By Joseph P. Farrell
I have to blog about this story shared by Mr. M.D., because it’s near and dear to my heart and mind: Music. I get questions quite often from people asking me something to the effect of “where did you learn to connect dots so well?” And it’s true, I do like connecting dots. Whether I do it well or not is for other people to decide, but I do know that I enjoy doing it. In any case, my answer is always along the lines that it was my musical training, especially the fact that it was on the organ, from age six, that did it. It is an instrument which, like playing drums, demands a high degree of mind-body coordination, feet, hands, everything, including working out the puzzles of how to finger and pedal through difficult passages. That’s half the fun.
But the other half is that it does do something to the brain, and hence, to the mind (and no, I do not equate the two). Music is, in effect, a soft form of mind control, even of wiring the “hard circuits” of the brain:
The first four paragraphs here say it all:
Music has charms to soothe the savage beast, so wrote the playwright-poet William Congreve. Science has shown that music can also heal and slow down the aging process. But new research has found one more reason to learn this universal language: Music can actually make you smarter.
Researchers from the University of Granada observed the neurological changes that occur due to prolonged musical training. The first-of-its-kind study showed that music helps people solve problems better. That’s because musicians enjoy higher neural connectivity than non-musicians, and therefore have an easier time with mental activities.
Scientists from the Mind, Brain and Behaviour Research Centre and the Department of History and Music Science studied 142 students in many music schools like the “Victoria Eugenia” Royal Conservatory of Music in Granada, the Conservatory of Music in Málaga, and the University of Granada’s Bachelor’s Degree in the History and Science of Music department. The students had formal music training for at least ten years, and learned to play an instrument in the process.
Participants underwent a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) along with several neuro-psychological, behavioral, and hearing tests. A laterality test determined if they were left or right-handed. Results showed that musicians have higher neural connectivity than non-musicians in the default mode network, the brain system which leads to more complex cognitive processes like making crucial decisions or figuring out daily problems.
I took some comfort from these revelations, because I’ve long suspected that the decline that is so evident in American education and general culture is do to a twofold source: (1) the decline and eventual elimination of music from some public schools’ curricula, and (2) the exposure of the general culture to a correspondingly “dumbed down” music: melody, propped up by chords, and an unrelenting jungle drum beat throbbing away in the background pounding lyrics of dubious artistic, and more often then not, of dubious moral merit into our heads. It’s not “multi-track” or “multi-dimensional”.
The ancients – Plato and Pythagoras come to mind – knew something that moderns have forgotten: music was not just a cultural phenomenon or expression, it was a cosmological one. There was an intricate, and intimate connection between the mind, music, and the structure of the cosmos itself evident from the intelligent contemplation of the numerical and mathematical relationships of the harmonic series. That cosmology was more or less abandoned in the eighteenth century for reasons we cannot get into here, but the result ever since has been a gradual decline to melody, chords, and jungle drum beat. One might go so far as to say that for the ancients, music was almost a kind of manipulation of the cosmos itself, through its affect on the mind, which for schools like Pythagoreanism or Platonism was the very stuff of the cosmos.
Which brings me to my point of the day: I often get asked by people, and particularly by the subscribing members of this website, what sort of things they can do to improve their children’s education and abilities. One answer, expose them to music; have them learn a “contrapuntal” instrument like a keyboard instrument, or lutes, guitars, and so on, where they not only have to coordinate their mind and body, but coordinate several independent lines of melody in a harmonious fashion. If you’re really fortunate, have them learn another kind of instrument as well. If you’re even still more fortunate, you might find a teacher who will expose them, after some study, to old musical theory classics like the Gradus ad Parnassum, where they will learn to manipulate several independent lines of music harmoniously, and from there, the mind learns to recognize patterns in and of multi-layered structures, not just in music, but parallel patterns across all human intellectual disciplines, and that’s where the real fun begins, because what is a culture, really, but the counterpoint of human minds? Lately, that has been increasingly dissonant, but only because we’ve lost the underlying discipline, and because we’re idolizing the mediocre, and can no longer function with harmonious complexity. To the one track mind, that complexity seems mere chaos.
There’s no reason that harmony cannot be restored to a great degree. But it will take study, exposure, and discipline in some forgotten traditions. Music is indeed a soft form of mind manipulation, but it is thankfully, a form of mind manipulation over which the individual has control.
About Joseph P. Farrell