The Magic of music

The Magic of music

A comprehensive look at the rhyme, rhythm and love of the universal language

By Butch Warner 05/06/2010

If you believe in magic, come along with me
We’ll dance until morning ‘til there’s just you and me
And we’ll go dancing, baby, then you’ll see
How the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me

From “Do You Believe in Magic,” © 1965 John Sebastian


Many of us would agree with John Sebastian that there is something magical about music. The word music itself has a magical connotation, having been derived from the Greek word mousike, or “art of the Muses.” And although many scientists are hard pressed to find a good reason for its existence — does it have a purpose, or is it merely “ear candy” or “math for the ear?” — it’s been an important part of the human experience for tens of thousands of years.

Music picks us up when we are sad, excites people in times of crisis and bonds us together (Remember “We Are the World”?), even though listening to MP3 players or singing “Happy Birthday” does not seem necessary for continued existence or reproduction.

It was Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello or Miles Davis, or maybe even John Sebastian, who quipped that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” What is it about music – magic, maybe? – that makes it so inscrutably, deliciously fun to talk about yet almost impossible to pin down in any kind of meaningful way? Chris Pierce (, a Los Angeles musician who can often be heard and seen at Zoey’s, says, “Music is refuge. Music heals. Music is a miracle.”

Jim Bianco, a musician who plays at local venues, when asked about the magic of music in his life, replies, “That’s very similar to being asked ‘How has water been a part of your life?’ It just is. It has to be — simply because I have never known a single day without it.”  

Where does it come from? How did it get started? And what use is it, from a biological imperative perspective?

2Where did music originate?
Music has been a part of the human experience for a long time. A bone flute that could probably play a modern melody was unearthed from a site in France dating back at least 32,000 years.

There is evidence that music evolved from “motherese,” the singsong speech pattern that moms, dads and anyone who has ever tried to speak to a baby instinctively use to communicate with infants. This musical speech, using wide ranges of pitch and melody, is a part of every culture.

Some scientists conclude that music’s influence may be a random event, arising from its ability to “liberate” brain systems built for other purposes such as speech, feelings and muscle movement. Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker believes that music is “auditory cheesecake,” an empty-calorie treat that amuses the areas of the mind that evolved for more important functions. Consequently, music seems to offer an extraordinary system of communication rooted more in feeling rather than in content.

The universal language
The notion that music is the universal language is exemplified brilliantly in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the film, Earth scientists use a five-note musical phrase to communicate with aliens. The motif woven through the film (the five tones that the space ship plays back and forth with the humans) resembles “hello” in musical format. It isn’t even a real melody — it’s more like a phone ringing or a doorbell ringing – Ding, dong, ding, ding dong. But it communicates vividly what words cannot.

Could we reasonably expect that all humanoid beings would react in a similar way to music? Probably.

New scientific evidence shows that music brings out predictable responses across cultures and among people of widely varying musical or cognitive abilities. Music unfailingly conveys certain emotions. What we feel when we hear a piece of music is probably close to what others are experiencing.

Amazingly, music seems to affect some animals, too, lending further evidence to the notion of music as an intergalactic language. Some birds have a remarkable talent for dancing, two studies published in Current Biology suggest. YouTube videos showed, and researchers later confirmed, cockatoos with a near-perfect sense of rhythm, swaying their bodies, bobbing their heads and tapping their feet in time to a beat. The birds increased the speed of their dancing as the tempo increased, suggesting a sense of rhythm. One bird, Snowball, danced to “Everybody,” by the Backstreet Boys. Previously, it was thought that only humans could boogie.

2Music and savage breasts
William Congreve, in his 1697 play “The Mourning Bride,” wrote, “Musick hath Charms to soothe a savage Breast …. by Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.” Is this true?

Music activates the same reward systems that are stimulated by food, sex and addictive drugs. Like drugs, it’s a potent emotional force, with the ability to both soothe us and excite us. In fact, music therapy is a powerful tool in working with addicts and mental patients.

A schizophrenic patient in a psychiatric hospital, Gina, is withdrawn and isolates in her room most of the time. When she does emerge and speak to other patients, she usually ends up in a shouting match or sometimes a fistfight.

Only one activity seems to be of any interest to Gina, and only one thing calms her down: music therapy. On the days that music therapy is offered, she is in the therapist’s office, combing through CDs and the MP3s on his hard drive and asking if she can download songs she wants to hear. She favors music by groups like Ascend and Sunn 0))), underground ensembles that specialize in resonant, deep-throated guitar tones and feedback that go on forever. When the group begins, she is first on the list to play her song for the group, and she is eloquent in describing the feelings she experiences listening. “They are speaking to me personally, sending me hope and happiness, entreating me to liberate myself from the voices that want me to hurt myself.” Gina believes these groups are “mysterious and secretive; they only want certain people to know about their music.” Therapists who have worked with Gina believe that music therapy is the “single nonpharmaceutical intervention that is most effective in Gina’s case.”

Music and violence
Then there’s the other side of the coin: Who can forget Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), which was an American committee formed in 1985 by four women who tried to censor records that contained “explicit lyrics or content” in order to “take the element of surprise out of buying an album.” The PMRC claimed that rock music was somehow responsible “for the decay of the nuclear family in America.”

