The magic of music

A surgeon struck by lightning and a dancing parrot hold clues to music’s profound effects

by Geoff Olson

Film producer Mark Johnson was on his way to work one day when he heard two monks playing music in a New York subway. One played a nylon guitar and the other was singing in a language the producer didn’t understand. In a recent PBS interview with Bill Moyers, Johnson recalled that a few hundred people had gathered around, spellbound by these robed figures. He said he was struck how all of these strangers, all travelling their separate ways, had been brought together by music.

Some time later, Johnson was walking in the streets of Santa Monica when he heard a musician playing a song on the street. He was so moved by his performance that he approached the singer, Roger Ridley, and asked if he could return with some recording equipment and some cameras. He told Roger that he would love to take this song around the world and add other musicians to it.

Johnson says he isn’t sure if he chose Ben E. King’s classic ballad, Stand By Me, or if it chose him. Travelling around the world with Ridley’s bare-bones vocal performance of the song, he enlisted others to contribute, from blues singers in post-Katrina New Orleans, to a South African choir, to a Moscow chamber group. Adding their multiple layers of instruments and vocals, Johnson built the voice of one unknown street musician into a polyrhythmic hymn of shared humanity. Johnson’s 10-year musical adventure is portrayed in his documentary Playing for Change: Peace Through Music.

The universal language of Homo sapiens was, is, and forever will be, music. As a species, we are moved both emotionally and physically by the sounds we make. Somehow, pressure waves in the air, no more substantial than the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings, can elicit anything from tears to tapping feet. The word “enchantment,” derived from the Latin incantare, means to chant or sing a spell. This archaic word connects beauty and the supernatural with song – the earliest and most persistent form of magic.

In his book, This Is Your Brain on Music (2006), cognitive psychologist and record producer Daniel J. Levitin alludes to a kind of Sardinian a cappella music, in which if the four male voices are perfectly balanced, a fifth female voice is conjured in the listener’s mind. The Sardinians explain this voice as the Virgin Mary. And while there are other secular explanations available for this phenomenon, should we be concerned that analyzing music scientifically may detract from the aesthetic appreciation of it? The Ancient Greeks didn’t think so. Pythagoras and his followers drew no great distinction between science and art, or between music and mathematics. They believed the mathematical regularity of chord sequences was a key to the structure of the universe itself: a “music of the spheres,” in which harmony united everything from planetary movements to birdsong.

Modern-day scientists, however, aren’t much more definitive than the Pythagoreans when it comes to understanding music and the mind. “The thrills, chills and tears we experience from listening to music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated by a skilled composer and the musicians who interpret that music,” writes Daniel Levitin. But this is trivially true, offering no real explanation for how emotions can be conjured by a sequence of notes. The nineteenth century composer Mendelssohn was a bit more helpful with his claim that music has “not thoughts that are too vague to be put into words, but too precise.”

Aldous Huxley echoed the composer’s ideas about music. In the early 1930s, the British writer was on holiday in the Mediterranean. On a moonless June night “alive with stars,” he groped about in his dark guesthouse for a record to play. He put on the introduction to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, theBenedictus. Later, in his book Music at Night, Huxley wrote the following: “The Benedictus. Blessed and blessing, his music is in some sort the equivalent of the night, of the deep and living darkness, into which, now in a single jet, now in a fine interweaving of melodies, now in pulsing and almost solid clots of harmonious sound, it pours itself… like time, like the rising and falling trajectories of a life.”

What was Beethoven trying to say in the symphonic language of theBenedictus? Huxley felt it was the composer’s idea of “a certain blessedness lying at the heart of things.” This was something Beethoven could only communicate nonverbally, through composition.

Describing any kind of music is like trying to describe a watercolour to a blind man. As the playwright Tom Stoppard once said of music critics, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Not surprisingly, with something so fugitive in meaning, but so personally meaningful, scientists have had difficulty in explaining the origins of music. Finding an “evolutionary purpose” for musical talent remains a guessing game.

