Wednesday, July 17, 2013

All Music, Without Exception, Is A Direct Expression of the Buddha-Dharma

Music is not tangible. You can’t eat it or drink it. It doesn’t protect against the rain, wind or cold.  It doesn’t vanquish predators or mend broken bones. And yet humans have always prized music, even loved it.
"Far from being merely entertainment, music, I would argue, is a part of what makes us human. Its practical value is maybe a little harder to pin down, at least in our present way of thinking, than mathematics or medicine, but many people would agree that a life without music, for a hearing person, is a life significantly diminished." - David Byrne, How Music Works
In the modern age we spend great sums of money to attend concerts, download music files, play instruments, and listen to our favorite artists whether we’re in a subway or salon. Even in Paleolithic times, people invested significant time and effort to create music, as the discovery of flutes carved from animal bones would suggest.  So why does this thingless “thing,” at its core, a mere sequence of sounds, hold such potentially enormous intrinsic value?

Neurological studies suggest that our appreciation and enjoyment of music is deeply dependent on mirror neurons.  When we watch or even just hear someone play an instrument, the neurons associated with the muscles required to play that instrument fire.  Mirror neurons are also highly predictive.  The emotionally resonant rise and fall of a melody, a repetition, a musical build, create expectations based on experience (schema, or sanskara), about where those actions are leading - expectations that will be confirmed or slightly redirected depending upon the composer or performer.  Too much confirmation, when something happens exactly as it did before, causes us to get bored and to tune out.  Little variations keep us alert, as well as serving to draw attention to musical moments that are critical to the narrative.

A research team at Montreal's McGill University 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 which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex (and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine).

Interestingly, this neurotransmitter is released not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what might be called the anticipation phase. The idea that reward is partly related to anticipation (or the prediction of a desired outcome) has a long history in neuroscience. After all, making good predictions about the outcome of one’s actions would seem to be essential in the context of survival.  And dopamine neurons, both in humans and other animals, play a role in recording which of our predictions turn out to be correct.

Another portion of the brain, the auditory cortex, is active when we merely imagine a tune, allowing us to experience music even when it’s physically absent, and to invent new compositions or to reimagine how a piece might sound with a different tempo or instrumentation.

These cortical circuits also allow us to make predictions about coming events on the basis of past events. They are thought to accumulate musical information over our lifetime, creating templates (again, schema, or sanskara) of the statistical regularities that are present in the music of our culture and enabling us to understand the music we hear in relation to our stored mental representations of the music we’ve heard before.

So each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future. When we listen to music, brain networks actively engage our stored schemata to create expectations of what happens next. Composers and performers intuitively understand this, and manipulate our schemata to give us what we want — or to surprise us, perhaps even with something better.

The "hooks" that often make listening to pop music so pleasing are created by the musicians inserting something interesting or unexpected (or both) into a song, momentarily confounding our schematic templates, but also leaving us wanting to hear it again, anticipating that rim shot or guitar riff or whatever, and listening with pleasure as dopamine is released in anticipation of the hook.  New templates are created, and we ourselves are altered, even if to a very subtle degree, by the experience.

Little wonder that we enjoy music. 

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