Music and the Narrative Brain

Movies and operas are not the only narratives scored with music today. As it becomes increasingly rare to spot commuters free of earbuds in subway cars or on the street, it is clear that music is becoming incidental to nearly every scene in our own daily narratives.

I recently rediscovered the soundtrack of a video game that I played extensively as a child. The songs transported me to feelings so foreign to me over a decade later that it took me several days of listening to begin to understand and relate to my eight-year-old self. Some of the feelings I still don’t understand after months of periodically revisiting the music. This brought on more music-assisted reminiscence of times spanning from the mid-90s to the summer of 2012.

What was so striking to me during this exercise was that the songs evoked such a visceral and involuntary reaction. In the same way that one might hear a song carry on in one’s mind even after the sound has ceased, it seems like I had developed a Pavlovian response to these songs in relation to my own past. However, by reviving this neural circuitry in the context of a brain very different from my brain at eight, the music also seems to have taken on a transformative role. Outside of their natural context of my everyday life, these feelings are more myth than memory, the music elevating them from events to narrative. The music forces the recall, the reexamination, the recontextualization of an abstraction. To me it smacks of the activity one must undergo to write a story about an event or person that may now only be a shade.

What gives music this strange power to develop narrative? Is there something narrative in the nature of music, or is there a special state that the brain must be in to create that sense of narrative? Perhaps a certain chemistry is required that can only be brought on by duress or joy. Dan Levitin, a neuroscientist and musician, in his book This Is Your Brain On Music has documented how individuals and cultures make use of music in ways similar to drugs, inducing various chemical states in the brain.  Meanwhile Josef Rauschecker, another neuroscientist, found that the portions of the brain associated with motor function are also associated with the memorization and recall of music—a sort of musical muscle memory.

I am no neuroscientist, but perhaps whatever phenomenon I’m pursuing lies at the intersection of these findings. Aaron Copland recognized the growing importance of music in the film industry by adding a chapter to his revised edition of What to Listen For in Music. He would surely relish our position today, when narrative and music are expanding into continuously evolving and increasingly accessible forms of media, and we are better poised than ever before to understand how they act on us.

10 thoughts on “Music and the Narrative Brain

    1. Dylan Bargteil

      Hi David,

      I’m not sure exactly what you’re finding unintelligible, but regarding the two quotes you picked out:

      By “more myth than memory” I simply meant that the feelings felt familiar, yet like they had happened to someone else. Sort as if they belonged to a story I had been told rather than an experience I had been a part of.

      By “recontextualization of an abstraction” I meant that as a common cognitive process we take some singular experience and derive an idea from it. This idea is an abstraction from the concrete details of that experience. The abstraction is in some sense more portable than the experience itself, and can be applied to other experiences with other contexts. A simple example would be burning your hand on a radiator. Subsequently we learn to watch out for hot things, and don’t need to go about burning ourselves on every possible thing to learn to not to touch fire, boiling water, etc. I think an important part of the writing process for many writers it taking some idea or emotion that was experienced in real life, and then transporting it into a different written context.

      Hopefully this is helpful. I try to aim for economy of language most of the time, but perhaps sometimes I try to pack too much into too small language.


      1. david eberhardt

        i’ll return at length to yr reply which i appreciate-
        i have a copy of wallace stevens essay on poetry and art which is fairly incomprehensible so- u cld b grate (no, great) AND, at the same time, incomprehensible (i collect)
        let me look a bit closer at this post of yrs


      2. david eberhardt

        a first observation is that both u and hyacincth are operating in a zone of rather academic language- to which other than cognescienti may not respond- ( imagine reading this to an audience at a little patuxent reading )(o i’m sure some peapods wld appoplaud whether they understood it or not)-
        now, i am no bukowski or ginsberg- but i do like stuff easy to understand

        now let me go back to both of yr comments- notice this laura- and see if i can glean any wheat in the chaff

        sincerely, wm f buckley


  1. hyacinthsnbiscuits

    Interesting things to ponder, Dylan!

    “Meanwhile Josef Rauschecker, another neuroscientist, found that the portions of the brain associated with motor function are also associated with the memorization and recall of music—a sort of musical muscle memory.”

    And I’d argue that there must be such a thing as narrative muscle memory, as well. I grew up playing the piano and the violin, and the existence of musical muscle memory was a given in that training. But I also grew up in a house where the bookshelves were stuffed with classical poetry, where I read Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth before I ever encountered any contemporary poets. I believe that’s why writing formal poetry not only comes naturally to me, but feels safe, comfortable, almost nostalgic. I wonder if the muscle memory involved in finding the correct notes on an instrument and the narrative memory involved in calling up those rhythms (iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests) are somehow linked, neurologically or synaesthetically… Thoughts?


    1. Dylan Bargteil

      I certainly imagine it could be. I know for a fact at least that the physiology of the brain does lend itself to this kind of self-amplification, where old solutions, habits, and patterns are likely to be recalled as a first approach to new problems. What I find really interesting is that we both seem to have a response that moves beyond that aspect of muscle memory — that you’re not just approaching your poetry formally because that’s what you’re practiced and proficient with, but that there is a more deeply planted emotional reaction. I don’t feel that when I sit down at a piano and let my hands go, but I definitely experience that kind of a reaction when I hear certain sounds (in some cases even with songs I can play myself).


    1. Dylan Bargteil

      The song was from a video game called Final Fantasy VII, which told an extensive story about a group of eco-terrorists who target a hegemonic corporation that’s exploiting the world’s resources and population. One of the songs from the game is embedded in the post if you’re curious to hear it.


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