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Is There a Science of Musical Transformation in Human Life?
My alternative musicology sounds like voodoo to some people, but there's science behind the magic—and musicians need to know about it
Below I make the first steps in presenting a scientific basis for my alternative musicology—a holistic way of thinking about songs and their impact on individuals and societies.
This is all the important stuff that you don’t learn at music school—or even from those bestselling books about your “brain on music.” They promise to give you the hard science, but leave out the most essential information. And I believe those missing details are absolutely vital learning for musicians, and others who care deeply about music
You can read the text below as a stand-alone essay, or in the context of my book Music to Raise the Dead: The Secret Origins of Musicology, which I am publishing here on Substack (at the rate of one chapter per month).
For the table of contents with links to each chapter, click here.
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Is There a Science of Musical Transformation in Human Life?
(Part 1 of 2)
By Ted Gioia
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a prominent Harvard brain scientist, suffered a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her own brain on December 10, 1996. She was just 37 years old, and by the end of the day could no longer walk, talk, write, read, or recall the most basic details of her daily routine.
She was an expert in brain traumas of this very sort, but now lost all that expertise in a flash. Even worse, her entire past was seemingly erased during the course of just four hours.
But the most unlikely part of this story is her subjective response to this life-threatening incident. The shutdown of her left brain hemisphere gave Dr. Taylor (in her own words) “a growing sense of peace….I felt enfolded by a tranquil sense of euphoria.”
Much has been written about the different functions of the two brain hemispheres, but Dr. Taylor is the only prominent neuroanatomist to have experienced such a radical shift firsthand—and then recovered to tell her story, a recovery that took eight long years. As a result, her testimony on the subject is far more persuasive and moving than anything you will read in a medical textbook.
As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace….my consciousnss soared into all-knowingness, a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will. In a compelling way, it felt like the good road home and I liked it.
I’ve already written about a number of unusual roads and journeys so far in this book, and we will travel on a few more in the pages ahead. But this has to be the most unlikely of them all.
How can you suffer a massive stroke, a life-threatening hemorrhage that leaves you completely incapacitated, and feel good about it? In fact, her first reaction when she identified the symptoms was: “Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke! And in the next instant, the thought flashed through my mind, Wow, this is so cool!”
But this is not as strange as it seems. The key to Dr. Taylor’s newfound peace of mind came from her ability, for the first time in her life, to rely solely on her right hemisphere—and the effect was a pervasive sense of “tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.” This response was so extreme that she later described it as “finer than the finest pleasures we can experience as physical beings….one of glorious bliss.”
This, she now believes, is the same thing as the Nirvana celebrated in Buddhism and other spiritual disciplines. And it is open to everyone, she now insists, not just mystics or stroke victims. “I believe the experience of Nirvana exists in the consciousness of our right hemisphere, and that at any moment we can choose to hook into that part of the brain.”
That sounds so appealing. Wouldn’t we all like to find this road home, and experience deep-seated feelings of “euphoria and omniscience.” But how do the rest of us learn to tap into the right hemisphere?
In fact, there are many paths to this endpoint—involving everything from illegal drugs to arduous spiritual disciplines. But the simplest way to tap into the right hemisphere is music.
The connection between songs and the right hemisphere of our brains is so strong that stroke victims who have lost the language-making capacity of their left brain are sometimes still able to sing words they can no longer speak.
Or consider the case of composer Vissarion Shebalin, who suffered two severe strokes that deprived him of most of his language skills, but he continued composing at a very high level, perhaps even better than before. His friend Dmitri Shostakovich described Shebalin’s final 5th symphony, finished shortly before a third stroke ended his life, as “a brilliant creative work, filled with the highest emotions, optimistic, and full of life. The symphony composed during his illness is a creation of a great master.”
And there are other case studies of this sort. An unnamed conductor who had performed at La Scala and other major concert halls and opera houses, suffered an infarct in his left middle cerebral artery while on a US tour. His language skills were almost totally erased—when shown pictures of 20 familiar items, he could not name any of them. But his musical abilities were unimpaired, and he continued his career as a conductor.
I started this book with accounts of a very different kind of conductor—one who takes us on dangerous, life-changing journeys, but who also knows a special kind of music. My sources were ancient myths, poetic texts, and sacred belief systems, and I shared some of their extraordinary claims about music-driven journeys of transformative power. Many of you must have feared that your author was going off the deep end. He was babbling on about mystical trips and music to raise the dead. He claimed that songs contained magical properties. Somebody needed to bring Ted back to reality and pronto.
