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Why does music move us so deeply?
on 25 July 1998
Why does music us so deeply? In Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures our Imaginations, Robert Jourdain explores how music enables people "to attain a greater grasp of the world (or at least a small part of it), rising from the ground to look down upon the confining maze of ordinary existence." (p. 331) Most of us experience this transcendence while listening to music at some time in our lives and we are fascinated to learn that it is a universal, human experience.
Jourdain makes a complex subject comprehensible to lay persons. In the early chapters of his book, he lays the groundwork for his discussion of music in the middle chapters.
In the first chapter, he draws on biology, physiology, and neuroscience to tell us how our ears and our brains evolved and how they work. Here's his version of how we hear. "Music slams into an eardrum at the end of the ear canal and abruptly changes costume. Until this point it has traveled as a press! ure wave through air; now it proceeds as mechanical motion. Just beyond is the air-filled middle ear, where three odd-shaped bones, the ossicles, are strung from ligaments so that the eardrum pushes against the first (the malleus, or "hammer"), which yanks at the second (the incus, or "anvil"), which shoves the third (the stapes, or "stirrup") into an opening to the fluid-filled inner ear where neurons (nerve cells) await. Just like the air molecules that have transported music to the eardrum, these minuscule bones vibrate in a complex pattern that at any instant embodies every frequency contained in every note." (p. 8)
In the second chapter, Jourdain draws on physics to explain how sound becomes musical tone. He explains the concept of overtones so that you don't need a background in physics or in music to understand it. And better yet, he tells you how you can learn to hear musical overtones yourself. "You can sit at a piano and! strike a note at the midrange (of the keyboard), then soft! ly play the note at an octave above, which is the first overtone. When you play the first note again, your brain will know where to look for the overtone. Some people claim to be able to pick out a dozen overtones this way, but you're doing well if you manage just a few." (p. 35)
After he explains musical tone, Jourdain launches into the real topic of the book--how music captures our imagination. At this point, he tells us more than most people will want to know.
In the middle chapters, Jourdain surveys the elements of music-melody, harmony, and rhythm-and overviews composition and performance before he discusses listening, understanding, and ecstasy in the last chapters. The musical explanations are technically accurate (Jourdain himself is a pianist and a composer) but they are easier to read if you already have a background in music theory. If you don't, you may want to skip to the final chapter.
Jourdain livens up his scientific and musical explanations ! with entertaining stories about composers and performers. Did you know that Franz Liszt, the 19th century composer, pianist, and conductor, saw colors in his mind's eye when he heard music? He experienced a "rare phenomenon called color hearing, (in which) the senses become crossed and every musical sound is shadowed by colorful, formless visual imagery. And so, Liszt would instruct an orchestra, 'Please gentlemen, a little bluer if you please. This key demands it.'" (p. 326)
If you're one of those people who are hypersensitive to noise, did you know that you are not alone in this? Jourdain relates that loud noise made the infant Mozart sick and that Handel would not go into a concert hall until after the instruments had been tuned. He tells us that the Germans have a word for this hypersensitivity to sound-they call it, Horlust, meaning roughly "hearing passion," and that "superior musical neurology may manifest itself as an excruciating sens! itivity to sound." (p. 188)
In the last chapter, ! Jourdain explains why listening to music can move people to ecstasy. "Many people say that it is beauty alone that draws them to music. But great music brings us even more. By providing the brain with an artificial environment, and forcing it through that environment in controlled ways, music imparts the means of experiencing relations far deeper than we encounter in our everyday lives. When music is written with genius, every event is carefully selected to build the substructure for exceptionally deep relations. No resource is wasted, no distractions are allowed. In this perfect world, our brains are able to piece together larger understandings than they can in the workaday external world, perceiving all-encompassing relations that go much deeper than those we find in ordinary experience...It's for this reason that music can be transcendent. For a few moments, it makes us larger than we really are, and the world more orderly than it really is. We respond not just to! the beauty of the sustained deep relations that are revealed, but also to the fact of our perceiving them. As our brains are thrown into overdrive, we feel our very existence expand and realize that we can be more than we normally are, and that the world is more than it seems. That is cause enough for ecstasy." (p. 331)
Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy is a satisfying read and worth your investment of time. If you get bogged down with details, scan ahead, or go to the last chapter. The last chapter makes sense without the material in the middle chapters, although reading them will deepen your understanding. All in all, Jourdain will give you much to think about, and you may find yourself returning to the book, time and time again, as I have.
Roberta Shroyer, Instructor of piano and music theory, Queen Anne Music Studio, Seattle Washington