©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

Music has been part of human civilization for eons. It has been referred to as the universal language and is found in every society known to anthropology. No known human culture has ever lived without music. For example, ancient bone flutes have been found in France and Slovenia and they still make a beautiful sound.

Music may even be older than speech according to some researchers. For many of us our mother's lullaby is among the first of human experiences, while a familiar song may be one of the last. “The last memories that we keep in our minds are for music,” says Christo Pantev, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto's Rotman Research Institute. In fact, individuals with Alzheimer’s disease often recognize songs to the end of life.

More has probably been learned about the brain during the past 200 years, and especially during the decade of the brain (1990s), than during the entire previous history of our planet. Music has been found to be a rich source of information on how the brain works. It has also been found to be of great benefit to the brain. Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture alone reportedly have 20,000 musical notes. Talk about stimulation!

Not Just in Humans

Music is not relegated to the human species. Researchers have reported that numbers of nonhuman creatures produce music. According to Dr. Gray, a professional keyboardist and artistic director of the National Musical Arts at the National Academy of Sciences, humans hold no copyright on music. A number of nonhuman creature produce music. It can be considered an art form with virtuoso performers throughout the animal kingdom.

An in-depth analyses of the songs sung by birds and humpback whales show that, even when their vocal apparatus would allow them to do otherwise, the animals converge on the same acoustic and aesthetic choices and abide by the same laws of song composition as those preferred by human musicians, and human ears, everywhere. For example, the California marsh wren may sing as many as 120 themes in a given jam session. Humpback whales, capable of vocalizing over a range of at least seven octaves, have been found to use rhythms similar to those found in human music. Their musical phrases are of similar length (to those of humans), they can sing in key, and their songs contain refrains that rhyme.

Music can impact the animal kingdom, as well. With spirited songs, hens have been found to lay more eggs and cows to give more milk!

What is Music?

Music has been the stuff of poets and performers. Of all the arts, music has the closest link to the brain and body. Its rhythms are analogous to breathing, walking, and heartbeat. Music has enormous power to communicate specific emotions, an ability that appears to reflect a built-in process beyond cultural conditioning.

Music can prompt you to feel happy, aggressive, fearful, sad, or even sexual. It can hurry you along or put you to sleep. It can tell you stories, prompt you to dance, influence the type of products you purchase in the marketplace, and promote healing. It is, in a word, powerful! But what is it?

Webster’s Dictionary defines music as the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity; an agreeable sound. There really is no stable definition of music, however, and certainly no one definition that works for everyone or every situation because musical appreciation is very subjective. It reflects one's own experience, thoughts, and wisdom. Here is a sampling of quotations.

  • The history of a people is found in its songs. —George Jellinek
  • Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory. —Shelley
  • I am in the world only for the purpose of composing. —Franz Schubert
  • If you don’t live it (music) it won’t come out your horn. —Charlie Parker
  • We are the music makers; we are the dreamers of dreams. —Arthur O’Shaughnessy
  • After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. —Aldous Huxley
  • Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak. —William Congreve
  • In music, one must think with the heart and feel with the brain. —George Szell
  • Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts. —T. S. Eliot
  • Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous. —Yehudi Menuhin
  • Musicians must make music, artists must paint, and poets must write, if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What we can be we must be. —Abraham Maslow

Music Moment…

The story is told of an encounter between Pinchas Zukerman, the brilliant violinist and conductor of Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra, and his father, also a violinist. The older Zukerman had suffered a stroke that had impaired his right hand. Consequently, he had ceased playing his beloved violin.

One day while visiting his father in Israel, Pinchas held up a violin and asked whether his father would like to play a favorite concerto. Puzzled, the father reminded his son that “I don’t have the right hand.”

Smiling, Pinchas placed the violin in his father’s undamaged left hand and, standing behind the elder Zukerman, plied the bow. Imagine the picture: two generations, two brains, and one violin. One man using his right cerebral hemisphere, the other his left, playing in harmony.

Use of Music

Individual human beings approach and use music differently. They also have different expectations and perceptions around music. For example, music may be used to:

  • Promote joy and serenity, to sooth frazzled nerves, to raise one's mood, to calm down when too excited, and to move one to tears or laughter
  • Stimulate or tranquilize
  • Relieve boredom or to transport one to the threshold of ecstasy
  • Get one  in the mood to eat, study, work, commute, sleep, or make love
  • Intensify another experience (e.g., dancing, marching, skating)
  • Serve as a universal language to achieve commonality and unity
  • Transport one to another locale or place in time in imagination
  • Serve as background sound (heard but rarely listened to)
  • Connect the conscious with the subconscious
  • Trigger creative expression and/or to listen to another creative expression
  • Portray a picture
  • Mimic life experiences (rather than symbolize them as language tends to do)
  • Enhance a sacrament (e.g., rituals, religious rites, spiritual experience)
  • Conform, taking on music as an emblem of peer solidarity
  • Rebel and go against the prevailing societal and cultural mores
  • Get in touch with emotions, to express them, or to distance from them (according to Robert Jourdain, Franz Liszt would demand of the orchestra, “Please, a little bluer if you please). This key demands it.”

Music has power. Spirited songs can release new energy in the human body. Researchers have discovered that work rates and efficiency can increase up to 15% by the use of different kinds of music. For example:

  • Soldiers march further and faster with a band
  • Workers work faster and longer
  • Eyesight improves up to 25% in reading capacity
  • Perceptions of color, sense of smell, taste, and touch changes