What Scientists Are Telling Us About Our Relationship With Music


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Beloved art, in how many gray hours
Where life’s wild circle entangles me,
You have kindled my heart with warm love;
You transported me to a better world.

Franz Schubert’s sublime lied “An die Musik,” to Franz von Schober’s poem, says it all.

Music clearly has great power, but is it perhaps measurable beyond feelings and poetry? The age-old question has had a resurgence of interest, as documented by El País, the Madrid-based newspaper.

The headline: “Music scientists find the connection between music and emotion: ‘Our neurons dance to the same rhythm.’” The subheading: “Three independent scientific studies analyze how the human brain transforms notes into feelings, a mystery that has intrigued psychologists and musicologists for decades.”

More and more, science is allowing us to understand our attraction to music and what it does for us — and consequently, what makes us human.

One study from the University of Zurich purports to show how emotion is transmitted through sound, which is apparently more evident when a subject experiences music live rather than from recordings.

In the experiment, MRI scans showed the subjects’ responses to both recorded and live piano playing. The fascinating results, according to the El País report, showed that musicians and listeners could develop a “synchronicity” or musical empathy, which, the scientists hypothesize, is why live playing affects us more.

Su Buchignani, of Golden Gate Music, provided a personal perspective for SF Classical Voice:

“Certain harmonic progressions, and even a few specific chords, can affect me emotionally and even viscerally. Some of the most powerful of them can be found in the works of [Gustav] Mahler and [Richard] Strauss, [and] some melodic lines from other composers have similar effects.

“[Johannes] Brahms, [Béla] Bartók, [Zoltán] Kodály, and some of the English composers have melodic lines that affect me deeply. I have been known, in my career, to have been overcome by a single chord. In fact, I am hearing one in my head right now.”

Another study, led by Nori Jacoby, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and published in the journal Nature, tried to account for social biases by “on-site testing with more than 900 people from 15 countries,” reported El País. The idea was to discover if there are universal aspects to human musical experience. It took the form of a game where subjects were asked to tap out a rhythm that was played to them and pass it on to the next subject. According to the researchers, this was the first large-scale study of musical rhythm. Their results, according to El País, did in fact discover constants: “All the groups that were analyzed showed biases towards simple integer proportions.”

The third recent study cited by El País focused on how music can alter listeners’ states of consciousness. It was led by Raquel Aparicio Terrés, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Barcelona. Subjects listened to recorded musical excerpts with tempos ranging from 99 to 171 beats per minute. Aparicio Terrés discovered that synchronization between the listeners’ brain activity and the music was most noticeable at 99 beats per minute. She told El País that her results could help medical professionals understand altered states of consciousness, such as a coma or a vegetative state, and might lead to advances in noninvasive ways to calm patients, “especially in clinical environments such as intensive care units.”

Ramzan Kadyrov is the current head of the Chechen Republic

Coincidentally, there is more news about the effect of musical tempos, this time involving the government regulation of metronome measurements.

As Anna Russell would say, I am not making this up, but if you believe Smithsonian magazine, and who wouldn’t, quoting a report in The Guardian, the news is this:

“Chechnya Bans Music That Isn’t Between 80 and 116 Beats Per Minute”

In the Russian republic, with a tragic recent history under Putin’s control, the Ministry of Culture announced that “from now on, all musical, vocal, and choreographic works must correspond to the tempo of 80 to 116 beats per minute.” 

Smithsonian’s Sonja Anderson writes, “The new rule — approved by the republic’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov — will ensure that all Chechen music and dance productions conform to ‘Chechen mentality and musical rhythm.’ According to the Moscow Times, artists have until June 1 to rewrite songs that don’t align with the new ban. After that deadline, they will no longer be able to play those songs in public.”

The report quotes culture minister Musa Dadayev as saying, “Borrowing musical culture from other peoples is inadmissible. We must bring to the people and to the future of our children the cultural heritage of the Chechen people.”

However, as Anderson further reports, the regime is so oppressive and intolerant toward individual expression and dissent that Dadayev’s statement amounts to doublespeak.



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