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Biology 202
2003 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Orpheus unraveled? A conversation on sound and brain function

Katherine LaFrance

In Macedonian hills, the music of Orpheus was said to possess certain magical qualities, having powers strong enough to alter the very behavior of people and animals. Among its abilities, the notes of Orpheus' lyre were said to calm the guard-dog of Hades (1), to cause the evil Furies to cry, and to tame the deadly voices of the Sirens (2). Was this power simply a divine and magical gift with no other explanation, or can we explain more specifically the connections between music and behavior?

Sound is an important input affecting the nervous system. The brain reacts to sound input because information signals are able to travel from the outside environment, across action potentials and through the neural network into the brain. Such signals, electrical in nature, can be detected by the electroencephalogram, or EEG, which measures the electrical activity of the brain (3). Such electrical activity has been shown to correspond to different states of consciousness within an individual, as the EEG reveals different brain activity depending upon the mental state and the actions of the person being observed. Four different types of brain waves are defined—beta, alpha, theta, and delta—and each corresponds to a different state of activity and consciousness. Beta waves, vibrating at a frequency of 13-50 hertz, are those that are experienced during the normal and alert waking state; alpha waves at 8-13 Hz occur during relaxation; theta waves (4-7 Hz) in the "halfway" moments between waking and sleeping; and delta waves, the slowest at 0.5-4 Hz, during sleep. Interestingly, the brain has been shown to emit the slower theta waves even when in the waking state, when in the undergoing such activities as chant and meditation (4).

For thousands of years, music has been regarded as possessing unique powers in affecting the human experience. Specifically, music has been associated with healing abilities, and has been used for such purposes throughout history. Traditionally, the types of sound responsible for healing are characterized by distinct rhythms, and by specific emphasis on repetition that stems from those rhythms. The existence of repetitive beat seems to aid in the achievement of meditative state. Shamans are well known for their use of drum beats to access healing powers both within themselves and for the people they wish to treat (5).

It has been suggested that in the meditative state—a state of extreme awareness and internal mental calmness—the two hemispheres of the brain become synchronized in brain wave production, rather than generating signals of varying frequencies and amplitudes. It would thus make sense that the repetitive nature of chant, and the underlying beat of music, is central in the unifying and rhythmic effect that such practices have on the brain. Specifically, we find the underlying repetitive drone, a constantly held baseline tone, in numerous types of spiritual chant, including the Hebrew, Byzantine, Arabic, Tibetan and Gregorian traditions. The Om sound is also an important tone in traditional chanting practice which calls upon repetition and harmonics for its restorative effects.

A striking example relating rhythm, brain function, and health is found in a story which occurred forty years ago among a group of Benedictine monks in southern France, when changes in their behavior resulted in health complications. After the Vatican II council, it was decided that the monks no longer needed to perform their typical 6-8 daily hours of chanting, and could rather use that time for other chores and activities. Interestingly, it was after this change that a vast majority of the group began to suffer exceeding amounts of fatigue, no longer able to survive well on the limited sleep with which they once functioned normally. Health officials were called, and advised the men to get more sleep. This was done, but still the symptoms persisted. Again a doctor was called, this time deciding that the monks were undernourished and should begin eating meat. This new regimen was followed, but to no avail, and the monks suffered yet more tiredness and lethargy. Finally, it was prescribed by Dr. Alfred Tomatis, a French ENT specialist who acknowledged the impact of structured sound on brain function, that the monks recommence their many daily hours of chanting; and this, interestingly, is what seemed to solve the problem and bring vitality back. It was thus believed that the singing of chant, and specifically the accessing of high frequency sounds and harmonics (6), had a way of altering brain wave activity and energizing the nervous system and brain (7). It seemed possible that vocal harmonics could actually create new neurological connections.

Numerous other examples claim such positive effect of chanting on brain function. "Omkar" recitation and chanting has been shown to increase concentration and memory, and to reduce fatigue (8). In 1993, a study performed at the university of California at Irvine and published in Nature, examined the effect that listening to certain types of music might have on learning and memory (9). A group of students listened to ten minutes of the following three different selections, each for ten minutes prior to taking a spatial reasoning test: Mozart's piano Sonata in D major, a recording of relaxation music, and silence. According to the results, the students' scores improved after listening to the Mozart recording compared to the other two recordings, a result which spawned the term "Mozart effect" for the increased performance expected after such listening. The results, however, have their limits; the so-called "Mozart effect" was found to last only 10-15 minutes, and is helpful specifically in tests of spatial reasoning, rather than tests involving the recitation of numbers (10). This suggests that music has an effect on specific neural pathways, and those pathways are responsible for specific areas of mental functioning.

It has long been proposed by way of many religions, philosophies, and myths, that sound possesses creative force. Many religions relate the creation of the universe by way of a speech-act, in which the god literally speaks the world into existence. In Mesopotamian myth, the cosmos is formed musically by the lyre of Ur. Sound, in many instances, is painted as the fundamental moving force of the universe. This idea of 'sound creating form' began to migrate into the world of the sciences as well: the scientists H. Jenny and G. Manners in the mid 20th century studied the shapes and patterns created by sound vibrations as projected onto mediums of sand and iron filings, introducing a discipline which has been termed Cymantics.

It is fascinating to think about the primacy of voice and sound in the health and existence of life on earth. Indeed, voice can be thought of as a virtual map of the human topography. It has been suggested that it is the speaking ability of the I-function which helps us to define our "true selves," and allows us to separate this internal self from the outside world. Myths have even suggested that the "Ur-sound" introduces the fundamental frequencies lying at the base of all life. These ideas offer interesting models for the physical action and effects of sound on living systems. It is clear that sound, and structured voice, does indeed have a profound effect on brain physiology—and hence affects our behavior—as the lyre of Orpheus has always shown.


1)Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X, lines 25-32.

2) Homer, Odyssey, XII.90.1.

3)Neuroscience website from the University of Washington, Electricity in the body: action potential, resting potential.

4)Journal article from Pubmed , A study of electroencephalogram in meditators.

5)Website of Shamanism Today, Informational page about native American shamans.

6)Website for Healing Sounds, Information about chanting and harmonics.

7) A further discussion of harmonics and chanting.

8)Website for Yoga Point, Publication of research on Omkar recitation.

9), Journal article in Nature,Music and spatial task performance. McLachlan, JC.

10)Neuroscience website from the University of Washington,details on tests and results.

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