Humanity’s soundtrack: How music has influenced society

  • Living
  • Sunday, 16 Jun 2024

Center for New Music & Audio Technologies technical director Wagner, in a studio. — ARIC CRABB/Bay Area News Group/TNS

WHEN was the last time music made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, sent a chill down your spine or gave you goosebumps all over?

Whether it’s a full-body rush from joining in an outdoor choir of 58,000 Swifties at Levi’s Stadium or a shudder from the evocative tension that’s made Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings cinema’s unofficial mourning song, those moments spark a psychophysiological phenomenon or frisson.

The first time that intoxicating sensation rattled Jeremy Wagner – a composer, lecturer and the technical director of the Center for New Music & Audio Technologies at University of California (UC) Berkeley – was during high school, when he was flooded with emotion while listening to the orchestral swells in the Beatles’ 1967 track A Day in the Life.

This physical reaction is commonly associated with a fear response in the animal kingdom – puffing up fur, for example, to fend off predators or keep warm. But Wagner said dynamic musical changes in melody, pitch, tone and rhythm can trigger a more evolved or even subtler form of that same mechanism in humans, replicating that same bodily tingling during moments of awe, sadness, thrill or novelty.

“For me, the feeling of frisson is most profound when you have that sense of awe, when you’re in the presence of something that is spectacular or difficult to access. Some people might call it the ‘divine’ or something bigger than yourself,” Wagner, 43, said. “The artistry at work is what’s causing the experience of awe, leading to that physiological response.”

Wagner leads a course at UC Berkeley that analyses the exact oddities that lie at the nexus of music and perception.

Researchers have uncovered many reasons why and how music is so integral to life as we know it. Musical styles and artistes that are enjoyed as a child, for example, often influence lifelong music tastes, largely because those songs were introduced at a time when brains are the most “plastic” and able to make connections.

However, there’s still a lot of unknowns shrouding what feels like such a deeply innate part of being human.

Brain illustration

Wagner said that while brain imaging can illustrate which parts of the brain are active, for example, when people listen to music and feel frisson, medical scans fail to fully explain why the experience is enjoyable.

Yet, he said, those unknowables can still act as stepping stones that guide intuitional understanding of why we enjoy music.

“When you’re looking at this data in the brain, a single cubic millimetre has hundreds of thousands of neurons participating, so the fact that something is lighting up might give us a hint at what’s going on, but it’s not really telling us the whole story,” he said. “There’s this horizon beyond which it’s kind of difficult to know anything for certain, so I try to emphasise intuition.”

One thing is certain: Music has been a facet of civilisation for tens of thousands of years. Researchers have discovered ancient artifacts, such as bones that were hollowed out and carved with holes – not dissimilar to a modern-day flute.

Daniel Levitin, a rocker-turned-neuroscientist who grew up in Moraga, has delved deep into the evolutionary forces behind our brains’ ability to translate music into meaning, a development that has shaped the history of humanity in the process.

Two of his New York Times bestselling books – This Is Your Brain On Music and The World in Six Songs – collectively explain how the mind is a natural change detector. It crafts understanding of the world by searching for patterns and connecting feelings to memories.

Starts in childhood

Starting by age five, he says, children can typically identify when a note is off key or a chord is out of sequence. Over time, those skills form a sort of mental rule book about music, specific to the culture in which you’re born.

Simultaneously, people’s reward centres trigger positive emotions when listening to music they like. As this happens in groups of people over time, Levitin says, song and dance physically help synchronise minds and form larger communities – effectively laying the foundations for civic life and society as we know it today.

“Music may have evolved not for one reason, but for several distinct reasons: keeping you in your loved ones’ thoughts when you’re not around; for comfort, friendship, ritual and religion; to express joy and to convey knowledge,” Levitin said at a TEDxUSC conference in 2012.

“For reasons we’re just beginning to understand as neuroscientists, music brings us outside ourselves and puts us in touch with thoughts of a higher power or higher order – inspiring us to achieve loftier goals than those in our own self interest.”

Wagner said it’s vital to view music through this human-centric lens that has facilitated communication for centuries, especially now as anxieties swirl about the ways artificial intelligence and algorithms could potentially impact or even redefine the music industry in the future.

Even as he leads research in new ways to integrate technology into composition, Wagner is not worried about undue influence from Silicon Valley, which has already produced text-to-music generators that spit out something that looks and sounds like music.

Rather, it’s the intrinsic human element of communication, connection and cognition that makes music so impactful to the heart, mind and soul – regardless if it’s brought to life by bone-carved flutes, bedazzled wireless microphones or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Crucially, (AI) is missing the human element – this communication between people who are trying to inhabit the same space, the same idea, the same world – that actually makes music meaningful,” Wagner said.

“I spend every day working on technology to try to make music, but if there’s not a human at the center of it, I feel like it’s kind of a failure, because it’s so hard for something like that to connect with anyone.” – The Mercury News/ Tribune News Service

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