Biomusicology (or Better Living Through Music)

If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.

–Albert Einstein

From Wikipedia: Biomusicology is the study of music from a biological point of view. The term was coined by Nils L. Wallin in 1991 to encompass several branches of music psychology and musicology, including evolutionary musicology, neuromusicology, and comparative musicology.

Some excerpts from scientific articles on biomusicology:

1) One of the most curious effects of music is that it compels us to move in synchrony with its beat. This behavior, also referred to as entrainment, includes spontaneous or deliberate finger and foot tapping, head nodding, and body swaying. The most striking of these phenomena is dancing: a human universal typically involving whole-body movements. Dancing rests on humans’ unique ability to tightly couple auditory-motor circuits.

Marcel Zentner and Tuomas Eerola, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “Rhythmic Engagement with Music in Infancy”

2) The ability to follow a beat is called beat induction. Neither chimpanzees nor bonobos—our closest primate relatives—are capable of beat induction, which is considered both a uniquely human trait and a cognitive building block of music….

“We hear music, we clap along. Music becomes faster or slower, and we can dance to it,” said Honing [Henkjan Honing of the University of Amsterdam’s Music Cognition Group], lead author of the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [“Newborn Infants Detect the Beat in Music” Vol. 106, No. 4, Jan. 26, 2009].

— Brandon Keim, “Baby Got Beat: Music May Be Inborn”

3) [Neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, Canada, and Robert Zatorre at McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute] showed that listeners’ dopamine levels in pleasure centers surged during key passages of favorite music, but also just a moment before—as if the brain was anticipating the crescendo to come.

…Our brains are well-suited to using patterns, such as the structure of music, to predict the future. “We’re constantly making predictions, even if we don’t know the music,” Salimpoor says. “We’re still predicting how it should unfold.”

These predictions are based on past musical experience, so classical fans will have different expectations than punk devotees. But when the music turns out better than the brain expected, the nucleus accumbens fires off with delight.

Paul Gabrielsen, “Why Your Brain Loves That New Song”

4) In fact, it’s music’s dual ability to distract attention (a psychological effect) while simultaneously goosing the heart and the muscles (physiological impacts) that makes it so effective during everyday exercise. Multiple experiments have found that music increases a person’s subjective sense of motivation during a workout, and also concretely affects his or her performance.

[Later in the article, Nina Kraus, a professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University in Illinois, who studies the effects of music on the nervous system, is quoted.] “Humans and songbirds” are the only creatures “that automatically feel the beat” of a song, she said. The human heart wants to synchronize to music, the legs want to swing, metronomically, to a beat. So the next time you go for a moderate run or bike ride, first increase the tempo of some insidiously catchy Lady Gaga downloads (or Justin Bieber or Katy Perry or whatever reflects the current popular taste in your household), and load them on your iPod. “Our bodies,” Dr. Kraus concluded, “are made to be moved by music and move to it.”

Gretchen Reynolds, “Phys Ed: Does Music Make You Exercise Harder?”

5) In the last 10 years the body of research on workout music has swelled considerably, helping psychologists refine their ideas about why exercise and music are such an effective pairing for so many people as well as how music changes the body and mind during physical exertion. Music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it. In a 2012 review of the research, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”

[Later in the article, cognitive neuroscientist Jessica Grahn of Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute in Ontario, Canada, is quoted.] “We have also known for decades that there are direct connections from auditory neurons to motor neurons,” explains Grahn, who enjoys working out to cheesy techno-music. “When you hear a loud noise, you jump before you have even processed what it is. That’s a reflex circuit, and it turns out that it can also be active for non-startling sounds, such as music.”

Ferris Jabr, “Let’s Get Physical: The Psychology of Effective Workout Music”

6) Okay, but why? Why should a collection of sounds cause the brain to reward itself? That remains a bit of a mystery, but a favorite theory, proposed almost 60 years ago, posits that it’s about fulfilled expectations. Put simply, music sets up patterns that causes us to predict what will come next and when we’re right, we get a reward. Some have suggested this has its roots in primitive times when guessing wrong about animal sounds was a matter of life or death. What was needed was a quick emotional response to save our skin, rather than taking the time to think things through.

Randy Rieland, “Eight New Things We’ve Learned About Music”

And More…

For a different perspective on the transformative ability of music, here’s Benjamin Zander, the Grammy-nominated conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, talking to NPR:


 

Copyright © 2017  James Joseph. All rights reserved.