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The late Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi when he performed in Kenya in 2011. (File, Standard)
 “If music be the food of love, play on; give excess of it.” Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s Twelfth Knight, science now suggests we start feeding on this diet before we are born.

A fetus’ auditory system begins developing between seventeen and nineteen weeks, ushering the little being into a world of sound, of breath and heartbeat, of rhythm and vibration.

Sheila Woodward, at the University of Cape Town, worked with the Institute of Maritime Technology to adapt an underwater microphone so it could be placed in the uterus. The mic recorded exactly what was audible inside the uterus when music was played, when a mother sang herself, and when another person sang.

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The recordings reveal that a landscape of musical sound does surround the fetus. Startle responses of the fetus showing how the fetal heart rate becomes slightly raised confirms that we begin learning about music even before birth.

The use of music is universal across cultures, including in child-rearing, courtship and social occasions and rituals, and its ability to reinforce our sense of association with a group; our favourite sports team, religion or country. Changes throughout history have given us more ways to respond emotionally to music. The changes can be seen from the time music once considered a medium for words, to a being a powerful brain tool. Very few people can be categorised as experts in music or knowledgeable about all intricacies of music theory.

Nevertheless, all people have basic neural mechanisms to automatically perceive and analyse the structure and rules of music. Through mere exposure, (such as mothers singing to their unborn babies - fathers too can sing by the way) the brain learns to predict and anticipate movements of the music.

Pleasure from music is a result of expectations of musicalregularities and how they are fulfilled or violated as the composition unfolds. In fact, dopamine levels peak before the release of this tension created by music, that special moment in a tune that gives you the nips.

The evolution in understanding human relationship with musichas been enhanced by development in neuroscience. In his book, This is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin explains why music is alive and has the ability to and moves us. He surmises that music, through activation of our brain, has capability to work on the deepest level of our emotions, the door to the state of our consciousness. The more music resonates with deeper levels of thought and emotion, the more we are moved by and attracted to it. 

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Perceive speech in noise

The effect of music on our brains is as powerful as drugs that can elevate or diminish our mood. At the physical level, we feel the urge to move when hearing music by nodding our heads or tapping our feet. Modern science confirms that humans are designed to respond to music. Music, at the right moment, has the ability to lift our heart, mind and body towards something beyond the ordinary, and sublime is one of the best words I know to describe that effect.

Science has also indicated that music has potential to help people with neurological deficits. For example, using melodic intonation therapy, music is used to cajole sections of the brain to override areas damaged during stroke. Music training is beginning to show great promise in protecting individuals from certain types of cognitive changes associated with aging. For instance, researchers have found that older, musicallytrained individuals have better abilities to perceive speech in noise than musically non-trained individuals. What kind of music resounds with us? Sound is perhaps, the most comprehensive and primeval sense that all humans possess. Every one of us instinctively responds to the sublime inducement of music. Are there certain genres of music that universally appeals to human beings?

According to professor Levitin, music must reflect a structure that gives rise to the activity of the mind. This is an important point especially for today’s music artistes. Some critics have argued that today’s music especially in Kenya is loud, unruly and offensive. But if you look at the music that is big in the trends, even though it’s bland for what we would typically expect from alternative, it still makes “great” pop music based on success of the artistes.

Music should convey some sense of humanity — who we are, and what we feel. Where’s the love and romance in modern music? Is there any transmission pain and loss? Or pride and joy? How about playing a catchy tune that’s just fun to sing along with? Conversely, there is little contention about the superiority of music by maestros such as Franco Luambo Makiadi, Oliver Mtukudzi or Fadhili Williams.

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Similarly, works of JS Bach are still performed and listened to, to say nothing of the Psalms of David. We now know through studies in neuroscience that the melodies, harmonies, timbre, rhythm and lyrics are perceived by human brain as movement, as meaning, and as emotion.  It is quite apparent that music speaks to our emotional brain and that we perceive emotional information in musical features.  

Music is the first form of art and throughout the long history of humanity, it has played an essential part in our lives. Hardly is there anyone who has never listened to a song. Hence, we all seem to owe many things to music. It is fair to consider musicas ‘chicken soup for the soul’. I cannot imagine how our world would go without music. Music, since its birth, has brought to life many real and immortal artistic values.

- The writer is a PhD holder and an expert in Literacy, Education, Leadership and Emotional Intelligence. [email protected]

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University of Cape Town Music Entertainment Arts
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