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Music is a means of modifying brain activity through molecular vibration, primarily through the processes of the human ear and subsequent interpretation-based brain functions. Music only occurs if the following three actions occur in sequence:

  • Molecular vibration information, or sound, occurs and travels as a wave through a medium.
  • Sound received by the human ear or other body parts is transformed into neurotransmitted signals to the brain.
  • Signals in the brain are interpreted as music.

As one of the oldest art forms, music is present in almost every known culture on Earth. Over human history, the presence of music in the lives of humans has increased dramatically due to its fundamental focus of modifying brain activity, often for beneficial effects. The effects of music (or more generally, sound) may be observed from spiritual, social, psychological, or physical perspectives throughout its chronological development in history.


Prehistory and Early History: Spiritual Music

Instruments: voice, hand drums, shakers/rattles, bone or wood flutes, animal horns, plucked strings, simple brass, simple reeds, and organs. Prehistoric and early music, including most music up until the Renaissance was largely spiritual in nature.

Traditional indigenous music focuses primarily on the spiritual aspect of the sound. It is believed in many parts of the world that singing to the spirits will bring them forth, apease them, and cause them to aid people with their plight. This is still the case in native South American traditions, where curanderos sing to plant and animal spirits to call them in for help and guidance. From this perspective music is prayer or even direct spiritual engagement.

Some spiritual practitioners use music and sound to work directly with the energetic body of an individual to expel toxic or dangerous energies residing there. The use of the rattle in both South and North American indigenous traditions is often used in conjunction with this to achieve a specific state of consciousness. In the Natyashastra text of India, it is explicitly outlined what different spiritual states (rasas or bhavas) that can be achieved through music.

Nearly all music in the world until the middle of the first millennium CE was indigenous spiritual music, with only a very small portion of secular music existing in the courts of the wealthy.

Medieval through Enlightenment: Social Music

Instruments: voice, drums, cymbals/tambourine, flutes, recorders, guitars, harps, plucked or bowed strings, valved brass, intermediate reeds, harpsichords, and advanced organs. Music from the Medieval period through the Enlightenment began to develop into social music, characterized by music as a social magnet in times of spiritual upheaval.

While the development of cultures during this period was far from simultaneous, this general period from the middle of the first millennium CE until the 18th century encapsulates the bulk of the height of social music. Indeed, monasteries in Europe were still the bastion for antiquated spiritual music, where theoretical rules on music were academically imposed, such as avoiding the "devil's tritone" (C to F#).

However social music was flourishing in the courts of Chinese Emperors and Indian Rajas, and not far from the stodgy monophonic monks, European peasantry began popularizing social music in the form of popular folk music and songs, with traveling minstrels and tavern songs. This music served to bring people together in secular venues and was generally simple enough for dancing or for everyone to sing together, whether it was poor folk dancing in the fields or the aristocracy waltzing in Vienna.

By the end of the millennium of social music, eastern music had developed a precise complexity, Indian Classical music was widespread in the subcontinent, localized folk music began to spring up from every indigenous corner of the globe, and Europeans began to develop a highly sophisticated court music. This gradually led to the next development in music.

Romanticism through Contemporary Music: Psychological Music

Instruments: voice, drums, cymbals, auxiliary percussion, mallet percussion, advanced flutes, complex reeds, acoustic or electric guitars, harps, bowed strings, complex valved brass, pianos, electric organs, synthesizers, and computers. Music of the 19th and 20th centuries focused on the direct psychological, emotional, or intellectual impact the music had on an individual.

With the advent of Romanticism as well as the birth of modern psychology, music found its purpose in affecting the emotions and psyches of listeners throughout the last two centuries. It was around this time when the dominance of music theory began to arise. Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1722 Treatise on Harmony was required reading by the year 1800, and the revolution of chromaticism at the turn of that century in Europe evidenced a true break from tradition, celebrating and eventually leading to a more global diversity in music and a more dynamic emotional palette from which composers could choose. Rameau set the stage, Beethoven took the stage, and Wagner filled it. By the times of the last Romantic, Rachmaninoff, music was most certainly a psychological character, with the antiquated social and spiritual aspects taking a back seat.

Understanding why music makes us feel the way it does began to be a question of study first in late 19th century and early 20th century philosophy, then in early to mid-20th century psychology and finally, by the mid- to late 20th century, the field of psychoacoustics was born. Through scientific and computer analysis of music, psychoacoustics systematically reduces the parts of the whole of how we understand music to give us an objective viewpoint on why it affects us so. It combines our psychological and physical understandings of what music is and how we hear it and interpret it.

