The Rhythm of Life: The esSense of music

“Music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired”  – Boethius

I have loved music all my life, and visitors often mention my music collection as one of the first things that strikes them. As well as being large, my tastes are quite diverse, and it’s always fascinated me how different music can radically change the mood, both at home and also in the cinema or in a retail outlet.

If you have ever watched a film with and without the musical score you’ll notice a huge difference in the way you react to events on the screen, and music is still often undervalued for its profound effect on how we experience the world.

One of the effects that is often discussed is the “Mozart effect” that claims to make young children more intelligent. Unfortunately, this is not true (I wish it was this easy), but what is true is that listening to music that you like (i.e., that makes you happy) tends to make you more creative and productive.

Why does music have such a profound effect? If you go to the gym (hopefully more often than I do), you will notice that the tempo of music does effect your body, with faster tempo music subconsciously making you move faster (and slower tempo the opposite). When the tempo rises above the natural tempo of our heartbeat our reaction is to speed up, and similarly when it falls below that tempo we slow down.

This is why we eat faster when the music is faster, which is why some fast food outlets use this tactic to increase turnover and why some luxury retail outlets strive to make us linger longer with a slower beat. Music truly helps us keep in rhythm with the world around us, and our perception of music is directly related to our perception of time.

Our perception of time helps us work out cause and effect (why one thing leads to another) that is the primary focus of the brain. That’s why most studies of the psychology of music show that the experience is all about the brain’s expectations of what happens next. When we feel tension or surprise it’s because we expected something different, and when we feel longing or yearning we are waiting for something to happen (as in Wagner’s famous Tristan chord).

We have not yet discovered a culture that lacks music in some form or another, and E.O. Wilson wrote that music has a critical social function in primitive cultures (and arguably for more modern ones too), “Singing and dancing serve to draw groups together, direct the emotions of the people, and prepare them for joint action.

The origins of music go back a long way in human culture, with the earliest example of a “flute” carved from bone dated around 44,000 years old (it was found in Slovenia). Charles Darwin was puzzled as to how music fitted with his theory of evolution, as he struggled to see the adaptive value (as did Steven Pinker who famously called music “auditory cheesecake”).

Other writers like Philip Ball, Daniel Levitin and Anthony Storr see music as fundamental to being human. One reason for its importance may be the parallels that have been found between music and language. Indeed, many speculate that language developed from music, dance and gesture into more formal sets of communication rules.

It’s certainly true that language and music share much in common in terms of their structure. Like language, music unfolds according to a set of rules, and these rules are hierarchical. The hierarchic nature of music is a very strong link with the key argument of many linguists for the universal nature of language – its recursive structure. Some composers even mimic the ‘sound’ of language in their music – most famously Leos Janacek (one of my own favourite composers). [Some scientists have even analysed language and music mathematically to demonstrate that both languages and musical styles have a “national” or “cultural” flavor.]

Our innate ability to understand frequency, harmony and rhythm suggests that music is more than “auditory cheesecake”. At four years we can label the emotional content of music and all of us can recognize standard musical intervals without any training (try humming the first two notes of “Over the rainbow” and you probably have a near-perfect octave).

That’s why music is such a powerful branding tool, and all the most successful marketing campaigns have a memorable jingle (e.g., “A Mars a day” or “Beanz Meanz Heinz”). Leo Tolstoy once wrote that, “Music is the shorthand of emotion”, and there are very few sensory cues that can provoke such a visceral reaction (with the arguable exception of smell). Music is also very strongly tied to our perception of our personal identity.

Above all, music tells a story (back to ‘cause and effect’) about how we feel or how we want to feel, where we are, who we are with and what we are going to do next. Music is a branding cue with a direct link to our body and its movements. Leo Tolstoy was right. If you want to make an experience emotional then don’t write a long speech, use shorthand.


The Music Instinct: How music works and why we can’t do without it by Philip Ball

Brand esSense: Using sense, symbol and story to design brand identity by Neil Gains

This Is Your Brain On Music: The science of a human obsession by Daniel Levltin

Music And The Mind by Anthony Storr

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