Neurobiological research suggests that there is no
music center in the brain, no dominant brain structure that is
activated solely during music cognition.
Could this be because music is a universal coordinator of
mass movements? The compression waves that resonated through the
plasma of particles spewed forth by the Big Bang rang in a way
physicists regard as acoustic. Physicists also compare the
post–Big Bang pressure waves to the ringing of a
gong—a distinctly musical phenomenon. These waves
regimented the movement of mega masses of neutron-proton
bunches, first bringing them together, then moving them apart,
choreographing their crowd behavior.
The pulsations of cAMP* in a slime mold colony also regiment
the mass movement of individual amoebas, operating the way work
songs do for us, helping autonomous members of the community
move together, creating the undulations of the superorganismic
fruiting body—the slippery slug that the congealed
citizens of slime mold society make when they rhythmically
congregate. The individual members of that cell colony called
the brain also cohere as work teams laboring on a single
perception by pulsing to a common beat. Once again, music makes
a coherent mass out of a mob of individuals. Perhaps we can't
find a music center in the brain because music is a
brain-knitter, a coordinator that seduces the rowdy segments of
the brain into cooperative harmony. Or, to borrow an image from
John Skoyles, music may be a conductor transforming the brain's
cacophonous tune-ups into a unified symphony. But that conductor
is NOT inside the brain but out—yet another of the many
extracranial projections the brain uses to talk to (and
occasionally to tame) itself.
Music is like the smell of madelaine—it's used to
reconnect to old moods, specifically moods of bonding. Bonding
to a lover with “our song.” Bonding to a social
group that expressed its identity through its taste in music.
Moments in which we found our own identity through a bond with
the musicians—people we never or seldom had the chance to
meet but who entered our interior pantheon, our internal adopted
family of significant others. I recently visited with a musician
who had turned part of his home into a studio. On the wall is
his “hall of greats,” photos of the musicians who
helped mold his life. Opposite that wall is an enormous
collection of CDs. They, too, shaped him—so much so that
he told me that if the apartment ever caught fire, it wouldn't
be women and children first, it would be “Save the
Identity, self, is a mesh of the bonds we've made, flavored
with the spice of our variation on our internal tribe's themes.
It's a matter of the moments in which those bonds formed. Music
helps us revisit those moments and, in some cases, to reinvent
them, using our past to build our future.
Like the ethologist Niko Tinbergen's herring gulls
automatically rolling runaway eggs back into the nest with the
undersides of their beaks, we humans are preloaded with programs
that arouse our deep emotion and drive us into action of an
automatic kind. Our cues are social—the wordless sounds of
laughing, sobbing, shouting angrily. Our cues are the hidden
music of language known technically as prosody. And like the herring gull, who can be driven to a frenzy of egg-rolling by an artificial egg with exaggerated instinct-releasers, “supercues,” we too can be activated by supernormal stimuli. These are the exaggerated voice cues distilled by Tchaikovsky's roaring tympani, Beethoven's chorusing joy, Berlioz's orchestral sighs, the pleading cries of Mozart's violins, the chuckle of brass and bass in Dixieland. The chorus of the human race distilled to essence and driving our passions in inexorable automaticity. The cues which kindle and consume very souls. The hyperstimuli which throw the switches in the deepest programs of everything we feel.
*cyclic adenosine monophosphate
Howard Bloom, a recent visiting scholar at the Graduate Psychology Department at New York University and a Core Faculty Member at The Graduate Institute, is the author of two books: The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History and Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century.