It never ceases to amaze me how drawn to music we humans are. What is it about this structured combination of sounds that can have such a powerful influence over not only individuals, but entire cultures? The human brain, as well as most living creatures, evolved to detect sounds as a survival tool. Now, that same tool is used for detecting and comprehending scale and structure of all types of music! From a simple ring tone to a large scale symphony, then find the meaning and beauty that lies within the piece. Why?
6 months ago, I came across an LP I had not even thought about in 20 years. No, make that 25. After taking a quick look at the liner notes and cover, I sat back for a listen. Before the first note hit my ears, I could remember the style and instrumentation, yet not the melodies and solos. After listening to the entire LP, something extraordinary happened. Later that day, and every day since listening to the album, I could “hear” the entire record in my mind, virtually note for note! When I say note for note, I really mean it. Complete and total recall of every aspect of the music, including drum fills, bass licks, phrasing in the solos, as though the last 25 years were suddenly erased. Simply hearing this record again unlocked a memory that had been filed away in my brain nearly an adult lifetime ago. Why?
If you know anything about data and music you can understand just how much “data” 45 minutes of music represents. How much other important information about your life can you recall from 25 years ago? Why in God’s name would the human mind allocate the significant resources necessary to store this music for so long and in such intricate detail? Even more astonishing than the fact that the human mind could hold on to such detail in these combinations of sounds for 25 years is that it would. Why?
Let’s get scientific for a moment. From this perspective, every physical or intellectual function exacts a price in “overhead” for maintaining that function in terms of calorie intake and a myriad of other biological needs. So, any capability that does not directly contribute to the organism’s survival quickly disappears from the gene pool. Moreover, that saved brain capacity could be used for other functions that could more directly aid in survival. A simple example is we’re highly attuned to discriminating faces, understanding expressions on those faces, and remembering faces. The survival benefit in this is obvious. Being that said, what is it about music that is so important that our brain has developed a capacity to understand and remember it? Why?
At its heart, I believe music is communication, and communication is vital to any species that relies on social organization. We have examples of instruments that date back 43,000 years. Despite the rigors of Neanderthal life, our ancestors found time to create music. There are artifacts that show, not only did our ancestors create and play instruments, but they had then worked out the diatonic scales to a precise hole-spacing in a hollowed out bone. This hole-spacing corresponds perfectly to a contemporary diatonic flute. Moreover, that diatonic scale has been with us since the dawn of music suggests the basis for responding to certain musical intervals has been common to humans for eons. Ahhhh…
There are many authors and studies into the neurological effects of music. It is uncanny how the evolutionary biologists also come to many of the same conclusions why music matters so much. We are still a long way from completely understanding why we are such a musical species though. You should try a little experiment of your own. Grab a random LP out of the rack and take a close look. Try to hear what is on the piece before playing it. Next, play it in its entirety and just see if you get the same recall as I did. I found that the more I practice this, the better my mind taps into those dusty files and plays the memories more clearly. Much like a built in tape machine. Who needs a stinking IPod anyway? Save your money and buy a new needle for your deck. I guess until the smart guys in lab coats figure it all out, we will just have to look at our musical minds in wonder. Better yet, REMEMBER THAT MUSIC!!!!
PS. It was Styx-The Grand Illusion on the turntable. Love that record!