Sensory Systems and Music
©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Early in life you may have learned to identify the five senses by pointing to your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Unimpaired you can use all of those senses, too, although you may be much more aware of one sense over the others in specific situations. For example:
- At a symphony concert you may be more aware of the auditory sense
- At a fabulous birthday dinner you may be more aware of the kinesthetic sense
- At an art gallery you may be more aware of the visual sense
You are most likely to feel most comfortable, affirmed, understood, nurtured, and even loved when you receive sensory stimuli in your preferred sensory system. Consequently you tend to gravitate toward, and feel most comfortable in, environments that acknowledge and reward your sensory preference. The ideal is to know your sensory preference and build sufficient skills in all three systems so you can access any or all by choice, as required by the situation at hand.
- Refer to Sensory Preference Continuum for additional information
- Refer to Synesthesia for additional information
Based on your own sensory preference, you may approach the study of music quite differently from others, and may find specific musical activities easier or more energy efficient to accomplish.
Visual Sensory Preference
The two occipital lobes interpret data related to sight. Estimates are that 60% of the population has a visual preference. This sensory system helps you recognize the signs and symbols that represent musical sounds (reading music).
The occipital lobes are active when decoding visual data and during visual imaging. In combination with the frontal cortex, it enables you to maintain the image of an instrument in consciousness. Individuals with a visual preference may be inclined to memorize music by mentally seeing the notes on the page or by noticing musical patterns on the keyboard. They may find it easier to notate music legibly.
Kinesthetic Sensory Preference
The two parietal lobes interpret data related to taste, touch, position sense, physical stimuli, and odors. In combination with the frontal cortex these portions of the brain enable you to hold onto position sense (e.g., the way in which you hold a musical instrument, maintain your position on the piano or organ bench). These neurons fire when decoding kinesthetic data and during movement imagery.
This sensory system also helps you to decode vibrations that beat against the skin and/or that are felt in the 2nd brain layer or limbic system. Perhaps that was what Keats had in mind when he wrote, heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter. Incidentally, odors can trigger memories faster than any other type of sensory data. The nose is one synapse away from the amygdalae in the emotional brain that routes incoming sensory information to higher centers of association in the thinking brain.
Estimates are that 20% of the population has a kinesthetic preference. This system helps you manage your relative position to bounded shapes such as instruments, and to sense nuances of sound, including vibrations, and perhaps musical interpretation.
Individuals with a kinesthetic preference may gravitate toward tactile memorization (sensing positions of fingers, hands, and body, and how it feels to reproduce the music). They may use musculature to represent the music, modeling important features of musical patterns by means of physical memories (e.g., tap toes, “dance it out” from head to toe).
Auditory Sensory Preference
The two temporal lobes interpret data related to sounds that are heard. Estimates are that 20% of the population has an auditory preference. This system facilitates emphasis on tone color, pitch, and dynamics. It fires when decoding sounds and during auditory imaging. In combination with your frontal cortex it allows you to decode patterns of vibrations, and enables you to sustain musical anticipations for several seconds as you await their resolution.
Individuals with an auditory preference may tend to memorize by recalling the sound of the music, the intervals between notes, volume-of-sound differences, and the distinctive tones typical of the key signature(s). They may hum along with the music, or use the body as a resonator for the music, allowing himself/herself to be played as an instrument, as it were.