Seeing Music: What do you think about when you listen to music?

In Columns, Culture by Katie BehrmanLeave a Comment

After an evening straight out of a 1950s movie“college experience,” a few of my classmates and I were walking back from dinner at our English professor’s house. We had eaten stew prepared by a chef, played an Oxford card game called Ex Libris, and listened to classical music. As the smooth chords of the cello and the elegant tones of the violin swept through the room, I had found myself choreographing what seemed like an entire ballet: characters falling madly in love, beautiful costumes, intricate formations.

While crossing the Walnut Street bridge, the chilly December air whipping against our faces, I asked my classmates what they had thought about while listening to the music.

“Well … nothing, I guess,” one of my friends responded, his brown boat shoe kicking at a fallen leaf.  “I’ve never really thought about what I think about,” he finished.

“Sometimes I see colors,” my other friend chimed in.“But I don’t know, I guess most of the time I just sit there.”


Interestingly, the way in which music affects our brains remains very much a mystery. In a study published in 2013, Daniel Abrams, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University of Medicine, had participants listen to four symphonies composed byWilliam Boyce. The researchers discovered that similar brain activity occurred in different people who listened to the same music, creating a common experience amongst listeners.  Abrams’ study also concluded that brain regions involving movement, attention, planning, and memory were activated when listening to music—which might explain why I had such a vivid image of dancing while listening to the classical music. Of his study, Abrams explained, “Despite our idiosyncrasies in listening, the brain experiences music in a very consistent fashion across subjects.”

On some level, we all experience an intricate connection between music, memory, and emotion. BBC journalist Tiffany Jenkins explains that music has long been a tool used to help schoolchildren memorize facts, from the “ABCs” to the “Fifty Nifty United States.” The rhythm and rhyme help to retrieve information from the hippocampus in the brain, easing the process of memorization.

The relationship between music and emotion, however, is more complicated.  An old song, explains Jenkins, may spark forgotten memories. The sound reminds us of a specific time in our lives, which can then release strong emotions. Because of this association, many people are beginning to use music therapeutically— for example, to helpthose who have suffered from brain injuries, dementia, or depression remember certain complex episodes and feelings from their lives.

Victor Hugo once said, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” Perhaps, then, music is ultimately a unique experience for each person. We all feel when we listen to music, but what exactly we each feel is a specific response to our own life experiences. And perhaps this explains why we all may see something different when we listen to the soaring notes of a song. We see what we need to see and not necessarily what the lyrics, or the notes, may be showing to another person.

Image courtesy of Stuffpoint.com.


Katie BehrmanSeeing Music: What do you think about when you listen to music?

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