Music and Our Mind

Sinan Canan
8 minutes

One of the oldest known human “tools” is a flute made of animal bone, dating back 47,000 years. Long before they had sophisticated hunting tools or the tools necessary to sustain life, what made them think of the need to make a tool for making beautiful sounds? Why did they take the time for such a thing? What made music so indispensable in those prehistoric times when life was probably very difficult?

The closer we look at our craft called music, the more it opens up completely different windows for us about the capabilities of the creature we call a human being and its greatest trademark in this world, the organ called the brain. Let’s take a brief look at what we know about the relationship between the brain and music.

Music perception is the name we give to a human-specific perception ability that is closely related to what we call “language”. Sound patterns, which are formed by arranging audible sounds (notes) of a certain frequency in certain patterns (scales or maqam) and performing them at certain tempos (rhythm), can cause different emotions and thoughts to emerge in each person, sometimes to the point of completely changing the working system of the brain. The reason why the brain and mind can be shaped in such a way by sound alone is that our brains are innately wired to perceive language and music.

Even in devastating conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, in which the brain loses all cognitive abilities one by one, the musical abilities of people who have been involved in music suffer very little damage, and people who sometimes cannot even remember their own names can easily remember and sing the melodies they used to learn. These observations suggest that music perception is performed by some cognitive circuits related to, but distinct from, the abilities that govern our language skills.

Author Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music is one of the best books on this subject. Levitin, who includes many interesting information about the brain’s relationship with music, also gives interesting clues about the development of music perception. According to Levitin, music perception seems to be realized in our brains through “schemas”. In fact, schemas are personalized patterns that are created jointly by factors such as the music pieces listened to early in life, the melodic and harmonic structures of these melodies, and the emotional effects of these music pieces on the mind (subjective emotional connections made with music). After a certain age, people perceive any musical melody they hear by evaluating it according to these schemas in their minds and make connections with them according to these schemas. According to Levitin, these schemas act as vital filters that determine our perception, even determining “what we perceive and how we perceive it”.

Development of musical taste

Although children’s interest in music starts in the womb, the formation of schemas begins around the age of 10 and musical searches come to the fore during this period. Around the age of 14, music preferences begin to be firmly established with the effect of the emotional connections to the music patterns listened to until then. All musical works listened to after this period are evaluated according to these patterns of youth and classified as “liked” or “disliked”.

Music is also important as a carrier of cultural code. The musical structure that is ingrained in the mind at an early age makes the person who listens to music wide open to the cultural codes carried by that musical content. In short, if we say that the brain is “formatted” according to the types of music it listens to, we will not be exaggerating too much!

The message of this information is very clear: Music is not just a series of sounds that we listen to “to have a good time, to relax or to get excited”; music has a direct impact on the way we shape our brains and direct our lives. When we take this fact into consideration, it becomes clear once again how carefully the music education to be given to our children in primary and secondary education periods and especially in the preschool period should be planned. Moreover, if parents see music as a mere “filler and entertainment tool” and do not pay as much attention to what goes into their children’s “ears” as they do to what goes into their “mouths”, it will not be surprising if they face unforeseen consequences in the future (since we are already experiencing many of these consequences in our daily lives).

A common code

We know that music is a common feature of all human societies. There are many different human communities on earth. While many of them use different languages and logic systems, music is a common feature of all human societies. Some tribes living in remote corners of the world do not have concepts such as number and color, but they certainly have a “language” and a special “music”. The fact that music is used even by communities that have no concept of math and counting is in itself a convincing proof of the universality of music.

Why is music so important?

After all these observations, a fundamental question inevitably arises. Why is music so important? Why are so many neurologically costly brain systems devoted to music? Why does music affect us so deeply?

Actually, when you think about it, the answer is quite obvious. Music emerges from our ability to assign emotional meaning to non-random strings of sound waves. In other words, we can say that music is “the ingenuity of the evaluation systems in our minds” rather than “sound patterns outside”. In other words, the music is not outside, but “inside”. But this is not an explanation, it’s a new question: Why are we structured for music?

If music is about extracting emotional meaning from sound patterns, and if this ability is innate in most of us to varying degrees, it must have a vital significance, a use. Well, not all of us are going to be musicians, but somehow we understand music and are very much influenced by it. The reason is this: The more we are able to analyze emotions from sounds, the better we are able to analyze the voice frequencies of people who are trying to communicate verbally with us, who are speaking to us, and the better we are able to understand their emotions. In other words, our musical ability is probably the most important by-product of this brain of ours, which seems to have been created to do justice to the demanding task of verbal communication. Analyzing the human voice and understanding the subtle frequencies of emotion it contains gives us a real advantage in communication. But this system can also be easily “hacked” with skillfully crafted music and sound patterns. In other words, music depends on the ability of our brain systems, evolved for verbal communication and agreement, to be influenced by artificial sounds.

Emotions and our choice of music

When we are experiencing the most painful emotions, we can hardly stand joyful melodies. When we feel joyful, we are not interested in sad compositions that would make us feel depressed. It is easy to understand the joyful situation, but why do we insist on listening to sad and painful melodies when we are already sad and grieving? However, wouldn’t it be better to listen to something a little more cheerful and get back to “normal” when we are in such a mood? But no, most of us would prefer not to. Because the painful and sad melodies that we listen to when we are in a bad mood or when we are grieving give us the message that “the person who composed this song shares your feelings and understands you”. Just as we gladly listen to the consoling speeches of those around us when we are sad and get annoyed at those who make unnecessary jokes, music is actually a means of communication and connects us to each other through emotions with astonishing skill. Therefore, music is not just “sound”; it is also a very effective way of communicating, sharing emotions and communicating.

If so…

Whenever I speak, write and talk about music, I make it a point to emphasize one point as a conclusion; let me close with that:

The human activity called music, as I have tried to briefly illustrate here, is an experience that affects us deeply emotionally and spiritually. That activity, which we see as mere entertainment, deserves special attention and seriousness in its consumption. As I have just told parents, we need to pay as much attention to what goes into our ears as we do to what goes into our mouths in order to live a healthy life. Because music is a very intense carrier of emotion and culture, and like a high-calorie food, it has the potential to affect our lives with many side effects when consumed uncontrolled.

In short, think twice before you open a radio or podcast station and put your ears and brain at the mercy of DJs or program editors. Selective music listening can be a much-needed skill for our quality of life…

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