Tortured By the Strings

Why does music make us feel? On the one hand, music is a purely abstract art form, devoid of language or explicit ideas. The stories it tells are all subtlety and subtext. And yet, even though music says little, it still manages to touch us deep, to tickle some universal nerves. When listening to our favorite songs, our body betrays all the symptoms of emotional arousal. The pupils in our eyes dilate, our pulse and blood pressure rise, the electrical conductance of our skin is lowered, and the cerebellum, a brain region associated with bodily movement, becomes strangely active. Blood is even re-directed to the muscles in our legs. (Some speculate that this is why we begin tapping our feet.) In other words, sound stirs us at our biological roots. As Schopenhauer wrote, “It is we ourselves who are tortured by the strings.”

Jonah Lehrer at Wired, in a big, smashing post on the neuroscience of music. Lehrer quotes Schopenhauer: “It is we ourselves who are tortured by the strings.” But why should it be so? After a searching review of recent imaging that ties regions of the brain to our perception of and reaction to music, Lehrer turns to a mid-twentieth century perspective—that of musicologist Leonard Meyer—for the most evocative explanation for music’s power over the mind. Meyer argues that music fascinates us by making patterns and then frustrating our brains expectations through irresolution, variation, and delay. “Music is a form, Lehrer concludes, “whose meaning depends upon its violation.”

Listening to I remembered Jonah’s post while watching Dutch musicologist Ton Koopman play Buxtehude’s Fuge in C Major, shared by Twitter friend @bjacobson. What a scene—the historic organ he’s playing doesn’t have any strings, but there’s enough tension and resolution in the counterpoint to keep a few neurons enthralled.

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