What gives music its power to soothe the savage beast, to incite the passions, and to lift the heart? Some scientists believe they are now on the verge of explaining just how music produces these responses.  They are searching for biophysical explanations of what makes music musical, and are discovering some fascinating clues as to how the brain responds to music. The key to their research is to quantify and measure the quality of expressiveness which gives music its emotional charge. Their experiments aim to explain how two different performances of the same piece of music can have such very different emotional impacts upon the listener. [Pam Bullock, “To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons”, New York Times, April 18, 2011]

These special neurons are called “mirror” neurons, because they seem to be triggered when a person observes the behavior of others, as though one were watching oneself in a mirror. This function correlates to feelings of empathy—the experience of feeling what another person feels, or at least feeling what we imagine the other person is feeling. It’s as if the neurons in our brain mirror the emotions of another person. Neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves calls these systems of mirror neurons “one of the most significant discoveries in the last decade”, because they suggest the existence of neural substrates which enable the “capacity for personal relatedness”.[1] These specialized neurons seem to suggest the possibility that emotions such as empathy are hard-wired into our brains, and that these emotions can be triggered by music which incites our mirror neuron substrates.

Not only that, but these same mirror neurons have been shown to be activated when people are faced with experiences of ethical conflict also, and again, empathy seems to be the connection. There seems to be a connection between morality and music therefore, even if only at the basal level of neuronal systems. This makes sense because to perceive how another person might feel about an event is the first step toward moral awareness. If I am capable of feeling empathy for how my action might affect you, then I am more likely to frame it in terms of moral responsibility, and to not be so self-centered about it. Evidence comes from brain scans of persons who are watching another person be injured or treated unfairly. The same sorts of responses occur in the brains of persons wrestling with a moral dilemma. Common sense would expect this to be the case; after all, moral dilemmas trigger the same sorts of emotional responses as the experience of seeing another person being injured. We may thus conclude that ethics and empathy are closely linked. This is why some researchers suggest that the best clues to understanding moral behaviors such as altruism will be found by studying the function of mirror neuron systems.

Based on the commonality between feelings of empathy and ethical behavior, it should come as no surprise to learn that mirror neuron systems are active in both experiences. After all, empathy and ethics would seem to be offshoots of the same ability to sense what another person is (or might plausibly be) feeling. Thus we might expect to find mirror neuron systems active in the brains of persons as they deliberate upon moral dilemmas, because in order to imagine the morality of one’s actions, it would help to be able to imagine how one’s actions might affect other people.[2]

Now returning to the question of what makes music musical, why should we expect the same neural substrate which triggers feelings of empathy and ethics to be activated by music? The interesting point is that the more musically expressive the music, the more active the neural substrates.  But why? This is the question being asked by the scientists who seek to understand what makes music musical.  The interesting result of their brain research is that when subjects listen to artistic (i.e. musically expressive) performances, the mirror neurons are not the only specialized areas of the brain to be activated; the areas associated with motor control also become noticeably more energized. These are the same regions which would actively regulate of physical movement, whether dance or walking or raising a glass; these same neural systems which control bodily movements become active also in the appreciation of good music. This is not merely a matter of having a sense of rhythm, or of having an urge to tap one’s foot to the beat. Research suggests there is more to it—much more indeed, because regular music, such as that produced by mechanically (whether by human or machine) with perfect timing and pitch, with every note held for the precisely correct duration and intonation, does not activate the motor control system and mirror neuron system nearly as much as music performed by masterful artists with beautiful expression. The beautifully performed, expressive performances are not the perfectly played ones, it seems. The beautiful performances are the more or less imperfectly played ones, if we are to judge by timing and tonal purity.

What then is beauty? See how quickly brain research leads into philosophy! No sooner do we seem to be on the path toward discovery of the mechanics of human perception and response, by reducing experiences down to the deterministic firing of synapses and structure of neural networks, than we realize that the very thing we are struggling to understand cannot be understood apart from the subjective perspective of a living subject.

