As we lie under the stars and listen to a Puccini aria or tap our toes in a nightclub to some earthy jazz, we're probably not thinking about how the music affects our brains. We're just feeling good and enjoying the moment. But it turns out that music is a good subject for brain research because it affects so many neurological pathways.
The combination of music and neuroscience is a hot topic these days, and there is an exciting convergence happening between neuroscientists and musicians. Old walls have broken down, and the bridge between the disciplines can be crossed without suspicion. Researchers use music to give us insight into time, emotion, healing and language - a glimpse into our human nature.
Robert Zatorre, of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, is a pioneer. He recalls his early years in this work.
"I've been in the field since its beginning. My first paper on music and the brain was way back in 1979, and at that point I think it would be safe to say that it was a specialty niche, one looked on somewhat askance by the scientific community."
Why the suspicion? Musicians were wary of scientists' reductionist approach to music. Scientists were wary of experimenting with something as "nonessential" as music.
But enough time has passed to prove that the study of the brain on music yields beneficial results. Improvements in childhood education and mitigation of certain brain and body disorders are among the benefits. The goal of the field is also clear now: to study what makes us human so we can better understand each other and the world.
Madison was the site of a friendly encounter between a neuroscientist and a musician last September. Richard Davidson, UW professor of psychology and psychiatry, and Madison jazz pianist Ben Sidran presented "The Present Moment: Explorations from Music and Neuroscience" at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. The program, the first of its kind here, drew a standing-room-only crowd. It has aired twice on Wisconsin Public Television.
The presentation focused on time, and Davidson encouraged us to pay attention to the present.
Studies show that staying in the present keeps us happier, Davidson said. He described an experiment in which people with a few years of meditation experience were subjected to pain and were told when the pain would occur. Those who could stay focused in the present moment experienced less pain than those who anticipated what was to come.
Sidran began to play keyboard. He encouraged us to pay attention to the sounds. "Sounds are a wonderful anchor for our attention," he said.
Sidran spoke of musical time to the sound of Billy Peterson on bass and Leo Sidran on drums. "Time may be an illusion, but it's where we all live," said Sidran. "There is more than one kind of time. There is clock time, the mechanical subdivision of the passing of events. People invented that. But there's another kind of time that's not mechanically subdivided. It's the sound of the ocean, the wind. Swing in jazz is the human element that pushes and pulls against an ideal."
In this stirring public experiment, Davidson and Sidran used music to keep us in the present moment. If we paid close attention to the sounds, the argument went, we could extend that moment. That would contribute to our happiness.
Neuroscientists have different specialties. While Davidson explores time, Zatorre studies emotion and the brain areas affected by it. His experiments use musicians as volunteer subjects, but it isn't necessary to be a musician to experience the results.
A fascinating Zatorre experiment, published in 2001, explores musical chills or shivers, the pleasant, tingling sensation that a fair number of people have as a deep emotional response to music. Zatorre and scientist Anne Blood used body scans to measure chills in response to specific musical compositions. Pieces that caused shivers frequently included Barber's Adagio for Strings, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Dvorak's "New World" symphony and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." Interestingly, these are staples in the classical music repertory.
In a follow-up 2011 publication, Zatorre and other scientists reported that when subjects listened to music, dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, was released in the brain during moments of peak emotional arousal. Other affected areas of the brain are involved in arousal, motivation and reward.
The motivation and reward system in the brain is also part of the pleasure matrix that's activated when we perform biological acts necessary for survival, like eating and sex. Does that mean music, so arousing and motivating, is important to survival? If the answer is yes, it would change our thinking in areas like education, biology and health.
Music may even affect our intellect. The "Mozart Effect" experiments in the 1990s measured music's relation to IQ, and the idea that listening to Mozart might make us smarter was an overnight sensation.
UW-Oshkosh psychology professor Frances Rauscher and physicist Gordon Shaw, of University of California-Irvine, designed an experiment showing that listening to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448, temporarily enhanced spatial-temporal reasoning, the kind we use to think several moves ahead in a chess game. Also, Mozart listeners outperformed non-Mozart listeners when asked to visualize the resulting snowflake pattern that would emerge after mentally folding and cutting a piece of paper.
This study led to experiments testing the effect of music education on children. It was found that when a child receives music lessons at an early age, there is a small but long-lasting increase in IQ. Based on these experiments, Shaw began programs in public schools designed to enhance children's problem-solving abilities.
In a 2004 Isthmus article, Shaw described his goal: "My dream is to see all children fully utilize their innate spatial-temporal abilities to think, reason and create."
Modern science tells us how music affects us, but according Jeanne Swack, professor of musicology at UW-Madison, the ancient Greeks had some ideas, too. "Around the time of Aristotle, philosophers and musicians thought in terms of the body's four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile," says Swack. "These were called affections or spirits."
Certain vocal ranges and scale patterns in Greek music were thought to move certain spirits in order to keep them balanced. If you had too much melancholic black bile, then crying at a tragic opera could have a curative effect on you by catharsis. Tears were thought to be evaporating spirits.
Today terms have changed from blood, bile and phlegm to antiseptic words like dopamine and serotonin, another neurotransmitter associated with happiness.
We can see a version of these Greek ideas - music as cure - in modern music therapy. Brenna Beecroft, a board-certified music therapist in the Milwaukee area, uses music as a rehabilitative tool. "Sound vibrations in music can enhance well-being for clients with pain-management problems," she says.
Then there are lullabies, "a genre common around the world," says Beecroft. "They usually have a narrow pitch range. They are soft and predictable with simple words and likely to be in triple meter that facilitates a rocking motion." In neonatal intensive care units, therapists encourage parents to sing lullabies to their babies. That, in turn, can change heart rate and respiration.
Some questions remain unanswered by science, like that of musical preference. Why does Beethoven cause chills in one person but leave another cold? Why do I like John Coltrane when you prefer Pink Floyd? We leave the lab now and enter the realm of social philosophy.
Some researchers think that the seeds of musical preference start before birth. After that, our memories, education and cultural influences come into play. The music that makes us nostalgic is the music we listened to during our teenage years, the years of self-discovery and of finding our place in a larger world.
The composer's history can also influence our preferences. Knowing that Beethoven was deaf when he wrote the Ninth Symphony infuses it with wonder and human triumph. On the other hand, some people can't listen to Richard Wagner because of his anti-Semitic views and the association of his music with the Nazis.
And there is this question: Is music a universal language?
The conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein sparked controversy among neuroscientists when, in the early 1970s, he gave a series of lectures at Harvard. He explored the possibility of a universal musical syntax, sounds and series of sounds that had the same musical meaning to people around the world. In other words, music might be hardwired into our brains. (Brenna Beecroft's universal lullaby genre might be an example.)
Not all neuroscientists agreed, though some believed that music and language share the same brain structures. As a result of his lectures, a seminar on linguistics and music was organized at MIT in 1974. Two participants, musicologist Fred Lerdahl and linguist Ray Jackendoff, went on to publish a groundbreaking 1983 book on music cognition, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music.
Public interest in the science of music has soared. Ideas that were published only in neuroscience journals are now in bestsellers, like Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia. Musicians busy themselves making and performing music that moves us, and neuroscientists try to discover why it does.
This research "is now very strongly supported as an interdisciplinary field combining neuroscience, music, psychology, neurology, computer science, brain imaging, audiology, kinesiology and many others," says McGill's Zatorre. "I am happy to report that the area has come a very long way."