The other night I attended a concert by the L.A. Philharmonic playing Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. The story of this piece of music reads like a 19th century version of a celebrity gossip magazine. Berlioz went to see Hamlet in Paris. The part of Ophelia was played by a 27 year old British actress, Harriet Smithson. Berlioz falls madly in love with young Harriet, but she is totally oblivious to him. He writes to her repeatedly, which nowadays would have qualified him for a restraining order. She ignores him, because she simply never heard of him. Finally, under the influence of opium, he writes an autobiographical symphony that tells of his mad love of her and his raging anger at her.

The closest thing to describing the music is a van Gogh painting, with its swirling clouds and bold colors. You can get the flavor from the names he gave to some parts: March to the Scaffold, Dream of the witches’ Sabbath. In the latter, the annotation by Michael Steinberg says, ”he sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful assembly of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, all coming together for his funeral.” He was obviously hallucinating when he wrote it, and the music reflects it: bizarre sounds, deep bells, squawking clarinets, beating of violins and violas with the wooden stick of the bow, violent alternations from pianissimo (extremely soft, barely audible) to explosive fortissimos (deafeningly loud). And this violent, hallucinatory music is one of the greatest symphonies ever written, in my opinion.

Every time I hear this piece it leaves me exhausted, not just mentally but even physically. I often wondered why. Why am I not drained by hearing “twinkle, twinkle little star”? a Federal judge I knew once told me that  he finds listening to a Wagner opera sexually arousing (I kid you not). Why does Wagner leave me cold, so to speak, and it arouses the passions of an otherwise “by the book” judge?

Music is Synonymous with Humanity

I am not the only one to wonder about music and the brain. Darwin was puzzled by the ubiquity of music across all cultural and geographical borders. Music apparently was “invented” by the ancient humans. A flute made of animal bone over 30,000 years ago was discovered in an archeological site in a cave in southern Germany (hohle fels). The flute was fashioned from the wing bone of a Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) and has five finger holes and a V-shaped mouthpiece. It is 0.3″ (8 mm) wide and was originally about 13″ (34 cm) long. The Hohle Fels Griffon Vulture flute dates back at least 35,000 years, possibly as old as 40,000 years.

Even before the flute, there is evidence of ancient drums that served as dance instruments.

Another piece of evidence that music is hard-wired in our brain is the singsong language mothers use to communicate with their babies. Such “motherese” is used by every culture on earth, even the most remote and isolated tribes in the South American jungles. And babies respond to music from the very first days of life. fMRI studies show that the brain areas that are activated by music in newborns are the same as the ones activated in adults.

Karen Schrock (Scientific American Mind, July/August) describes an experiment by cognitive psychologist Pam Heaton and her team of the University of London. They played music to both autistic and non-autistic children, comparing those with similar language skills, and asked the kids to match the music to a range complex emotions, such as triumph, contentment, anger, sadness, happiness. She found that autistic and typical children with similar verbal skills performed equally well, indicating that music reliably conveys feelings even in people whose ability to pick up emotion-laden social cues, such as facial expression or tone of voice, is severely compromised.

Music on the Brain

In his 1871 “The Descent of Man” Charles Darwin wrote that music “must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he [man] is endowed”. Since the advent of modern neuropsychology and neurobiology the veil of mystery is slowly being lifted.

fMRI studies show that, unsurprisingly, music shares the same areas of activation as language. After all, both require ability to detect sounds, hence the involvement of the auditory cortex. This area is known to process musical elements such as pitch and volume. The neighboring secondary auditory areas process more complex musical patterns such as harmony and rhythm.  is also involved in the areas of understanding and producing language (Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area) which are located on the surface of the brain, behind and above the left ear, except that music occupies the equivalent area  in the right hemisphere. Upbeat music  activates the motor area of the brain, which controls movement, and other areas of the brain that control systems needed for high- energy movement, such as the cardiovascular and respiratorysystems. This is probably the explanation for the recent observation that athletic performance is markedly improved when listening to hip-hop or rock music. And finally, we can’t forget the amygdale-the seat of emotional processing. Its activation accounts for the feeling of joy, or sadness, or romantic yearning that music can evoke.

So why do I feel emotionally drained after listening to Symphonie Fantastique? And that judge who gets sexually aroused? And teeny boppers who bawl when they hear the beatles? Daniel Levitin, in his wonderful book “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsessionwrites:

“Music, then, can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds. Just how this structure leads us to experience emotional reactions is part of the mystery of music.”

Thankfully, we haven’t shed the harsh light of science on the mystery of music yet. We are still at the stage of romantic darkness, let the cold light of the morning-after tarry a bit.

P.S. In case you are curious what happened to Berlioz and his beloved? after several years of ardent courting she finally uttered the fateful words “je t’aime, Berlioz”, and they got married. Her French was like his English -nonexistent. The marriage lasted 11 years, which was 11 years too long. They fought from day one, her acting career deteriorated rapidly, she lapsed into alcoholism, got fat and ugly, and left him. She died 10 years later. The incurable romantic wrote two elegiac pieces mourning her.



Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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