The Neuroscience Of Music

by Thomas Brett

In a recent article posted on his always interesting neuroscience blog at Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer writes about the neural basis of how music listening makes us feel emotion (or at least the semblance of emotion).  Citing a recent study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Lehrer discusses how music stimulates a brain region called the caudate.  Specifically, researchers found that caudate activity reached a climax of stimulation in the seconds just before “a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming.”  Our anticipation of what is to come in the music creates in us an intense sense of wanting or desire.  Composers (and here I would include good improvisers too) exploit this habit of how our minds listen to tonal music by setting up patterns that play with our expectations as well as our sense of resolution.  Good music makes us feel by keeping us wondering: What will happen next?  Where is this piece going?  Drawing on the pioneering work of musicologist Leonard Myer’s Emotion And Meaning In Music (1956), Lehrer notes:

“The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound. That is when we get the chills. […]  The uncertainty makes the feeling–it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to figure out what will happen next.  And so our neurons search for the underlying order, trying to make sense of this flurry of pitches.  We can predict some of the notes, but we can’t predict them all, and that is what keeps us listening, waiting expectantly for our reward, for the errant pattern to be completed.  Music is a form whose meaning depends upon its violation.”

There is a lot that makes sense here, especially when we are taking about the teleological thrust of good old tonal music–whether it be the familiar sounds of classical or pop.  But one of the things Lehrer doesn’t discuss is how musics that aren’t deeply rooted in chord progressions and their associated tonal tensions go about creating musical interest.  How does music in these other contexts go about its business of making us feel?

How, for instance, does repetition work on us in many electronic dance musical idioms to be not boring, but rather infectious and stimulating?   Similarly, what about the repetition-oriented musics outside of the Western pop continuum such as American minimalism, or farther afield–for instance, Indonesian gamelan or West African drumming traditions (with which I have some hands on experience)?  By what processes and structures do they make us feel?  (And is this feeling of the same cloth as that engendered by say, Beethoven?)  It seems to me that there is a lot to explore between the commonplace views of repetition as either groovily trance-inducing or merely redundantly boring.

Also, what about intensely melodic musical traditions that do not function tonally the way western classical and pop musics do with their use of harmony?  I am thinking here about the classical, soloist-oriented traditions of North and South India and parts of the Middle East.  In these traditions, elaborately decorated melodies are improvised from single ragas or maqams (scale types) to build large-scale forms.  Suffice it to say, different musics work on us by different means.

You can read Lehrer’s article here.