This is an argument that has raged from at least the beginning of rock ’n’ roll. Early TV shows in the ’50s showed Elvis Presley only from the waist up, in the belief that Elvis’ pelvis would somehow incite lewd behavior among teenagers. NWA’s song, “F___ the Police” was considered incendiary in the early ’90s, and Eminem’s latest work includes a little sardonic ditty about a man raping a stranded female called “Same Song and Dance,” which intones:

“Yeah baby, do that dance
It’s the last dance you’ll ever get the chance to do
Girl shake that ass
You ain’t ever gonna break that glass
The windshield’s too strong for you.”

It is true that music can excite and incite people — one has only to listen to a smattering of patriotic or military music to discern this — yet no study has shown definitively that rap, punk or hardcore music can change a person from a wimp to an assassin.

But it is possible that a mentally unbalanced person could take the lyrics of a violent song and run with them, either out of pathology or as an excuse for a crime. Remember Charlie Manson and the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter?”

Los Angeles musician Chris Pierce says of music and violence, “Music is war and sex, a good fight worth fighting and a feeling that can’t be matched by anything else.”

Perfect pitch and synesthesia

For many musicians, the Holy Grail is a trait called “perfect pitch” or “absolute pitch,” which is the ability to recognize a note name — for example, middle C — simply by listening to it. (Many musicians have the ability to recognize “relative” pitches, e.g., “if that is a C, then that must be a G.”) Perfect pitch, however, is rare. It appears to be developed most by those who began musical training before age 7. Studies also implicate a genetic predisposition to the development of absolute pitch, which, when coupled with an environmental stimulus such as early musical training, can give rise to the perceptual trait.

Related to perfect pitch is an extraordinary trait called synesthesia, where people see different, sometimes complex, hues and colors as they experience different notes, passages, sounds and key changes. They might, for example, see the note B played on a piano as “a deep fuchsia,” or the key of D flat as a “wondrous, pure persimmon.”

Synesthetes regularly report that they were oblivious to their talent until they realized other people did not have it.

Synesthetes, of course, do not experience their synesthetic perceptions as a handicap but as a gift. Synesthetes have used their gift in memorizing names and telephone numbers, mental arithmetic, but also in more complex creative activities like producing visual art, music and theater.

There is a long-running ad in music magazines that purports to teach ordinary musicians how to develop perfect pitch by associating notes with colors, but synesthesia probably cannot be taught.

Stuttering and singing
Carly Simon, a singer with several hits in the ’70s, began stuttering severely when she was 8 years old. A psychiatrist tried unsuccessfully to cure Simon’s stuttering. Instead, Simon turned to singing and songwriting. “I felt so strangulated talking that I did the natural thing, which is to write songs, because I could sing without stammering, as all stammerers can.”

As a child, country singer Mel Tillis was laughed at because he stuttered. He said to himself, “Well, if they’re gonna laugh at me, then I’ll give them something to laugh about.” So he incorporated his natural stutter into his stage banter. But he never stuttered when he sang, because music does not come from the same place in the brain as speech.

Tone deafness and amusia

While some people are tone deaf, most people who describe themselves as tone deaf simply lack a good singing voice, which is largely an accident of genes.

Although many people think they are musically impaired, almost all of us are musical to some degree. The ability to sing in tune is largely related to lucky genes and proper training.

But there is a condition called amusia, a musical disorder that appears mainly as a deficiency in processing pitch. It also encompasses musical memory and recognition. Two main classifications of amusia exist: congenital amusia, which results from a music processing anomaly at birth, and acquired amusia, which occurs as a result of brain damage.

Marcella is a true amusia victim. She has a normal psychiatric or neurological history, and she does not have any hearing loss. Brain scans have showen no abnormalities. Marcella is bright and ebullient; she has a great memory. But Marcella suffers from a lifelong incapacity to distinguish notes or “get” music – she hears piano music as unpleasant percussive clanging, and she does not enjoy listening to music.

Marcella doesn’t recognize familiar tunes, but she can instantly recognize her boyfriend’s or mother’s voice when either calls on the phone. It’s clear that her hearing is not to blame. The part of her brain that processes music is haywire.

She doesn’t hear pitch variation as normal people, and she doesn’t feel or understand the patterns that make music melodic and rhythmic.

Sigmund Freud claimed he didn’t like music because he did not wish to be “emotionally moved by something he didn’t understand rationally,” but he probably just suffered from amusia.

Amusia occurs in about 4 percent of the population, while the inability to sing in tune is much more common. Current research has demonstrated dissociations between rhythm, melody and emotional processing of music, and amusia may include impairment of any combination of these skill sets.

Music is more than ear candy
What makes music so hard to talk about in unambiguous language is the fact that we don’t understand everything about it yet. It is clear that music is more than “ear candy,” more than “math for the ear,” and much more that an amusing but useless human activity. As advances in neurology and brain scans develop, we will probably learn as much about the physics and physiology of music in the next 20 years as we have learned previously in all of recorded history.   

But will we ever learn what makes music work such magic in our lives? Probably not.

George (Butch) Warner ( is a musician and addiction/music therapist in Studio City and Pasadena. Special thanks to Polly from Zoey’s Café in Ventura.



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