July 24, 2007

WITH ITS DELIBERATE STRUCTURE, SOUND CHANGES OUR BIOLOGY

Music has become so diverse through centuries of development that it’s difficult to explain in simple terms exactly what it is.Styles as seemingly unassociated as baroque, chant, soul, klezmer, soundscapes, death metal and mbaquanga all qualify as music. So while there are many elements that differentiate music from other noises, the primary one is music’s deliberate structure, or rather, its lack of randomness.In a more general sense, like clay to a sculptor, music is noise that has been organized into a form where it becomes more meaningful, pleasing, memorable or identifiable.A QUESTION OF TASTEAnyone can tell you that different music affects different people in different ways, and most of an individual’s conscious reaction can be attributed to personal taste.Individualized preferences develop year after year as we build a mental catalog of sounds and styles that we feel mesh well with our personalities. Musical tastes can be affected by influences as disparate as living and working environments, choices in friends, fashion, lifestyles or our religious and political beliefs. The background noises we hear daily can help us pick the sounds we prefer, and certainly the variety of music to which we are exposed plays a major part.But before we even decide whether we like a piece of music, our body’s involuntary reaction is already at work. Subtle changes in the heart rate, breathing patterns and even the tension or relaxation of muscles are all in progress below the surface. These instinctive reactions are based on a lifetime of prior experiences — some that happened even in the womb — and they subconsciously contribute to the decision we ultimately make regarding whether we like that song.Other factors come into play on an intellectual and analytical level. This song we’re hearing for the first time could remind us of something we’ve heard before that we liked or didn’t like. The instrumentation or the singer’s voice could be too far from any previous point of reference in our listening experiences. We may be inclined to give it a chance if an attractive member of the opposite sex is playing it for us, or we just might be tired or in a bad mood, and the door to taking on a new interest has been closed.It could be any mix of the above, combined with something we can’t control.MUSIC AND MEMORIESIn 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut demonstrated that different parts of the brain are responsive to their own specialized ranges of sounds. In essence, distinct neurons respond only to distinct frequencies. With all the variances in the way individual bodies mature, and the environment in which they do so, each brain may be, to some degree, predestined to prefer certain sounds to others.If our bodies have pre-programmed dispositions to certain noises, regardless of our will or experience, this could be a factor in how our tastes are initially determined. As an amazing reward, this research is also unearthing the connections between sound processing and how developmental abnormalities contribute to dyslexia.A year earlier, Wake Forest University researchers found that even though most areas of the brain have dedicated sense-related functions — an area for sight, an area for sound, etc. — the places where those regions meet can share data from multiple sources. That is, information in the brain regarding sight, sound, touch and smell can be shared in multi-sensory cells. This could explain our emotional connections to music or other life moments that are immediately tied to multiple senses or emotions. If something you hear or touch makes you feel a way you don’t understand, it could be because your memories of a particular sound and surface are sharing a space in your brain, meshing into an all new sense. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com