Music is just meaningless noise, so why do we love it?

There’s a quote attributed to Plato from 2,400 years ago:

“I would teach children music, physics and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.”

Today, music still holds a major role in our society.  Music has never been more democratic and widespread than it is right now.

There is no greater example of music’s reach than the number of views on youtube of Adele’s “Hello”–

On youtube alone, that song has been played over 1 billion times!

The Super Bowl Halftime Show with Coldplay, Bruno Mars, and Beyonce received 115.5 million viewers this year, and the Grammys drew 24.9 million viewers to idolize music makers.
Kanye West’s new album that came out last week has already been illegally downloaded over 500,000 times.  That’s not including the times it was emailed or dropboxed or google drived to friends.  Officially his album is only available on Tidal, and that service, too, saw a huge spike in users:

With all that’s going on, I’ve been thinking a lot about music.  It’s everywhere.  It’s even on in the background as I write this.  (“Amsterdam” by Gregory Alan Isakov for those wondering).  Music is ever present in our lives, and most of the time we take it for granted.  But today in the Bulletin, I’m talking about music’s special role for the human species.

Aliens don’t do music

Imagine for a moment that you are a space alien visiting Earth for the first time.  You hear some sounds that are language between humans, but then you hear other sounds that seem totally separate from language – sounds made with strings, reeds, horns, drums, and voices.  All music is a wash of beats and tones, and for an alien brain these tones could be unintelligible.  An alien might wonder why our species has such a fascination with meaningless noise.

But our human brains are capable of something incredible.  Out of that sound, we draw meaning.  Music can lift our spirits, inspire us to dance, calm us down, or bring us to tears.  Even songs without words it can affect us.  We write film scores to carry the audience through the emotional arc of a scene.  We go to the symphony, and something inside (some of) us stirs.

Actually, this scenario with the aliens hearing our music is the subject of a romantic, folk duo, sci-fi, comedy called The History of Future Folk that I totally want to see now that I’ve watched the trailer:


So why and how do our brains hear, understand, and love music?

Oliver Sacks wrote a whole book, Musicophilia, on the subject of human attraction to music.  Early on, he writes about the strangeness of being a human and hearing music:

“It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads.”

And he goes on to explain that music has very powerful, deep, and multidimensional connections in the brain.  There is no “music center” in the brain.  Instead the whole brain pitches in to make the experience of listening to music.

Sacks’ book is full of case studies of people who’ve experienced varying forms of brain malfunction and have therefore changed the way they perceive music.  Some lose their ability to appreciate it entirely while others obsessively play and compose.

In turn, the making of music has a profound impact on the brain.  Brain imaging shows strong links between brain areas.  It also shows enlarged auditory, motor, and attention centers in the brain.  Sacks writes:

“Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer or a mathematician – but they would recognize the brain of a professional musician without moment’s hesitation.”

We know music is deep-seated in the whole brain, and that it is a fundamental part of being human.  Granted, for some the love of music is more powerful than others, but at heart most all of us can get enjoyment from some form of music.  For something to be so universal across a species, I began to wonder where our love of music came from.

The beginning of music

Of course, all explanations of the origins of music are just guesses.  Music predates history.  In fact, some of the
earliest history we have was preserved not in writing, but orally through song.  Our oldest literature, like Homer’s epics, were told by bards who sang the tales in the great halls of noble men.

Steven Mithen wrote a whole book hypothesizing about the origins of music called The Singing Neanderthals. He puts forward a theory that music co-evolved with language.  In the protolanguage of the neanderthals, he suggests, volume, rhythm, and pitch played as important – if not more important – roles in communication than vocabulary (phonemes and morphemes).

We do know that music exists in all societies on Earth, past and present.  The music varies widely, but even groups that have long lived in isolation develop their own music.

The creation and imitation of sounds goes way back.  Some monkeys and birds do this, with drumming and songs.  But using sound to intentionally change emotions, according to Wikipedia, dates back to 30,000-60,000 years ago when humans also started painting walls, making jewelry, and ceremonially burying their dead.  Women may have used music to choose a mate, and ritual music may have ensured survival by creating emotional harmony and communion within a group.

“The key is to make it”

The story of the neanderthals is not so hard to imagine when we consider that music always has brought us together and it continues to.  The Super Bowl Halftime Show is the biggest event in the country, but growing up my family gathered in the living room to sing.  Most schools have bands and choirs.  Churches, synagogues, and mosques have hymns and sung-prayers.  We use music to build community.

Music can be personally impactful as well.  Listening to your favorite song can be meditative.  Athletes will put on headphones to get into the zone before competition.  Music therapy can have powerful effects for patients, including the mentally handicapped, war veterans, and trauma victims.

I guess that’s what Plato meant by music being the key to learning.  Music unlocks the mind in ways even the best neurologists can’t explain.  Listening to music means doing something uniquely human, something that humans have always done, and when we listen to music we participate in a species-wide ritual.  We can’t explain how or why music makes us feel the way it does, but still as humans we’re compelled to make it and listen to it.