Music and the Miraculous: The Neurophysiology of Music’s Emotive Meaning

Candace S Alcorta. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

The heart of man has been so constituted by the Almighty that, like a flint, it contains a hidden fire which is evoked by music and harmony, and renders man beside himself with ecstasy. These harmonies are echoes of that higher world of beauty which we call the world of spirits, they remind man of his relationship to that world, and produce in him an emotion so deep and strange that he himself is powerless to explain it. (al-Ghazzali, 57; also cited in Becker 2001, 145)

For an anthropologist, few films are as memorable as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this classic, Kubrick uses striking visual metaphors to compress time and communicate complex ideas. A bone tool hurled by a chimp-like hand that returns to earth as the weightless pencil of an in-flight astronaut is one such metaphor that beautifully and succinctly symbolizes millions of years of human physical and cultural evolution. The most haunting of Kubrick’s images, however—the one that captured my imagination more than 20 years ago and remains just as intriguing to me today—is the sleek, towering monolith that suddenly appears on the flat savannah landscape. It possesses neither history nor apparent function, but simply “is.” A perfect single chord emanates from the metallic, abstract structure. As dawn casts red shadows across the dry, dusty desert, a band of proto-homi-nids tentatively approach the monolith, drawn by its single ethereal sound. Fear and awe mingle in their faces. Soon, many bands of these creatures form a congregation at the base of this ineffable object. They reach out, first to one another, and, then, to touch the monolith itself. The transition to humanity has begun.

These memorable, compelling scenes present an apt and unforgettable metaphor for both music and the miraculous in the evolution of our species. The capacity to be moved by music and the ability to experience the miraculous are closely intertwined in our neurophysiology and our transition to humanity. Grounded in, and representative of, numinous emotional experiences that instantiate the abstract, music and miracles are at once individual and social, biological and cultural, sensory and symbolic (Alcorta and Sosis 2005). Otto has noted that “in our experience of the sublime and the beautiful we dimly see the eternal and true world of Spirit and Freedom” (Rappaport 1999, 385). The emergence of the capacity to experience music and behold the miraculous is likely to have laid the foundation for both the cooperation and culture that are the hallmarks of human evolution.

Music and Miracles

The human ability to make and be moved by music is a universal human trait. It is shared across cultures throughout the world as a central element of religious ritual. Like miracles, music is intimately interconnected with a sense of the sacred, the numinous, and the divine. Music not only represents the sacred; it also calls it forth and embodies it, as well. Among the Mbuti pygmies of Africa, the haunting music of the sacred bull roarer is not just the symbol of the divine; this music is the divine as it embodies the “voice” of the forest (Turnbull 1962). For the Mbuti, music has the miraculous power to transform a rusty pipe into a sacred presence that evokes joy, fear, and awe. The ability of music to invest the profane with sacred significance by eliciting feelings of joy, fear, and awe lies at the heart of music’s central role in all religions. When combined with communal ritual, the intense emotions stirred by music become powerful motivational forces.

In traditional cultures, music is not only a prominent feature of religion; it is inseparable from it. Among the Igbo of Africa, music and the sacred are so closely associated that there exists only a single word, nkwa, for both (Becker 2001). Across cultures as diverse as those of Australian hunter-gatherers, African agriculturalists, and American capitalists, music constitutes a common unifying theme across totemic, ancestral, and monotheistic religious traditions. This is true even in modern Western societies where the secularization of music has sundered it from its religious roots.

A recent nationwide survey of U.S. congregations conducted by sociologist Mark Chaves and his colleagues (1999) found music to be the single most consistent feature of contemporary worship across all faiths in the United States. The indispensability of music to religion is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that even the most fundamentalist of religious sects retain music as a central element of religious worship. As noted by cognitive scientists Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan, “Even the Taliban, who prohibited nearly all public displays of sensory stimulation, promoted a cappella religious chants” (2004, 717). Music is a recurrent and fundamental feature of the religious experience in all known cultures.

Although the past two centuries have witnessed an increasing secularization of music in modern Western societies, this secular music is itself derived from the Gregorian chants of medieval Europe, and in contemporary popular culture, gospel represents the roots of rock and roll (Huron 2001). Even when music is secularized and divorced from the canons and rituals of formalized religions, it retains its power to evoke feelings of fear, awe, and ecstasy. Speaking of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony performed in concert, one woman writes:

I remember tears filling my eyes. I felt as if I understood a message, from one time to another, from one human to another … The way through the symphony had been hard and frightening, even shocking, but it was a great happiness—almost an honor—having had the opportunity to experience this … Now all words would have been superfluous, even my own. My thoughts had nothing to do with words. (Gabrielsson 2001, 441)

Whether we experience music within the sanctuary of a cathedral, as part of a Balinese ceremonial ritual, in the concert halls of New York, or at a rock-and-roll rave in Tokyo, music has an extraordinary power to move us in inexplicable, ineffable, seemingly miraculous ways. During my fieldwork with American adolescents, I asked one 15-year-old boy how important music was to his religious experience. He replied that music was not important to his religion; it was his religion. I recently heard a similar sentiment expressed by a self-described atheist in reference to the music of the Grateful Dead. For this latter individual, and for the millions of others who comprise the growing secular music market, music retains its power to deeply affect us even in the absence of communal religious ritual. How does music so miraculously move us to smiles, to tears, and to joy, and why does it do so?

What Is Music?

