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Music Stirs More Masses Than You Think

by Howard Bloom

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 CDs.”

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.


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This article is from...


October–December 2004