“Without music, life would be a mistake.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Ever had that one song stuck in your mind that simply refuses to go away? That one number that you may have streamed on the music player could very well be the one you are forced to live with for days together. There may be a point where the song gets so intrusive, it plays in your mind even during an important meeting or examination.
We may even find ourselves in situations where we come across an unintentional rhythm and start tapping to it instinctively. Music exists everywhere, and it plays an undeniably large role in everyone’s lives. It exists in civilizations found at the furthest corners of the world, even with the most isolated tribal groups. It has a subtle yet a lasting impact on us that all of us experience, but cannot necessarily put in words.
Around 60,000 years ago, music found its place in the cultural explosion that took place around the world, which established art as an important part of the community’s growth. It was a slow process for music to be incorporated into everyday lives, and there was an undeniable struggle to fully make its presence felt. Initially, it was discovered that the simple repetition of certain rhythms could bring about a recurring loop that could be followed to form a song. This evolved into a plethora of melodies being composed which were found to evoke different emotions.
Music was used for prayers in temples, to felicitate luminaries and even to commemorate the departed. Slowly and steadily, instrumental music became an indispensable part of every culture. This evolved into lyrical music which enabled philosophers and artists to pour out their thoughts in an artistic form. It was used to sway the minds of entire civilizations with thought-provoking opinions that were wrapped in catchy melodies. As the knowledge of its influential power grew, music soon came to be used as a medium to express, entertain, and in some cases, to influence.
Music has evolved to become one of the most powerful mediums of conveying philosophies, swaying decisions and seeding ideas.
How much of a hold does music have on the human mind? Does it really carry the power to impact a decision? The answer is, well, yes.
The act of playing music and listening to it are both extremely powerful activities that impact the mind in a number of ways. The human brain reacts very differently to music, as it does to any other form of stimulus. When there is a melody playing nearby, both hemispheres of the brain light up immediately in response, trying to interpret it. Ambient sounds and conversations require no effort as they are unstructured and never follow a single scale. But music carries structured sound and follows a melody that only the human brain can successfully distinguish.
Imagine you’re trying to discover new music on your way to work with your headphones on. Your brain identifies the rhythm and processes this information in parts, giving way to sequential reactions that come to you naturally. As you pick up the new melody, a part of the brain called the Wernicke’s Area lights up, which helps you catch and comprehend the rhythm. At this point, your brain has already isolated you from ambient sounds. Once you realize that it is a melody you’d be into, your brain’s Nucleus Accumbens jumps in, which is responsible for seeking pleasure and reward. At this stage, you are about a minute into the song and you realize that the rhythm is quite catchy. This is the juncture where the Cerebellum gets activated.
The Cerebellum is responsible for muscle memory and it urges you to follow the rhythm and start tapping to it. This, while numbing you to the surroundings, actively lowers your stress as the brain’s Hypothalamus gets to work. It is responsible for regulating your mood, heart rate and blood pressure. You start to feel relaxed and find yourself immersed in the great song that is being played for you. The song progresses to a fast-paced section and evokes a new reaction from you in the form of rhythmic head-nods. This is nothing but the Putamen playing its part. Putamen is the part of your brain that processes rhythm and regulates body movement, making way for your rhythmic taps and a physical show of your enjoyment. As a result of this catchy song, your mood is elevated, and you report to work as a happy worker who is eager to contribute. This series of reactions that you experienced are directly responsible for your everyday routine.
Similarly, different kinds of music evoke different reactions and emotions. Based on the kind of music being played, it is categorised into two components — Passive and Active music.
Active music demands the audience’s attention and is designed to engage. Subodh Patankar from Navi Mumbai has mastered the Tabla with decades of experience and is known for his skill as an extraordinary entertainer. His preferred style of music is thematic, and he enjoys creating rhythms that unfold a story in the minds of his audiences. Subodh’s views on engaging the audience with active music are quite practical. He says, “When you are attending a concert, listening to the artists is a form of active engagement. It is so because you ‘have to’ listen to music while you are there and are actively appreciating the performance.”
Passive music, on the other hand, is designed to command a relatively lower engagement with its audience. Shrikant Sreenivasan from Navi Mumbai is a prolific musician and is regarded in the professional circles as a master of the Guitar. When asked about his opinion on the subject, he puts, “There is certainly a subtle engagement that a listener has with passive music—it’s like one of those where people don’t have to speak to connect.”
