10th Anniversary: Music and the narrative brain

This essay was originally published on November 13, 2014. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

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. 

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/14-summer-2013/

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.