The granddaddy of evolutionary thought, Charles Darwin, thought that music was a kind of showing off to the opposite sex, the auditory equivalent of a peacock’s tail. Echoing Darwin, Levitin argues that music is something that male humans developed as a way to demonstrate reproductive fitness. (Rock n’ roll, anyone?) To Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, music is “auditory cheesecake,” the by-product of our species’ freakishly large brains. Just as algebra or chess were never survival skills sharpened by natural selection, music is a complex human faculty that exercises other more functional faculties. We do it because it’s fun – and it’s fun because it builds neural pathways that are shared with more survival-based skills, like rhythmic movement. But it’s still an accidental gift.

Ian Cross, director of the Cambridge faculty’s Centre for Music and Science, rejects Pinker’s explanation as reductionistic and wrong. In an interview forThe Guardian’s “Science Weekly” podcast, Cross points out that we don’t merely engage with music solely by listening, but that it’s also “active and interactive, and something you do, that is embedded in complex, active behaviours.”

Karaoke, raves and Baptist church choirs are all about music as total involvement. In many non-western cultures, there is little distinction between music and dance. For Cross, the evolutionary purpose of music is communal; it fosters social cohesion as a replacement for grooming, a social activity enjoyed by primates.

“Music seems to be extremely good, extremely useful for managing situations of social uncertainty,” says Cross, “and it’s evolutionarily functional in promoting and sustaining a capacity for sociality.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that we share an enjoyment of music with other social animals. This is where Snowball the parrot comes in. If you haven’t seen him in action yet, check out this white cockatoo’s performances on YouTube, where he bops along to his favourite songs, Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) by Backstreet Boys and Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen. On the latter song, the screeching Snowball shakes his head back and forth, kicks his legs out, and at one point, appears to tap one claw on the downbeat.

Aniruddh Patel, a senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in California, received a link to Snowball from a friend and decided to test if the cockatoo was really dancing. He got in touch with Snowball’s owner, Irena Shulz, asking if she would help him study the parrot. Patel sent her CDs of the bird’s favourite Backstreet Boys track at different tempos and had her videotape his routines. He then graphed Snowball’s moments against the varying beats. Patel discovered that the frequent moments that Snowball locked onto the beat weren’t by chance. They demonstrated sensitivity to rhythm and an ability to synchronize to it.

Snowball’s paradigm-busting performances appear to hinge on those skill sets shared by parrots and human beings alike: vocal learning and imitation. Like us, parrots are highly social animals with brains wired to interpret sounds and coordinate the complex movements of vocal organs to reproduce them. Perhaps we have more in common with the avian world than we think. In Kerala, India, the chants of Brahmin priests mystify experts. They bear no resemblance to any known language or music, but rather to patterns found only in bird song. Some believe these chants are part of an oral tradition that may predate language, going back beyond the first Indo-European peoples.

Whatever our evolutionary or neurological fellowship with birdbrains, it’s impossible to witness Snowball’s YouTube performances without recognizing his sheer joy. He’s obviously enchanted with the music and his own dancing. Similarly, human performers and their audience can fuse into one body of rhythmic celebration, as anyone knows who’s been to a particularly memorable rock concert or rave. Music can capture the attention in an “eternal present” that is comparable to sexual ecstasy or mystical states.

This timeless dimension of music was poignantly reflected in Prisoner of Consciousness, a BBC documentary about a brain-damaged musicologist studied by neurologist Oliver Sacks. The patient, Clive Wearing, was stricken with a severe brain inflammation that left him with a memory span of only a few seconds. Without a recognizable past, and unable to imagine a future, Wearing once told his wife his purgatorial life was “like “being dead.” Although he can never remember her, each time he sees her he is thrilled.

Asked to play a Bach prelude, Wearing initially says he doesn’t know any, but he still summons one up when he is at the piano. By way of explanation, Sacks suggests that musical recall is not quite like another kind of memory: “Remembering music is not, in the usual sense, remembering at all… Listening to it, or playing it, is entirely in the present.”

In his most recent book, Musicophilia, Sacks notes the well-known health benefits of music, for both the healthy and the sick. It is a remarkable thing that, even in the worst cases of dementia, “there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling.”

