Does the human brain respond to certain note progressions in music?
June 26, 2008 9:00 AM   Subscribe

Is there a physiological response to certain phrases in music?

I read an article a few years ago in the New Yorker that I can't find now. A portion of the article said that there are theories that say people have a physiological response to certain music. In particular it talked about "Ave Maria" and the "Santa, Mariiiiiiia" part toward the end where the vocals jump from a low note to a very high note. The article claimed that this triggers an emotional response in most listeners that is actually because of some common reaction in the human brain.

Does anyone remember this article? Have you read other articles that talk about this response?

Thanks for any help.
posted by slo to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Article seems familiar to me, but I can't place it. I might be thinking of Radio Lab's excellent show on the power of music, including a revisiting of the "Rite of Spring" riot.
posted by producerpod at 9:17 AM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I did not read that article. The biological brain/music connection that I am familiar with is the saccule [wikipedia, small article]. From the article:
A team led by psychologist Neil Todd, an expert in music perception, has discovered that the sacculus, an organ forming part of the balance-regulating vestibular system in our inner ear, is tuned in to respond to sound frequencies that predominate in music--despite the fact that the sacculus is not thought to have any hearing function. Even more curious, says Todd, our saccular frequency sensitivity appears to mimic that of fish--the only type of creature known to use its sacculus for hearing. "This primitive hearing mechanism from our vertebrate ancestors appears to have been conserved as a vestigial sense in humans," says Todd.
posted by jessamyn at 9:17 AM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not a direct answer to your question by Oliver Sach's "Musicophilia" is a good background reading on the subject.

This previous thread on music and emotion might give you some useful pointers.
posted by rongorongo at 9:28 AM on June 26, 2008

If you're interested in these kinds of questions, you should have a look at this book.
posted by fake at 9:28 AM on June 26, 2008

Could it be this Sacks article in the New Yorker (not online)?

(NYRB has a review of Sacks' book, as well.)
posted by grobstein at 10:05 AM on June 26, 2008

Here's something that may be worth checking out: Devil's Chord

Especially check out the 'Historical Uses' section.
posted by AltReality at 10:52 AM on June 26, 2008

Check out This is Your Brain on Music.
posted by rocket88 at 11:20 AM on June 26, 2008

Thanks everyone - while it might not be exactly what I was looking for this is all great information.

Grobstein: I saw that one when I was searching - the only reason I know that's not it is that I know it was longer than a year ago when I read it. It was more like three years ago. But thanks for trying. I'll check out the Sacks book too.

AltReality: that's a great link. I love the Notable Occurances, especially the "Charmed" example. I guess I never gave that show enough credit.
posted by slo at 11:47 AM on June 26, 2008

One term you might want to look for is 'psycho acoustics' (or psycho-acoustics).
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:53 PM on June 26, 2008

Reminds me of this story on NPR, although I found the earnest folkiness of the song grating, there was some interesting discussion of the 'universal appeal' of the chord progression.
posted by mattholomew at 2:23 PM on June 26, 2008

I have to second prodcerpod's recommendation for the Radiolab episode on the subject.
posted by nowonmai at 2:48 PM on June 26, 2008

That would make sense; I've read that Paul McCartney was a master at the long intervals, sometimes jumping an octave at once ("Take a sad song and make it better"; "I can wait another day..." ("No More Lonely Nights"). John Lennon OTOH, tended to stay close to the same note and rely more on chord progressions ("The Ballad of John and Yoko", "Come Together").
posted by adverb at 6:56 AM on June 27, 2008

Finally got to listen to the Radiolab Episode - that's terrific. Thanks!
posted by slo at 12:23 PM on June 28, 2008

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