The Secret Connection Between Music, Mind, and Meaning

What do you think of when you think of music?

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In the mid-80s, Prince undertook what was one of the most ambitious projects of his life: a $10M, 65,000 square-foot recording and production complex he would eventually call “Paisley Park”. Prince, who was notoriously private, envisioned it as a haven for himself and other musicians. He would end up recording 30 of his countless studio albums there, and even immortalized it in the song, Paisley Park.

“Come to the park
And play with us
There aren’t any rules
In Paisley Park” – Prince

After his untimely demise in 2016, Paisley Park was turned into a museum and opened to the public. Like millions of others, I had been a fan since the day I first heard Purple Rain on the radio. I visited the studio-turned-museum in early 2017, hoping to learn more about the man I had idolized for years.

What was meant to be an educative visit turned into a transformative one. Music had been a central part of my life in high-school and college. But after I entered the workforce, music receded in the background. It became mostly a source of escape: a promise of a ‘good time’ and a side-income as a weekend DJ.

But when I entered the pastel-purple hued central hall of Paisley Park, with Prince’s recently departed presence heavy around me, I was overcome by an overwhelming feeling of reverential awe. There was a sense of meditative calm I hadn’t felt in years. I had a stark realization: that music was more – much more – than a means of escape. It was a means to self-knowledge, inner discovery, and meaning.

This turned into a near-frantic search to understand the impact music has on our lives. As the only species to make music, I wanted to learn: why do we make (and listen to) music? And how does it change the way we see ourselves and the world around us?

Music as a Meditative Force

“I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” – Albert Einstein

Do you ever find your mind wandering, glossing over the present and dwelling on the past? It’s almost as if you’re in a state of “wakeful rest”.

In neuroscience, this state is called “default mode network”. When we are in this state, our minds usually end up focusing on past mistakes and unpleasant old memories. This used to be an evolutionary advantage: if you analyzed the past, you could correct future mistakes.

For most of us, however, dwelling on the past is simply a source of anxiety. In fact, being stuck in a state of mind wandering is closely linked to unhappiness, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert.

When you listen to music you love, you go into a similar state of “wakeful rest”. Your mind wanders and you slip into the default mode network. However, the presence of music creates in a vastly different emotional result. While the mind still wanders, you don’t focus on unpleasant memories. Instead, your brain emphasizes the pleasant effect of the music itself.

Meditation has the same effect. Although the mind slips into the default mode network under meditation, it does not carry any emotional baggage. This creates the state of “presence” you associate with meditation.

In other words, listening to music you love has the same effect on your brain as meditation.

This is precisely what one 2016 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease discovered. In the study, 60 patients with Alzheimer’s disease were randomly assigned to two groups. The first group was made to undergo an intensive 12-week Kirtan Kriya (KK) meditation program. The other group was simply asked to undergo focused music listening (ML).

When the patients were evaluated on their sense of well-being, stress, and mood, the music listening group had nearly the same results as the meditation group. That is to say, music rewires the brain in the same way as meditation.

Music Connects us to Community

In 2009, archaeologists digging through a cave in Germany stumbled upon a flute carved from the hollow bones of a bird. When they carbon-dated it, they discovered that it was 35,000 years old.

What was a hunter-gatherer in Germany’s northern wilderness doing with a delicately carved flute 35,000 years ago? Entertainment could be one reason, but the archaeologists theorized a much more important function of the flute: to create a sense of community.

In a 2013 review, psychologist Stefan Koelsch looked at the social underpinnings of music. He surmised that music was the “glue” that holds communities together. He concluded:

“The ability of music to increase social cohesion and strengthen interindividual attachments was probably an important function of music in human evolution.”

A study published in Frontiers in Psychology looked at the neurological basis for this phenomenon. It found that when we synchronize with someone over music – such as harmonizing over a song or moving to a beat – we feel positive social feelings towards that person. Surprisingly, this phenomenon is present even when someone doesn’t share the same physical space with us (that is, you can feel this emotion towards a singer on a recorded album).

There is a biological reason for this effect as well. A study of professional and amateur singers found that singing for 30 minutes, especially as a mode of self-expression, causes a spike in oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is the neuropeptide related to physical contact and results in a stronger feeling of trust. Higher levels of oxytocin create a stronger sense of social bonding.

So when our 35,000 hunter-gatherer carved his flute, he probably wasn’t just trying to make beautiful sounds; he was also trying to improve the social bonding in his tribe.

Music in My Life

The visit to Paisley Park that sparked this journey into music also led to a new turn in my career. I quit my job in a leading technology company and decided to make music the center of my life, once again. I started a venture I had thought about for years: MIDINation. My goal? To work with musicians and help them make, master, and market music that matters to them. I want young musicians to be dig deep and discover the roots of their own love for music, and to make something that is truly meaningful.

Music has been a transformative influence in my life. Has it changed yours as well? 

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