The Sound of Music
Whether you realize it or not, you already know a lot when it comes to music. According to Daniel Levitin, former record producer, current neuroscientist, psychologist and author of This Is Your Brain On Music, you know:
- how your body responds to familiar or specific tunes
- your brain can differentiate between international rhythms (Latin, Indian, Arabic…)
- bits and pieces of song lyrics that are memorized
- specific songs can conjure up memories
- a song can impact your mood
If I hear certain types of music, my body starts moving in synch to the rhythm, and if there are familiar words, I start singing along.
I teach yoga and movement, not something you would immediately associate with music, yet they are the very reason I became interested in Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music. The people in my classes are dealing with aging and are interested in building their balance and muscle strength. Many of these people have mobility or cognitive issues, or both. It turns out, music factors in quite heavily in helping them to move, to balance, and to think. I knew this experientially from my teaching and from attending workshops, but it took Levitin’s book to clarify how the brain processes music.
We Got Rhythm
Levitin begins by explaining the composition of music for those who do not possess a musical background – what it is and the vocabulary we use to define it. I latched on to the last part of the last sentence of his opening chapter:
While I believe timbre is now at the center of our appreciation of music, rhythm has held supreme power over listeners for much longer. [italics added by me]
It is rhythm that makes it possible for a person with Parkinson’s Disease to get up out of their seat and dance their way across the floor. As the Parkinson’s brain processes music, the rhythm seems to coerce and cajole the movement signal from start to finish, traversing the nerve from top to bottom, from the brain to the leg, foot and toes. I have seen this happen countless times in Dance for Parkinson’s classes, where the classes are taught as dance classes, not as therapy classes. You can see a dance class in action in this 2011 PBS video interview.
Levitin details how movement is often wedded to the process of creating and playing music, and almost always is part of the listening process. Take notice of what you do the next time you listen to music. Do you tap a foot, move a hand as if conducting, nod your head to the beat? Throughout, Levitin references bits and pieces of compositions, from classical to rock to jazz, nursery songs, folk and more. He unravels the three aspects of music that most of us are unconsciously aware of – rhythm, tempo and meter –but that are crucial to our appreciation of music. Rhythm is “the relationship between the length of one note and another”, or how long each note is held. Tempo is the pacing of the music, “how quickly or slowly it goes by.” And meter reflects the emphasis of the notes as they are grouped together.
Rhythm is the overriding force in my weekly volunteer sessions at a local assisted living community. Twenty individuals and I gather for an hours seated Sunday songfest. Popular tunes from the 40, 50s and 60s play while I assist individuals in arm movements that flow in concert with each song’s rhythm. As I hold a person’s hands, they guide the speed, pace and direction of our combined movement.
According to an experiment conducted by Levitin and a colleague, most people are quite competent at discerning and recalling tempo. Turns out that a song’s tempo sets off an emotional cue in our brains – slower songs telegraph sadness, faster songs seem upbeat and happy.
For a further explanation of sound, view the What Is Sound? video on the Twig Science site.
Music and the Brain
While multiple areas of our brains engage with music, specific areas orchestrate our emotional response to what we hear. The cerebellum contains over half the brain’s neurons, in no small part because it has the task of managing novelty and movement. In addition, it is also responsible, along with the amygdala and nucleus accumbens, for our emotional response to music.
While a song’s words may be stored in our hippocampus, the cerebellum stores the song’s pacing, plucking out this information each time we sing or listen to the song.
In Levitin’s lesson on the brain, he lists the many parts that engage in the process of participating in music. While listening, in addition to the language centers, other active areas include the cochlear nuclei, brain stem, cerebellum, auditory cortices, hippocampus and sections of the frontal lobe.
Someone who is performing is also engaging their frontal lobes, motor cortex and sensory cortex, and if they are reading music in the process then their visual cortex is active.
What is going on when the words to a song make it difficult to concentrate on movement? After teaching my first seated yoga session at a local retirement community, one of the participants said she liked the music but found the few pieces with words had made it difficult for her to concentrate on what she was doing.
Sometime today, try a brief experiment. Take stock of your feelings for a moment and then play your favorite bit of music and allow yourself to revel in it. What did you feel? How did you respond? Did you dance? Did you remain still? Were you by yourself? What impact did the music have on you?
– Laurie Bartels writes the Neurons Firing blog to create for herself “the graduate course I’d love to take if it existed as a program”. She has been teaching for 30 years and is currently the Lower School Technology Coordinator at The Foote School in New Haven, CT. When not teaching kids or other teachers, she facilitates movement and yoga sessions for people who are dealing with mobility or cognition issues or both.