Music, Neuroscience, and Evolution, Part 2

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January 15, 2012 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul

Today's entry was written by Jeff R. Warren. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Music, Neuroscience, and Evolution, Part 2

How is music meaningful? Where does that meaning reside? In Part 1 of this series, Jeff Warren began to address these questions by looking at the popular but seemingly-opposite ideas that A) musical meaning is entirely relative and dependent on the individual listener’s taste, and B) the meaning of music can be universal. Here in part 2, Warren turns to a recent trend of attempting explain music via neuroscience.


Don Campbell’s 1997 book The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit helped popularize the notion that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. This notion appears to have emerged from a 1993 study that showed listening to Mozart provides a temporary rise in abstract spatial reasoning,1 but the notion caught public attention through the exaggeration of its results in the mass media and eventually even influenced state spending. In 1998, American governor Zell Miller proposed that the state of Georgia purchase an album of classical music for every newborn in Georgia, stating that “no one questions that listening to music at a very early age affects the spatial, temporal reasoning that underlies math and engineering and even chess.”2

More recently, albums featuring instrumental Mozart compositions and other pieces of common instrumental music have been marketed to parents who wish to encourage the intellectual development of their children, and ‘edu-toy’ lines like ‘Baby Mozart’ and ‘Baby Genius’ have now been joined by a “Mozart effect” iPhone app. While Rauscher’s original 1993 study did not set out to show that Mozart was the ‘smartest’ of all composers (as there was no control group that tested listening to Beethoven or Metallica), or that music listening created lasting developmental effects (they only found short term rises in abstract reasoning), or that music was better for intellectual development than reading or another activity (the control group did nothing, while the test group listened to Mozart), all of these concepts became attached to the study. In fact, later studies show that reading and other activities provide a similar temporary rise in abstract reasoning.3 What is compelling about this case is that it caught public attention through very little evidence or argument, suggesting that the general public was already predisposed towards this sort of conception of Mozart. The study seemed to provide much desired (and much trusted) scientific evidence that confirmed the beliefs of those who already had a leaning towards the ‘great works’ view of the world argued for by Allan Bloom and others. In short, the Mozart effect was found compelling by a wide audience because it resonated with already held values about music.

While neuroscience has debunked some popular views like the Mozart effect, the neuroscience of music has also perpetuated some problematic myths. In 2006, McGill University neuroscientist and former music industry worker Daniel J. Levitin published This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. In this book Levitin likewise looks to studies that are not scientifically conclusive to find confirmation of his own pre-existing assumptions about musical meaning and value. A typical chapter takes the following form: an introduction of the conclusions he is moving towards backed up with anecdotes about a popular musician he has worked with or met who shares his view; a discussion of how the scientific investigations cited dispel some older conceptions of music (like the ‘Mozart Effect’); an acknowledgement of the complex and inconclusive relationships between the neuroscience of music and culture; and, finally, a restatement of conclusions that are drawn more from his own conception of musical taste and experience than the science he has just explained. While my summary here is rather crude (and additional informal critique of this work can be found here), it reiterates the point that it is often not good science that makes an idea a bestseller, but rather science that conforms the already held beliefs of a purchasing public.

Another example is a TED talk given by Charles Limb on neuroscience and musical improvisation. Limb’s research is given more public credence than much other work on improvisation, in no small part because it involves some of the flagship technology of neuroscience: Limb did fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans on musicians while asking them to improvise. There are two significant troubles with Limb’s work, however: his experiments involve musicians improvising in an unrealistic setting (having to lie completely still in an fMRI scanner with the exception of the one hand with which they improvised on a five note piano in response to a horrid backing track), and his conclusions – like Levitin’s – are informed not just by his research but by his cultural assumptions of what improvisation is.

I’ve purposely looked at these last two instances of research into the neuroscience of music because they have gained wide attention and become popularized, pointing to how this area of study is subject to both ‘trickle down’ and ‘seep up’ effects. Supposed insights from research by specialists and philosophers often find their way into popular practice, becoming part of the general knowledge of the public. This is the ‘trickle down’ effect. The ‘seep up’ dynamic is found when popular or general conceptions of the way things are form the predispositions by which would-be specialists learn to experience the world. (Think of the way science fiction has suggested directions for technological development.) Specialists cannot help but be influenced to some extent by their “non-scientific” ways of seeing the world, with the result being that their studies often draw on such assumptions to frame the goals of their work or to fill in the cracks their research does not cover. Neuroscience is an important area of research, but my argument here is that it must be in dialogue with other disciplines and not be regarded as a ‘magic bullet’ for complex cultural phenomenon like music.

