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One track mind

One track mind

How music sped up our primitive brains, powered our evolution and fights depression and anxiety.

The French poet Baudelaire was wrong when he wrote that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. It was actually convincing the world we couldn’t play music.

“What has happened in the West is that music was turned into a commodity,” says Neil McLachlan, an associate professor in auditory neuroscience at the University of Melbourne. “The job of the music industry was to convince the rest of us we couldn’t play, make it appear that either you have to be the virtuosi or you’ve got to be the rock and roll singer, who’s had such a bad life we believe they’ve got something authentically emotional to tell us. My goal is to teach people we’re all somewhere in the middle and we should all be enjoying it.”

In McLachlan’s world, music doesn’t have to be mean orchestras and conductors or even reading notes from a page, but simply being in sync with others, which is why he’s convinced everyone can participate.

“It’s that amazing feeling of playing a beat together,” he says. “Creating a rhythm or pattern that’s shared amongst more than one person. I think that’s the fundamental aspect of music. That experience of being deeply connected with other people.” As well as running music programs with Indigenous communities and kids at risk for the past 30 years,

McLachlan has been researching the complex relationship between music and the brain, tinkering away in the music and auditory neuroscience lab at Melbourne University. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more educated on the science of sound, but McLachlan claims you don’t need any formal lessons to plug into the long list of benefits his research has uncovered.

“All you need is to hear a rhythm and reproduce it, because that trains your brain,” he explains. “It sharpens your perception. It improves your memory for sounds. The experience of singing or playing a rhythm with other people creates a feeling of empathy, of mutual belonging. That’s what we think is the evolutionary basis of why humans have music and no other animal does. For that feeling of empowerment.”

"The experience of singing or playing a rhythm with other people creates a feeling of empathy, of mutual belonging." 

Synchronising through rhythm triggers the reward network in the brain. So when people succeed at playing music together, there’s a mutual benefit. Band members often talk about being like family and McLachlan says that’s because of these exact factors, which lead to strong feelings of social bonding. “You’re getting reward, which helps for anxiety and depression,” he says. “You’re able to do it yourself, you don’t need drugs. And your experience is in the presence of other people, so you’re creating social networks.”

Sometimes the most difficult things about depression, anxiety and dementia, can be the social alienation that comes with them. Getting people into groups, doing activities like singing together, is one of the best ways to help fortify our brains. Or as McLachlan puts it: “Music is to mental health what sport is to physical health.”

Having disproven the old theory that music was only created in the right side of the brain – previously thought of as the ‘creative’ side – it’s now widely understood that making music activates more of the brain than just about any other activity.

Just by banging on a drum you’re using all your motor systems, all your auditory systems, which is both speech and pitch, and the parts of the brain that handle timing. In a band scenario, you’re also using your executive function, which is the ability to understand what other people are doing and to monitor their responses. “When you put someone in the MRI scanner and ask them to sing there’s not much of the brain that’s not activated,” McLachlan says.

And yet, while up to 80% of the Western world used to participate in music each week, whether sitting around the piano at home or humming along with the church choir, that figure has now dropped below 5%. This, despite the fact that music is one of the things that made us human.

There are a lot of theories around the origins of the art form, but McLauchlan’s favourite is the idea that music was borne from something called synchronised display. It’s the concept that one hominid started jumping up and down, hitting rocks, and slowly the rest of the gang eventually began jamming along.

“The ability to synchronise display is very impressive,” McLachlan says. “Think of the Máori war dance. This stuff may have been a proto-music and that sped up the brain. It allowed us to link our auditory system to our motor system in a way that wasn’t possible before, which made speech possible. That’s why we say that making music really has powerful effects on the brain that could be used to improve mental wellbeing.”

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