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Kathleen Myers's picture

Music and the mind

I think that music's capacity to aid memory and calm people is, in part, rooted its rhythmic and repetitive qualities-- that is, how it consists of and creates particular patterns.

In most preliterate cultures, traditional stories were sung or chanted, and while there were a variety of ways of telling these stories, certain word patterns generally appear ed again and again, as in Homer's Illiad and Odyssey. These word clusters had particluar poetic stresses- dactylic hexameter, I think, in the case of Homer- and worked as a mnemonic device for the storyteller. (But the use of them also permitted improvisation in response to the audience's or storyteller's own interests, just as with jazz music.) Also, many types of music and poetic rhythms mimic our biological rhythms (pulse, respiration, etc.), and while we may or may not be conscious of it, this surely this has a powerful effect on our perception and memory.

If behavior itself can be reasonably described as patterns of activity across motor neurons, it makes sense that music- a pattern of vibrational activity- effects the brain in very powerful ways. Loud, discordant music has even been used as a weapon by government agencies. I think I read somewhere that at ATF blared incessant heavy metal at David Koresh's Waco compound when they were trying to get  him and his follwers to evacuate the buildings.


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