Far more helpful than either of the above studies is Eric Clarke’s book Ways of Listening, a psychological take on music that resists what he calls an “‘information processing’ approach to perception.” In Clarke’s view, an information processing approach maintains that “structure is not in the environment: it is imposed on an unordered or highly complex world by perceivers.” 4 In other words, raw aural stimuli are received by the sense organs, and then the sound object is represented and organised by the brain. Clarke – an Oxford scholar trained as a psychologist and musicologist – offers an ecological theory of listening that examines organisms listening in their environment. He argues that “we all have the potential to hear different things in the same music – but the fact that we don’t (or at least not all the time) is an indication of the degree to which we share a common environment, and experience common perceptual learning or adaptation”.5 This runs contrary to at least the popularized versions of the neuroscience of music -- which attempt to unlock a singular biofunctional “key” to understanding music -- and moves us back toward the essential idea that music, for all its neurological components, is also a cultural phenomenon that must be examined in terms of human relationships.

So far, we’ve looked at the shortcomings of several “scientific” ways of thinking about music, and stressed that music is not just something beautiful to enjoy as isolated individuals, or as a “universal” language. Neither should we give much credence to the contemporary view that music is a commodity that can be stockpiled to build our personal identities, even though our musical preferences seem to have great power to shape our thinking—even about the neuroscience of music itself. Next week, we’ll turn to recent work that explores the specific relational dynamics that occur when we share music with other people. But, in the meantime, consider these questions: If music is indeed a ‘gift from God’ built into our biological potential, then what is that gift for? And what does that tell us not just about human nature, but about the God whose presence we reflect into the world?


1. Rauscher, Frances H., Gordon L. Shaw & Katherine N. Ky, 'Music and Spatial Task Performance', Nature Vol. 365 (October 14,1993): 611.
2. “Mozart for Georgia Newborns.” Science Vol. 30 (January 1998): 663.
3. Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Dutton: New York, N.Y., 1998).
4. Clarke, Eric. Ways of Listening : An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning (Oxford: New York, 2005): 11-12.
5. Ibid.: 191.

Jeff R. Warren is Assistant Professor of Music at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He has presented and published internationally on musical improvisation, meaning in music, soundscape, modern European philosophy, psychology, and ethics. Jeff’s creative work includes jazz composition, performance on double bass, and sound installations. Jeff received his doctorate in music and philosophy from Royal Holloway, University of London.

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HornSpiel - #67141

January 15th 2012

I take this post to heart since I am a musician. I was practicing the Weber Concertino for Horn just before seeing this post and I was actually wondering why it is I love playing so much. I know my skills are appreciated when I play at church or with other Christian music groups. But there is also a certain joy I get as I master a passage or technique that allows me to be more expressive through the music. People have actually come up and told me they can see me worship as I play, which is kind of nice.

So I’d like to reflect on the questions posed above:

Why the gift of music?
From an anthropological point of view music is ubiquitous in human society. I should think that many of the observed functions of music are good and what God intended.

  • Of course it is put to use by God for his purposes, so there is music  in Jewish (and Christian) worship from the very beginning
  • Music is effective not only for worship, but for evangelism. Songs help a message touch the heart.
  • A signalling function we might call fanfare, such as the blowing of the shofar at Yom Kippur.
  • Songs express emotions in a way that is often healing or calming.
  • Rhythmic songs/music help with repetitive work and exercise
  • Dance sometimes brings a kind of ecstasy and group solidarity
  • Certainly music is often involved in bonding and courtship.
  • A military function in marches, which might include promoting courage and self sacrifice.
I find it particularly interesting that brain scientists can observe changes in musicians brains [Music drives brain plasticity ]] So ap.parently we are wired for music and it is wise to exercise that aspect of our nature.

What does that tell us about God’s nature?
  • Sing a new song to the Lord! Apparently He like creativity and wants us to exercise it.
  • I love Zephaniah 3:17 which says God “will rejoice over you with singing.”

A comment
Curious that Limb’s (not Lamb’s) work is it is promoted through a TED
talk even though he says this is preliminary study so it is probably
wrong, and admits he is breaking a cardinal rule of science showing raw
data from just one subject. But it is an entertaining presentation. I
guess the “harm” would come by solidifying societal preconceptions, for
both the researchers and the public, that might make real insight more
difficult. Still is that so bad?


Jon Garvey - #67194

January 17th 2012

Don’t you think, Merv, that music is an area par excellence where reductionism is most in danger of missing the essence of the thing itself? As a working musician it’s obviously good to know what’s happening and why, but when you think about it, to examine what music “does” neurologically is a bit like investigating what a good meal out is in nutritional terms. In the latter case you miss out considering the company, the ambience, the special occasion, the personal service, the actor you recognised at the next table etc.

In music, there are huge variables of that kind, plus the fact that it is often linked with dance, with action (eg opera) - and, of course, with language - which is why sung music is, and always has been, the most prevalent form. As any musician knows, much of the effect of music is in what is left out, slight asymmetries of rhythmic, melodic or harmonic patterns, and not just the overall form. Added to that, of course, is the human chemistry of a live performance, where quite a pedestrian piece can suddenly become a communal emotional event.

It’s wonderful, and a prime example of something that is actually more than the sum of all the parts - which is why, I guess, it’s one of the commonest metaphors for the whole of creation, from the music of the spheres to the Lord of the Dance.

beaglelady - #67257

January 19th 2012

Good post HornSpiel!

Certainly music is at the same time a trait that evolved and a gift from God. Among other things, music functions as a “social glue.”  I’ll have to dig up my favorite article on the evolution of music for you some time.

Have you ever read “Musicophilia” by the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks?  It was fascinating! You must read it; you would love it!  I got to hear him speak at the American Museum of Natural History once.  He describes himself as a “Jewish Atheist” but when I walked into the lecture room he had Bach’s b Minor Mass playing!  So I knew I was in for quite an interesting evening. He has a deep knowledge and love for good music.

From listening to him, I was convinced that he is a kind and gentle person who cares deeply for his patients.

HornSpiel - #67261

January 19th 2012

No I have not read his book but I have heard him speak on TTBOOK. Turns out the reference I was thinking of when I wrote the previous post, comes from this interview with him about that book:

He says that there is an enlargement of grey matter in the brains of professional musicians that is sometimes visible to the naked eye. Such that though you can’t see any difference in the brain of a mathematician or a visual artist, you can look at a brain and say that it likely belongs to a musician. Also that intensive musical training often creates visible differences in the brain. (5:12-6:30)

If you have not listened to this interview I am sure you would enjoy it.

I certainly have no idea what it means in terms of evolutionary advantage though. Maybe God just likes music so much that he popped it into the brain of his most special creation

beaglelady - #67268

January 20th 2012

I certainly have no idea what it means in terms of evolutionary advantage though.

Music acts as a social glue
It aids in memory
It helps share community values
It helps synchronize work (marching, rowing)
It alleviates boredom (spinning songs, etc.)
It gives hope to the downtrodden (Negro spirituals)
It encodes secret messages in seemingly innocent songs (Steal Away to Jesus)

Music affects animals also.  I have seen horses spontaneously start prancing in parades.   Cowboys sang on cattle drives to soothe their livestock, making them less likely to spook and stampede.  

Here’s a great article that originally appeared in Natural History Magazine:

beaglelady - #67272

January 20th 2012

Just wanted to add that it is interesting that the greatest piece of music ever written by anyone, anywhere  is arguably Bach’s St Matthew Passion.  On every piece of music Bach wrote, sacred or secular, he wrote Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God alone)

Jon Garvey - #67279

January 20th 2012

+1 to that. I’ve heard it said that Bach understood what Luther meant better than anyone before or since.

beaglelady - #67314

January 21st 2012

Bach certainly knew his stuff, and he had to take a tough theology exam for his post at Leipzig.  btw, since you are an admirer of Kepler, have you heard of the opera about him by Phillip Glass?

Jon Garvey - #67325

January 22nd 2012

No - I’ll check it out. I admit to opera’s being a cultural blind-spot for me (Country and Western being another!). Strangely enough my favourite opera is Steve Reich’s “Nixon in China”, which isn’t quite same subject as Kepler…

KevinR - #67149

January 16th 2012

The question that needs to be asked is:


human beings evolve such that they now possess musical ability? Where are the musical ancestors?

Jon Garvey - #67245

January 19th 2012

Now that’s an easy one to answer:

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