Music is miraculous not only because it moves us, but also because we still have little understanding of why it does so. What, exactly, is music? Musical forms differ widely from culture to culture. The atonal music that stirs the heart of a Thai listener may sound cacophonous to the Western ear, and the plaintive chords of country music may be unpleasant for the classical music aficionado to hear. Yet within their respective cultures, each of the widely variant musical forms throughout the world is able to elicit powerful emotions in listeners. Some elements of music, such as pitch, rhythm, and dissonance, may even elicit universal responses in listeners untrained in the cultural musical idiom (Gabrielsson and Lindstrom 2001). How does music elicit these feelings in listeners? Why does our heartbeat speed up to match the brisk tempo of military music and slow down when we hear the sonorous measures of a dirge? What happens to our bodies when we listen to music? Are there specific structures in the human brain dedicated to musical processing? Do these same structures participate in other miraculous, transcendent experiences? Finally, why have humans evolved this capacity to process and be moved by music?

We certainly do not have the answers to all of these questions, but accumulating research is providing intriguing insights into many of them. Within the last several years, neuroscientists have employed neuroimaging techniques to examine the effects of music on the human brain. Simultaneously, neurologists have learned much about both music and miracles as a result of their work with such disorders as amusia, anhedonia, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and prefrontal disconnect syndrome. The experiments of developmental psychologists have enriched our understanding of the ontogeny of music perception and processing. Cross-cultural research conducted by anthropologists and ethnomusicologists has expanded our knowledge of universal and culturally specific features of music, trance, and other transcendent experiences. Physicians and sociologists have amassed reliable and replicable research regarding the beneficial effects of music and religion on both mind and body. We now have empirical evidence to support our intuitions that “music perception potentially affects emotion, influences the autonomic nervous system, as well as the hormonal and immune systems, and activates (pre)motor representations” (Koelsch and Siebel 2005, 578). This research shows that music’s ability to elicit emotion and alter our affective state also impacts our social judgment, cognitive processing style, and decision making (Clore and Huntsinger 2007). Our understanding of music has expanded considerably over the past decade, including our ability to identify the neurophysiological mechanisms by which we experience music’s emotional power.

Music and Development

Cognitive scientists Stefan Koelsch and Walter Siebel note that “music perception involves complex brain functions underlying acoustic analysis, auditory memory, auditory scene analysis, and processing of musical syntax and semantics” (2005, 578). Decoding the culturally prescribed “meaning” of music entails the learning of emotional, autonomic, and cognitive associations, as well as the encoding of motor and sensory stimuli (Becker 2004; Cross 2003). Since the neural structures underlying these various functions follow different developmental trajectories, the cultural encoding of music is necessarily an ongoing developmental process that begins in the womb and continues across the life course.

Neuroscientists Isabelle Peretz and Max Coltheart (2003) have proposed a modular model of musical processing that encompasses four hierarchical processing levels. Their modules include (1) acoustic analysis, (2) pitch and temporal organization, (3) emotion expression analysis and musical lexicon, and (4) associative memories. This model summarizes the basic functional components that must be integrated for musical processing. It also reflects the maturation patterns of brain regions responsible for each of these processing tasks.

Acoustic processing areas of the brain are functioning even before we are born. Temporal lobe regions of our brain responsible for pitch and temporal organization mature shortly thereafter. The emotional processing structures of our limbic system, and the cortical regions necessary for emotion expression analysis and musical lexicon, including both the cingulate and prefrontal cortices, follow different maturational trajectories. Higher-level association areas in the temporal and prefrontal cortices are among the last brain regions to develop and do not reach full maturation until adolescence. As a result of this heterochronic pattern of brain development, the encoding of musical meanings and the mastery of musical skills are cumulative processes, with some components of these processes more easily achieved during particular brain development periods.

Moreover, since many higher-level skills build upon and integrate numerous prerequisite abilities, the full development of these higher-level skills may continue across the maturation period. Throughout the process of learning music both motor and cultural inputs are essential in shaping the maturing neural pathways. Such cumulative skill development involves ongoing feedback and is intuitive to anyone who has watched a baby learn to walk. Just as it is necessary for an infant to first roll over, balance, crawl, stand, and step before running and jumping, it is also necessary for an individual to first process pitch, rhythm, tone, timbre, and basic structural components of music before these elements can be integrated into the cultural encoding of higher order syntactic, emotional, and symbolic meanings acquired during later developmental periods.

Music and Infancy

The acquisition of our musical processing capabilities begins before birth. Babies exposed to music as fetuses show post-birth preferences for this familiar music (Levitin 2006). Newborns prefer song to speech; they also prefer a particular type of song. Throughout the world, caregiver communications with newborns include songs that are slower, higher pitched, and have an exaggerated rhythm when compared to non-infant songs (Levitin 2006). Videotaped experiments conducted by psychologist Sandra Trehub (2001) demonstrate that even six-month-old infants perceive and attend to both the structural and emotional features of musical sounds. Infants not only remember musical selections over extended time periods, but also subsequently prefer these familiar selections to unfamiliar music (Trehub 2002).

The ability of infants to perceive and process music utilizes both the auditory pathways that enable us to hear sounds in general, and more specialized modules that decode specific features of music in particular. The perception of musical pitch engages tonotopic neuronal maps in the right superior temporal lobe, while the homologous left temporal lobe structures are responsible for the time interval processing involved in perceptions of rhythm (Liegeois-Chauvel et al. 2001).

In addition to their ability to recognize specific musical selections, infants can also identify transpositions of tunes to a new pitch range, indicating that they encode such melodies in terms of relative pitch. No other primate species studied to date demonstrates this skill (McDermott and Hauser 2006). Human infants also show enhanced processing for scales with unequal pitch steps, suggesting that the commonly used scales across cultures that incorporate unequal pitch spacing express innate predispositions (Peretz and Coltheart 2003). Encoding of music by infants appears to be feature-specific; when the tempo of musical selections is altered, infant retention of the selection is disrupted. Additionally, some features of music have been shown to be more memorable for infants than other features. Timbre is one such feature. In a study conducted by neuropsychologist Laurel Trainor, six-month-old infants were exposed to seven days of the same tunes played on both a piano and a harp. The tunes played on a harp were subsequently remembered for longer periods by the babies than those performed on the piano (Trehub 2002).

Infants appear to exhibit musical preferences based on their personality style, as well. Infants as young as six and nine months old have been found to display individual musical preferences that correlate with patterns of visual fixation. Infants who exhibited slower visual tempos also preferred slower tempo songs, while those who consistently displayed brief visual fixations preferred faster, playful songs (Trehub 2002).

Music and Childhood

Although infants enter the world with the ability to perceive and attend to both the structural and emotional features of musical sounds, and with some apparently innate preferences for pitch spacing and timbre, cultural exposure and socialization experiences are required for the development of these predispositions into musical syntax and meaning. By age three, children are able to recognize the musical representations of happiness within their respective cultures, and by age five, they are able to employ tempo differences to discriminate between happy and sad musical excerpts. By six years of age, children readily employ both tempo and mode to identify the basic emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, and anger in music, with much of this learning occurring through passive exposure to culturally normative musical forms (Trehub 2001).

Cognitive scientists Stefan Koelsch and Walter Siebel note that “numerous studies have shown that even non-musicians, individuals who have not received formal musical training, have a highly sophisticated implicit knowledge about musical syntax, knowledge which is presumably acquired during listening experiences in everyday life … and which is important for processing meaning and emotion in music” (2005, 581).

Stefan Koelsch and his colleagues (Koelsch, Fritz et al. 2005) used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the effects of development and music training on activation patterns in the human brain. Ten-year-old children with varying degrees of musical training, adults with no formal musical training, and adult musicians were compared during exposure to musical sequences that ended on chords that were regular or irregular in relation to the musical syntax. While the neuroimaging data showed similar right hemisphere activation patterns across all three groups, in the left hemisphere, “adults showed larger activations than children in prefrontal areas, in the supramarginal gyrus, and in temporal areas” (1068). These researchers also found that musical training in both adults and children correlated with stronger activation in the frontal operculum and the anterior portion of the superior temporal gyrus. These findings demonstrate significant effects of both development and musical training on brain activation patterns in response to music.

Music remains an important mnemonic device throughout childhood, as attested by anyone who still locates “k” in the alphabet by singing the “ABC” song. Neuroimaging studies indicate that cultural rules for the syntactic processing of music continue to be learned throughout this developmental period. Yet, the deep emotional and social connotations of music that are so exaggerated in the pitch, tone, and tempo of infant caregiver songs appear to take a backseat to syntactic learning during this time. This abruptly changes with the advent of adolescence, however, when emotional and social functions of music reemerge as central foci of musical processing and performance.

Music and Adolescence

During adolescence, interest in and emotional response to music appears to reach its zenith. An Australian study on families and electronic entertainment found that music is “mentioned by young people as their most favoured form of entertainment and is more important to them than to adults” (Jackson 2001). Similar results were found in the United States and Sweden (Jackson 2001). The extent of adolescent interest in music is reflected in the size and economic impact of the growing multibillion-dollar U.S. teen music industry. More than 40 million iPods have been sold since Apple first introduced these digital music players, and iTunes is currently selling an average of 3 million song downloads per day (McGrath 2006). A survey of 3,000 U.S. Web users conducted in the year 2000 found that “by far the heaviest users of music downloads [are] individuals under 20 years old” (Jackson 2001, 2).

The teen music market is not confined to the United States. There exists an enormous and growing global market for Western teen music that includes iPods, CDs, videos, downloads, radio, concerts, and even cellular telephone ring tones. The economic impact of this adolescent interest in music is considerable. Penelope Lewis notes that “in the United States … the music industry is currently economically larger than the pharmaceutical industry” (Lewis 2002, 364). This burgeoning global adolescent interest in Western music has political ramifications as well. The attempted repression of Western “rock and roll” by such authoritarian governments as those of Soviet Russia and, more recently, mainland China attests to the social and cultural significance of music.

The music of our adolescent years does seem to have special significance. Far into our adulthood we remember this music; a song from those years can instantaneously recall people, places, and feelings. A few whistled notes of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” can still instantly transport me to the lakeside cabin of a teenage friend. We even define historical periods within our national culture in terms of the adolescent popular music of that era. Jazz, swing, rock and roll, and Woodstock all immediately connote both a style of American music and a cultural milieu. Neuroscientist David Levitin notes that “part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those were … emotionally charged” (Levitin 2006, 225). This emotional charging enhances both the things associated with these songs and our memories of them.

During adolescence, music is also socially significant. Like dress, hairstyle, and speech, adolescents employ music to define both their self-identity and their membership in social groups. This is particularly true in heterogeneous modern secular cultures. The American teen who listens to country music has both a different self-image and a different peer group than the teen who prefers heavy metal or rap.

In traditional cultures throughout the world, music has historically played a special role during adolescence. The adolescent rites of passage that occur in nearly three-quarters of cultures around the world are sacred rituals that incorporate music as a central, prominent feature. These rites transmit the culture’s sacred knowledge and beliefs in preparation for the adolescent’s transition from child to adult status within the society. There is considerable variation in the onset, duration, and intensity of these rites across cultures, but in every culture known, sacred symbols, social experiences, and emotionally evocative music are fundamental elements of these rites.

