On How Music Affects Your Brain (and Why Canadians are Awesome)

Music is my #1 motivation for pretty much anything- especially homework.  Do work for biology?  Maybe the Beatles will take some of the weight off of it.  History paper?  The Hamilton soundtrack on low volume can serve the same function as caffeine.  Got a truckload of algebra equations?  A bit of Beethoven can make things seem less dire.

About a week ago, I was writing something for English class on the computer. While wrestling with the difficulties of a text-dependent analysis, I was listening to a song called “In Our Bedroom After the War” by a Canadian band named Stars, a partially orchestral piece and also reason #1,289 why Canadians are awesome (alongside thai food in Halifax and the gazillions of lighthouses on Grand Manan).  By the end, I was crying, to some degree due to the plague of writer’s block that beset me, but mostly because I loved the song.

Why, though?  Why do I cry about a song whose words I don’t even pay attention to?
I’m gonna have to abandon the mathematical stuff here- all that really tells us is a bunch of Pythagoras-related ratios and a lot of other stuff that makes my head hurt. This is a mostly study-based subject, but brain scans also expose the musicality of the human race, so yeah.  Music!

Music is one of the most emotionally moving art forms humanity has given birth to. I’m a 3rd year piano student, so call me biased if you will, but there’s lots of science to back it up.  Let’s start with music’s sister art form (or sport, it you’re competitive)- dance.  In case you’ve never heard of the mirror neuron system.  When you mimic anything unconsciously- like if your friend has a super happy expression on their face and suddenly you start smiling a little- you can thank or blame your mirror neuron system for it.  When the melody or rhythm or volume take an upswing, you can tend to make upward movements when dancing- like in ballet or when a conductor orchestrates a symphony.  Music also activates your motor neuron network even if you’re not moving, and sends blood to your legs (it’s theorized this contributes to the whole tapping-your-foot or bouncing-your-leg thing).

Apparently, music has “emotion”, according to math. According to the study “Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music”, things like “mode, tempo, pitch range, tone density, and rhythmic regularity” determine the mood of any given piece across many cultures.  I’m going to be completely honest- I read dictionaries for fun (no, it’s not due to a depressing lack of social life), and I still had to break out the good ol’ Webster’s to even remotely comprehend what the study were trying to say.

The experiment in the study was the identification of different moods in music compared between men from Western cultures and from an African indigenous tribe called the Mafa (neither group had ever heard the other’s music). They were given short musical excerpts, some from Western culture on a CG piano and Mafa music played on indigenous instruments. They were then asked to rate it on a scale based on three emotions- happy, sad, and scared. They could all match the excerpts to their intended moods (Westerners could identify the moods in indigenous music as well as in Western music, and vice versa).

This is primarily due to the effect that consonance (harmony) plays in the human brain. When consonance occurs, they follow a reasonable ratio in tone– Pythagoras observed the role of math in nice-sounding music. When some combinations of tones reach our ears and are processed by our brain, our neurons fire like a ticking clock, rather than irregularly when the tones are dissonant.

If you really turn the results over in your head a few times, it uncovers something truly profound. We may not write our songs with the same notes, but anyone can understand the message the musician is trying to convey to the audience without any words. It’s why so many people get choked-up they hear Leonard Cohen’s pleading, melodic “Hallelujah”, and spontaneously start humming and tapping their feet to a Joplin piece. It fills everyone with emotion to hear a number they love, whether it’s blaring out of a car’s radio or a piano cover in your YouTube feed.

            It brings us all together.

And I got the whole thing from a song.  Thanks, Canada.

It’s an amazing world of science out there…let’s go exploring!