This is a beautiful story written by a parent who’s not musically inclined but finds himself at a middle school solo and ensemble festival for his daughter. He describes himself as a advanced mathematics expert that has an understanding of physics. He has tried to learn how to perform music several times in his life, but he just doesn’t get it. He is curious how music pulls at his heart strings and evokes strong memories of things he wouldn’t have normally remembered. He queries how a physical vibrations that create sound waves can evoke such strong emotional reactions? There is some psychology and neuroscience that can start to answer his questions.
First, music is similar in many ways to other stimuli in the world that have the ability to evoke an emotional response, but it has some important differences from say a picture of a snake or a puppy. Certain forms of music are known to provoke an emotional response, but what in particular is it about those forms of music that do the provoking? Some research from a psychologist, neuroscientist, and former professional musician, Dan Levin, suggests that it is the interesting way that composers break musical ‘rules’ that makes a piece provoke a need for you to hear the music again. As I learned in my high school and college music theory classes, these ‘rules’ of music are old and well documented. Certain chords follow other chords better than some other chord (e.g. I, IV, V). If you listen to pop music or have any friends that amaze you with their uncanny ability to produce any Brittney Spears song on the spot, you’ll likely find out that most pop music is produced from nearly the same chord structure in different keys. What makes you like it is how they barely break the pop conventions with a slightly different chord, song structure, or unique synthesized sound.
Music is also known to make you remember things you wouldn’t usually remember. Music is a peculiar cue for memory in that it typically can take us back to moments we never thought we’d remember. I was fortunate to work with an honors student in our lab that was interested in why music was memorable and how it influenced our memory of simultaneous neutral stimuli (in our case, black and white year book faces). We had emotional, both positive and negative, musical clips, as well as, neutral (elevator music) clips. We found that the music we expected to be emotionally evocative made the participants’ hands sweat a bit more (electrodermal activity; the hallmark measure in psychophysiology of emotional physiological arousal). We also found that participants remembered the emotional musical clips better than the neutral musical clips. In particular, we found that the participants’ memory for the music was only better for clips for which they felt they could recollect the thoughts and feelings they were having when they heard the clip earlier. We also found the same pattern for the neutral faces paired with emotional music; they more accurately remembered the faces that were paired with emotional music that brought back the thoughts and feelings they had when they first heard the clip during the previous session. Emotional stimuli, including pictures and sounds, seem to particularly enhance this type of memory, known as recollection or a recollective experience. Our study is one of the first to show that emotional music effects memory for the music itself and simultaneously presented non-emotional stimuli in this way. This helps show that the writer of the story in the link has a similar experience to the participants in our study. When he hears a particular piece the thoughts and feelings associated with the original experience of hearing that song flood his mind. Studies of the brain at work (functional MRI) while listening to emotional music show that music activates the reward and emotional regions of our brain. These reward and emotional regions (the ventral striatum and the amygdala) have tight connections with the regions of our brain that process and store our experiences in memory. Thus, the interaction of these emotion and memory systems while listening to emotional music helps the simultaneous thoughts and experiences during the music stick in our memory. This happens without us truly knowing it is there until we hear the song later and realize we never forgot that moment as the experience captures our mind all over again.
Music is powerful. Listening to it helps our brain select the memories that will stick with us forever and help define who we are. Performing it well produces an experience in the performer and the audience that loosens our soul to stir in ways we didn’t know were possible. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to learn respect for the powers of music through great teachers who gave us a chance to perform and experience music at a high level. They influenced me to the point that I wanted to become just like them to pay it forward to the next generation of students who will grow to produce music that tugs at the listener’s heart strings. Though I didn’t stay on that path, I know that the lessons I learned from learning and performing music influence my daily actions and intuitions. Just as we need more research to determine the particular mechanisms to why music can tug at your heart strings, we need educators who are going to produce the people who produce the mystical, physical force that grabs your attention, makes you think and feel, makes you want more, and tags the experience for latter re-experiencing.