Writing: Of Music and Minds

Music Brain

Humans are a musical species. Or so argued the British neurologist, humanist and author, Oliver Sacks, in his book, Musicophilia.

Sacks, who passed away in August 2015, liked to explore some of the brains weirdest and most wonderful pathways, using his patients’ case studies as starting points for ‘eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition’. Musicophilia was just one of these, a study into the pathologies of musical response and what this teaches us about ‘the very odd business’ of having ‘music in our heads’.

It’s a book full of rare, luminous insights. Did you know that a musician’s brain is structurally different to a non-musician’s brain? Nor did I until I read Sacks’ book where he discusses how learning music at a young age affects the hippocampus – an areas associated with learning and memory but also neurogenesis, the formation of new neurons. And if that’s not curious enough, these changes can occur within just 15 months of training in early childhood and correlate with improvements in certain motor and auditory skills.

No other art form causes such structural changes. A painter’s brain or a dancer’s brain does not look different on scans to a non-painter’s brain or a non-dancer’s brain (although mirror neurons are kind of cool in the latter).

But whilst all this stuff about brains is interesting, what’s perhaps more poignant is Sacks’ appreciation of how music can move us – lifting us up to incredible highs or recalling us to terrible lows; how one song can persuade us to buy something, another forget anything but dance, another bring back a memory with startling clarity, and another with just two notes terrify us into never going near the ocean again.

He wrote:

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”

― Oliver SacksMusicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Now, my relationship with music is not particularly complicated.

Sure, as a child I had the complete piano lesson cliché – the evil old lady with a ruler ready to slap your fingers when your wrists dropped too low. (“Maintain your arches,” she’d command and I, the unfortunate seven-year-old, would cower – mainly because she also drank garlic tea and her breath stank.)

And sure, I finished my teens as part of a pretty awful rock band. We had decent enough ideas but none of the talent or charisma to make it work. (I like to think the lyrics were goodish – even if they were influenced by the natural combination of Brand New and Sylvia Plath.)

And yes, I’m still singing (kind of… in a choir where there’s a lot more drinking than there is singing).

In other words, when it comes to music, I’m not exceptionally gifted but I’m not entirely tone deaf (amusia) and I certainly don’t have a history to warrant Complex Backstory Drama.

I like music.

Ok, scrap that, I love music.

That should be the end. Only of course it isn’t. This isn’t a book review.

The reason I chose to write about music this time (I wrote a craptastical blog about music back in North Carolina) is because of a little thing called ‘frisson’.

It’s not mentioned by Oliver Sacks and it’s not something I really came across when I was studying all the neurothings at Durham, but ‘frisson’ was the answer that came up after a casual google search whilst trying to discover if there was a magical, single ‘word for that electric goosebump feeling when you listen to a really good song’ (yes I tried that as a set of search terms and hey it worked so shush).

‘Frisson’ is when music, ‘an abstract stimulus, [arouses] feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system’. This means music, without any physical help, creates peak emotions.


Pretty much this blissed-out-nothing-else-matters feeling

Now, until ‘frisson’ entered my vocabulary as a response to sounds, I just assumed everyone felt this way about music. That everyone, at some point, with some songs (not necessarily the same songs) would feel the thrill down their spine, the flutter in their chest, the sudden curl in their stomach, and chills on their skin. That brilliant twisty physical reaction. That sensation that’s almost ineluctable.

Apparently not, apparently this isn’t an everyone thing, although it is a quite a lot of people thing. According to Emily Nusbaum and Paul Silva (who compiled a very readable metastudy on the subject of ‘chills’ and why some people experience them and others don’t or at least receive them less frequently) there are certain personality traits including openness to experience that means one person or another does or does not experience ‘frisson’.

Defined by psychologist Art Markman as ‘the degree to which a person is willing to consider new idea and opportunities,” it essentially translates as a kind of spectrum – there are people who thrive on the novelty of anything and everything new, whether it’s an idea or an experience; on the other hand, some like to stay secure and only deal with what’s familiar, the tried-and-true activities that feel safe.

Which got me thinking (as these things do). Is this openness to experience why so many creative types – whether it’s writers or dancers, sculptors or philosophers, scientists or musicians themselves – feel that ‘without music, life would be blank’? Why so many writers have written of their love of music or at least written it into their writing?

“If music be the food of love, play on!” commanded Shakespeare.

Haruki Murakami described how, “Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering” in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

JK Rowling had Dumbledore say that music is ‘greater than any magic we teach here at Hogwarts’.

Even Plato believed that “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

And in the Sherlock story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Conan Doyle recalled what Darwin said about music, “He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.” This is particularly poignant given that Oliver Sacks touches upon humanity’s innately musical nature in Musicophilia nearly a century later. Moreover, as we look at studies in why this might be the case, there’s a suggestion that music is doing something so much bigger than just giving us chills – by evoking these feelings in us, it’s encouraging a bonding experience between listeners, which might be why we feel more connected to people after sharing music. I don’t know. I’m still learning.

But to return to my point, and my weird tangent of a thought, openness to experience is something a lot of artists NEED to have. An analysis of artists of different kinds shows many are ‘expert generalists’. Combining their often-extensive knowledge with openness to experience, this is what allows them to experiment, to test new ideas, to push boundaries, to do something no one has done before.

For me, learning about ‘frisson’ opened up a whole wondrous, weird, whimsical world of questions. Ones I’m just beginning to dig into the answers for. But I thought I’d share as I start out upon my little foray into musicality. Because music does things to us that nothing else can do. It can literally change our brains. There are songs that literally change our lives. Music is part of being human.


Not everyone feels frisson…

And not all the same songs cause frisson but here are a few that totally give me that Super Mario Infinity Star Feeling if you feel like checking some out. I actually have a playlist which is pretty much just packed with them on YouTube which you can also check out if you’re bored.

Eric Whitacre – Sleep

Almost all of Whitacre’s repertoire is chill inducing for me – but none more than Sleep. Perhaps because of the Edinburgh Music Society, so I have all the memories as well as the love of the song itself. But the fact is, something about the melodies, the repetition, the usurpation of expectation, that is what makes his music so irresistible.

Scanners – Salvation

This song by Scanners was a grower – the first time I heard it there was just something that grabbed me and after that I couldn’t stop listening to it. There’s something hypnotic and strange about the way it’s put together. Composition was never my strong suit.

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

If you have to ask you’ll never know.

Twenty One Pilots – Migraine

I’m a sucker for a good lyric – in fact, I’d say that’s the main link between all the songs that give me chills, so even though I only heard this the other week I’m going to pop it on here. Whether it’s The Pretty Reckless, Brand New, or Mozart – there’s always something about the language that creates that inexpressible feeling.

Perhaps that’s also why the spoken word poem below by Carlos Andres Gomez also evokes that cold shivery joy.

I need to keep reading.

24 thoughts on “Writing: Of Music and Minds

  1. Macxermillio says:

    Great post. Say you are sucker for good lyrics, check out HURT, their lyrics might be deceptively x simple at times because of a play on words but otherwise it is brilliant…you will never be same. They give me that experience as well as Pink Floyd. The Pretty Reckless’s song Blame Me give me the chills. Here are three songs that I think you should YouTube by HURT :
    1. Forever
    2. House Carpenter
    3. Danse Russe
    4. Aftermath
    5. Abuse of Sid
    I could resist writing two more. Trust me. Would be awesome if you checked out lyrics while listening.
    Thank you for the awesome post I’m gonna pick up the book I love music.

    Liked by 1 person

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