The New York Times featured an article, “Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing” on the chemical and physiological effects of music on the human brain. It is wonderfully scientific and technical:
“More than a decade ago, our research team used brain imaging to show that music that people described as highly emotional engaged the reward system deep in their brains — activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion. Subsequently we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.
When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.
But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.”
Music is a wonderfully transcendent experience. It is spiritual and religious and sensual and communal. I suppose this is why conservative, conformist cultures outlaw music, along with dance, and highly proscribing the kinds of food and sex one should have. Like dance and sex, I believe music can put you in direct contact with the divine, however you define it. On a similar note, one of my favorite websites Brain Pickings features an article that includes a quote from author Edna St. Vincent Millay on the ethereal beauty of music. She names Bach as her favorite composer and artist, the one she must “never lose”. For me, it is Camille Saint-Saëns., as far as classical composers. But I love a wide range of music and my iTunes and iPod vary wildly from Saint-Saëns to Nine Inch Nails to Beyonce to Buena Vista Social Club to Rammstein, and so on and so forth.
On that note, I’ll end with several notes: