We all know the feeling of being transported by a lilting melody, or enraptured by a rhapsody that seems to mute our senses to all else but its divine resonance.
Yet we may not realise that music is a powerful medium which can actually affect the way we perceive the world; science has proved that it alters our brain functions and can have a positive effect on brain development in infants.
New research presented at last year's Neuroscience conference in San Diego by Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD, suggests that music could play a significant role as an educational tool and as a medium to treat a broad spectrum of learning disabilities. The findings indicate that music promotes brain plasticity and auditory processing, particularly through developing the skill of playing a musical instrument.
"Listening to and making music is not only an auditory experience, but it is a multisensory and motor experience. Making music over a long period of time can change brain function and brain structure," Schlaug said.
The research into this area indicates that musicians possess a heightened ability to process sensory information received visually, aurally and via touch. The most significant results are seen when musical training begins before the age of seven years old, as brain circuits respond to systematic training which encourages connectivity between the different regions of the brain, making the implementation of tasks less dependent on working memory.
"Music might provide an alternative access into a broken or dysfunctional system within the brain," said Schlaug. Adding, "Music has the unique ability to go through alternative channels and connect different sections of the brain."
The effects of musical training on the brain take place at cortical and sub-cortical levels, the areas that are concerned with auditory processing before conscious awareness. This process is also inherent when using language skills, and a 2010 study by Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran suggests that musical training can "tone" the brain, enhancing auditory skills and generally improving the overall level of intelligence and cognitive awareness.
Later studies conducted at the University of Montreal reviewed the reactions of musicians and non-musicians to simultaneous sensations of two sounds and a single touch, designed to create the illusion that two touches had also been received . It was predicted that, because playing a musical instrument requires multiple actions to be conducted at the same time, such as reading music and operating the instrument, the musicians would be more able to accurately differentiate between the stimuli. This assumption proved to be correct, as the non-musicians were fooled by the perceptual illusion whereas the musicians were not.
Researcher Julie Roy from the University of Montrea explained: "Musicians are able to ignore the auditory stimuli and only report what they are feeling. This is solid evidence of an improved ability to process information from more than one sense at the same time."
A study conducted by Jacob Jolij and Maaike Meurs from the Psychology Department of the University of Groningen, revealed that listening to different types of music also had a marked effect on our perception of mood.
During the study, test subjects were shown a succession of happy or sad "smiley faces" whilst listening to either cheerful or poignant melodies. The results showed that the type of music being played influenced the kind of expression the subjects identified. In subjects who listened to uplifting music there was a tendency to perceive happy expressions in those around them, whereas listening to melancholy music had the opposite effect, drawing subjects to see sad expressions.
Jolij suggested that expectation plays a major role in our ability to perceive objects or moods: 'Seeing things that are not there is the result of top-down processes in the brain. Conscious perception is largely based on these top-down processes: your brain continuously compares the information that comes in through your eyes with what it expects on the basis of what you know about the world. The final result of this comparison process is what we eventually experience as reality. Our research results suggest that the brain builds up expectations not just on the basis of experience but on your mood as well.'
Perhaps most intriguingly of all, music seems to create an almost quantum paradox regarding our perception of time.
When the brain is subjected to the type of concentrated perceptual engagement that arises when listening intently to a favourite song, the area of the brain that governs introspection - the prefrontal cortex - closes down and the sensory cortex takes over. Neuroscientist Ilan Goldberg explains that “the term ‘losing yourself’ is given a neural substantiation by this brain response.
The role of the prefrontal cortex is to reflect on the personal significance of the music to the listener; when it is disengaged during moments of deep concentration a "Zen-like" state can occur during which all perception of time is lost. Though to be totally lost in rapture like this is not usual, it is quite normal for our concept of time to be distorted in some way on a daily basis. The brain addresses the issue of time in two ways: firstly by making an unequivocal judgement regarding the duration of a particularly activity or stimulus, and secondly by assessing the timespan between events. These judgements are made using our memories and focused attention, so it is easy for the perception of time to be altered if we are occupied intently, or can appear to lag if we are bored.
In some ways, music can help us to focus on actual timespans, setting expectations by providing a perceived structure and time frame, unless the listener connects so intently with the sound that the transcendental state is achieved and time ceases to exist.
Certain composers, such as Anton Bruckner who was known for his hour-long symphonies, exploited the fact that music could appear to warp time. The pace and tone of the music can affect our temporal perception, effectively "speeding up" time or slowing it down. Austrian composer Anton Webern estimated the length of his own "Variations for Orchestra" to be twenty minutes long, when in fact it lasts for just seven!
Though musical time is notated with remarkable imprecision and ambiguity, it is often the composer’s goal to distort time perception. Long after German inventor Johann Maelzel patented the metronome in 1815, composers continued to deliberately avoid restrictive measures of time in their scores, relying instead on adjectival description.
So, music can play with our senses, and the phrase "lost in music" appears to be both literal and metaphoric, with the brain's concept of time being fooled by an intense connection to an appealing melody, or an up or down tempo rhythm. This poses another question, namely "is it just our perception of time that is altered when we are affected in this way, or is our connection to time itself?"
According to Professor Robert Lanza from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, the field of quantum physics known as "biocentrism" suggests that time and space are merely "tools of the mind," and that they can be affected by our perception, as in the famous "double slit experiment" where scientists observed a particle pass through a multi-holed barrier, and it behaved like a bullet travelling through a single slit. When the particle was not observed, however, it moved through the holes like a wave.
Professor Lanza explains that biocentrism embraces the idea of parallel universes where ever potential event that could possibly happen is speculated to be occurring all at once across multiple universes. This would challenge our preconceived concepts of linear time and consciousness, opening up the possibilities of tapping into other time lines.
Does being "lost in music" somehow allow us to access these other timelines by briefly detaching our consciousness and expectations away from the accepted norm?
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For more insights regarding the vagaries of time, subscribers can check out Whitley's special interview: " The Time Traveler Phenomenon." and the Dreamland show " Starfire Tor Part 2: Whitley and Anne's New Timeslip."