"The trills, chills, and tears we experience from music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated."
- Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music
If you were to hear every note contained in a particular song played all at once, you wouldn't get much out of the experience: one of the most important aspects of music is that it presents us with a pattern that unfolds over time.
In doing so, music gives our brains the irresistible opportunity to second-guess how it will unfold. We do this based on clues we have gleaned from our experience with the tune thus far, as well as on our past experiences with music in general. And the music we tend to enjoy is that which we can anticipate with a reasonable degree of success. But while good music must not altogether defy our expectations, it is also essential that it pleasantly surprise us from time to time. As we all know, when a tune is too predictable, we become bored with it; in a way, good music is very much like an enjoyable game, in that it must be challenging, but not too challenging, to anticipate.
I think Mr. Levitin's perspective provides a good starting point from which to approach some music-related controversies. For instance:
- Do plants like music, too?
- And what about animals other than ourselves?
Many, many people would have you believe that yes, and yes: they do. Are these people just over-anthropomorphizing? Or is their logic, in fact, sound?
As you might already know, plants lack ears and central nervous systems. Despite this, it is claimed that not only can plants "hear" music, but that they actually prefer classical over rock music, and will grow more or less vigorously, depending on whether or not they are consistently exposed to the kind of music they "like".
And those who believe these claims can make a better case than you might expect.
For example, we know that plants can sense and respond to the wind, and that some predatory plants (like the venus fly-trap) can somehow sense the fluttering of an insect's wings. We don't know very much about plant's mechanosensory systems just yet, but it is clear that they have them. So if you play music loud enough, it is at least theoretically possible that your plants will be able to "hear" it.
Assuming they can "hear" it, how would music effect them?
The most common assertion is that loud, aggressive, and dissonent music (like Metallica) can be detrimental to a plant's growth; while sophisticated, soothing, and consonant music (like Mozart) can help plants to thrive. Furthermore, some people claim that this is because plants have emotions that are vulnerable to manipulation by music, just like we do.
Although many have attempted to put this hypothesis to test (with mixed results), by far the most widely-cited work is that of a lady named Dorothy Retallack, who published a book on the subject in 1973 called The Sound of Music and Plants, wherein she claimed that she had been able to both positively and negatively effect plant growth, by using classical and "acid rock" music, respectively.
By all accounts, Mrs. Retallack did a fine job conducting and describing her experiments. But if a 37-year-old report that was never published in a peer-reviewed journal is the best evidence we have that plants like Mozart, I think it is reasonable to question her conclusions. Moreover, it turns out that Mrs. Retallack performed her research while taking a mandatory course in biology en route to a degree in music; and neither she nor anyone since has been able to venture an explanation as to how or why this might be the case. (Here are a few more reasons to treat her findings with skepticism.)
However, whether or not plants are effected by sound is a different matter. As Mrs. Retallack herself dilligintly noted, loud music can have an effect even on a bucket of water, which will evaporate more quickly as the sound-waves create ripples on it's surface. Can music similarly effect the rate at which transpiration takes place, and thus increase a plant's water requirements? Can ultra-sonic sounds really help encourage seeds to germinate? As far as I know, it's possible. And perhaps this helps explain why so many are so convinced that their plants respond to music.
But before you assign them emotions, you might recall Mr. Levitin's insight into why we people enjoy music. He reminds us that our appreciation of music comes from our ability to anticipate future events based on what we've learned in the past. And because they are fairly sessile organisms, we can be pretty sure that plants lack this ability. Tellingly, this recent study suggests that our ability to anticipate musical sequences may arise from the very same predictive mechanisms that we animals unconsciously employ whenever we decide to move.
But many animals do have this crucial ability to "see" into the future. Moreover, they also have emotions, and there is evidence that Chimpanzees, at least, may also posses an intrinsic preference for consonance over dissonance. Some animals could theoretically enjoy music in much the same way we do; so why don't our pets dance? Or if they do (hehe), is it really because they are being emotionally manipulated?
Once more, Mr. Levitin's assertion can help us. Remember, it usually takes humans around ten years to develop a real fascination with music. And it can often take another ten for us to acquire an appreciation for the more subtle patterns characteristic of genres like jazz and classical. And as far as discerning patterns goes, humans are pretty quick studies.
In addition, music also plays a role in our sense of social identity; is tailored to the human auditory system; and as this clever Radiolab podcast implies, there is a possible connection between music and spoken language: something we humans are obviously uniquely predisposed to learn.
As with plants, I'm forced to conclude that IF animals are much effected by music, it is still unlikely that it interacts nearly as strongly with their emotions, as it can with ours. But neither would I go so far as to claim that no such interaction is possible.
Humans (The hidden track)
So maybe the health of your plants isn't going to be effected by the type of music you prefer, but what about you? Back in 1998, the governor of Georgia became so convinced that listening to classical music makes people "smarter" that he wanted the state to buy Mozart CD's for every Georgian-born baby. Does listening to Mozart really make us more intelligent?
Apparently, "Mozart Effect" is an excellent example of the media's tendency - and even eagerness - to misinterpret science for the sake of a catchier headline; and even the researchers that allegedly demonstrated it, were distinctly unconvinced of it's existence.
This myth has proven persistent, however. And there is a grain of truth to the Mozart effect. But when you see the statement "listening to Mozart makes you smarter", take "Mozart" to mean "music you enjoy"; and read "smarter" as "temporarily more proficient at tasks that test your spatial abilities", and you'll probably be closer to the truth. The Mozart effect is likely nothing more than a result of becoming emotionally "boosted" by music, and it in no way causes you to become more intelligent.
As far as I can tell, this also means that anything you enjoy - not just music - will likely have a similar effect on you; and that if you loath Mozart, the "effect" will be altogether lost. Seen like this, the "Mozart effect" might as well be known as the "James Brown effect" (for some reason, scientists seem to be way into Mozart).
No one doubts that music effects us emotionally. And our emotions are, after all, both caused and effected by real physiological processes. I think music interacts with human bodies unlike that of any other creature, and I plan to more closely investigate how it does this. So look for future posts on music, wherein I'll be taking a look at the growing field of "music therapy", and adopting a more meme-conscious approach to the subject - which I believe is the best way to understand how it is that music can effect us humans on such a deep emotional level, and yet utterly fail to similarly effect other species.