Got Music On the Brain?

Contributed by:
Frank Pennington
United Church of Christ
Institute Advisory Committee Member

What does your brain look like on music? We all are very aware of the music we like . . . and that which we detest. The word we use to describe our feelings for music or art or how we dress is called “taste.” Our “tastes” are highly personal. There are those who would diminish a fondness for Hip Hop or Rap as “poor taste.” I’ve often joked about people who believe that “good” church music has to be at least two-hundred years old.

What we “like” has a more profound source than simply “taste” or even how we have been shaped by the courses we took in college—I slept through “Music Appreciation 101”! Last week I watched, pretty much on impulse, a PBS documentary titled the Musical Brain. The documentary featured the recording star Sting being interviewed about how he developed his creative musical style which was interesting in its own right; I confess that I am a Sting fan. Much more intriguing was watching how the latest technology used by neuroscientists can reveal how the inner folds of grey matter respond when stimulated by different types of music. A cliché declares that music calms the savage beast. The cadence of military drums can muster armies for war. I recall the drum cadence of the funeral procession for John F Kennedy and when I occasionally hear it I am back there with all the stark images! I am also a big fan of a musical form identified as “Funk” but why is that? On the other hand I’m not a big fan of polka music—go figure! We not only create music but music “creates” us!

Some anthropologists claim that music is a global common denominator and, since we all have brains, current neuroscience would probably agree with this claim. Neuroscientists can now “see” what parts of our brains are turned on by what we hear and can tell us why we like what we like! In the classic sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, tonality is the unifying and calming force linking the first interstellar encounter. Clearly music does more than simply “entertain” us. Music very familiar to us triggers vivid memories in that part of the brain serving memory recall. Along with areas of the brain activated by smell, music engenders far more than an intellectual momentary recall; we can seemingly be, “back there”! Many dementia patients can’t remember the names of immediate family members but can sing the words of a favorite song from their pasts without missing a beat; music can be powerfully therapeutic.

Through brain imaging neuroscientists can now “see” who and why we are musically—literally from the inside out. How our likes in music play out is in part not just a circumstantial rational choice but our complex brains “telling” us what is a turn on! All I know is for some reason the song, “Play That Funky Music White Boy!” gets me on my feet every time. Polka music? . . . not so much.

When we deconstruct what some critique as “Good Taste” in music there is so much more than trained sophistication. Since musical “taste” is so primal, probably a good measure of musical “taste” is to strike up the band and see what the music does to us. Obviously it can help if you have a friend who is a neuroscientist to help you sort things out.

Note: This topic is huge so, if you would like to know more, Google “music and the brain” and check out your local library which most likely has a copy of the PBS documentary the Musical Brain—if you don’t appreciate the recording star Sting just turn down the volume.

The Rev Frank Pennington is a weekly blogger who serves on the Institute Advisory Committee