This is the chapter where that happens. I put the myths and legends aside, and stick with the facts, peer-reviewed and clinically tested. But here’s the surprise: neuroscience and other disciplines tell us the exact same story as the Derveni papyrus and all those esoteric shamanistic sources I’ve been describing.
Music is the gateway. It provides the pathway of the hero’s journey. That’s not just a myth or voodoo, but an alternative musicology of great significance. The basis for this musicology is actually hardwired into our body and brain—or, if you prefer the terminology, our heart and soul.
That’s true for everybody, but musicians ought to pay the closest attention of all. I say that because, although listening to music is a specialty of the right brain—drawing on its skills in processing emotions, imaginative thinking, and a more holistic approach to the world—the performance of music can turn into a detail-driven left brain activity, especially if it is rote and repetitive (for example, playing scales or the delivery of a familiar piece).
The interesting exception to this appears to be the music of Bach, which seems to demand the participation of the right hemisphere. That’s probably because the holistic nature of the integrating counterpoint lines resists the detail-driven orientation of the left brain. By the way, I’d wager that playing complex ragtime works, such as the “Maple Leaf Rag,” might require a similar reliance on the right hemisphere—because delivering the constant syncopated accents while simultaneously managing the intricate interactions between the hands demands a Bach-like holistic immersion in the flow.
And then, of course, there’s jazz—which I’ll talk more about below.
All this starts early in life. Electroencephalographic scans of infants reveal that speech activates the left hemisphere, but music stirs up the right. A study of babies at age 8 months reveals that they already demonstrate neural entrainment that matches the external rhythms of the music. And later as adults, music and poetry heard by our left ear (hence reaching the right hemisphere) is reportedly more pleasing than when the opposite ear is listening.
There’s a reason why parents instinctively hold their infants with the child’s head cradled to the left—a practice that is found everywhere in the world. In fact, this is even how youngsters hold baby dolls. This maximizes contact between the left eyes of both parties—and those eyes are controlled by the right hemisphere, with its greater sensitivity to emotion, empathy, and personal connection. But the infant can also hear the heartbeat from this posture, and that’s the first and most soothing rhythm we will ever experience in our lives.
And if the musical connection isn’t already obvious enough from these observations, just consider how this is the ‘audience’ seating for the lullaby—our earliest experience of live music.
The more spontaneous and in-the-moment the music, the more it taps into the powers of the right hemisphere. “Some basic metrical rhythms are mediated by the left brain, particularly by Broca’s area,” writes Iain McGhilchrist in his pathbreaking study The Master and His Emissary, “while more complex rhythms, and those with more deviations from the standard pattern, such as syncopations and cross rhythms, are preferentially treated by the right hemisphere.” And when it comes to harmony, the hardwired preferences are even more obvious. “The right hemisphere is more sensitive to harmony, which could be considered essentially a right-hemisphere function.”
Spontaneous? Syncopated? Rich with harmonies? It sounds like the exemplars of this right brain Nirvana are John Coltrane and Miles Davis. The pathway to that higher state of mind might even begin with a favorite record, or a visit to a nightclub.
But you have probably felt something like this in your own experience of listening to music. I know that I have. The more immersed I am in the music, the less I worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow, or what took place yesterday. I live blissfully in the now, much like Dr. Taylor in her personal post-stroke Nirvana. And if I focus on the most intense musical experiences of my life, those handful of moments when the concert achieved a magical level of immediacy and ecstasy, they genuinely resemble altered mind states—something so powerful that you might think illicit drugs were required to achieve such a level of euphoria.
These mind-and-soul-shaking experiences are matters of extreme importance in aesthetics and music appreciation. That should be obvious by now. But that’s only part of the story, maybe only a small part. McGhilchrist argues that our whole society suffers from an extreme right brain deficit and a resulting amplification of a left hemisphere worldview—analytic and detail-oriented—a view he supports with mountains of convincing evidence and clinical data.
Even if you disagree with the full scope of his indictment, it’s hard to deny that those detail-oriented analytic skills cultivated by the left hemisphere get the most rewards in our economy, while the holistic and empathetic qualities of the right brain are dismissed as too soft and impractical.
Just look at all those STEM majors and high paid coding jobs, for a start. And consider how all those other characteristics of the left hemisphere that Dr. Taylor so gladly relinquished after her stroke—the constant critiquing, judging, arguing, verbalizing, nitpicking—now permeate every sphere of public and private life.
