Music and why we love it

Posted on September 2, 2009

Hearts and minds
Guy Dammann

A new collaboration between scientists and the Nash Ensemble hopes to shed light on how our brains respond to music, and why we love it.

Birds whistle, man alone sings, and one cannot hear either a song or an instrumental piece without immediately saying to oneself: another sensitive being is present.” The author of this sentence, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, remains best known for his political and moral philosophy that later inspired a revolution. But his thoughts on music were just as prescient of an aesthetic revolution that would lead to music being raised from the lowly place it occupied during his lifetime – that of poetry’s “handmaiden” – to the position it took during the 19th century, as the highest, most noble, most humane of the fine arts.

Rousseau was preoccupied with the encroaching materialism of his age, which sought, as he saw it, to diminish human beings to the status of slavish automatons. He wanted to show that music could not be reduced to a mere play of the senses, but rather that its power derived from the way it could answer and reflect the unbounded desire which measures man’s difference from his animal ancestors. But his great adversary, the composer and theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau, had already demonstrated that our innate attraction was a simple matter of physics. Hailed as the “Newton of music”, Rameau managed to bypass millennia of Pythagorean number-crunching with proof that the rudiments of the western harmonic system could be found resonating as upper partials – harmonic overtones – in a vibrating body. The power of music, argued Rameau, comes from the resonance between the instruments we hear and the naturally formed “instruments” of our bodies.

Modern science, unsurprisingly, comes down squarely on Rameau’s side, finding that our seemingly innate sense of musical harmony – as well as our awareness of pulse and rhythm – provides an important reason why we find pleasure in the apparently purposeless activity of playing and listening to music.

This was one of the findings from a recent collaboration between the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development and the Nash Ensemble, a London-based chamber group. In a programme planned as a residency during which musicians and scientists could exchange and deepen ideas, delegates were treated to a series of concerts and lectures under the rubric “Great music and why we love it”.

Read the full article on the New Statesman website at