Tradition, habit, and culture unite people around the globe. In the world of music we have today, forces seem to be working toward a globalization of musical tastes. At the same time, if we look across cultures, and even looking within any one, there still exists a great diversity of forms, styles, and traditions of music. In western culture, women walk down the aisle to Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus”, and birthdays are ruled by Patty and Mildred Hill’s “Happy Birthday” (both traditions dating back hundreds of years). Similarly, Jewish bat mitzvahs are characterized by the Israeli folk song “”Hava Nagila”. Music has stayed so notably with humans not only because of the substantial importance to traditions and culture, but also because of the positive effects on both the listener- and the musician playing.Throughout time, wherever humans have gone- music has followed. In almost every recorded culture in history, homeosapiens and music walk hand in hand.
That is, no known human culture now, or anytime in the past, lacked music (This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession). Some historians even believe that music predates speech. In addition, some of the oldest discovered physical human artifacts were instruments (scientists say that a bone flute found in hillside caves of southwestern Germany dates back 42,000 years (Wilford, John Noble) ). Because music has been so prevalent throughout human history, it poses questions as to why it has been as such. The answer to this prose is still unclear, and most likely will stay this way.
However, through the lens of the culture of humanity, music has become almost as human as emotions themselves. It is pointless to attempt to know when exactly music was introduced into human life. Although, there are many theories on how music began to take form in humans. If music evolved to facilitate a sense of belonging in and among early hominids, it is possible that a very specific human relationship—that of mothers and infants—was involved, says University of Toronto psychologist Sandra Trehub (Balter, Michael).
She suggests that music was crucial to both bonding with and soothing babies, as well as allowing mothers to tend to other tasks that increased chance of survival, such as gathering for food or scouting for prey. Trehub is referring to Dean Falk’s “Putting-down-the-baby” hypothesis, which theorizes that the prehistoric “baby talk” of mothers to their children began the practice of speech, and later led to the soothing babbles of the first music. (Falk, Dean). There are other theories as to how music evolved, as well. Robert Garfias believes that early hunters, while making great noise to chase prey into a trap, may have later recreated these sounds as a retelling of the story. “Humming and even moaning to oneself as a form of self soothing or soothing of someone else” is believed by Garfias to be a kind of proto music (Garfias, Robert page 14) .
This type of soothing “pre-music” sound is parallel to many types of music today that stand as emotional pacifiers, such as the blues and funeral songs. This seems to be a trend found in most music; the melodies that humans have created for themselves somehow can speak to the emotions of an entire species. Carrying through Garfias and Falk’s theories on the origins of music, the modern purposes of music mirror the purposes of its origin: music is used to unite (like the bonding of mother and child), to tell stories (like a hunter recapping his catch), and soothe (like humming to oneself). Some of the most universal music today is popular because of the meaning it holds to its listeners. Music is used to unite humans and bring us together.
This can be seen through examples such as National Anthems, war songs, and work songs. Relatively, music is often used as the “language” for entire movements or generations. During the War of 1812, Francis Scott key composed “The Star Spangled Banner” as a patriotic hymn meant to fortify and lift spirits during the trying battles. Similarly, the Civil War also brought American patriotic songs from both the north and the south. Among the most famous of the patriotic songs to come out of this era was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie,”both songs used presently to unite groups of people and create a feeling of American Nationalism (Carr-Wilcoxson, Amanda, page 4). African American spirituals, gaining most popularity in the late 1800’s (before slavery was abolished), gave a voice to an entire population.
are typically sung in a call and response form, with a leader improvising a line of text and a chorus of singers providing a solid refrain in unison. Many spirituals, known as “sorrow songs,” are intense, slow and melancholic. Songs like “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” and “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” describe the slaves’ struggles and identify with the suffering of Jesus Christ. Other spirituals are more joyful.
Known as “jubilees,” or “camp meeting songs,” they are fast and rhythmic. Examples include “Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham” and “Fare Ye Well” (“African American Spirituals.” The Library of Congress). Just like the songs of American war and of African Spirituals, work songs fervently unite, soothe, and tell the story of its listeners and creators.
A work song is “a piece of music closely connected to a form of work, either sung while conducting a task or a song linked to a task which might be a connected narrative, description, or protest song” (dictionary.com). An example of such is “The Miner’s Doom,” which was recorded from Dan Walsh by George Korson in Pennsylvania in 1947 (“Traditional Work Songs – The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.”) . To understand how music has become so vital for the cultures of most humans, it is critical to first understand the inner workings of sound, hearing, and how the human brain processes these things. Music means many different things to many different people, but is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “..
.tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity”. So, what is music- in the literal sense? Music is made up of sequences of tones, tones that are created by regular vibrations. Vibrations are small disturbances of the particles in a given body, such as water or a string. Regular vibrations have a defined period, the amount of time it takes to complete a cycle; we can hear and categorize these vibrations as having a pitch.
Meanwhile, irregular vibrations do not have the same evenness, and are characterized by sounds such as a wave crashing or the crash of a symbol. (“Vibrations Surround Us: The Science of Music.” Dartmouth Online) These vibrations move through the air and into the outer ear, then continuing into the auditory canal (a tube running from the outside of the ear into the middle ear), where the moving molecules of sound vibrate the eardrum. The vibrations move through fluid in the cochlea of the inner ear, stimulating thousands of hair cells.
