The science of sound

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The human brain wants to make sense of sounds.

It’s why a major scale feels so natural, so right, so pleasing to the ear. It’s why certain combinations of notes on an instrument can feel dark and foreboding, why a minor chord can strike a sense of seriousness into a listener, no matter what their degree of musical training. That natural longing for order and simplicity isn’t just a matter of taste and refinement; it’s a function deeply embedded in our biology, a result of the way our body operates on a deeply neurological level.

“Music is the most powerful mood modifier in the history of man,” Hector Rasgado-Flores told the capacity crowd gathered at the main lecture hall at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the Anschutz Medical Campus on Nov. 14. Rasgado-Flores, a professor at the Chicago Medical School, spoke from behind a concert piano, taking constant breaks from speaking to play a piece by Chopin or Bach. “Music is based on physics, and physics is a science … Most commercial music is based on simple progressions.

“The brain is in desperate need to make sense of what is going on,” he added.

In that light, the question of musical beauty and creativity took on a clinical feel, an explanation rooted in wavelengths and frequencies. A typical pop music progression sounds good because of the way sounds come in to the human brain through the human ear. Blues, dance, folk, Latin and funk patterns make the kind of auditory sense they make because of certain laws. They’re laws that Pythagoras discovered in the 6th century B.C.E. through experiments with strings and chords rendered of animal guts. They’re rules that composers like Johann Sebastian Bach formalized in great works of academic research and dazzling piano compositions in the 17th century; guidelines that modern composers like Arnold Schoenberg tried to dismantle in the late 19th century.

If that were the only approach Rasgado-Flores had taken during his visit to Aurora, the beauty and mystery behind music would have seemed very dry and academic. Luckily, the man also played a mean piano.

Rasgado-Flores, an accomplished physician and concert pianist, had plenty of scientific research, historical background and dry data to support his observations about the relationship between the brain and the perception of beauty. But he also had the chops on the keyboard to illustrate other fundamental points about the power, meaning and dynamics behind a piece of breathtaking music.

“Is music the product of creation or discovery?” he asked the audience, in between playing spot-on renditions of an étude by Frederick Chopin and a stunning example of counterpoint by Bach. “Some of the most intense expressions of creativity arise as a response, as a fight against setbacks, pain, anguish and death.”

That fundamentally human facet of artistic achievement seemed to weigh as a counterargument to Rasgado-Flores’ more clinical, scientific examples. The human brain may be acclimated to certain combinations of pitch and frequency, but that doesn’t subtract from what the professor/composer termed as the “great mystery.” Only Dmitri Shostakovich could have composed his “Symphony No. 7,” a piece dedicated to the city of Leningrad that was inspired after an attack by German forces during World War II. No computer chip could have arrived at the same notes, chords and progressions, even if inherent rules of composition based on physics and science guided the composer’s mind.

Rasgado-Flores explored that link between science and art in the ideal place. The newly opened Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities has that connection as its central mission — in addition to an art gallery with constantly rotating works, the center has already hosted theatrical performances and artistic forums since it opened a few short months ago. Rasgado-Flores’ presentation was part of a new series hosted by the Center for Neuroscience, a facility administrated through the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology. The school, which opened last year, serves as a common ground for scientists, doctors and students from across the school studying the same subject: the human brain.

The center’s “Brain Series” seeks to clarify and explore some of the brain’s deepest mysteries, and the questions surrounding the beauty of music certainly fall in that category. The enigma has to do with basic rules of science and physics, but also with the human capacity to process sound. School of Medicine faculty member Dan Tollin was on hand to describe just how that process works. Thousands of neurons, hair cells, fluid chambers in the cochlea and other parts form a “biological battery” of sorts, he said, a tool designed for picking up and processing sound.

“Hearing loss has a role in other problems,” Tollin explained, adding that dimentia and Alzheimer’s may have roots in the malady. “We really undervalue our hearing.”

Maybe it’s because the role hearing loss can play in being cut off from social interactions, Tollin guessed; perhaps it contributes to isolation and cognitive deterioration. But Rasgado-Flores’ presentation seemed to hint at another possibility. Music, based on the fundamental, mathematical principles that undergird the structure of the physical universe, has been a “mood modifier” for thousands of years. Its restorative powers predate advances in Western medicine and psychology.

Its healing powers are deeply embedded in the human experience, in ways that defy an easy explanation through simple formulas and wavelengths.

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