As we continue to understand how music affects the brain, the more we appreciate that we are “hardwired” for music. We are built to create it.
No group is more instructive in this regard than humans in their primacy: babies. Scientific studies of infants and music, where entire laboratories-cum-nurseries are devoted to their scrutiny, have taught us that babies are instinctively musical.
Indeed, we hardly need science to tell us that babies dig good tunes, for parents in all cultures speak to their tots in the same manner, using a lilting, melodic, repetitive, musical prosody, dubbed “motherese.” Babies will always attune more to words spoken to them in a melodic manner than flat spoken language.
The ABC song helps toddlers learn and remember the alphabet because they are hardwired for music. They will invariably pay more attention to musical sounds than disordered notes. Countless viral sensation YouTube videos of screaming babies suddenly soothed by reggae, hip-hop, and even techno are testament to this.
How do scientists study what kind of music non-verbal babies like? The same way mothers do: by observing their behavior and responding to it. Scientists have meticulously cataloged what music babies express an interest in or ignore, and the kinds of emotional reactions they have to the notes tooted at them by recording if they turn towards or away from a speaker. In one early paper on the reactions of babies to music, Harvard biologists determined that “fretting and turning away from the music source occurred more frequently during the dissonant than the consonant versions.” Conclusion: babies prefer consonant (sweet sounding) noises to dissonant (sour ones).
Research on babies also revealed something few anticipated: each and every one of us is born with perfect pitch. This is because the baby brain is hyperconnected — there are thousands more connections between the neurons in the brain of an infant than in the brain of an adult. It seems all babies live in a synesthetic haze, where every smell is tinged with color, sound is infused with color, every smell colored with sound — a hallucinogenic explosion where all senses blend with one another in a carnivalesque whirlwind of experience. No wonder babies perpetually look simultaneously exhilarated, overwhelmed and exhausted.
As fun as this sounds, the party can’t last forever. As babies grow, these connections need to be pruned so the brain can do more with less. It needs to become more efficient so it can economically learn to make sense of the world and respond in a capable manner.
We lose this as we age — unless given the right stimulation. Children who grow up speaking tonal languages, such as Mandarin, where words spoken at different pitches have different meanings, are more likely to retain perfect pitch. Use it, less likely to lose it.
Intriguingly, many professional musicians with perfect pitch owe their talent to synesthesia: They have retained some of the neural connections between brain regions the rest of us have lost. For them, B flat may taste like banana, or look like tinged terracotta — its distinctive color or flavor is unmistakable. Piano tuners frequently possess this gift, making their seemingly difficult craft effortless.
Though the rest of us lose this synesthetic, exquisitely tuned ear, as adults our brains are far more primed for music than we might realize. Our capacity to remember tunes, and recognize songs even from a split second of a recording, is extraordinary.
Pick some of your favorite tunes sometime, and see if your friends can recognize the track from a single note. It’s fun. I recommend the cymbal crash at the start of Radiohead’s “High and Dry,”► the first piano note at the start of “Fairytale of New York”► by the Pogues (or the harmonica at the start of “Dirty Old Town”► for that matter), and the guitar strum which opens “Devil’s Haircut”► by Beck. Familiar audiences nail them, every time. The Radiohead cymbal crash is particularly impressive: it derives from a standard drum kit, and yet the combination of that crash in that studio on that recording refined with that production has been so hardwired into our melodic memories crowds recognize it instantly.
Our brains are hardwired to remember melodies, and we have used this to our advantage for thousands of years. We remember words set to music far easier than straight spoken prose. Nursery rhymes are melodic because children find them easier to remember. Epic ballads, sung and not spoken, were passed down for thousands of years without written inscription. People who work with the elderly and have witnessed the ravages of Alzheimer’s will attest that often music is the last thing to go. Even when names, identities and memories are forgotten, the songs of our youth remain.
Though many of us may doubt our ability to keep a beat, even the least coordinated of us are primed for percussion: the capacity of our brains to perceive a beat and maintain a steady rhythm is considered by some scientists to be a unique quality of the human mind. Students of physics, take note: Galileo recorded the speed of gravity by employing music. He felt the clockwork mechanics of Renaissance Italy were insufficient for his purposes: so as he dropped objects and measured the speed of their descent, he sang to himself to measure time. His calculations… they weren’t half bad.
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Excerpted from Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science, published by Da Capo Press. Copyright © 2015 by Zoe Cormier