A Little Thinking Music”Words are the pen of the heart, but music is the pen of the soul” said Shneur Zalman. “Ain’t it funny how a melody brings back memories/takes you to another place and time/completely changes your state of mind” croons the old country ballad. “Give me the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away” says the classic blues song. We are a species obsessed with these compositions of sound and rhythm. We call it the universal language and provide it the role of conveying our emotions without the restrictions of a linguistic system, we say that it has the ability to trigger memories and change moods. Why do our brains react so powerfully to music? How do we process it and what purpose does it serve? These are some of the questions I set out to answer in my little musical odyssey.
When you hear a piece of music, the ear converts the sound waves into vibrations in specific parts of the inner and middle ear. These vibrations are then translated into action potentials that travel through the eighth cranial nerve to the brain stem, the thalamus, and the auditory cortex (1). It seems that the brain takes a song and translates it into it’s own neurosymphony-sending electrical impulses to various parts of your brain. These varying patterns of impulses generate thoughts, feelings, and emotions (3) . It sounds almost as though we store various different patterns of these impulses in our brains and when the same pattern of sounds matches a pattern of impulses, it triggers a set of images. The interesting thing is that the same set of frequencies or pattern of impulses generates different images for different people. For instance, when I hear the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, I think of Mr. C, my fifth grade teacher, his old record player, and rock and roll Tuesdays. When my roommate’s brain registers the same pattern of impulses, it brings up the memory of her family’s tan colored Volkswagen Rabbit. When I hear Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, I hear raindrops and soft footsteps, while another person might hear rays of light falling on water. We all have distinct visions of the same pattern of sounds. Neurobiologists, like Harvard’s Mark Tramo, have yet to figure out exactly how this comes about (3) .
Music is one thing that stimulates and utilizes most parts of the brain (2).