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Mindful : December 2014
Just a few notes of an old favorite song can make us crank up the volume, dance like there’s nobody watching, and take us back in time. Sharon Begley explains why music has the power to enable the recall of incredibly vivid memories from the corners of our mind. Sharon Begley is the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip... You probably don’t care that I can remember every word a nd note of the Gilligan’s Island theme song, and you definitely don’t want to hea r me sing it. But maybe you’re curious why you, too, ca n remember ma ny more song lyrics than passages of prose, and even more melodies, and why meaningless sounds arranged in meaningless patterns have the power to calm, energize, frighten, inspire, cheer, or depress you, and sometimes move you to tears. What is it about Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings that evokes pathos so reliably that it was played at the a nnouncements of the deaths of FDR and JFK and at the funeral of Albert Einstein, among ma ny others? The roots of that raw emo- tional power are sunk deep within the brain, which seems to come pre-wired for music. Long before babies have any sig nificant experience with music, they can detect changes in pitch, tempo, and melodic contour. They can even recognize a tune when it’s played in a different pitch or tempo. According to psychologist Sa ndra Trehub of the University of Toronto, infants also seem to have an innate preference for sounds, such as perfect fourths and fifths, that we label conso- nant, but recoil from disso - nant sounds. This apparent innateness would suggest that musical understanding has ancient evolutiona ry roots, and indeed the oldest known instruments—sophisticated flutes made of vulture bones and mammoth ivory found in a cave in Germany—date to 42,000 years ago. Surely our ancestors must have made music, with simpler instru- ments and their own voices, much ea rlier. This long evolutiona r y heritage has car ved out neural systems dedicated solely to music: circuits that process and respond to music seem to be specialized for that and → Why Music Strikes a Chord 20 mindful December 2014 Illustration by Sébastien Thibault science