Hardwired for Music

Hardwired for Music

Have you ever been to a concert when an entire audience started clapping exactly to the beat?  Or, have you ever listened to a throaty singer and inexplicably gotten a sore throat?  Have you ever wondered why?  Everyone has these experiences but rarely do we think about why they exist. What are they?

Responses like group clapping are caused by a phenomenon called entrainment.  Entrainment is an involuntary physical adjustment to an external rhythm.  Life sciences define to entrain as a verb that means: “to adjust an internal rhythm of an organism so that it synchronizes with an external cycle.” (thefreedictionary.com).  It is this crazy hardwired response that makes us tap our feet!

The sore throat experience happens because of our mirror neurons.  According to neuroscientists, about 20% of our motor neurons are actually mirror neurons.  They help us empathize with each other so much that when we see another person being touched, the same neurons in our brains fire as if we, ourselves, are being touched.  We actually feel it!

When I teach voice students I often feel my own jaw tighten if I’m listening to a student with a tight jaw.  I have been known to say, “Well, my jaw feels tight so you might want to relax those muscles a bit more when you’re singing.”  I thought this was really weird, so I asked a cognitive neuroscientist about it and she said, “You probably just have highly sensitive mirror neurons.” That was the first time I had ever heard that term.  For a short description of these great little empathizers in the brain look at the TED lecture by Dr. Ramachandran.

Although scientists have not tested how these neurological and biological functions serve to connect us as a species, I believe they do. It’s no coincidence that communities, churches and families use music to celebrate special occasions.  Nor is it by chance that military regiments use music to arouse a fighting spirit. Throughout history political leaders have even tried to harness these powers of music to move entire populations. (www.singingrevolution.com)

I have always wondered about the magical power of music to move a human being to tears or to dance.  I suspected there was a large emotional element to the power but now we know that there is also a physical hardwiring that makes us powerless over the effects of music.

Both entrainment and empathetic responses occur deep within our physical bodies and are usually subconscious.  Both are evidence of a pull towards human connection deeply effected by music.  How’s that for “auditory cheesecake,” Mr. Pinker?

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