In order to appreciate a melody, to perceive the beauty in it, we might say, the melody must be perceived holistically, and not merely as the sum of its parts. If we break the music down into individual notes, even perfectly played ones, there is no music, but merely notes; there is no beauty in merely mechanical precision. Kant, the brilliant theoretician of moral philosophy, had this figured out long before the advent of modern neuroscience and the invention of brain scanning technologies.  If there be beauty in a work of art, it will result from the holistic impact of the whole piece, in which each part “exists only through all the others [and] thus as if existing for the sake of the others and on account of the whole.”[3] The same is true for musical performance, as Franco Chiereghin observes in his inquiry into the peculiarly human trait of musicality:

…in a melody, taken as a unitary whole in its temporal articulation, each note exists in view of each of the others and at the same time; as it is embedded in the melodic development, it exists only through all of the others.[4]

Well structured tones and rhythm are not enough to make the music sing; but rather, it’s the small human imperfections, disturbing subtly the orchestrated structure of the music, which imbue a piece with beauty to incite the passion of human persons. It takes the consciousness of one human person to appreciate the beauty and musicality in another’s performance. This is the peculiarly human aspect of beauty—it requires not merely a sophisticated neural network to process the acoustic stimuli, but also a living human person to make sense out of it, and to construct a meaningful, expressive whole from the subtle imperfections of the performance. Those imperfections and deviations from the mathematical precision of music are precisely the ingredients which infuse the performance with meaning and beauty, the beauty of which cannot be appreciated apart from the capacity of a personal intelligence to perceive and make sense of the emotion being communicated through the performance. Of course this process engages the same brain substrates involved in motor control and empathy. How could it be otherwise? After all, rhythm and emotion are essential, basic components of music interpretation.  But the higher gift of musicality requires the mysteriously holistic interpretation of a whole person, one who can transform the notes riding the airwaves into the music of the heart.

The most expressive music rides upon the currents of the subtle imperfections and imprecisions induced by the artist, and the transformational power of a human consciousness turns them into a thing of beauty, and not a string of senseless mistakes. The human person who hears the music and makes sense of it receives it as an expression of a living soul. For this reason alone does music sing of a greater truth and a spiritual reality.

Similarly, ethics also is a function of that same peculiarly human capacity to perceive beauty by making sense of the whole. Like music appreciation, ethics depends upon the capacity of a human person to recognize a greater truth than that which is presented merely by the facts or mechanics of life. We are not surprised therefore that music, empathy and ethics all engage the mirror neuron systems. There is a commonality here among these experiences which pertains to the human capacity to express and discern—to give and receive, we might say—the meaningfulness of another person’s emotional experience.

Music and morality are common to human life. They are beautiful precisely because there is more to life than what can be seen with the eye and heard with the ear. Let those with ears hear.

Anne Sophie Mutter


[1] Malcolm Jeeves, “The Emergence of Human Distinctiveness: The Story from Neuropsychology and Evolutionary Psychology”, in Rethinking Human Nature: a Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 176-203, 198.

[2] This hypothesis is being actively studied by neuroscientists. V.S. Ramachandran argues that these human capacities emerged as “culture became a significant new source of evolutionary pressure, which helped select for brains that had even better mirror-neuron systems and the imitative learning associated with them. The result was one of the many self-amplifying snowball effects that culminated in Homo sapiens, the ape that looked into its own mind and saw the whole cosmos reflected inside.” Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: W.W. Norton,2011), 23.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Ak. Ausg. V, §65, p. 373 (Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. P. Guyer, trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 245. Cf. Chiereghin, p. 97 for this reference.

[4] Franco Chiereghin, “The Peculiarly Human Feature of the Aesthetic Experience: The Teaching of Kant and the Challenge of Neuroscience”, in Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 82-106, p. 97.

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