Music Has Charms to Soothe a Savage Brain
Is there really anything more interesting to talk about than music? Personally, I can’t think of anything else I would rather occupy my thoughts and conversations with. That’s probably because for me, music connects to everything worth caring about in the first place: culture, technology, and language. Mark Richardson, one of my favorite modern writers on the topic of music, expresses it eloquently in his latest “Resonant Frequency” column:
“I should say here that I consider the act of listening to be almost holy, because for a while now it’s been essential to… my idea of who I am as a person. I’m a ‘music guy,’ right, and music is a disproportionally (possibly comically) large part of my life…. So everything about it fascinates me, from how it’s done to how it changes to what it might mean.”
That quote comes from an article in which Richardson discusses the ways in which the emergence of personal computers and digital recording technology over the past 10 years has fused the acts of creating music and listening to music in a way that was previously unavailable. To wit, a young guy from North Carolina named Ernest Greene (under the artistic guise of Washed Out) can listen to an eighties disco hit by Gary Low and, using just a laptop and his voice,mold it into something completely different, yet undeniably personal: the shimmering “Feel It All Around” (which I like quite a lot).
Of course, being a “music guy” myself, this got me thinking: if we are already making and listening to music at home, on our computers, why not combine that with brain training? Throughout history, humans have believed that music has healing powers- and clearly this baby is responding to something intuitive about Beyoncé besides her dance moves. I previously explored the research that suggests that creating improvisational music gives jazz musicians an effective mental workout, and part of the reason for that may be that improvising also requires the dual act of listening and creating music.
“Improvisation is usually a collective activity,” writes Richardson, “involving people in a room paying attention to what the other people in the room are doing, hearing how things are changing and answering those changes.”
According to research findings recently published by the Dana Foundation, music therapy can be effective in treating brain injuries. The study found that listening to certain kinds of music can help people recover from brain injuries, curb the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and even learn a new language, maybe because music itself has the properties of language. Or as the researchers put it:
“Biomedical researchers have found that music is a highly structured auditory language involving complex perception, cognition, and motor control in the brain, and thus it can effectively be used to retrain and reeducate the injured brain…. Neurologic music therapy does meet the standards of evidence-based medicine, and it should be included in standard rehabilitation care.”
Much to my disappointment, the article does not specify which artists or songs (or even which musical genres) were used in the study: I might suggest the aforementioned “Feel It All Around” from personal self-medicating experience – or maybe Kind of Blue? The study does discuss two key discoveries about music’s relationship with the brain: first, “that brain systems underlying music are shared with other functions,” and second, “that the brain assigns nearly everything that deals with temporal processing, timing, and sequencing to the auditory system.” By exercising the parts of the brain that respond to auditory stimulai, the researchers witnessed other areas brain areas strengthening concurrently.
To me, the most exciting part of this research is the infinite number of possibilities for applying this to brain training, specifically to Posit Science software. I can picture a musical brain fitness software program, one in which even a non-musician music lover like myself could participate. It would involve listening to music while watching visualizations of that music on a computer screen. With a click of the mouse, the user could mold and sculpt the music into something else, the same way Ernest Greene did with Gary Low, and the same way DJs have been doing since the halcyon days of disco and hip hop. The result would be a seamless fusion of enjoyment, creation and exercise, and a continuation of the healing powers we’ve found in music since people started banging rocks together.