The Power of Music

July 1, 2011 |

Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song
by Elena Mannes
Walker Publishing Company (2011), 288 pages

Power of MusicScience will not embrace visceral knowledge without evidence to back it. What humans, and our species’ ancestors, have innately known about the importance of music for hundreds of thousands of years is now being proven through modern science. Namely, that music and/or sound are fundamental aspects of individuals, societies, creatures on this planet, Earth, other planets and the universe as a whole.

In Elena Mannes’ new book, which grew out of her 2009 PBS documentary “The Music Instinct: Science & Song,” she covers biochemistry, neuroscience, physics, anthropology, ancient history, the cosmos and countless experiments that point to the fact that music, basically, rocks hard core.

Heady at times, as music theory and science are, the book is still accessible to the layman, but having a science and music background certainly helps. The coolest elements in this read are the numerous factoids that should convince anyone of music’s potency. Only four percent of the human population won’t get it, those individuals who are amusic and lack normal pitch perception. Speaking of pitch, it turns out that the auditory cortex is laid out in pitch order!

With the technological advances in medical science, researchers have conducted experiments that map brain activity when subjects are listening to and playing music. “There are so many different brain areas involved,” Mannes writes, “that one can say we have a veritable ‘brain orchestra’ going on inside our heads when we are involved with music.”

Beyond just hearing music, there is also the physicality of sound vibrations. The process of hearing involves the energy of sound waves moving through the air, into our ears, through our eardrums with cellular activity telling the brain what frequencies are coming through. Because sound is vibration, this doesn’t limit it to the hearing. Deaf people can also experience music, albeit differently, but all of us consume it bodily.

Our relationship with sound starts in utero. Studies have found that fetuses begin their auditory education in the third trimester. Because of this, newborns have experienced the cadence of their parents’ language pre-birth. In turn, it affects the way they cry. The wails of a baby have musical intervals, which are different depending on their parents’ language: “French infants have more rising melody contours than English and Japanese infants.”

The process of learning to play music and sing builds more brain matter and neural pathways, making the brain of a musician physically different from that of a non-musician – and markedly so in people who learned at a young age. However, the beauty of the brain’s plasticity means that adults still have the ability to “develop new neural networks to process music.”

Listening to music also targets the brain’s pleasure zone. I call it the musicgasm, science links it to the neurochemicals released during those Oh My God parts of a song. Hence the saying – sex, drugs and rock & roll.

The beauty of music is that it doesn’t have the same consequences of sex and drugs; it is good medicine, if you will. It helps with depression, eases physical pain, creates joy and brings people together. We all know this. It’s nice that science is finally catching up to prove it.

More information on Elena Mannes is at


Category: Arts, Books, MUSIC