How Music Can Make You Better
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How Music Can Make You Better

Indre Viskontas

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How Music Can Make You Better

Indre Viskontas

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How can certain songs carry us through a tough workout, comfort us after a breakup, or unite 50,000 diverse fans? In this fascinating field guide, neuroscientist and opera singer Indre Viskontas investigates what music is and how it can change us for the better—from deep in our neurons to across our entire society. Whether hip-hop fans, classically trained pianists, or vinyl collectors, readers will think about their favorite songs in a whole new way by the end of this book. This is a vibrant and smart gift for any audiophile.

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Repetition is the one feature of music that is almost universal, ubiquitous across cultures and genres, except in twentieth-century art music (“contemporary classical”), which explicitly avoids it. Which is why this “new music” can be very hard to listen to and why, when an orchestra programs too much of it in a season, they quickly hear complaints from their donors.
Why repetition? Because our brains are tuned to detect change, not constancy. When something repeats, we ignore it. But if it’s slightly varied, we keep listening because we detect something worth processing. We begin to find new meaning embedded in the sound itself. Repetition gives noise a recognizable structure. Variations in repetition create meaning. And sound + structure + meaning = music. Voilà!
Pattern repetition is how we learn the grammar of music, and that structure distinguishes music from random noise. Some structural elements are common across many types of music, like a move from dissonance (tension) to consonance (release). Others define specific genres, like the repeating bassline groove in most pop songs. But most pieces don’t settle for pure repetition. They include variations on themes, which keep our interest and reveal ever deeper layers of truth.
Equally important in the definition of music is the context in which we hear sound. Ever wonder why audiophiles spend more time and money setting up their home stereo than their bedroom? Where we hear music can influence how our brains respond to it.
In the concert hall, we sit still and listen carefully. On the subway platform, we pretend to ignore a busking musician, burying our heads in our phones. At the gym, we fill our ears with beats, tuning out the noise of elliptical machines and grunting weight lifters.
Even silence, in the right context, can be profoundly musical. The eminent experimental composer John Cage wrote a piece called 4®33˝ which can be “played” on any combination of instruments. All the performers need to do is not play their instruments for the duration of the piece. The music is in the sounds that the listeners hear while the players are not playing. John Cage considered it his most important work.
So if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound. Because sound is created by brains. Sure, the falling tree triggers compressions and rarefactions in the air, but those don’t become sound until our inner ears transduce that signal into the language of the brain. Until then, they are just moving molecules of air.
Silence can be music in the right context, but without a listener to interpret the noise, even the greatest symphony isn’t music.
Now you might not agree that 4®33˝ is actually music. Maybe your definition is more specific, including organized sound and the communication of an idea or emotion. And you’d be totally right, since it’s your own brain that’s creating and recognizing the music as such. Something special happens when our brains decide that what we’re hearing is musical.
That special something is still mysterious, but it likely has to do with the structure we recognize once we’re familiar with a certain type of music. We learn structure explicitly by studying music theory, or implicitly by listening. You don’t have to go to music school to get it.
“Country music is three chords and the truth,” said songwriter Harlan Howard in a Rolling Stone interview. Howard’s definition applies to just about any popular music yet leaves room for that je ne sais quoi that defines a genre and for the ideas that a specific piece communicates.
Howard also reminds us that structure isn’t enough to make music musical. Music also requires “the truth.” I once did a little experiment with a chamber music ensemble to highlight this idea. We played a piece strictly according to what was written on the page. When told to speed up, we did so metronomically. When told to play louder or softer, we did, again, with no true intention. It was a technically good performance, but there was no music made. We all felt a little icky afterward.
Musicality reveals a deep, dark secret of humanity: We are flawed creatures. When a performance is too perfect, it’s less human.
Ayanna Howard, an engineer who builds artificially intelligent robots, told me that when a robot is too perfect, people don’t trust it. One team was engineering a robot to lead people out of a burning hospital. The robot would use real-time information from the fire alarm system to know which corridors to use and which to avoid. But the first prototype had a flaw: The humans didn’t trust it.
So the engineers coded in a few errors—the robot would start in one direction, stop as if realizing it had made a mistake, apologize, and then take the correct route—people were much more likely to trust it, since making mistakes is a very human thing to do!
If musicians don’t push and pull at the tempo, vary the dynamics, or give us another sign that what they are expressing is human and intentional, we can’t relate to them and we don’t find the music, well, musical.
Music’s underlying structure isn’t strict. Instead, there are statistical regularities—probabilities of where the beats will fall, for example. We learn these probabilities without even knowing it, and they set up our expectations for what sounds will come next.
Then musicians build on those expectations, feeding us what we want and surprising us at the same time. Music we love rides this fine line between familiarity and novelty. Many jazz musicians, for example, delay the first beat in a bar and then accelerate to catch up. It’s what gives jazz its cool factor—and makes it feel very human. We even say that the performance has “soul.”
But music is a representation of life, not life itself. We’re generally aware that we’re listening to something that was created to give us an experience, rather than having an emotional reaction to something that actually happened to us. While music can elicit deep and authentic emotions, the musicians themselves don’t need to feel all those emotions in the moment. They just need to make the audience believe that they’re real.
It took me a long time as a performer to understand this. When I was a teenager participating in a singing competition, I received a piece of criticism I’ll never forget. The judges said that I wasn’t musical. I was deeply hurt because I had chosen pieces that I truly loved and understood. But somehow I had failed to show this to the judges.
I put that memory away for a long time and worked on my technique. Then I was cast as Beth in Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women. If you remember Louisa May Alcott’s book, you know Beth is the sister who dies. In the opera, she expires after a series of floating, quiet, high notes.
In rehearsals, I found the aria so moving that I couldn’t get through it without breaking down. But crying is not good when you’re trying to float a bunch of high notes. So I had to keep my emotions in check while remaining in character and making the music expressive.
I realized that by the time I’m in front of an audience, it doesn’t matter anymore whether I feel my character’s feelings. It only matters that the audience believes that my character is feeling those feelings.
That’s true of any music: By coming into the concert hall, the opera house, the bar, or any other venue, the audience tacitly signs an agreement. They do not expect a real rendering of an event. Who, after all, would choose to lose someone they love, or feel pain or desperation (the most common themes of pop songs) in public? But by listening to music, we can simultaneously contemplate the ideas or feel the feelings, while having a conversation about how the idea or feeling is being expressed. We know it’s fake to some degree, but we can appreciate how the musicians are communicating it.
In the midst of a breakup or some other loss, I can listen to Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” and enjoy not only the emotional catharsis, but also the brilliant way she’s captured a universal experience. I can nod along and say, yeah, that’s exactly what it’s like. And then I feel a bit better and less alone. Listening to music lets us work through our emotions in a safe environment and walk away if the feelings get too intense. It provides a lens through which we can examine our lives.