Shrikant has been a devout musician since the age of the 13 when he first picked up the guitar and has explored a multitude of styles since then. When asked about the effect of passive music on the mind, he adds, “The creation of that kind of music needs a lot of space to make sense. If given enough space for it to ring, hits our body and mind in a very powerful, subtle way. There is no set formula to compose it, yet it is used for therapeutic treatments.”
Subodh contributes, “You know it’s passive music when it creates an ambience while still leaving room for you to do something else. Its impact on our soul is beyond anyone’s capacity to put in words.”
Passive music has been known to tame the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, helping patients perform basic functions like getting up, sitting down and walking, indicating a deeper connection that carries measurable results. It influences the parts of your brain that hold you back and subdues those effects to help you focus on the task at hand.
There has been a long history of music being recommended as a tool to improve concentration. Ivy League colleges have been known to urge students to keep some ambient music playing while they try to absorb new knowledge. One such recommendation is classical music, which carries the perfect ratio of highs and lows that allow enough room for focused learning. Classical music demands involvement from the brain’s Hippocampus, which is responsible for the retrieval of memories among other important functions such as navigation and the regulation of emotions. Having some classical music going in the background facilitates neurogenesis, making way for the production of new neurons, boosting recall value.
The power of music holds true in large groups of people as well. Musical experimentation has shown that it can lead to a group of subjects to collectively focus on a single task as their mental processes align to perform it. “There is a reason why kids are suggested to learn music at an early age,” says Shrikant, “music expands their understanding of coordination, analysis, counting and confidence.”
Musicians around the world employ varying techniques to maintain the listener’s focus. One of the most prominent ways of doing it is by composing polyrhythms. Polyrhythms are two or more rhythms playing in unison. Each rhythm carries a unique time signature, and when multiple time signatures come together, it creates an inimitable sequence that demands full attention.
“The whole idea of making songs with various time signatures,” says Shrikant, “is to give a unique shape to the song. It gives the artist their freedom to experiment, and at the same time connect with the audience on a different level.” The complexity of polyrhythms is harder to follow than the popular rhythms and even harder to fully comprehend. To make them easier to grasp, musicians often introduce accentuations that audiences can tap their feet to.
Subodh explains, “Typically when we are playing a taal on Tabla like Teen Taal, which comprises of 16 beats, we introduce a 3-beat or 7-beat rhythm and vice versa. This makes it easier for the listeners to follow the beats.” Listening to this style of music is typically used during speech therapies as a tool to activate the Broca’s Area of the brain, found in its frontal lobe. The therapy involves a progression from easily comprehensible music, to music that gets increasingly complex and ultimately flows into polyrhythms. The patients are asked to clap to or tap their feet to the music in unison with the beats. As the complexity rises, it pushes the Broca’s Area to help physically express the comprehension of the music. As that area of the brain is also linked to the production of speech, it helps enhance conversational skill as a result. Understanding the synchronization of the conflicting time signatures makes all the difference during therapies like these.
Shrikant shares, “The beauty of odd time signatures is not only the combination of contrasts, but also the existence of a resolve point or a meeting point. Regardless of the level of contrast, it is imperative to be in sync. Studying this requires immense patience, focus and a gradually developed skill.”
King George VI, whose rule in England lasted over a decade, used music to improve his speech and overcome his stammer. His therapist, Lionel Logue, once conducted an experiment with loud music being played for the King, isolating him from ambient noise completely. Logue then asked him to read a verse from a paper in these conditions. To King George’s surprise, he could produce the entire verse without a single stammer.
Going a step further, therapists recommend learning and playing a musical instrument to boost the results of the therapy, as it demands involvement of multiple parts of the brain. Subodh finds himself in full agreement, “The creativity of compositions and mathematics in taals stimulate your right and left side of the brain. In all states of active, semi-active or passive music, your right and left brains are stimulated to varying degrees.”
Be it stimulating your brain to remember better or to help improve everyday skills, music helps do it all. The one thing that it doesn’t do is make you smarter. In the year 2007, the German government took it up as a challenge to study the Mozart effect. The effect claimed to improve the performance of certain mental tasks among children and consequently make them more intelligent. The government was overwhelmed with requests for funding of studies on musical intelligence, and there simply wasn’t enough evidence to fairly assess the requests. The practical study that was conducted did come across an improvement in the IQ of subjects, but the transient effect lasted no more than 20 minutes, debunking the popular hypothesis.
Music is undoubtedly a powerful tool with its effects to improve concentration and direct collective focus to singular tasks. Using music to help improve cognitive and motor skills is encouraged, but counting on it to make your children more intelligent is not recommended. Knowing what you know now, which polyrhythm are you going to explore next?
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