The Science of Music

Visualization of music
Visualization of music (Image credit: Andrew Davidhazy, Rochester Institute of Technology)

This Research in Action article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

A single vibrating string can make a sound. But the many vibrating strings of instruments in an orchestra can make music. But is music simply a sound?

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie would have to disagree. Completely deaf, Glennie experiences music by feeling vibrations resonate throughout her body.

So what is music? We know that music can thrill us, sadden us or inspire us. We feel goosebumps rise on our skin as we listen to a favorite melody, and we are whisked back to old memories by hearing the opening bars of a song. Why does music affect us in such a way?

The National Science Foundation-funded documentary, The Music Instinct: Science and Song, which premiered in 2009, explores the answers to these questions. Experts in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, biology, physiology, physics and education worked alongside musicians to unravel the mysteries of music. The documentary spans from musicians explaining how melody and harmony are created, to musical intervals, to neuroscientists experimenting on how the brains of musicians interact when they play together.

The research aims to understand everything about music: it's basic structure; it's biological, emotional and psychological effect on humans and the brain; it's healing and altering potential; and its function in the evolutionary process. Why can a person relate to music without learning it first? Why does music evoke such an emotional response? How did music come to be?

By learning more about music, we can learn more about ourselves. Music helps scientists understand complex functions of the brain and opens up treatments for patients who are recovering from strokes or suffering with Parkinson's. Research even suggests that music may alter the structure of the brain.  

Visit the The Music Instinct: Science and Song Web site for more information, as well as blogs, videos, and interviews from the contributing musicians and researchers.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Research in Action archive.

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