This passage of sound waves results in the transformation of these vibrations into electrical impulses, which are then sent to the brain. (“The Ear – Function & Parts of the Human Ear. How Does the Ear Work?”) Although music has been discovered to promote brain activity in areas other than the auditory cortex, it still stands that the main target for sounds is in the auditory cortex, found in the temporal lobe of the brain. (Schäfer, Thomas) In fact, researchers have discovered neural mechanisms that are entirely specific to the perception of music. Josh McDermott, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, was quoted saying: “One of the core debates surrounding music is to what extent it has dedicated mechanisms in the brain and to what extent it piggybacks off of mechanisms that primarily serve other functions” (“Music in the Brain.”) . However, with this new discovery, scientists have found a mass of neurons that react specifically to the sounds coinciding with what we perceive as music. This finding was enabled by a new method designed to identify neural populations from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data.
Using this method, the researchers identified six neural populations with different functions, including the music-selective population and another set of neurons that responds selectively to speech. However, Nancy Kanwisher, the Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT noted that “the existence of music-selective responses in the brain does not imply that the responses reflect an innate brain system. An important question for the future will be how this system arises in development: How early it is found in infancy or childhood, and how dependent it is on experience?”In one study reviewed, researchers studied patients who were about to undergo surgery. Participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs.
Scientists tracked patient’s ratings of their own anxiety, as well as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The results: The patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs. Levitin cautioned that this is only one study, and more research needs to be done to confirm the results, but it points toward a powerful medicinal use for music. Levitin and colleagues also highlighted evidence that music is associated with immunoglobulin A, an antibody linked to immunity, as well as higher counts of cells that fight germs and bacteria (Landau, Elizabeth).
Music performance requires facility in sensory and cognitive domains, combining skills in auditory perception, kinesthetic control, visual perception, pattern recognition, and memory. Because of its cognitive demands and the coupling required across sensory systems, musical training has provided a fruitful model for studying plastic changes in the brain and behavior that occur through short- and long-term training. Neural plasticity, consisting of changes in brain function or structure that affect behavior or cognition, underlies development, learning, rehabilitation from trauma, and skill refinement. One of the most famous case study of the brain’s plasticity was conducted by George M.
Stratton in 1856. When an individual received and wore a series of eye lenses which rotated the perceived image of the world by 180 degrees, the brain adapted to these new data (after a few days). The human brain not only recognized the change, but adapted to it. Although while wearing the lens, subject saw objects inverted, after some time the brain perceived the images received as normal.
And, when the subject removed the lens, the brain perceived the natural eye’s image as “upside-down”, and adjusted again after a few days. (Snyder, Douglas M, pages 2-4) Stratton research in the adaptability of the human brain led us to plasticity, and taught us how perception and experiences can alter the brain function, and even it’s makeup. The consistent regimen that musicians undertake to master an instrument relies on the brain’s ability to learn—enabled by neural plasticity. Musical performance, whether via a physical instrument or the voice itself, involves disciplined muscle control, using body movements to produce carefully crafted sounds. Unequivocally, scientists have concluded that musicians have different brains than a normal person. The study of musician and non-musician brains is one of the many in the science of neuroplasticity. Through the study of musician’s (and musician’s study of music) we see regular, remarkable examples of how the human brain, at any age (although particularly in childhood), is able to reorganize itself in response to circumstances. For example, we know the brain can adapt after stroke or serious injury, after the loss of any of the senses and even as a result of our career choices.
As for the latter, a study conducted studied the brains of London Taxi drivers. Dr. Eleanor Maguire and her team found that the drivers show enlarged posterior hippocampus structures (the memory center of the brain) which correlate with their job’s need for the mental recall of intricate London streets, which the drivers use to navigate. As a result of such evidence we take it as a given that our brains will adapt to the world around us and to the demands that we make of it every day.
And it therefore makes sense that musicians’ brains would adapt as a result of their exposure to and engagement with music (Williamson, Victoria).It is not surprising that anatomical differences have been found between musicians’ and non-musicians’ auditory and motor cortices and the neural connectivity linking these areas. Adult instrumental musicians, for example, have more gray matter in somatosensory, premotor, superior parietal, and inferior temporal areas of the cortex and these enlargements correlate with their levels of expertise (Gaser and Schlaug, 2003). Similar structural brain distinctions have been found in child musicians in the early stages of honing their musical skills. Schlaug et al. (2005) tracked 5–7 year old children as they progressed with their musical studies. While they observed no preexisting cognitive, musical, motor, or structural brain differences between the subsequently musically trained and control groups, children who studied music for 12 months developed enhanced activation of the bilateral temporal lobes and superior temporal gyri during rhythmic and melodic discrimination tasks. After 15 months of piano lessons, children further showed training-related changes in the motor cortex, the corpus callosum, and the right Heschl’s gyrus compared to controls (Hyde et al., 2009; Schlaug et al., 2009b), the same areas of the brain that are enhanced in adult musicians (see above).