In both modern and traditional societies music holds a special social and emotional significance for adolescents and serves an important function in the teen’s transition from child to adult. Human brain development patterns suggest what this function is and why music is particularly well suited to fulfill it.

The Neurophysiology of Music 

Music and the Reward System

Humans are born with the genetically encoded neural structures necessary for the analysis and processing of the acoustic, pitch, and temporal properties of music. The emotional encoding of music, however, and its integration into socially and symbolically meaningful associational networks requires cultural inputs during specific developmental periods.

Adolescence is a particularly sensitive developmental period for the maturation of social and symbolic associational networks. Neural tracts connecting prefrontal, temporal, and limbic areas of the brain undergo significant changes during adolescence as gray matter increases to its maximum volume. This increase is subsequently reduced through synaptic pruning, which eliminates as much as one-half of the cortical synapses per neuron (Spear 2000). Since neurons are energetically expensive, the brain reduces these costs by eliminating lesser used pathways. Synapses that are frequently activated by environmental stimuli are retained while those that are not are eliminated. Since neuronal firing results from the processing of environmental stimuli, “the environment or activities of the teenager may guide selective synapse elimination during adolescence” (Giedd et al. 1999, 863). Simultaneously, myelination of those neuronal interconnections retained during the pruning process serves to speed up network processing.

The temporal lobe of the human brain functions in the processing of music, language, and social stimuli. During adolescence this brain area is undergoing significant increase and pruning. Maturation and pruning of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a critical association area of the brain responsible for executive functions, is also occurring during this time. The PFC is the seat of abstract, symbolic thought. Additionally, various substructures of the PFC are critical for individual decision making, moral reasoning, and social judgment. As the highest-level association area of the brain, the PFC receives and integrates information from numerous other brain regions, including sensory, motor, and higher-order association areas. The integration of this information is a central function of the PFC and underlies its executive role. In order to use this integrated information in effective social judgment and personal decision making, however, the PFC depends on additional input from the brain’s emotional processing centers to evaluate alternative choices (Bar-On et al. 2005; Damasio 1994).

The incentive value of stimuli is assigned by the brain’s reward system. By assigning incentive value to stimuli, the brain’s reward system translates motivational stimuli into adaptive behaviors. Some stimuli, such as food and sex, have intrinsic reward value, but other neutral stimuli may acquire reward value through a process of associational learning. Neuroimaging studies have shown that for drug-addicted individuals, even the locations and paraphernalia associated with drug use can acquire incentive value over time. After such incentive learning occurs, these previously neutral stimuli are themselves capable of activating the brain’s reward system even in the absence of the drug itself.

The nuclei of the brain’s limbic system, and particularly the amygdala, function in processing and evaluating emotional stimuli. The amygdala is directly interconnected with both the reward system and the prefrontal cortex. Input from the amygdala to the PFC regarding the emotional valuation of stimuli has been shown to be critical in decision making (Bar-On et al. 2005; Damasio 1994). While the PFC is capable of determining rational solutions to problems in the absence of amygdala inputs, the valuations of the amygdala are critical for applying these solutions for accurate social judgments and effective personal decision making. In the absence of such input from the amygdala, individuals exhibit an inability to make sound social judgments or adaptive personal choices (Bar-On et al. 2005; Damasio 1994).

Adolescence is a critical maturation period for both the reward and limbic systems of the brain. In early adolescence, dopamine inhibitory input to the prefrontal cortex reaches its maximal levels while dopamine inhibition of limbic activity, including the hippocampus and amygdala, is at its lowest. This affects judgment, decision making, and impulse control. Adolescents exhibit greater novelty seeking, risk taking, emotional responsivity, and impulsivity than either children or adults (Dahl 2004). In modern secular societies, these changes in the reward and emotional processing centers of the adolescent brain have been implicated in the increased vulnerability of teens to drug and alcohol abuse. As the adolescent brain matures, however, a shift occurs in the dopaminergic inhibition of the amygdala and the PFC, with the PFC exhibiting less dopaminergic inhibition and assuming greater dominance vis-à-vis the brain’s reward system.

These concurrent changes in the adolescent brain create an experience-expectant window for assigning emotional meaning and reward value to social and symbolic stimuli. At the same time, the changes occurring in the temporal and prefrontal cortices create an opportunity to integrate emotionally charged social and symbolic stimuli into associational networks of motivationally powerful and highly memorable cognitive schema (Alcorta 2006). In traditional societies, adolescent rites of passage create an extremely effective mechanism for creating such schema.

Music is a central feature of adolescent rites of passage. Like drugs of abuse, music evokes positive emotions through its activation of the brain’s reward pathways. Positron emission tomography (PET) studies of adults listening to music demonstrate changes in cerebral blood flow in emotional processing and reward systems correlated with subjective reports of pleasurable “chills” in response to the music. These changes are accompanied by changes in heart rate, respiration, and skin conductance. Blood flow in brain structures that process and evaluate such negative emotions as fear decrease during these experiences, while blood flow in areas of the brain such as the ventral tegmental area that register reward and pleasure increase in response to highly pleasurable music (Blood and Zatorre 2001).

Neuroscientists Vinod Menon and David Levitin (2005) used functional and effective connectivity analysis to examine the effects of pleasurable music on the response and physiological connectivity of the reward system in 13 adolescent subjects aged 19-23 years. These researchers found that listening to music “strongly modulates activity in a network of mesolimbic structures involved in reward processing, including the nucleus accumbens (NAc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), as well as the hypothalamus and insula, which are thought to be involved in regulating autonomic and physiological responses to rewarding and emotional stimuli” (175). A strong correlation between nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area responses was found by these researchers, pointing to an association between dopamine release and the brain’s reward center structures’ response to music.

Dopamine release is a key factor in the reinforcing effects of many addictive drugs and is critical for reward processing. Additionally, dopaminergic input to the nucleus accumbens from the ventral tegmental area is important for endogenous opioid peptide transmission. Increased dopaminergic activity in response to pleasurable music predicts increased opioid release in the nucleus accumbens, as well (Blood et al. 1999; Menon and Levitin 2005).

These studies have shown that listening to highly pleasurable music can directly activate the dopaminergic reward system of the brain, resulting in the release of both the neurotransmitter dopamine and endogenous opioids. Listening to music also activates numerous autonomic functions including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, immunological function, and neuroendocrine responses (Hirokawa and Ohira 2003). These effects occur even when individuals are simply passive listeners. When music is combined with other sensory stimuli, these effects are further intensified.

A recent study conducted by neuroeconomist Thomas Baumgartner and colleagues (2006) looked at the effects of music on emotional response to affective pictures. The results showed that the subjective rating of emotional experience markedly increased when music was combined with affective pictures. Functional magnetic resonance imaging showed that in addition to the activation of auditory and syntactic musical processing areas of the brain, the combined condition of music and pictures markedly increased the activation of emotional and associational brain processing regions, as well. In contrast, the only activation increase for the picture condition alone occurred in the prefrontal cortex. From these findings the researchers conclude that “emotional pictures evoke a more cognitive mode of emotion perception, whereas congruent presentations of emotional visual and musical stimuli rather automatically evoke strong emotional feelings and experiences” (Baumgartner et al. 2006, 151).

Outside of modern Western cultures, music is seldom experienced as a solitary, isolated phenomenon, and even in contemporary secular societies much musical listening occurs within social and religious contexts. Across cultures, music has been traditionally experienced as a central element within a rich ritual complex that incorporates vibrant visual, linguistic, and motor components, as well (Bloch 1989). Such multimodal sensory inputs enhance, intensify, and guide the emotional responses of participants. These responses are likely to be particularly pronounced and long-lasting during adolescence as a result of brain maturation patterns. Adolescent rites of passage are particularly effective in evoking emotional responses in initiates. The simplest of such rites utilize music and myth to transmit social rules, religious beliefs, and moral codes. The most elaborate, however, subject participants to isolation, food and sleep deprivation, and mental and physical pain, as well (Turner 1967). Such sacred pain (Glucklich 2001) introduces a new level of emotional intensity above that engendered through music and myth alone. Memories and associations created through participation in such rites are replete with emotionally charged social symbols and schema.

Emotion, Cognition, and Empathy

Musicologist Ian Cross has noted that “music is not only sonic, embodied, and interactive; it is bound to its contexts of occurrence in ways that enable it to derive meaning from, and interactively to confer meaning on, the experiential contexts in which it occurs, these meanings being variable and transposable” (Cross 2003, 108). Music’s capacity to engage the emotional- and reward-processing pathways of the human brain is central to its ability to imbue social and symbolic stimuli with reward value and emotional meaning.

Emotions weight alternative choices. Emotions also consciously and unconsciously influence judgments of trustworthiness (Morris, Ohman, and Dolan 1998), as well as our attraction to others, regardless of our conscious cognitions (Clore and Huntsinger 2007). Perhaps most surprising, however, is the fact that emotion influences not onlywhat we think, but also how we think.

Psychologists Gerald Clore and Jeffrey Huntsinger recently conducted experiments to assess the effects of positive and negative affect on modes of information processing. Their findings showed that “in addition to influencing judgment and decision-making, affect influences how people process information … When people are happy they engage in global, category-level, relational processing, whereas when they are sad they engage in local, item-level, stimulus-specific processing” (Clore and Huntsinger 2007, 395). Studies conducted by other cognitive psychologists have additionally shown that positive moods also have several other important cognitive effects. They (1) promote semantic priming and the use of judgment heuristics; (2) increase the likelihood of false and schema-guided memory; (3) enhance false memories and retrieval-induced forgetting; and (4) promote in-group, out-group stereotyping (Clore and Huntsinger 2007). These cognitive consequences of positive affect all have important ramifications for the creation and ongoing cohesion of social groups.

Across human cultures the predominant setting for listening to and performing music is the social group, and the dominant emotion experienced during musical experiences is happiness and joy (Becker 2004). Traditionally, musical performance has occurred almost exclusively within the context of religious rituals, and even in modern secular societies musical performance remains an important component of religious participation. In modern westernized cultures, however, music is also frequently heard and performed within a secular group context, whether in ballparks, classical concert halls, or in rock-and-roll raves.

Even in such secular settings, when individuals within these groups share the encoded cultural meaning of the music, the emotions evoked throughout the group and their associated autonomic and motor effects are shared, as well. The patriotic feelings stirred by the playing of America’s national anthem before the opening pitch at baseball games and the euphoria experienced by audience members at a Dave Matthews concert derive from this shared meaning of the music. This capacity of music to instantiate culturally defined emotional meaning provides the basis for music’s ability to entrain the emotional, autonomic, and motor responses of social groups. Such entrainment is an important precursor for empathy and the social cooperation it enables.

