Effect of music on us – Why so big?

effect of musicListening to music is an extremely popular activity. Whether we favour classical or rock music, jazz or popular bands and soloists, we spend good money buying CDs, attending concerts and downloading music files to listen to our favourite pieces and artists. But why is the effect of music so significant if it consists of a mere sequence of sounds?

Important effect of music due to brain’s in-built sensitivity?

Listening to music is one of the few activities that involves using the whole brain. But two parts of that organ — the cerebellum and the subcortical nuclea — seem to have a particularly important role. The first of these tracks musical beat. It also distinguishes  familiar from unfamiliar music and plays a role in musically evoked emotions and in the formation and expression of musical taste. These discoveries are consistent with anatomical studies from the 1970s that found direct neural connections between the cerebellum and the hearing organ within the cochlea, which converts sound vibrations into nerve impulses.

Neuroscience has also found that subcortical nuclei are  active in the brains of people who report being highly emotionally engaged with the music whilst listening.  The effect of music on them was significant. In addition it has been found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a moment of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signalling molecule in the brain.

Big effect of music due to a deep psychological process?

Whether or not the human brain is hard-wired for musical sound, music has a distinctly human dimension. It is more than something that is just pleasing to the mammalian ear. The effect of music, that goes beyond the sense of hearing, is shown by deaf people who can experience music by feeling the vibrations in their body, especially if they take hold of a resonant, hollow object. The composer Beethoven composed many famous works even after he had completely lost his hearing. Recent examples of deaf musicians include Evelyn Glennie, a highly acclaimed percussionist who has been deaf since the age of twelve, and Chris Buck, a virtuoso violinist who has lost his hearing. This is relevant because it indicates that music is a deeply human phenomenon.

It is well known that music plays an important cultural role. For example anyone who has witnessed dancing to music at a social gathering will know about it’s potential to facilitate communication and community. Popular music offers particularly young people the comfort of knowing that others feel the same way they do.

“Music is very spiritual, it has the power to bring people together.” (Edgar Winter)

Important effect of music due to a primacy of human feeling?

Music can serve as a creative outlet to release or control emotions and thus help us find ways of coping with difficult situations. It can improve mood by reducing stress.

“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
(Berthold Auerbach)

Our response to music is mainly a matter of emotion and intuition. Martial music can arouse fervour. Loud, jarring, music can stimulate violent anger. Other music can relax us, delight us, or deeply move us enlarging our capacity for spiritual experience.

“There’s nothing like music to relieve the soul and uplift it.”
(Mickey Hart)

Perhaps music has such a big effect because it speaks directly to human emotion. If the way we feel is the prime feature of our lives then no wonder we find music such an important thing.

Big effect of music due to revealing something ineffable?

In my opinion, music can communicate something about being human that can’t be described in words.

“Where words fail, music speaks.” (Hans Christian Andersen)

This is sometimes thought to be divinely inspired

“Music is the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart.” (Pablo Casals)

According to Emanuel Swedenborg, the power of music to do this derives from the source of its inspiration which is the inner realm of a spiritual world with which we are all in unconscious contact. This is said to vary according to higher and lower feelings inspired by the presence of higher or lower spirits. The higher ones are said to channel love and wisdom from their source and the lower ones channel the same thing only in a less pure form. The kind of music that is created thus mirroring the inflow.

And so for Swedenborg music can correspond to affectionate feeling for what is Divinely good and true.

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
(Ludwig van Beethoven)

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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