We are driven by the search for meaning. And ultimately music is meaningful sound that transcends speech. Whereas speech can be more specific—I can play the violin until I’m blue in the face but you still won’t bring home a carton of milk—music’s power is in the multiple ways we interpret it. Our brains are primed to search for meaning in chaos. We look for patterns and feel rewarded when we find them, even if they aren’t real—the sleeping giant in the mountainside, the man in the moon. And music is a treasure trove of hidden jewels.
Anyone who spends precious mental energy trying to solve a puzzle, for fun, understands the pleasure of discovering meaning. If an alien civilization might be baffled by our obsession with structured sound, just imagine how they would react to crossword puzzles or, worse still, a punning competition.
Yet finding multiple hidden meanings is pleasurable. Scientists Irving Biederman and Ed Vessel point out that we have more opioid receptors in parts of our cortex (where associations are made) compared with our primary sensory regions (where stimuli are initially processed). You need only to hear the term opioid epidemic to remind yourself that neurochemicals binding to opioid receptors make us feel good—drugs that mimic our brain’s own opioids are highly addictive. So activating more such receptors can give you greater pleasure.
For example, when you first look at a painting, your primary visual cortex notices edges and colors, but opioid receptors in this brain region are few and far between. Then, as the information travels farther into the brain, and the edges and colors turn into objects, more opioid receptors are activated. Finally, in the parts of the brain where those objects are associated with memories, identity, emotions, or culture, the density of opioid receptors is greater still.
But once you’ve made those associations, the experience becomes ingrained in your brain, and you don’t get the same rush. It’s the neural equivalent of “been there, done that,” as Biederman says. So we seek out novel experiences that are rich in interpretative potential: We are infovores.
Sometimes I listen to music in the background, just to keep my energy up. But my most profound experiences come when I’m paying close attention, searching and finding those hidden jewels. And when those discoveries help me understand an experience, like losing my dad, or meeting my son for the first time, in ways that mere words fall short of, I feel a kind of euphoria that defines, ...