I hear you but what am I listening to?

My most memorable experience of meeting a boyfriend’s parents ended with them prostrate on the carpet, drunk as lords, their heads wedged against a speaker, air-conducting a song by Glen Campbell…or was it Meatloaf? Either way, I wanted to swap my parents. They were taking it in turns to stumble to the stereo and play their favourite songs by the artists who would never fail to take them to the heavens. For me, that would be Fela Kuti.  Call me old-fashioned but there’s just something about a blasting horn section, jazzy piano and enough band members for a small village working it in a polygamous (most of them were Fela’s wives) and polyrhythmic cacophony solidly bound by the hypnotic Afrobeat.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a gig by Fela’s son, Femi Kuti. It started off promisingly enough but after a while, I felt myself having an ‘Elaine dancing moment’, so named from the episode of Seinfield where Elaine dances in front of her colleagues at a party and everyone is appalled, especially George, who describes it as a ‘a full body dry heave set to music’. In these moments, it’s like your brain is playing a practical joke on the rest of your body. I felt I was all out of whack on the rhythm and my arms were stuck between Hominid and Homo Sapien. Thankfully there are always enough Elaine dancers for camouflage. Sometimes at a gig or a festival I watch people dance and marvel at all the different variations going on to the same music. Don’t you want to be inside each person’s head for just a little while to hear what it is they’re hearing?

If you’re at all interested in what happens when musicians play and the soundwaves travel through space and time to tickle your eardrums, I can recommend Daniel Levitin’s ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’. But if you can’t be bothered, here’s Daniel’s kooky ping-pong ball analogy of what ‘hearing’ involves:

‘Imagine that you stretch a pillowcase tightly across the opening of a bucket, and different people throw ping-pong balls at it from different distances.’ (I’ll bet fifty bucks no-one in the world is doing this right now.) ‘Each person can throw as many ping-pong balls as he likes, and as often as he likes. Your job is to figure out — just by looking at how the pillowcase moves up and down — how many people there are, who they are, and whether they are walking toward you, walking away from you, or are standing still. This is analogous to what the auditory system has to contend with in making identifications of auditory objects in the world, using only the movement of the eardrum as a guide.’

But that’s just the beginning. When we listen to music, the brain really gets busy. The auditory cortex identifies and segregates frequencies into ‘pitch’. The cerebellum and basal ganglia are the rhythm section, processing the beats. The sober frontal regions of the brain analyse the music’s structure, making predictions about what’s coming next. The hippocampus helps to retrieve memories associated with the sounds. The mesolimbic system – your brain’s party crew – transmits opioids and sends out dopamine. This is the simple version. Ask your friendly neighbourhood neuroscientist if you want to hear the full 12”.

The spookily-named Dr Anne Blood and her colleague Robert Zatorre from the Montreal Neurological Institute, found that when they played music that gave subjects ‘the chills’, that special pleasure shiver down your spine,  parts of the brain were activated that also respond to food, sex and what they termed ‘drugs of abuse’. (By the way, one of those pieces of music was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, if you want to see if it works for you.)

The Staring Babies Experiment

Expectant parents, take note: we start storing musical memories before we are born. The auditory system of a fetus is fully functional about 20 weeks into gestation. In ‘This is Your Brain on Music’, Daniel Levitin describes research in which mothers played a single piece of music repeatedly to their babies during the final three months before birth. One year later, the researchers set up an environment in which the babies could choose between the song that had been played to them in utero and an unfamiliar piece of music similar in style and tempo. The babies stared longer at the speaker playing their pre-birth song than at the speaker playing the new music. A control group of other babies who had not heard either song were indifferent and probably just sucked on their blankets.

Another interesting question (for me anyway) is why we bothered with music in the first place. Last I tried I couldn’t catch a fish with a flute solo. On the radio program This Week on Science Friday, Dr Mark Tramo, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, said there were two main arguments why our musical brains evolved. One is that music is an extension of our pre-speech vocalisations, the loud sounds we used to use to warn of an imminent attack by a sabre-toothed tiger or some such. This I’ll call the Pantomime Theory (‘Look, he’s behind you!’). The other main theory is the ‘Those who play together stay together’ argument, that music helped societies bond and they were less inclined to kill each other with sticks when they were using them for drumming. (If you’ve ever wanted to club an out-of-time djembe player, this theory makes no sense at all.) Then there’s a lesser theory, which I’ll call The Groupie. In this one, music has a survival of the fittest element because a lady is more likely to bed a man if she likes the sound of his song – and vice versa of course.

Personally, I think all of these theories have credibility. But enough talking about music. Go forth and listen to some. Play some. Dance your wee heart out.

* This is a version of an article I wrote for PBS community radio’s magazine EASEY.  PBS is a great music station in Melbourne – you can listen to shows that are currently on-air or to their back catalogue.


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