The left hemisphere is also noted for its cocksure stubbornness. The clinical literature provides numerous accounts of stroke survivors with right hemisphere damage who assert totally wrongheaded things, but with a level of self-confidence that is off the charts—so much so that their unwillingness to correct their errors is even more striking than their initial mistakes. Perhaps you’ve encountered a lot of that in contemporary society, and not just from stroke victims. I know that I have.
Musical experiences stand out all the more in this setting, a cherished refuge in the storm. And if McGhilchrist is correct, they can be more than a mere escape but a legitimate starting point for a journey to something more holistic and healing in a larger way.
Our focus here is music, so McGilchrist’s indictment that current society is suffering from a huge deficiency of right brain thinking is beyond the scope of my work. I will simply point out that the most vital things our right hemisphere makes possible do feel in retreat right now: empathy, humor, imagination, spiritual awe, a love of nature, poetic thinking, and a genuine sense of connecting with others. This deficit is not a small thing, and almost amounts to a cultural starvation with potentially fatal consequences. And music has a role to play in all these missing-in-action attributes.
For our purposes here, it’s more important to focus on the two very different ways our competing hemispheres have of changing the world. For the left hemisphere, we change the world by manipulating and controlling it. For the right hemisphere, we go out into the larger environment and transform both ourselves and our world in a way that feels more like merging or transcending. That is precisely the hero’s journey described in this book, and songs are better tools for that transformation than a hammer or a gun.
In other words, musicians really do have a higher potential, perhaps even a heroic one. A song can be much more than a song. Maybe it ought to be.
But how do we channel all these latent powers in music? Nobody teaches you this, not even in music school—or especially not in music school. To the extent that I’ve found specific regimens that promise impressive results, they are invariably from some marginalized or mocked discipline, such as binaural beats or 432 Hz tuning or Tibetan singing bowls or some other off-the-grid approach.
There has to be something better here. Some real science, something rock solid to hold on to. More than just promises, but actual techniques.
We now need to turn to the basic building blocks of music, especially rhythm, and dig more deeply into the scientific literature. It will tell us many fascinating things, but—even more—help us grasp a musicology that is transformative on a larger scale than we previously believed possible.
Click here for part 2 of “Is There a Science of Musical Transformation in Human Life?”—from my new book Music to Raise the Dead: The Secret Origins of Musicology.
a growing sense of peace: Jill Bolte Taylor, A Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (New York: Penguin, 2009), p. 41.
Oh my gosh: Ibid,. p. 44
tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience: Ibid., p. 51
finer than the finest pleasures: Ibid., p. 69.
I believe the experience of Nirvana: Ibid., p. 116.
a brilliant creative work: Diana Deutsch, Musical Illusions and Phantom Words: How Music and Speech Unlock Mysteries of the Brain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), p. 156.
an unnamed conductor: Anna Basso and Erminio Capitani, “Spared Musical Abilities in a Conductor with Global Aphasia and Ideomotor Apraxia,” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, Vol. 48, No. 5 (May 1985), pp. 407-412
the music of Bach: J Vollmer-Haase, K Finke, W Hartje, and M. Bulla-Hellwig, “Hemispheric Dominance in the Processing of J. S. Bach Fugues: A Transcranial Doppler Sonography (TCD) Study with Musicians,” Neuropsychologia, Vol. 36, No. 9 (October 1998), pp. 857-867.
A study of babies: Chiara Cantiani, Chiara Dondena, Massimo Molteni, Valentina Riva, and Caterina Piazza, “Synchronizing with the Rhythm: Infant Neural Entrainment to Complex Musical and Speech Stimuli,” Frontiers of Psychology, Vol. 13 (October 21, 2022).
music and poetry heard by our left ear: Robert G. Ley and M.P. Bryden, “A Dissociation of Right and Left Hemispheric Effects for Recognizing Emotional Tone and Verbal Content.,” Brain and Cognition, Vol. 1, No. 1 (January 1982), pp. 3–9.
parents instinctively hold their infants: J.T. Manning and A.T. Chamberlain, “Left-Side Cradling and Brain Lateralization,” Ethology and Sociobiology, Vol. 12, No. 3 (May 1991), pp. 237-244; Lee Salk, “The Role of the Heartbeat in the Relations Between Mother and Infant,” Scientific American, Vol. 228, No. 5 (May 1, 1973), pp. 24-29.
Some basic metrical rhythms: Iain McGhilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, Expanded Edition (New Haven: Yale, 2018), pp. 74-75.
The right hemisphere is more sensitive: Ibid., p. 75