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Posted: October 9, 2009 12:00 a.m.

Ask the Doc: The power of music

Humans, it seems, are universally attracted to music. It soothes us when we are sad, energizes us in happier times and bonds us to others. According to Steven Pinker in his 1997 book "How the Mind Works," music is "auditory cheesecake," a sweet delicacy for the mind that evolved for more important functions. As a result of providence, however, music appears to offer a novel system of communication that is grounded in emotion rather than meaning. Studies have shown that music reliably conveys certain sentiments. What we feel when we hear a piece of music is pretty much the same for everyone else in the room.

Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks stated in his 2007 book, "Musicophilia," "Certainly music seems to be the most direct form of emotional communication.... It seems to be as important a part of human life and communication as language and gesture." Musical rhythms may have even assisted certain physical interactions, such as marching or dancing together, further strengthening cultural bonds. On an individual level, melodies may serve to help manipulate mood and human physiology more effectively than words can, such as to excite, energize, calm or promote physical fitness.

Although music is processed by our brain's auditory processing centers, the ones that process words and language, it also involves the brain's emotional processing centers. This appears to transcend culture. Tom Fritz of the Max Planck Institute and his colleagues recently exposed members of a Cameroon ethnic group, the Mafa, to classical piano excerpts. They had never heard Western music before but consistently identified the excerpts as happy, sad or scary, just as Western listeners would.

Music also appears to transcend more fundamental communication barriers. Pam Heaton of Goldsmith's, University of London, played music for a group of both autistic and nonautistic children. Even with more complex emotions such as triumph, contentment and anger, the children's ability to recognize these feelings was the same for both groups. This research suggests that music can reliably convey feelings to individuals who characteristically have difficulty responding to emotion-laden cues such as those found in facial expressions and tone of voice.

In most cultures, music is frequently a communal event. People get together to sing, dance and play musical instruments. In Western societies, we tend to separate musical performers from listeners, but Westerners enjoy music in a wide variety of settings: dancing at a wedding or nightclub, signing hymns in church, crooning with their children, Christmas caroling and singing "Happy Birthday." The prevalence of these rituals suggests that music confers social bonding, perhaps by creating emotional connections between members of the group. It also suggests that music may not be as frivolous as many believe.

Scientists remain unclear about the origins of music. Some postulate it is not a primary cognitive skill, but a secondary neurological process that borrows from more fundamental neurocognitive tasks, such as those developed for language, auditory perception, emotion and pattern recognition. Others speculate it developed as a primary system of communication. No matter its origins in human development, music is a powerful and often mysterious creation of human nature. As Dr. Sacks suggests, "It is a way of connecting one consciousness to another. I think the nearest thing to telepathy is making music together."

C. Kirven Weekley, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with offices in Covington and Norcross. He specializes in the evaluation and treatment of adults for depression, anxiety, relationship problems and medical issues. He can be reached at (770) 441-9244.

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