than faster rhythms. This reminds us that even the word motion is a significant part of emotion, and that in the dance we are moving – as we are moved emotionally by music.

    Until recently, musical theorists had largely concerned themselves with the grammar and syntax of music rather than with the affective experiences that arise in response to music. Music, if it does anything, arouses feelings and associated physiological responses, and these can now be measured. If it is a language, music is a language of feeling. Musical rhythms are life rhythms, and music with tensions, resolutions, crescendos and diminuendos, major and minor keys, delays and silent interludes,  does not present us with a logical language.

    This idea seems difficult for a philosophical mind to follow, namely that there can be knowledge without words. Indeed, the problem of describing a ‘language’ of feeling permeates the whole area of philosophy and neuroscience research, and highlights the relative futility of trying to classify our emotions.

    Music provides and provokes a response, which is universal, ingrained into our evolutionary development, and leads to marked changes in emotions and movement. The anatomical associations noted above suggest that music must be viewed as one way to stimulate the brain. Music provides a non-invasive technique, which has attracted much interest but little empirical exploration to date. The therapeutic value of music can be in part explained by its cultural role in facilitating social learning and emotional well-being. 

    Regarding music as therapeutic, there are a growing number of studies on many fronts:

    *A number of studies have shown that rhythmic entrainment of motor function can actively facilitate the recovery of movement in patients with stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury. 

    *Studies about those with memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, suggest that neuronal memory traces built through music are deeply ingrained and more resilient to neurodegenerative influences. 

    *Findings from individual randomised trials suggest that music therapy is accepted by people with depression and is associated with improvements in mood disorders. 

    *We know that many people with epilepsy have electroencephalographic abnormalities and, in some people, these can be ‘normalised’ by music. 

    Through music we can learn much about our human origins and the human brain. Music is a potential method of therapy and a means of accessing and stimulating specific cerebral circuits. There is also an association between musical creativity and psychopathology. Two features of our world which are universal and arguably have been a feature of an earlier evolutionary development is our ability to create and respond to music, and to dance to the beat of time.



    Trimble, Michael & Hessdorfer, Dale. 

        “Music and the Brain: the neuroscience of music and musical appreciation”.

        BJPsych International, v.14(2), May, 2017.  Viewed online September 19, 2020

        at http:www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov


    To read the entire article click here:

    Music and the Brain

Last Modified on August 6, 2021