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An Exploration into the Purpose of Music: Emotional Release, Logical Reasoning, or Love?
Why does music take up such a large part of living, and why has it persisted for so long, and permeated to so many areas of our lives?
Music is a universal, yet highly individual language. Its meanings are accessible and open to all, yet completely closed off to anyone who has not dedicated hundreds of hours to study and practice. The production of music is as simple as the singing of a nursery rhyme by an infant, yet as difficult as the coordination and precision of playing Bach fugues on the organ, or conveying Tchaikovsky’s depression and suffering in the second movement of his violin concerto. But why does music take up such a large part of living, and why has it persisted for so long, and permeated to so many areas of our lives? And most importantly; how does it inform our thinking and learning in work, school, and at home?
The average person will first hear music in the form of melodic shapes, 5-6 months into pregnancy, through the amniotic fluid surrounding them. As newborns, they will most likely be exposed to nursery rhymes, or folk tunes from their parents. As their brains are developing, they are absorbing various sounds and rhythms, and although at 6 months, they show no difference in their ability to understand different rhythmic patterns, by 12 months, a baby is only able to appreciate and understand rhythms related to their exposure to their culture. This is known as perceptual narrowing, and is the reason the average person born and raised in Europe would have a difficult time understanding the non-isochronous beats found in music in the Balkans, for instance. Another form of perceptual narrowing in Western cultures is moving from enjoying the sound of both consonance and dissonance, to preferring consonant sounds. Perceptual narrowing is not a bad thing - it enables a greater level of specificity and sophistication in understanding, and it is very much reflected in the education system - narrowing down from learning a variety of subjects in little depth, to a certain field of a certain subject in great detail. Thus, over our lives, we develop more specific tastes in music. If we decide to learn an instrument as a child, we may develop perfect pitch. The brain of one learning the art of music will also undergo some other changes which are less visible from the outside, such as increased connectivity between the hemispheres, so it would seem that listening to and learning music is to our cognitive advantage, given its persistence in human culture, internationally, and over time. However, the relationship between music and the brain is much more complicated than a simple enriching of its connections.
In 1848, a pioneering study by Grant-Allen was published about a man who had received a musical, as well as academic education, and did not possess any physical brain abnormalities, but peculiarly, could not discriminate between two successive tones, or recognise common melodies. He also did not show any emotional involvement in music. Over time, similar cases have been reported, and in 1948, Fry carried out a study, and concluded that 5% of the British population were amusical. Congenital amusia has been defined as a deficit in pitch contour perception. Some studies have found this to apply in the context of speech as well as music, and some only in music, which implies that there are different versions of amusia, or ‘tone deafness’, as it is more commonly known. On the other end of the scale, are those with Williams syndrome. Williams syndrome is a disorder which was identified over 60 years ago, and is characterised by a very low IQ, poor visuospatial cognition and sensitivity to loud noises, which is curious, given that people with Williams syndrome tend to show a natural ‘affinity’ for music, often being seen to break down in tears from listening to classical music in a minor key, or to dance as a response to happy music. This has led to music therapy being used in an educational setting for many children with Williams Syndrome. What is interesting, is that people with Williams Syndrome also often have a gregarious personality, and are extremely friendly to other people, which leads to the suggestion that music appeals to people with the syndrome, due to the nature of music as a form of emotionally connecting with others. However, it is not purely the social elements of music which are heightened in people with Williams Syndrome - the critical period for developing perfect pitch is also extended; normally, someone must study music before the age of six, in order to develop perfect pitch, but with Williams Syndrome, people seem to be able to develop it at much later stages in life. However, whether this greatly increased affinity for music is related to the common low IQ among those with Williams Syndrome is unclear.
In ‘The Luzhin Defense’, Nabokov explores the idea of music as an aid for logic, describing chess moves as ‘combinations like melodies’, to the extent that a character ‘can simply hear the moves’. And when the main character in the book Luzhin, who is a chess prodigy, has a child, he does not notice that as a father, ‘he had endowed his son with the features of a musical rather than a chess-playing prodigy’. However, despite his idea that music serves as an aid to logical reasoning, Nabokov himself, as an accomplished writer and thinker (thus supposedly, in possession of a rational mind), seemed to have a form of amusia, claiming that to him, music was ‘an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds’. On the other hand, the great writer Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Leo Tolstoy, as he is more commonly known), was a great lover of music, to the extent that he went to visit Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, and refused to leave until Tchaikovsky (who was feeling a little shy) would come to ‘chat’. When Tchaikovsky organised a chamber music concert to be held to Tolstoy, following the meeting, the writer was brought to tears by the Andante Cantabile of his String Quartet no.1. Thus, Tolstoy, as a case study, contradicts Nabokov, because one was extremely appreciative, and one unable to enjoy music, despite both being successful writers and thinkers, who consistently displayed logical reasoning. However Tolstoy, like Nabokov, demonstrated doubt in his perspective of music. Where Nabokov wrote about a chess player whose logical reasoning was improved with music, contradicting Nabokov’s own experience of music, Tolstoy, despite loving Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Bach and Chopin, reached the conclusion when setting up a school for peasant children at Yasnaya Pollyanna, that the music included in the curriculum should encourage the children to embrace folk music, and not learn ‘high culture’ music such as Beethoven, which he considered to be artificial entertainment.
Perhaps this speculation is going too far - after all, Nabokov and Tolstoy were individuals, and there is no reason why the response of one to music compared to the other should indicate anything about the role of music in reasoning. However, someone who can serve as a source of information is the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, who claimed that during a period of times when he was ‘taking massive doses of amphetamines’, suppressing the work of the temporal lobes, his ability to remember and transcribe music was greatly enhanced. And of course we cannot leave out the story about the composer Shostakovich, who apparently had a piece of German shrapnel in his brain for his final 34 years alive, which helped him with his composition. He would tilt his head to one side, which played melodies in his head, and when he returned his head to a neutral position, the melodies would stop.
The purpose of music is truly a mystery, and perhaps I am clutching at loose straws here to try to form an explanation, but the role of music in cognition, and logical reasoning in the brain is clearly one which should continue to be explored - because of Nabokov’s personal amusia, yet desire to portray music as a force of logic; because of Tolstoy’s love of the art, yet reluctance to teach peasant children the very type of music which he loved; because of Oliver Sacks’ idea that a cognitive suppressant (which would dampen brain processing) could somehow increase his musical ability. And because of the patients with Williams Syndrome, who have a low IQ, yet such a visceral reaction to, and engagement with, music. Perhaps learning music enhances brain connectivity, yet true emotional, intuitive engagement requires a compromise in cognitive function - or perhaps, in the words of Darwin, music simply serves ‘the sake of charming the opposite sex’.
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