Professors and researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have discovered and proved the existence of an anatomically distinct ‘music centre’ in the brain (1). This has long eluded scientists leading them and other commentators to dismiss the significance of music as ‘auditory cheesecake’(2), a function that relies on many other brain faculties but not important enough to have evolved its own. Essentially, a secondary human function and not significant in human evolution.
This has now been turned on its head (…or its brain, as it were). In fact, not only is this specific circuitry discrete from fundamentally important capacities like speech, it may even be more important. There is much archeological evidence to suggest that music may be even older than speech and that speech may have evolved from music.
Moreover, this elusive music circuitry is distinct from other ‘non-musical’ sounds. For example, a dustbin lid being dropped or the tyre roar from a car is recognised separately from musical sound and is processed in another part of the auditory cortex. However, this special music circuitry can recognise any musical sound, whatever the genre or style of music.
Here at Lydianstream we monitor the coverage of this work with fascination and some bemusement. It’s like watching parts of a jigsaw puzzle coming together. We sort of already know the final complete picture but the solid pieces need to be found, examined, their significance proven and then slotted satisfyingly into place.
“Our mission (at Lydianstream) is to harness the power and significance of musical sound in the same way that the Wright brothers harnessed the air to give us flight”
Why bemusement? Well, you don’t have to be a neuroscientist with a brain scanner to really understand the enormous power and significance of musical sound in human society. It features in all cultures and on all continents. It usually accompanies important ceremonies, rituals and rites of passage. On an everyday level music brings us satisfaction through stimulating feelings of joy, excitement, sadness, love and so on.
But it IS exciting stuff. Lydianstream, music therapists, neuroscientists – we are all exploring and trying to push the boundaries of our understanding of this mysterious thing we call music. We are just coming at it from a different start point from the scientists. We look forward to the time when we can all be working closely together.
Lydianstream emerged from the conflict zone of Israel and Gaza. Mark Smulian, our founder, has already proved the power of music to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers when he formed Whiteflag. Music provided a safe space where even mortal enemies could come together.
But let’s get back to the science.
Experiments utilising the FMRI Scanner, indicate that playing or just listening to music, fires up the neural pathways like nothing else. One commentator suggested it was like fireworks going off in the brain – a kind of ‘neural symphony’. It stimulates the so-called ‘pleasure centres’ of the brain releasing the happy hormones, dopamine and oxytocin. It even changes the physical size and shape of the brain amongst those who study music from an early age (3).
One of the most compelling and moving observations we have seen are the experiments with severe dementia sufferers (4). When furnished with headphones and the music they have loved and listened to all their lives, their minds are re-awakened and enlivened in a way that drugs and and other therapies struggle to match.
Something really interesting is going on! We can see the effects, and the folk in the white coats are now telling us music is a significant brain function. This means it has an important evolutionary function. Commentators suggest it’s probably something to do with creating social cohesion. This makes sense. Look at the way humans come together at music festivals or in moments of tribal ‘togetherness’ over the drums and so on.
Our mission at Lydianstream is to harness the power and significance of musical sound in the same way that the Wright brothers harnessed the air to give us flight or the Buddhists recognised the power of breathing to regulate our minds and emotions
Through a deep understanding of how music and musical sound affects our emotions and brain function (…and also through the medium of air), we want to create a better world.
It feels like we are on the cusp of a breakthrough where music and musical sound can be applied and engaged with in new ways to harness its special powers. These powers can only do good and we aim to be at the forefront of this.
So hats off to the scientists. Their ground-breaking work will generate more interest and funding in this area. Interesting times.
1 Professors Nancy Kanwisher, Josh H. McDermott and their postdoctoral colleague Sam Norman-Haignere
2 Steven Pinker
3 Daniel J Levitin, The Music Instinct
4 Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory: See http://musicandmemory.org