Science in the Torah

The Effect of Music on the Brain and Mind

Music touches the soul of man. Music has a huge impact on the mind. (In Judaism, it is said that a melody begins where words end…) Music can bring a person to feel such exaltation and inner joy that he spontaneously breaks out in dance. Kabbalists write that the gate of music originates from heavenly worlds, close to the gate of divine inspiration. In the Books of the Prophets, it is written: “And when the musician began playing, a G-dly spirit came upon him.” (Kings II3:15)

In one study of the brain, Dartmouth College researchers from the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience mapped the brain regions associated with musical activities. The researchers recruited eight participants who had a musical background and training, and asked them to listen to a musical composition lasting eight minutes that was composed by a well known music arranger who was also a researcher in the same place. The work was designed to utilize all 24 scales that constitute conventional music. Their goal was to see how the music affects the human brain.

Before proceeding further, how does one say the word ´song´ in Hebrew? The mishna in tractate Shabbat talks about a round adornment — a bracelet —  and calls it a shir, a ´song´. A song is a circle. Kabbalists point out that when a person sings, his song connects his soul to the highest spiritual levels as Sefer Hayetzira explains: “Its end is attached to its beginning.“ Why is a song called in Hebrew “shir” (i.e. a bracelet)? Because when a person sings, his soul longs to connect to its heavenly source and this creates a kind of spiritual gravitation between him and G-d. The Maharal explains that this is why dancing greatly arouses a person’s soul.

We are of course not referring to the wild dancing that people dance today, but a delicate dance that exalts the soul, such as a dance in a circle.

What does a “dance” require? A dance can not exist without music, and a person who dances without music will feel silly. Why is a song or music so essential? It induces longing in a person’s soul to cleave to his Creator. Even if a person doesn’t know how to define it in words, the soul longs for spirituality.

Another explanation for dancing is that when someone dances and leaps, he is ´seeking´ to elevate and disengage himself from the material world and the confines of earth — which is again an expression of the soul´s longing to cleave to its Creator.

Returning to the Study

Strangely enough, the Dartmouth researchers found that the scales of a musical work create a circular geometric pattern in the brain similar to a ring. While listening to the composition, the brain waves of the

research subjects were scanned using a method similar to an MRI. It was discovered that listening to music caused activity in a ring which surrounded the brain in a perfect circular pattern.

This unique pattern in the brain’s activity is what causes pleasure in hearing a harmonious composition. Studies show that a ring could even be seen on the brain itself. It is interesting how this parallels the Kabbalists comment on the word shir(song): that it comes from the same word used for “bracelet´´, whose “end is attached to its beginning” which refers to the soul’s spiritual longing.

 

 

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