Music, Neuroscience, and Evolution, Part 2

| By Jeff R. Warren

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.


About the Author

Jeff R. Warren

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.