Sunday, January 14, 2007

No Parades Without a Marching Band

The way we process sound is fundamental to the attraction and appreciation of music. Human society has long understood the power of sound. From early drumming rhythms, beaten out on fallen logs with bones by our earliest ancestors, to complex orchestral soundscapes, sound is an integral part of the human experience.

The study of psychoacoustics takes a look at what's involved in this complicated, physiological and emotional process. As Dr. Alfred Tomatis, a (controversial) pioneer in the field, observed: Sound " a nutrient for the nervous system." Specifically, it would seem, for the Limbic System - the origin and conduit of emotions in the brain that also (quite logically) is charged with attaching meaning and weight to symbols.

Academics tell us that qualities of sound, and music by default, like vibration, resonance and rhythm make the experience "sticky". That is to say, sound is easily attached to emotions, memories, people, and through clever advertising to brands -strengthening the connections, anchoring the attendant symbols and finally, ascribing sentiment to the experience. That's why there's never a parade without a marching band, never a commercial without carefully selected musical accompaniment.

Music has been long thought to have therapeutic value. Recent research reveals that people who regularly listen to music for several hours a day live longer, healthier lives than those who do not make music a regular part of their daily routine. Researchers have also long pursued the notion that music enhances learning by "ordering" the mind and fine-tuning focus. A study I discovered on the Net suggested that college students who were presented with a ten-minute Mozart piece before testing did a consistently better job on the tests than those who were not exposed to the music. Though research like this is still controversial, it makes sense to me.

It is also clear that music has had a central role in religion and spirituality from the dawn of human life. Hindu texts suggest that all life emerges from harmonic vibration, and chanting mantras is an important part of the religion's practice. Music-enhanced trance is a well-known spiritual technique. Especially when paired with dance, as in the case of Sufi Dervishes. Music can elicit bliss and enhance happiness; but it can also serve as a call-to-arms, a patriotic anthem - warning enemies and mobilizing partisans. Powerful roles for powerful tunes.

Perhaps that's why so many, myself included, have a life-long fascination with sound and music. When I look back at my own musical development, I recognize two germinal experiences. The first, as a choir-boy, was singing Latin hymns and anthems at Christmas, like "The Gloria," and the second was the release by Led Zeppelin of Stairway to Heaven - and the effect that had on my understanding of just what music was capable of doing. I'm pleased to say that, since that time, I've continued my own musical explorations - as I think is pretty clear from previous posts. There is so much good music out there that I still need to check out. And when I do, you'll be the first to know.

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