The silence in between
Music, like language, is a complex communication system. It’s not just art – it’s a cultural activity. Also like language, music has a set of rules, such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics (e.g. loudness), and the timbre of the musical sound. The word derives from Greek ‘mousike’, or ‘art of the muses’.
A Stanford study shows that music engages areas of the brain that are involved with making predictions and updating events in our memory banks. Music also strengthens ‘neural timing precision’ in the brain, enhances brainstem response, and helps regulate emotions – it is effectively ‘brain training’.
One study found that people who actively (as opposed to passively) listened to upbeat classical compositions, with the aim of feeling happier, felt their moods lift – music can actually facilitate happiness. (The perfect tool in these troubling times.) Mozart described not just musical notes, but silence, too – the overall effect of a composition.
A piece of music isn’t just affecting our emotions; music causes all sorts of bodily responses. A beat can even affect our heart rate. When people sing together, their breathing synchronises and positive emotions increase. Why is this? Because musical patterns affect the auditory brainstem and cortex, which are parts of the neural reward system – our brain sees music as a reward.
(Interestingly, some individuals experience synaesthesia, when one sense automatically triggers another; for example, seeing a sonic colour palette and experiencing colours when hearing musical pieces and notes. Musicians including Lorde, Billy Eilish, Billy Joel, Thom York and Pharrell Williams have described this experience.)