Updated: Sep 18
Since my youth, I've taken refuge in music. Music was one way to quiet my troubled, adolescent soul. I could express powerful emotions without words. Music brought me to peace.
Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. -Victor Hugo
Beyond anecdotes, magnetic resonance imaging has shown that music triggers a cascade of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins and dopamine, which are associated with positive feelings- changing emotional states.
Music is a way to train the mind. Our brains are hard-wired for the benefits of music. Every time we practice, we're integrating sensory and fine motor skills and gross motor skills, expressing what is most alive in us. We rewire the brain by strengthening synapses, building new neurons, and rebuilding myelin sheaths which enable transmission of electrical signals between cells.
My 9 year old is playing Satie's Gymnopedie; my middle son plays Fur Elise, and my oldest, 15, produces his own music. They're not just learning the classics, they're brain training.
Over the years, my love and appreciation for music has evolved into a tool to enhance learning. As music has been shown to help improve memory and performance, I leveraged it to learn 5 languages. I can still recall the Japanese songs I learned when I lived there from 2000-2002. When music holds our attention, this increases the likelihood that it will be encoded in memory together with details of an event. And this then means music works as an effective cue for recall years later. The connection between music and the hippocampus, a brain area critical for forming and retrieving memories, is why music is frequently used in therapies for conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Music opened the door to culture. My love of music was not restricted to any genre. I trained my ear to listen until I could understand the nuances and logic of any genre. Recently, I challenged myself as a musician to record music in different genres from ragas to reggae, salsa to samba, gospel to gnawa, baroque to bata. To do this well required hours of study. Afro-beat, classical Arab music, traditional Irish, Bulgarian and Hungarian folk music, classical Japanese, and Gamelan music are on the docket. The more dissimilar to Western music, the better. This project improved my musicianship and my understanding of mind.
Music opened the door to neuroscience. By experimenting and applying research findings, I was able to manipulate my brain's reward system. A popular idea in neuroscience is that our brain's are predictive machines. When our predictions are accurate, we receive a subtle reward. At the experiential level, it feels like motivation which promotes a sense of agency. The effect is more pronounced when we receive a prediction error. At the experiential level, it feels like frustration, disorientation, irritability.
I leveraged this function quite intuitively on my musical exploration. I would dedicate months to the study of one genre- say Bossa Nova or Drum and bass- until I could predict the drop, the chord progression, the bass line, etc. Even disagreeable music that I could not wrap my head around (e.g. microtonal music) became more pleasurable to the degree I understood its internal logic and form.
In a 2021 paper published in Nature, researchers hypothesized that with repeated exposure, a listener implicitly learns the attributes and logic of a genre and therefore perceives the music as less complex and more agreeable. "Some theories propose that when individuals listen to music, they make predictions about how it is going to unfold based on both schematic expectations (i.e. implicit knowledge about the encultured rules of music) and veridical expectations (i.e. factual knowledge about concrete pieces of music). When these predictions are compared to the actual incoming information, reward signals are believed to be triggered as a function of the certainty of the predictions and the surprisal of the outcomes."
I found I could generalize this skill to other areas of life. I could train my palate to accept healthier foods that may not have tasted as good as the junk foods I was ingesting. I could train my mind to grasp complex ideas- from neuroscience to physics to finance- by mere repetition and practice and exposure. I trained the mind to weather the discomfort of not knowing, of sitting in ignorance, until what seemed chaotic and disorderly and unfamiliar began to make more sense. Once the brain could recognize patterns and make predictions, the joy of learning and growing became self-rewarding and intrinsic.
Music opened the door to wonder. Sound waves enter the ear and travel the auditory cortical networks to the mesolimbic reward networks generating what we call pleasure. (Marco-Pallares, 2016)
Music opened the door to gratitude. When I play piano, each finger moves independently. I marvel at the dexterity of the hands. The brain zips and unzips information about the timing and order of movements ahead of the action being performed. Researchers discovered that the order and timing of movements in complex sequences are separated by the brain, before being zipped and transferred into specific movement commands, or ‘muscle memory’, as the person begins the action. After thousands of hours of practice, the wrist and fingers and musculature of the arm play harmony in harmony. Researchers found that high-level sequencing of movement (such as order and timing) can be stored across several motor areas of the brain, often across several days of training and memorizing action sequences, before being activated following a particular trigger such as a musical cue. (Rhys Yewbrey et al., 2023).
Music opens the door to other disciplines. Music is math in sound. Fractions and whole numbers make rhythm. When I teach fractions to children, I introduce drum machines and have them create and listen to patterns. Mathematics can be heard, felt, and intuited. It becomes much more accessible than any worksheet. We divide measures into quarters, halves, eighths, sixteenths. More complex polyrhythmic patterns stack thirds over fourths, sixths over eighths, fifths over sevenths. African, Afro-Latin, and classical Indian Konnakol are beautifully complex examples. Children can feel complex mathematical rhythms in their body. We wiggle to it; we dance to it; we express through it.
