By: Elliot Shulman  | 

More than Auditory Cheesecake

“Music is auditory cheesecake.” Steven Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works, argues this notion, that music is merely an evolutionary by-product, “an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.” Allow me to explain how an analogy so sweet could have so embittered musicians and cognitive scientists alike (I will get to the outrage of cheesecake enthusiasts next issue).

Pinker wrote this in 1997, when scientists were beginning to investigate the immense power of music, and its role in the evolution of the human species. Where exactly does music fit in along the line of human development? Why do we need it? This was a focal discussion in “Music and the Brain,” a course taught here by Professor Harry Ballan, a director of the Institute for Music and Neurological Function, as it introduces music in an entirely new light. Now, perhaps you may ask: maybe music is just a by-product, a mere manifestation of pleasant sounds thrown together? This question, though, actually highlights the key argument scientists are making – music is so much more than a collection of pleasant sounds. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Many scientists were frustrated with Pinker’s assumption, as music’s wide range of capabilities clearly indicates its evolutionary importance.

There are several theories as to why music is a staple of the evolving human species, but the one that seems to have gained the most traction is the social-bonding theory. Music unifies us, and a cohesive group is more likely to survive and produce offspring. Concerts and kumsitzes are more obvious examples of unification through harmonious harmonies, but there are subtler cases. Every game, the players for the New Zealand Hawks, a rugby team, prepares themselves for their matchup with a war chant, called the haka. There are no instruments and not much of a melody, but the ritualistic pre-game warmup is just as effective. The Hawks stand ready for battle.

The social-bonding theory explains why we have evolved to appreciate music, but what exactly is it that evolved? It is the wiring of our brain, which lends itself to several evolutionary processes integral to appreciating music.

A primitive cranial structure, the auditory brainstem, is where music strikes its first note. Sound travels through our ears directly to our auditory brainstem, where it initiates bottom-up processing and evokes a visceral response. Bottom-up processing is a type of process that works in tandem with top-down processing. Bottom-up processing involves perception of a stimulus, while top-down processing involves higher-order processing that influences perception. Here’s a simple illustration of these processes at work: when an outfielder hears the crack of a bat against a ball, he employs bottom-up processing, perceiving a specific stimulus (the bat hitting the ball). When he tracks down the ball, he employs top-down processing, using his mental faculties to locate the final destination of the ball. Bottom-up processing doesn’t require learning; it is just perception of a stimulus. When the stimulus is sound, it can be very evocative. Sound traverses a complicated pathway in our brain, reaching the cortical areas for higher-order processing only after first triggering a primitive reaction in the auditory brainstem. Vision, on the other hand, does not travel through the auditory brainstem – it goes directly to the cortical areas. By activating the auditory brainstem in this roundabout route, sound offers our brain greater depth in perception than vision does. We can determine a person’s location from the sound of that person’s voice, and we can also sense that person’s emotional state through that person’s voice. The core of music’s immense power is our intricate auditory pathway, whose complexity enrichens our perceptions and sensations.

Music’s journey doesn’t stop at the auditory brainstem, though. The cortex, too, is an important evolutionary development in music processing. It combines the evolutionarily ancient with the evolutionarily modern. An important aspect of the auditory pathway is that it is strongly connected to the emotion of fear. Without the cortical areas, music would only frighten us. The prefrontal cortex inhibits this fear response, and allows us to process the music, to appreciate its beauty. The very same clapping that can frighten a reptile, an animal without a prefrontal cortex, can entertain a human. This also explains the sensation of goose bumps when we listen to music: the hair rising on our skin is a result of the fear response, and the pleasure we derive from this sensation is due to prefrontal cortex inhibiting the fear emotion.

Music has an extensive sphere of influence. Unlike language, a process confined to the left hemisphere of the brain, music activates areas throughout the entire cortex. This can become a crucial factor in treating patients with aphasia, a speech/language disorder. Several years ago, an Arizona congresswoman named Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, losing the Broca’s area of her brain as a result. Broca’s area is the region in the left hemisphere responsible for producing speech (Wernicke’s area, also in the left hemisphere, is responsible for comprehending speech). Without this area, she could barely speak; but, she could still sing. Her singing activated her right hemisphere, allowing her brain to develop language there (this is known as melodic intonation therapy). Using music, patients with aphasia can acquire linguistic function in a completely different area of the brain.

Music can also be of great use in regulating our emotional and mental states. Hormones and neurotransmitters are responsible for regulating our daily functions, and imbalanced levels can have terrible consequences. For instance, soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have high levels of cortisol, which increase stress and cloud the mental capacities. Music can act as a therapeutic agent by lowering the cortisol levels. Having imbalanced levels of serotonin and dopamine, as well, can cause emotional distress. Music can help raise our spirits by modulating the levels of these neurotransmitters.

Beethoven’s musical movements not only move us, but they also move us to move. Physically and physiologically, our bodies tune into music’s rhythm. The natural tendency to foot-tap or head-bang stems from the connection between our auditory and motor systems, in which music entrains motor activity. Ever get the feeling that you’re walking down the street in step to the song you’re hearing? That’s probably because you are. Our brain contains many internal rhythms, neuronal oscillations critical to many functions (including the circadian rhythm), and our motor systems are capable of synchronizing the internal rhythms to the external rhythm of the music we hear. When you clap in time with a rhythm, after the first beat you will always be clapping a fraction of a second before you hear the sequential beats, as your motor system is actually producing the internal rhythm to clap to before you hear the external rhythm itself. For those with compromised motor systems, such as patients with Parkinson’s disease, music can be used to entrain the body’s skewed internal rhythm, helping the motor system reacquire lost skills (walking, grasping). Physiologically as well, many organs in our body respond to music. Music induces a change in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, muscular tension and more (stimulative and sedative music typically induce in opposite directions). Exercising while listening to music that is synchronized to your pace doesn’t just get you in the mood mentally – it can actually increase your stamina by 15%!

Music can impact memory, and memory can impact music. Studies have shown that students who listen to music before a test fare better than those who don’t, as music improves our memory and attention. Listening to music while studying, though, does not seem to be a sound idea, as it distracts us from the task at hand. Memory in itself can shape the music we listen to. In psychology, there is a concept called the mere-exposure effect: the more you are exposed to something, the more that thing grows on you. This is true for music as well – the more you hear a piece of music and the more repetitions are embedded within the song, the more you’ll enjoy it. You probably won’t enjoy an automated playlist playing songs you’ve never heard before as much as the playlist playing songs you’ve heard more than a dozen times.

This article presents only a small glimpse of a vast and growing field. There is a great deal of research currently investigating the interplay between music and the brain, exploring the nitty gritty details of music theory and neural processing. Nevertheless, this article clearly demonstrates how erroneous it is to consider music as a commodity for consumption, a delicacy for our delight. Music is much more than just auditory cheesecake.