Noise, sound and music: the role of emotion


Does music make you happy? You’re not alone. 9 out of 10 Australians intentionally listen to music – recorded or live – every week.

But if you had to explain why exactly you felt compelled to do so – well, things might get a little more complicated. Music is difficult to define, and difficult to research. A single musical phrase, combining pitch, rhythm, duration, intensity and sequence, is impossible to isolate into its component parts. This makes it tough to examine. And let’s face it – it’s more fun to dance to a song than to pull it apart.

But some valiant scientists – and musicians – are attempting to do exactly that. There’s a new school of cross-disciplinary research developing known as biomusicology, and it’s plunging deep into the weird parts of the brain to find out how sound and sentiment are connected. Why a melody in D minor will probably make you cry. Or why a thumping bass makes your toes tap.

Their research is pretty fascinating, and we’ll get there in a moment.

But first, we have to go back a few hundred of million years.

Sound and the limbic brain
Imagine you’re a prehistoric mammal, scuttling your rodent self around the edges of a Triassic forest. Most of what’s going on inside you is automatic. If a predator comes too close, you instantly lash back. By instinct, you seek out warmth, food and safety. You’re not really contemplating your deep thoughts, because to the extent you have emotions, they’re unconscious and raw.

This is because your brain doesn’t have the capacity for complicated thought. In fact, you’ve only just evolved a new ability to feel things – a sense that certain sensations are disagreeable, or that food (mmm, grubs!) is delicious. This all takes place in your shiny new limbic brain – the amygdala, hippocampus and other squishy grey bits that will form the seat of emotions in all your billions of descendants to come.

Now let’s fast-forward a bit to the present day. Like all the descendants of this first prehistoric mammal, humans retain this basic part of the brain even though we’ve since evolved our own upgraded neo-cortex – the part where higher order thinking, socialising and language lives. But interestingly, brain imaging studies have shown that it’s the limbic, prehistoric part that lights up when we hear music – even in newborn babies. Sounds activate this basic part of the brain, scientists believe, because of the important role hearing plays as an alert system against threats, even when we’re asleep or under deep anaesthetic. On a similar instinctive level, sounds such as nails on a chalkboard are nearly universally hated. Why? Some researchers suggest it’s due to the similarity between this sound and the human scream: both occupy a frequency between 2000-4000 hertz.

From screams to symphonies
Clearly there’s a direct connection between what our ears hear and what our brains feel – at least when it comes to the kinds of sounds that posed a direct threat to our prehistoric forebears.

The tricky thing is though, that music is more than just a T-Rex’s shriek, or fingernails on a chalkboard. As composer Mira Calix observes, music works as the representation of an emotion, not just the trigger for one. Calix has collaborated with Intel on a project that attempts to create a ‘sound-based spectrum of human sentiments’ – in other words, a sound that universally represents excitement, one that represents disgust, one that represents misery, and so on. As she points out, ‘music’s rules of engagement are subjective – they remain really enigmatic.’ And it’s impossible to reach a consensus that one piece of music is sad, and one happy.

Despite this, scientists are still valiantly attempting to unravel the mysteries of music. One line of research suggests that ‘consonances’ – chords and similar, repeated phrases – helps the listener integrate their sensory perceptions, stimulating the limbic brain’s preference for order. That’s why harmonies sound nice to our ears. Other commentators suggest that music triggers emotions based on its similarity with the sounds of ‘expressive movement’ – like running in fear, or leaping for joy. And still others have found that major chords mirror the bright tones of an excited person’s voice, whereas minor chords mirror subdued voices.

But ultimately, maybe the inner workings of music will never be fully understood. And perhaps that’s inevitable for an art form that’s so powerful – in whatever style and form it takes. As the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky said, ‘I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life. But I have felt it.’

Or in the eternal words of Marilyn Manson, ‘music is the strongest form of magic.’ Indeed.

This article first appeared on the National Hearing Centres blog.

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The Mind Centre was a counselling and meditation centre for several years before morphing into an information centre for people seeking to know more about mind and body health.

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