Sometimes, music acts like a force or a personality, in and of itself. In his book, Sacks profiles 42-year-old Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who was hit by lightning. While Cicoria was resuscitated and made a full recovery, this rock music fan was subsequently seized with an unaccountable and newfound interest in classical piano music. He sought out CDs and then a piano, teaching himself to play. Within three months, his mind was overwhelmed with music that seemed to come out of nowhere. Ten years after his electrifying encounter, Cicoria is still as obsessed with classical music, but uninterested in using the new brain-scanning technologies to understand his condition. He insists it is a “lucky strike” and that the music in his head is “a blessing … not to be questioned.”

The link between music and emotions is difficult to quantify. Neurologist Manfred Clynes is one of the very few scientists to have studied the “touching” aspects of music. In addition to having more than 40 patents credited to his name, the Vienna-born neurologist is also a concert pianist who has recorded superb versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

In a bizarre series of experiments, the inventive Clynes asked subjects to apply finger pressure on a button to express emotions. The subjects consistently displayed the same gradients of force for different emotions. Anger, for example, is a short, sharp stab on the button. Joy is a soft pressure with a quick release. When Clynes plotted out these gradients and played them back electronically, the results were astounding. The simple tones “sounded” joyous, angry or grieving.

Clynes then tried the same experiment in reverse. Subjects were taught the different pressure gestures corresponding to emotional states, without being told what they meant. Most were able to correctly match them later with their corresponding emotional states. In one of Clynes’ experiments, aborigines in Central Australia were able to correctly identify the specific emotional quality of sounds derived from the touch of white, urban Americans. A Wikipedia article about Clynes suggests he has hit upon music’s Rosetta Stone, discovering the “biologically fixed, universal, primary dynamic forms that determine expressions of emotion that give rise to much of the experience within human societies.”

Clynes’ musical research is revolutionary and Sacks’ medical prose lyrical, but other scientific literature on music and the mind seems to fall short. I’m left with the impression of a group of blind men in white coats, feeling an elephant with their hands, each giving a tactile report on a different body part – tail, ears and legs – but never getting a fix on the complete beast. There is “explaining” and then there is “explaining away.”

In his study of college singers at the University of California, psychologist Robert Beck found that singing boosts compounds that create a sense of happiness and well being. Singing produces immunoglobulin A, a hormone that counters the stress hormone cortisol. But since every mood appears to have an associated neurochemical, and everyone knows music makes us feel good, is this any more than a peer-reviewed tautology? To give another example, do any of us seriously think our understanding of “love” is fully contained by the description of it as “endogenous production of endorphins?”

The problem comes down to two separate domains: language and music. Although they are connected through song, there is still a divide, according to Aldous Huxley. “Music says things about the world, but in specifically musical terms. Any attempt to reproduce these musical statements in our own words is necessarily doomed to failure. We cannot isolate the truth contained in a piece of music, for it is a beauty-truth and inseparable from its partner. Only music, and only Beethoven’s music, and only this particular music of Beethoven, can tell us with any precision what Beethoven’s conception of the blessedness at the heart of things actually was.”

Philosopher Alan Watts insisted that music refers to nothing other than itself. He believed that music is so engaging and powerful precisely because life, and the cosmos it’s embedded in, is a dynamical pattern of waveforms – exactly what music is. In The Tao of Philosophy, Watts notes that the point of a musical composition isn’t the finish, as in a footrace or the solution to an equation. If it were, he says, “People would go to the concert just to hear one crashing chord.” The same applies to dancing. “You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room where you should arrive. The whole point of dancing is the dance.”

Yet, early in life, we are tricked into the belief that life is a race, Watts says, with a string of goodies strung along from primary school to the world of adult employment, benchmarks for status and success. This process can end with the struggling wage slave “in some racket… selling insurance.” We may finally reach a place of social standing and economic security, but we feel vaguely cheated. And we were.

According to Watts, “We have simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy – as a journey or pilgrimage – which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was, to get to that end, success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the whole point all the way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing… or to dance while the music was being played.”

If he could put it into words, Snowball the parrot would surely agree with Watts, Huxley and Mendelssohn. Music isn’t so much a problem to be solved as a mystery to be lived.

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