20th Century Music: Music of the Mind (Psychological Music)

The majority of the 20th century falls under the category of psychological music due to the highly emotional, or conversely the highly intellectual, nature of music composed in that era. Either way, the academic field of music and the genres of popular music all generally fit within a focus of the psychological impact of the music. And while much of 20th century music fits within the social music context, recording technology of the era began to make unique social venues obsolete. Radio and portable music brought the music to the lone individual without need for social interaction.

Recording technology and electronic music are the two primary innovations in 20th century music. Recording began with clay spools on Edison's phonograph and pay-per-listen services over the phone were dabbled with around the turn of the century. However recording didn't really begin to make a significant impact on society until vinyl records came around. At that time, Americans were reclaiming nearly forgotten composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. In an age where so much talent had been lost to World War II, the western world was ready for records. On radio, live performances, now relegated to television, gave way to recorded music.

Meanwhile, the advent of the electric guitar was beginning to gain momentum and popular music, previously restricted to urban areas with jazz, ragtime and big bands, sent this brand new rock and roll music to every teenager in America. Additionally, as the first popular music to nail the angsty teenage demographic, rock and roll music caught like wildfire. By the 1960s the unstoppable British invasion swept America, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones singing the songs of the times.

In academic music, vinyl began a movement of electronic music wherein sampled sounds were re-recorded in different ways through turntable manipulation to create never before heard effects. Pierre Schaeffer pioneered this music, called music concrète, which would later lead to tape music of the 1950s-1980s and contributed to musical options that eventually appeared on modern synthesizers and computer sequencers.

While recording devices would later move on from vinyl to tape to digital, electronic music production made one of its biggest steps forward in the late 1960s, when Wendy Carlos combined with the Moog synthesizer built by Robert Moog composed Switched On Bach (1968). Oscillators and early organs had been around since the first few decades of the 20th century, but now, through transistor technology, Moog could create synthesizers that were much smaller and more versatile. This revolution led to an explosion of interest in synthesizers, including use in much of popular music by the 1980s as well as the birth of electronic dance music (EDM).

Quickly following step after the synthesizer, music found another technological boost in the late 20th century when digital music was realized. Digital music, primarily through computers, led composers and pop music producers to alter virtually any aspect of the sound. No longer were humans limited in what sounds could be made. Anything that could be heard could be sounded. Digital music opened up the compositional sky to infinite limits.

And likewise, recording technology made an equally significant boost. From vinyl to cassette to CDs to mp3s, recording technology was getting increasingly compact and more manageable for listeners. Eventually the technology was so simple and compact that file sharing nearly devastated the music industry as a whole. Music had become ubiquitously available, not just in terms of getting the kind of music you wanted to hear, but also in being able to listen to it anytime you wanted, through your mp3 player.

The end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century suggests present and future movements such as: live music and venue specific performance (as opposed to recordings), increasingly ubiquitous and free recorded music, and a focus on applied psychoacoustics in music production.

Another possible development in music of the 21st century may be increasing attempts to integrate the four types of music over history into one amalgamated form that touches the: spiritual, social, psychological, and physical. Currently, music accompanying the Visionary Art movement (and other similar branches related to that movement), including a variety of electronic dance music styles, has potential for actualizing a coherent and balanced amalgamation of these, primarily because the surrounding subculture encompasses spirituality, social cohesion, psychological well-being, and physical well-being as some of the implied core tenets of their ethos.

Acoustic Technology: Physical Music

Instruments: computers, weapons, and healing technology. The physical approach to music is the least understood and most nascent form by far. Physical music functions on the premise that all sound has a direct biological effect on our bodies. This music is not so much music in the sense that it omits the third action in the initial definition of this article. However, this music suggests that the biological effects of sound could be incorporated into the music, perhaps even with medical ramifications.

Unfortunately weaponized acoustics is leading the way in this endeavor. United States military and government agencies already use annoyance tactics such as blasting heavy metal music toward enemies under siege. Likewise, long range acoustic devices (LRADs) are commonly now used in anti-protestor operations such as the G20 summits in 2009 and 2010. While the military has done studies on the human effects of these non-lethal weapons (called Acoustic Hailing Devices, AHD, by the Department of Defense), critics argue they are still damaging and capable of deafening an individual if improperly used by police or soldiers.

Conversely, the new field of sound therapy is beginning to blossom. Through psychoacoustics, new methods such as binaural beats and other techniques are being utilized to create music specifically designed to send the brain into different states of relaxation. Some sound therapy music lacks scientific rigor in their methods, driven by profit schemes targeting the New Age demographic. On the other hand, sound therapy is a field with potential that could develop into a legitimate cross-disciplinary combination of medicine and music via psychoacoustics.


All online sources last accessed and verified: June 27, 2010.


Author: Ora Uzel