Hitting a Nerve

Music and the human brain


Music has to be one of humanity’s most unique traits, and, at the same time, one of neurology’s greatest mysteries.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

Where did it come from, and why? Rhythmic sounds are part of the universe, from heartbeats to spinning pulsars. Somehow, though, they became ingrained into the very structure of our brains to where having music around is part of our existence.

When it started, we can only guess. The first known musical instrument is a flute carved from bear bone, made 67,000 years ago, but music is certainly older. The first instruments were probably clapped hands, then rocks and sticks.

Tens of thousands of cultures have developed over the course of human history. And, to date, not a single one is known that didn’t have music.

It takes energy to create music, too: to make and play instruments, think of songs, sing ... So at some point having music became an evolutionary advantage of some sort (one can imagine Bill and Ted saying “Dude, chicks dig it”) or it wouldn’t have lasted. Then, as people spread out, music forms got mixed and matched among cultures. Always changing, never leaving, and now somehow woven into the DNA of our brains.

The physics principles behind music are limited and simple: percussion, a vibrating string, air movement in a tube ... But from such simple things the human brain has adapted thousands of natural, and now synthetic, objects, to create an endless variety of unique sounds.

There are plenty of articles out there about how music can be relaxing or stimulating, capable of distracting you or helping you concentrate. Music can help you forget a bad day or remember a good one. They talk about PET scans and cortical activation and many other interesting things that show the effect of music on the remarkable human brain.

But at some level it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t try to understand music any more than I try to understand my dogs. I just know I couldn’t live without either. I’m not alone. Look around you: How many people on the train, or plane, or in the gym have earbuds on?

I have iTunes on my office computer, with roughly 5,000 songs covering the majority of genres from classical to rock. It’s the first program I switch on early each morning when I start the day. It gets me focused on the work at hand, and adds an enjoyable element to the day.

I’m not a musician. I took a few guitar lessons as a kid, but never really learned it. I used to joke that the only instrument I could play was the stereo (now I guess it’s iTunes). Coming from a maternal line of excellent musicians, it’s embarrassing to admit my lack of talent. But my inability to perform it myself doesn’t keep me from enjoying it.

There is no better example of the remarkable human memory than its ability to instantly recall the lyrics of songs you haven’t heard for 20, 30, 40, or more years. A few notes and it’s like you heard them yesterday. At this point, almost 30 years since my medical school graduation, I’ve likely forgotten a large portion of what I learned there. But 70s or 80s pop from my youth? Still there, and immediately recalled.

We process music everywhere – at stores, in elevators, in the car – without realizing it, like driving down the street and automatically reading signs as we pass them. But no matter where it is in our level of realization at the time, it’s a key part of our everyday lives.

Another marvel of the remarkable human brain.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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