Studies conducted by R. W. Levenson (2003) have shown a significant positive correlation between congruent autonomic states and empathy. More recently, functional magnetic resonance imaging has been used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in engendering and experiencing empathy. This research has focused on action-representation modules and emotional processing centers in the brain, since “empathic individuals exhibit unconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others (chameleon effect) to a greater extent than non-empathic individuals” (Carr et al. 2005, 144).

Neuroscientist Laurie Carr and colleagues imaged subjects who were either observing or imitating the emotional facial expressions of others. The results showed a “substantially similar network of activated areas for both imitation and observation of emotion,” including the anterior insula, the amygdala, the superior temporal cortex, and the inferior frontal cortex. Imitation was found to produce stronger activation of this network than observation alone. They concluded that “the type of empathic resonance induced by imitation does not require explicit representational content and may be a form of mirroring that grounds empathy via an experiential mechanism” (Carr et al. 2005, 150).

Music provides just such an experiential mechanism. It evokes similar emotions, entrains motor movements, and elicits congruent autonomic functions across groups of listeners. It also activates the neural structures involved in imitation in both adults and children (Koelsch et al. 2005). The ability of music to engage these networks and elicit empathy among listeners is likely to play an important role in both the creation and cooperation of social groups.

Music and Trance

Music’s ability to evoke intense emotions is central to its capacity for engendering empathy and investing both social and symbolic stimuli with deep emotional meaning. Yet, not all individuals find music moving, and it is clear that music’s ability to elicit and engage emotion varies across the life course. While music appears to be particularly powerful in evoking emotions during infancy and adolescence, this is certainly not true for all babies or all teens. For some adolescents music is all-consuming, but for others it holds little meaning. Likewise, babies, children, and adults exhibit a wide range of interest in and response to music (Levitin 2006; Trehub 2002).

This variability in music’s importance across the population, like that of most complex human traits, is likely to exhibit a normal distribution. One tail of this distribution may encompass those individuals for whom music holds neither appeal nor emotional meaning, while the other represents those persons for whom music is deeply powerful and intensely moving. For this latter population the emotional intensity experienced in response to music, particularly when coupled with participation in ritual and dance, not only engages deep emotions, but also has the power to alter perceptions and usher in new states of consciousness.

In modern secular societies these individuals comprise the “deep listeners” described by Judith Becker (2004) for whom music is an ecstatic experience that may even engender paranormal out-of-body experiences (Gabrielsson 2001). In traditional societies, such music-induced experiences are both accepted and institutionalized. The Siberian shaman whose chants transport him to a spirit world of gods and demons, the Islamic Sufi for whom music is the “flint and steel” that sparks the heart’s ecstasy, and the Latin Pentecostalist moved by music to speak in tongues all share this capacity for intense, emotional engagement through music. For these individuals, the words of Sufi mystic al-Ghazzali ring true:

Lo! Hearts and inmost thoughts are treasuries of secrets and mines of jewels … There is no way to the extracting of their hidden things save by the flint and steel of listening to music and singing, and there is no entrance to the heart save by the ante-chamber of the ears. So musical tones … bears as fruit a state in the heart that is called ecstasy. (al-Ghazzali cited in Becker 2004, 79)

In many traditional cultures of the world, such intense, ecstatic emotional responses to music are an important precursor to and inducer of ritual trance. Ethnomusicologist Judith Becker (2004) notes that two basic features of musical trance appear to be universal: (1) all trancers share deep, intense emotions in response to music; and (2) this emotional intensity, when situated within the appropriate socio-ritual context, results in a temporary loss of the autobiographical self. Becker notes that “trancing in religious contexts draws on emotion, depends on emotion, and stimulates emotion through sensual overload; visual, tactile, and aural. In trancing contexts, the ANS [autonomic nervous system] seems in overdrive, propelling the trancer to physical feats not normally possible, and to the feeling of numinous luminosity that encapsulates special knowledge not accessible during normal consciousness” (Becker 2004, 66).

Trancing is a highly subjective, deeply emotional, and motor-intensive paranormal experience. It is also a highly structured social performance that follows a very specific cultural script. Balinese bebuten trance, Pentecostal possession trance, and Sufi ecstatic trance all involve both deep emotional response to movement and music, as well as a loss of autobiographical self; but they differ widely in the particular movements made, the types of emotions experienced, and the ritual personae assumed by the trancers during their trance experiences. Within each of these respective cultures, trancers exhibit very structured, stereotypical, and predictable behaviors. In regard to Central Javanese trancers, anthropologist Ruth Benedict makes the observation that “even in trance, the individual holds strictly to the rules and expectations of his culture and his experience is as locally patterned as a marriage rite or an economic exchange” (Benedict cited in Pilch 2006, 46). This prescriptive nature of trance is echoed by ethnomusicologist Judith Becker:

One of the startling aspects of religious trancing worldwide is its stereotypicity. Trancers behave exactly the way in which they have learned to behave, and trance behavior is narrowly circumscribed by time and place … Precisely at the point in the drama at which they begin trancing, their actions, gestures, and the duration of the trancing are predictable … Trancers follow a script that determines the time of the onset of trance, the duration of trance, behavior during trance, and the style of withdrawal from trance. (Becker 2004, 67)

Trancing divorces the individual from his or her normal autobiographical self; behaviors exhibited by trancers appear to be beyond conscious control. Trancers may exhibit both miraculous abilities and abnormal thresholds for pain. From “the self-stabbing of the Sulawesi bissu and the Balinese bebuten trances, trancing individuals transcend their normal bodily limitations and perform [paranormal] feats of physical endurance that are unthinkable in ordinary states of consciousness” (Becker 2004, 147). Yet, the alternate self and actions that emerge during trancing closely adhere to ritually prescribed and culturally specific categorical constructs and heuristic frames. Pentecostal trancers can often miraculously speak in tongues, but they do not converse with Yanomamo hekuba spirits, nor are they possessed by angry Balinese witches. Trancers may shed their autobiographical selves of profane existence, but the spirits with which they are possessed and the behaviors in which they engage during the trance experience are neither universal nor arbitrary. The highly scripted nature of these spirits suggests, instead, that trancers draw on internalized cultural schema during the trance experience.

