You know that feeling you get when your favorite party track starts playing on the radio? Your feet start tapping to the beat, your body begins swaying to the rhythm, and your head bops side to side; you suddenly realize that you’re on the verge of breaking into dance because somehow, music is literally capable of moving you.
Presented by the Nour Foundation, the New York Academy of Sciences hosted a lecture titled “Music & the Mind: The Magical Power of Sound.” The discussion centered on the connection between music, neuroscience, psychology and the general human experience. The panel consisted of Jamshed Bharucha, Dr. Concetta M. Tomaino, Charles Limb, and Vijay Iyer.
It started with a musical performance. Vijay is a remarkably accomplished multidisciplinary musician with a background in physics and mathematics. He is one of the many artists whose skills were utilized for studying the relationship between music and consciousness by Charles Limb. In 1995, he created an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in technology and the arts, focusing on music cognition.
While he played, the audience seemed to be under a spell; some people had their eyes closed, others rocked a little in their chairs, while the majority displayed satisfied smiles as they took in the melodies. It was obvious that Vijay made an impression.
For acknowledged cognitive neuroscientist and noted musician Jamshed Bharucha, this is nothing new. For years he has studied the effect of music on our consciousness. He revealed that music is different from other motor activities because it requires precise timing of several organized actions along with the precise control over pitch production by the selected instrument. Music is able to trigger a response from our motor cortex even if we are not aware of it ourselves.
Music therapy pioneer Concetta Tomaino has long understood that music can and does produce a direct physical effect on people. It’s interesting to note that previous (unrelated) studies have shown that calm speech and/or music directed at an ailing plant can cause it to grow healthier over time. For years, scientists have been using the power of sound to help people affected by stroke, brain injury, or neurological degenerative diseases.
In order to study how creativity and music improvisation manifest in the brain, Dr. Charles Limb, a faculty member of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, used functional MRI imaging with rappers and jazz musicians, including Vijay Iyer. Creating a “type of piano” inside the brain-imaging machine, he instructed the musicians to play it while he measured their brain activity. While there are advantages and disadvantages to studying the brain this way, new and interesting findings are consistently being made. (For more on Charles Limb and his research on creativity using rap artists and jazz pianists, see our Brain World interview.)
In a Q&A on the TED Blog, Limb states, “There are people who think art is going to be threatened by this type of analysis, but — no way. There’s so much complexity in music. And when I listen to music, I still listen like a musician. I can get cerebral, take a more analytical approach to music, but the emotional impact or significance of music — my enjoyment of it has in no way changed. In fact, it has grown. Like every subject, you fall in love more deeply if you study it.”
Musicians understand better than most that music is in many ways a part of us. It seems to get at the very center of who we are, into our very souls. Interestingly enough, our souls seem to be in our brains more so than in our hearts. Our brains process the musical input and interpret sound, taking the notes and transforming them into the stuff that heals us, into the stuff that makes us happy, but above all, into the stuff that moves us.