Figuring out how music affects our whole being is a matter of available space. It happens sometimes to be in short supply even in the infinity of digital space. A short essay in pursuit of a subject so vast inevitably runs the risk of oversimplification. In our case, this risk entails another one: that of sounding ludicrous. For in this essay, we take a critical stance against all manner of simplifications. Speaking of the proverbial snake that bites on its own tail…
1. Layers of Suffocating Complexity
It starts with the brain. To comprehend music in relation to the brain is to understand all the hows and whys of mental functioning. It gets more complicated when we integrate this functioning with the workings of all the organs that comprise our bodies – right down to the living cells and extracellular fluids. The task is akin to trying to scoop out all of the water in the Aegean with a spoon. After all, everything within us is interconnected in multiple, intricate, and largely undisclosed ways. Criticizing the tendency of modern science to split things apart within the organism and deal with each minuscule detail in isolation, Deane Juhan summed it up well: “The skin is no more separate from the brain than the surface of a lake is from its bottom…The brain is a single functional unit, from the cerebral cortex to the tips of your toes. To touch the surface is to stir up the depths.”
Probing into these depths raises more questions than answers. Each new discovery blurs the picture of available evidence and shatters the framework of existing explanations; it subjects itself to endless interrogation in terms of all its causal factors, its varied relations with other phenomena, its specific functions, and how it works in totum.
To understand music in relation to the brain, the grey matter is also to comprehend all the processes of the mind, a non-physical and far more mysterious substance – our consciousness, which may or may not be solely the product of our brain activity, entirely determined and controlled by it.
Some evidence suggests that the mind may not even be confined to the brain in the shape of the whole body: It is something, as anthropologists and sociologists insist, that is present in us but also in between us – insofar as consciousness can influence things outside itself. Both embodied and relational, the mind regulates the flow of energy and information within and among us. The problem is that no gadgetry would detect and measure this flow.
To comprehend music in relation to the brain, to the body, to the mind is also to understand music in relation to itself, referencing each element in the structure of a piece to other elements within it – basic ones such as tone, pitch, rhythm, tempo, contour, and timbre; as well as the elements of a higher conceptual order such as meter, key, melody, harmony… To put it another way: the effect of music does not stem from the mere presence of these elements in a composition, but rather from a certain interplay between them.
“The notes themselves are irrelevant to a very large degree,” says Daniel J. Levitin, musician and neuroscientist, author of This Is Your Brain on Music. “It is the relations among notes that give rise to music.” As for a simple formula that establishes and regulates these internal relationships, there is no such thing. ( 1 )
2. Pitfalls of Stupendous Simplifications
Permeating the issue at all levels, this complexity nevertheless does not preclude the formation of simple answers. On the contrary, they swarm and proliferate. Some are bordering on the absurd. One such answer circles around a single sonic frequency, the "miracle key," which registers at 432 Hz. Given its grandiosity and prominence, it is particularly difficult to simply dismiss when you stumble upon it.
Less than a semitone below the standard for tuning musical instruments, 432Hz is said to be the “frequency of the universe”. It is rumored (for no one can prove this) to equilibrate everything in nature, from the vibration of mud in puddles as they fill with water and dry out, to the electromagnetic oscillations of massive solar storms as they wax and wane millions of miles away from us. By shifting the standard to this number, we are promised perfect synchronization of our brains, minds, bodies, and souls with the rate of a “cosmic heartbeat”. By tuning in to the 432Hz frequency, we gain direct access to the hidden dimensions and innermost mysteries of the universe – so it is alleged. And conversely, we get out of sync with nature when we listen to music that deviates from this universal vibe. It dulls our senses, muddles our perceptions, blocks our intuition, hinders our creativity, diminishes our consciousness...
The simplicity of the technical solution reflects that of the theory: a piece of downloadable software that converts your entire music collection to 432Hz with a single click.
Easy as that! But what about the rest of the world? It is overflowing with all sorts of energies vibrating in the infinite range of frequencies, all dissolving into a shifting cacophony; saturated with infrasonic and ultrasonic sounds that wash over the high and low edges of the humanly audible spectrum.
And then we have the world stuffed with a whole host of objects resonating to frequencies in so many varied acoustic parameters – depending on their sizes, shapes, materials, and their combinations in any one object. Resetting your Ableton Live to 432Hz may not do much to unlock your creativity, if anything – given that your computer (and everything electronic) feeds on 50 or 60Hz, the dominant frequencies in our modern world.
And then, within this 432Hz theory, what are we supposed to do with ourselves? We are all alike, but not exactly the same when it comes to precise objective analysis. Each person is unique in weight, height, bone density, muscle mass... Our eardrums vibrate differently. We are not exactly the same, even with respect to ourselves: Our heart rate changes from minute to minute depending on whether we are standing up or lying down, moving around or sitting still, stressed or relaxed… The human pulse rate is generally between 40 and 120 beats per minute, which is equivalent to 0.6–2Hz.
Given these corporeal variations, it is unlikely that a single frequency would have the same effect on all of us, all the time. Chances are we each have our own natural frequency scales and music to our own ears, at least for the time being, before our preferences change due to the fluidity of our circumstances.
3. Paths to Musical Positivity
Yet, is there anything we can speak of in the affirmative on the subject, without falling into the trap of simplification that belies the suffocating complexity of the issue? We need at least something to take on board in our inquiry into the complex mechanics of music and its immense impact on us.
With the help of new magnetic resonance technology, we now can observe that the way we process music in the brain has something to do with the way the brain handles our memories. The level of our engagement with music correlates with the illumination in the brain area responsible for our flashbacks. The same happens to the segment that processes language and imagery, as well as the part that coordinates our movements. Music somehow helps in the activation of these cognitive and motor faculties.