Semantic priming is an important element in this process. Individuals prepare themselves for trancing through pre-scripted actions involving such primes. For Pentecostalists, tarrying at the altar is a potent precursor to trance; among Sufi mystics, trancing is as dependent on the repeated poetry of the Qur’an as on the music and dance that accompany it (Becker 2004). Once primed, the trance experience relies on schema-guided memories for the appropriate roles assumed by trancers and the behaviors they enact.

The intense positive affect induced in trancers by both ritualized music and movement promotes global, category-level relational cognitive processing (Clore and Huntsinger 2007). During trance, this relational processing engages sacred categories and schema outside of normal, profane existence. The use of specific, highly emotionally charged music during religious trancing, and the cognitive priming of the trancer are important triggers for accessing these specialized neural networks. These triggers activate different associational pathways from those that pattern non-trance perception and behaviors, thereby taking the trancer outside of the normal autobiographical self.

This associational network model of trance is similar to that proposed by Becker (2004) and posits the existence of alternative neuronal pathways to those of everyday life that are both created and accessed through musical ritual. These alternate associations connect the cognitive schema of religious belief with emotional, motor, and sensory processing structures. They are developed through individual exposure to and participation in religious training and ritual and are activated in response to both the deeply emotional music of ritual and the semantic priming of the ritual itself.

These associational pathways, and the cognitive schema they incorporate, differ from those normally accessed by the individual in the profane world. As a result, the self that emerges in trance is quite different from the autobiographical self of everyday life. Becker notes that “one of the salient features of possession trance is the apparent absence of, or inactivity of, or substitution for the autobiographical self. Trancers temporarily lose their sense of their private, autobiographical self in favor of the sense of the special self of trance possession” (Becker 2004, 144). Sensory perceptions, motor responses, reactions to stimuli, and even autonomic and neuroendocrine responses differ, as well.

These changes contribute to the ability of trancers to perform extraordinary feats and withstand unusual pain. The intense and ecstatic emotions engendered by the music, the ritual, and the sacred schema are likely to result in the flooding of neural structures by dopamine and opioid release. The result is “a new way of being in the world” (Becker 2004, 106). Music and ritual become the portals to access these paranormal worlds, as well as a symbolic instantiation of them. In contrast to profane schema, the schema accessed through trance incorporate the metaphor of myth and the possibility of the miraculous, including such things as glossolalia, spirit possession, and indifference to suffering and pain. Subsequent activation of these new pathways through the emotional and symbolic prime of musical ritual further strengthens these associations, simultaneously re-creating and reinforcing the cognitions and emotions experienced during trance and validating their existence and reality. While trancing requires preparation, experienced trancers become increasingly adept at shedding the autobiographical self and moving into these alternate realities or paranormal states readily.

What if there are no alternative categories and schema to be accessed? Is musically induced trance possible in secular cultures? The importance of alternative religious schema for the induction of trance is suggested by the absence of trance during the emotionally intensive musical concerts and raves of Western secular culture. At such events, musically induced euphoria is quite evident and may even result in out-of-character behaviors and fainting. Yet, the autobiographical self is never lost, extraordinary powers are never demonstrated, and alternative, miraculous worlds are never experienced. Entry into such worlds appears to require preexistent knowledge of them.

The importance of religious schema for trance is also suggested by the appearance of trance in the life course. In diverse cultures throughout the world, the first trance experiences occur during adolescence when emotional responses to musical primes are particularly intense. These trance experiences are often considered to be dangerous for the novice trancer. Throughout the world adolescent rites of passage exist for the explicit purpose of inculcating religious schema. In many cultures these rites purposefully seek to break down the autobiographical self of the initiate in order to create a new social persona. Music, movement, and intensely emotional ritual experiences constitute central components of this process. In many cultures these primes not only prepare the initiate for learning the religious schema presented through ritual and myth but also provide the venue for initial trance experiences.

Music, Miracles, and Human Evolution

The accumulating neuroimaging data and psychological research on music and the human brain provide strong support for the view that music, like language, is an evolved human adaptation. In order for music to be perceived and processed there must exist specific, dedicated, genetically encoded brain structures capable of analyzing acoustic signals related to pitch, tone, timbre, and rhythm. There must also exist basic neural pathways connecting these structures to mesolimbic areas of the brain involved in reward and emotion processing, as well as to those involved in social and symbolic cognition. The research indicates that the development of these pathways is dependent on both brain maturation patterns and cultural learning. Humans are born with a natural ability to perceive music as a mnemonic, emotionally evocative stimulus, but it is through conditioned and associational learning that these basic abilities are patterned and developed. From these studies we are now beginning to understand the proximate causes, or the how of music’s strong emotional power, but this research sheds little light on the ultimate explanations of why music is of such universal importance in human cultures.