Music opens the door to physics. Sound travels through air as waves. High pressure as compressions and low pressure as rarefactions carry the wave forward. A sound's pitch is dependent on the frequency of the sound wave. Our ears capture disturbances in air pressure as sound. Double the frequency and you get octaves. Frequencies with simple whole number ratios create harmony. A 2:3 ratio creates a perfect fifth. A 4:5 ratio creates a third. Put them together and we get a major chord. When I teach physics, I use digital audio workstations (DAWs) and Sonic Pi (a coding language). With a DAW, children can manipulate the physics of sound and engineer new sounds or instruments. With Sonic Pi, children code music sound by sound. Through exploration and play, they learn about the physics of sound. They can explore different waves types, for example: the sine, saw, triangle, and square; learn about wave properties (e.g. frequency, amplitude, period, length, velocity) and learn to manipulate other properties of sound. As they change parameters, they can hear the changes in output. Equations on paper do not provide the same immediate feedback or intuitive grasp that music provides.
Music opens the door to engineering. Sound engineering is one domain; building instruments is another. My first build project was an Afro-Peruvian cajon. My second was a 3D printed Native American flute in a minor pentatonic scale with a second octave range. The length of the flute, the spacing and diameter of the holes as well as the 3D printers limitations and functions all had to be worked out. Mike Prairie explains the physics of the Native American flute here. I used microcontrollers (Makey Makeys, Raspberry Pis and Arduinos) to invent and program new instruments.
Music plays well with technology. Today, I am integrating movement, dance, tech, and music. Using motion sensors as MIDI controllers, we can make music with movement. The x, y, z axes as well as the accelerometer and gyroscope can all be used to control parameters like pitch, cutoffs, low or high frequency oscillation, volume, or anything else. Many disciplines come together (dance, music, technology, mathematics, and physics). At a recent event celebrating 50 years of hip hop, all the b-boys (breakdancers) lined up to try the sensors. It was very interesting to see how they interacted and improvised with the technology. Musicians and dancers have a symbiotic relationship- add technology and new possibilities for creative expression emerge. For this performance, for example, I had to create a drum loop that b-boys could dance to. I also knew what kinds of dances they would likely perform: top rocking, popping, boogaloo, breaking (floor routines, gymnastics). However, the sensors impose constraints. Ideally, what the artists were seeking to create would be worked out beforehand. But this would be a live set, so I tried to anticipate the movements (e.g. direct, strong, sudden, and bound movements, aggressive, punchy, etc.) the axes (spatial geometry), and the soundscapes that would best fit with the genre.
With technology, the brain can become an instrument. Recently, I figured out how to pair data from an electroencephalogram (EEG) and use brain wave activity to create and control soundscapes. To play this instrument takes a degree of cognitive control. I can make music with the ultimate instrument- my own mind.
Finally, music integrates with meditation. I breathe out long into the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute. I take about 5 breaths per minute, transforming breath into melody, bending each note, adding tone and color. This is suizen, or breathing meditation. Suizen was practiced by the Komuso, Zen Buddhist monks of ancient Japan
I use the breath to modulate my physical and mental state as countless meditators have done for millennia before me. There are many variations you might add to your practice from suizen to pranayama, chanting to humming, or polyphonic singing.
Polyphonic chanting is another way to sustain a breath. Harmonic overtones are sung over a fundamental note. The singer changes the shape of the tongue, lips, larynx and pharynx to produce complex, multilayered sounds. These are some preliminary practices designed to settle the mind prior to meditation.
Entrainment is yet another way to train the mind. In a pilot study, researchers found that a frequency of binaural beats set to 40Hz can increase gamma waves. My own informal research has confirmed this. In a previous post, I shared the different EEG signatures associated with different meditative techniques. Gamma-band oscillations support multiple cognitive processes and improve cognitive functioning (Lopez, 2020; Wang, Zhang, and Yang, 2022). Gamma oscillations are associated with improved memory and recall and faster reaction times. I was able to achieve a degree of concentration and cognitive control using binaural rhythms at 40Hz.
Music is an art that sculpts the mind and gives expression to emotions. Sadly, music has been profaned; much of it is toxic. It deserves much more respect.
Music when healthy, is the teacher of perfect order, and when depraved, the teacher of perfect disorder. -John Ruskin
For me, music is ethereal and sacred. For the ancient Indians, it was a path to enlightenment. In Ancient Greece, music was seen as a gift of the gods. They believed that music could have a positive effect on both body and mind of the listener.