We may even go as far as to suppose that it is not just poking around in there, but contributes to the development of these faculties.We also know that music – particularly that of the upbeat variety – enhances sociability, induces cooperation, fosters creativity in groups. It also decreases judgmental behavior and inspires the exchange of ideas, stimulates the articulation of original thoughts, and encourages the expression of divergent points of view.
The point that music animates us does not require much of an explanation. Just cast a glance at the dancefloor and move on. Motus vita est! We live in motion …
Music as Language
From thick books with unembellished covers and unromantic titles such as The Linguistic Construction of Reality, we glean that much of what we refer to as reality is, by and large, no more than the language we use to describe it. In the cultural domain, of which music is a part, it is none other than the effect of semantic codification and communication.
The sheer volume of language related to music is mindblowing: In works on music history, in dissertations on music theory, in lectures on music appreciation, in volumes of music criticism, in scientific papers on musical phenomena from different and very remote academic fields, in tutorials on music-making...
It should come as no surprise that music and language are processed in near-identical functional brain areas. Music also lends itself to the imagination. In fact, Plato thought of music as a mimetic art, in one category with painting and poetry. Try listening to it and you too may see “shimmering, restless waves” in the orchestral illustrations of La Mer, one of Debussy's impressionist masterpieces.
Intended primarily for listening, music is no less of a source to draw mental pictures from, an object to reflect upon, and a material for verbalization. Just like any cultural form: If it is any good at all, you never pass it in blind silence!
Music is language, just as language is music. And so we find that Human, All Too Human is prefaced with the author's clarification that this book is not just text. Nietzsche has conceived and bequeathed it to us as a musical composition, on a par with the literary one. It cannot be just read. It must also be heard – in the same vein as when you listen to music, particularly classical music, where picturing is key to hearing and appreciation. “If we reject the stories or images attached to music as unmusical, writes Kendall Walton in his essay Listening with Imagination, “we must begin to wonder how much of what we love about music will be left.”
More resolute is the take of Lawrence Kramer, a composer and pioneering figure in the field of New Musicology that regards music in terms of its social and cultural references; a critical paradigm that closes the divide between music and language and sustains the semantic potentiality of music: “There is and can be no fundamental difference between interpreting a written text and interpreting a work of music – or any other product or practice of culture.
”Every sensory input is a stimulus. Our ears are transducers of sorts: Tickled with air vibrations, the eardrums convert these vibes into nerve impulses for the brain to register them and for our minds to derive some knowledge and attach some meaning to these signals. It is at this point that music emerges as reality.
Here, it pauses for a moment, bereft of words and pictures, where it is picked up by language and imagination to be gradually fulfilled as music, properly speaking – as the “Ah and Oh of the heart”, as Hegel would have it, until it assumes its highest cultural value through a long-winded musicological discourse. There is a process to it:
Drawing on our ability to recognize patterns, we gather that those sounds in our heads are not “noise”, but actually “music”. It is anything but a bone-dry whistling of a lonely fife lamenting the miseries of life. From its sinewy orchestral sound, we know it is a “symphony”. But it unfolds differently from any other symphony, as it unlocks new territories of emotion for us. In its dramatic, barely containable expressivity we recognize a particularly artful reflection of the “sublime”. Just as happy music is the kind of music that makes one happy, sublime music makes one feel sublime. This is how we feel being transported into the spiritual realm of the infinite. We cannot simply guess what it is that we are listening to. Only later do we find out that it is “Beethoven’s Fifth.” More to the point: it is “the world’s most famous symphony.” This explains its effect on us and pleases us in our thinking that the structure of our emotions perfectly reflects that of the world. Paging through Language of the Spirit or some other volume on music, we discover that this symphony has not always been received as sublime. At first, it was taken as a joke. We come to realize how everything about music – perhaps everything in the world – is contingent: Things are so-and-so, but not necessarily so.
Music as Memories
Some theorize that music is nothing other than our memories. In this vein, the way music makes you feel has nothing to do with a piece of music itself, but the atmosphere within which it is encountered. This general atmosphere is then recalled every time one hears this music again (or a similar piece).
Research has shown that music, especially its melodic component, evokes strong autobiographical memories. It glides you back to the situation where you heard it once. It is not that emotions are built into music somehow and you simply mirror them in your mind. It is the associations of a piece with your prior emotions that guide your new emotional response. It is all there is to music, they argue.
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that music affects us through association with other processes. A mild psychological irritant in the background can strip music of all its appeal or even ruin it to the point that the entire genre becomes insufferable. And vice versa: music sounds so much better when we tune into it within a broader spectrum of pleasurable experiences. Music Sounds Better with You, the title of one of the most irresistible dance tracks of all time, speaks for itself. The way to favorably transcend this wonderful sensation would be to recast it into a moment that is perfect in more ways than just one. Hear the tune played on the Sunset Terrace drenched in warm joyful colors, where you are greeted by uninterrupted views into the Aegean; with a glass of chilled wine in hand and your feet in the groove, the beat counting down to the full-moon ritual ahead, mysterious and unforgettable.
In the light of these insights, may we suggest that you never listen to our SC_Music releases in a state of emotional stress? Not even as a sidekick to something trivial in your life, or just to kill the silence with our aural forms. Please reserve them only for special moments. This will suffice insofar as our theory of music-as-memory is concerned. And all the while, we shall be taking care of the music-as-language part – so that music never runs out of your time out of our space!