Many different explanations have been advanced to explain why humans make music. Some cognitive scientists have argued that music is simply an enjoyable but essentially parasitic by-product of other evolved human capacities (Pinker 1997). Like the spandrels of Gothic cathedrals, which appear complex and purposeful, music, though aesthetically pleasing, serves no adaptive function in its own right. Others who view music as an evolved human adaptation have considered music to be a mechanism to enhance sexual selection, like birdsong or gibbon duets (Darwin 1872; Miller 2000). Some view it as serving social accommodation functions, similar to the songs of humpback whales. Yet, human music making is not confined in function to territorial or courtship displays; it also differs considerably from nonhuman songs in numerous other respects, as well (McDermott and Hauser 2006).

The key to understanding the evolution of music is likely to be its unique capacity to instantiate and emotively evoke cognitive schema in collective groups across both time and space (Alcorta and Sosis 2005). The ability of music to evoke intense emotional responses in listeners and to activate the brain’s reward system renders it an important mnemonic and motivational force. The fact that the emotions usually elicited by music, and particularly by religious music, are happiness and joy has significant consequences for modes of cognitive processing. Research demonstrates that positive affect promotes the activation of semantic priming, heuristic processing, schema-guided memory, stereotyping, and categorical and relational thinking. All of these effects of music advance the creation of socially significant cognitive schema with deep emotional meaning. Moreover, the ability of music to entrain listeners renders it an unparalleled mechanism for engendering empathy in groups, thereby laying the foundation for both group cohesion and cooperation.

The symbolic and structural attributes of music make it an effective mechanism for instantiating and activating learned associational pathways. The lullabies of infancy, the campfire rounds of childhood, and the love songs of adolescence indelibly etch themselves into our memories. Yet, it is not just the music that we remember. When we hear these songs we also feel the touch of our first caregiver, smell the smoky pungency of burning wood, and see the youthful face of our old flame. Music has the power to evoke a myriad of associations, both cognitive and sensory. Psychiatrist Tsvia Horesh, who employs music therapy in her work with drug addicts, describes this effect of music on her clients: “The song evoked a totally reminiscent mode of being (smell, pictures, sounds, memories and emotions), and threatened to drown the people in an overwhelming emotional ocean” (Horesh 2006, 138). Even Alzheimer’s patients who have lost much of their explicit memory can still recall songs and the feelings associated with them (Levitin 2006).

The ontogenetic nature of music provides an effective developmental mechanism for both the cultural encoding of music with emotional meaning, and the association of such emotionally encoded music with socially salient schema. We are born with innate capacities to perceive and process music and with some innate emotional preferences and responses to music. Yet, exposure and socialization are required for us to learn and encode the syntactic structure and emotional meaning of our culture’s music. By the time we have reached adolescence we are ready to associate this emotionally encoded music with social schema, and adolescents worldwide appear to do so naturally.

Humans also appear to possess a predisposition to associate music with sacred ritual and its symbolic schema, as well. Throughout the world, music is intimately associated with religion and is imbued with symbolic, sacred meaning. This interconnection of music and the miraculous may be both a human predisposition and a basic human need. Indeed, the emotional power of music may be dangerous in the absence of such structured meaning (Horesh 2006). One teen interviewed by sociologist Tia Denora observed that he stopped listening to music because, although it moved him, it failed to “go anywhere” (Denora 2001, 168). The symbolic ritual that accompanies music in nearly all traditional societies, particularly during adolescent rites of passage, has the explicit purpose of taking the music somewhere. This somewhere consists of alternative worlds, symbolically and metaphorically represented through art, myth, dance, and mime. Such socially salient metaphors and symbols are emotionally charged through music-based ritual. It draws participants through the looking glass into the world of the paranormal.

There is growing evidence that humans in general, and adolescents in particular, benefit from participation in music-based religious ritual. Both mental and physical health is positively correlated with such participation (Donahue and Benson 1995; Smith 2005). Sociologist Phil Zuckerman has shown that the incidence of mental disorders and suicide in the world today is significantly and positively correlated with secularization (Zuckerman 2006). These findings suggest that music, and the sense of the miraculous that it mnemonically and emotionally evokes, may not only be beneficial to human health, but fundamental to it, as well.


Of all species on earth, only humans have succeeded in creating and maintaining large, cohesively functioning groups of genetically unrelated individuals. Such non-kin cooperation is certainly dependent on our cognitive abilities to delay gratification and plan for future benefits, as well as on our linguistic ability to effectively communicate with one another. Yet, non-kin cooperation is equally dependent on our ability to trust other group members to uphold their commitments to the group, even when such commitments run counter to immediate self-interests. The human ability to socially create miraculous worlds and to emotionally evoke those worlds through music is likely to play a central role in the creation of such trust.

For cultures throughout the world, religion appears to solve this problem of trust. Those of us who live in modern, secular nation-states have difficulty understanding this role of religion in other areas of the world or moments in history. With well-developed legal contracts, an extensive penal code and judicial system, and a powerful, state-run police force, the problem of trust is confined principally to personal and domestic issues. Yet, in many regions of the world these amenities do not exist. Even when these elements are in place, for those disenfranchised within such systems, the trust question looms large. For these persons religion remains an important solution, as evidenced by the role of black churches in the American Civil Rights Movement, the high religious participation rates of women in the United States today, and the growing importance of Pentecostal churches throughout Latin America.

The neurophysiological model of music, trance, and miracles presented here suggests proximate mechanisms by which both music and miracles create and cohesify groups. Ultimate causes are likely to relate to the need for non-kin cooperation early in human evolution—a need that still exists today. Our ability to enjoy music and experience miracles may have profane origins, yet this ability has produced a human mind with the potential of creating a symbolic human culture capable of collectively reaching the stars. That “music of the spheres” is truly miraculous.