Why a new rule about music?

Why did I add a chapter on music to the second edition of Brain Rules that wasn’t in the first?

There’s a commercial from the 1970s, starring actor and director Orson Welles, about a California winery’s fastidious production philosophy. “We will sell no wine before its time,” Welles intoned. That tagline could easily be applied to our subject. Ideas about how music affects the brain long have been the providence of anecdote. But the research has been maturing for a while now. Now it is of sufficient quality that a few solid things can be said about it.

Science has a wholly undeserved reputation for being confident, quick, and decisive. Real science is insecure, slow, and obsessed with doing more experiments. The research on music and the brain is a terrific illustration of how tentative our enterprise can be. Many bright people have labored long and hard to bring up to the surface the few nuggets available in this chapter. It’s exciting stuff that will only get more exciting as the years go by.

A music chapter has been on my mind for years. My wife is a classical composer, and I have been around swirls of her music our entire marriage (more than three decades now). It is natural for me as a brain scientist to wonder about how music affects her, and me, and our children—not just the way we think but the way we experience emotions.

Writing about these data, tentative as they may be, is an attempt to understand what goes on in the brain—including yours—when we perform or listen to our favorite songs. I think you will find it uplifting. And, if you live with a musician, perhaps also explanatory.

Video supplements: