The brain processes music as language. As I wrote in an earlier blog, “Music…speaks directly to your emotions. Because each individual note or harmony isn’t an understandable word, your brain never sends it through its language processors, so music bypasses almost every cultural or linguistic barrier we have and can be understood emotionally by everyone.” It’s also been shown through research that music helps organize movement patters. For instance, patients with Parkinson’s disorder become much more coordinated when they’re listening to music.
I also have a hypothesis that music organizes thought patterns. I remember playing Boggle – a word-search game – with a couple friends my first-year at Macalester. I was tired, and I wasn’t doing so well. Oh a whim – and because I didn’t really care anymore – I put an earbud in my ear and turned on Night Visions, Imagine Dragon’s first album, headlined by “Radioactive.” (If you don’t know Imagine Dragons, you’ve still probably heard about “Radioactive;” they still play it on the radio.) As soon as I started listening to music, my ability to find words improved almost exponentially. I went from finding 4 to 6 words in a minute (which is quite terrible) to finding close to 20 (which is about average for seasoned Bogglers). Later my first-year, I started listening to instrumental music while I was studying late at night to help me concentrate. Now, I almost always work with instrumental music in my ear; writing especially is easier with music.
I’ve heard similar stories from my friends. Some study with just instrumental music. Some can’t write without music. Some never do anything without listening to music. (Full disclosure: I’ve always been really interested in music, and that may influence my unconscious choice in friends. I’ve noticed that almost all of them have some music background/listen to music often.) From personal experience, I can say that reading or writing while listening to music with lyrics is quite difficult.
Neuroscientifically, this makes perfect sense. Broca and Wernicke’s areas (the areas of the brain used to process spoken and written language) only have a limited processing power. They function as gateways in other words. (For instance, it’s almost impossible to truly have two conversations at once.) From experience, I know that my brain sometimes has a difficult time filtering out unnecessary words, and it’s almost impossible for me to write if someone is having a conversation next to me. Others, I’ve learned, are much better at filtering this information.
Music has rhythm to it, and people have been dancing to these rhythms for millennia. Spoken words also have rhythm to them, but it’s not quite the same. (This is all shocking; I know.) I had never fully realized before today that one could actually dance to the rhythm of spoken words. It makes perfect sense, but I had never tried it before. The experience is…different. You can’t count out the beats in your head because that’s not the rhythm the speaker is using. You can’t sink into the flow of the melodies/harmonies either. Instead, you have to let the speaker’s tone guide you. You have to match your dynamics to their pitch changes and hope they know enough to modulate their pitch correctly while speaking on-stage. In a sense, it’s harder than dancing without any music at all. When you don’t have any music, you can dance to your own inner rhythm. When you’re listening to someone’s voice, you have match theirs and hope they lead you to the right place.