The fact that music stimulates our emotional components and sounds guide our approach to the world is not new. Many have talked about and studied the effects on memory, on affective involuntary reactions and relationships that develop between the listening and stimuli pleasure.

Music has a social function, a policy and above all, according to some, an evolution. The work on sounds, hearing and the process of generating them attempts to manage short rhythmic phrases and closed forms, the discovery of the stamps and resonant cavities, and the voice, has made an essential contribution to the development of the human mind and why species are social. Stimulated , according to Darwin, a journey of abstraction and communication, aimed at procreation, which laid the foundation for verbal language.

Philosophy, ethnomusicology, and recent studies of neurology, have interwoven depth contributions on such issues clearly showing the development of evolutionary processes, images and symbols related to sound. In recent years in particular, it has been noted as the neurosciences have brought a series of answers to questions related to the mechanisms set in motion at the time of acting and receiving. Not only that, they place an important part, according to some scholars (see Rizzolatti, Sinigaglia – “I know what you do. The acting brain and mirror neurons” – Cortina, Milano 2006) in his philosophical studies on perception: visuomotor neurons motivate, or more correctly show, the intent of the act and of understanding, communication of the body based on the gesture even before the verbal.

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Silvia Bencivelli è medico e giornalista scientifica freelance. Ha studiato a Pisa e a Trieste, dove ha frequentato il Master in Comunicazione della scienza della SISSA. Fa parte della redazione di Radio3 Scienza, il quotidiano scientifico di Radio3 Rai. Collabora inoltre con l’agenzia di giornalismo scientifico Zadigroma, con numerose testate nazionali e con De Agostani scuola.

The field of music lends itself to be deepened by all these points of view for several reasons. First of all due to its very elusiveness: music fades when you hear it, it does not have the clarity of vision, but it can inform me of something in absence. The expressive power of imagination and sound can stimulate my emotion: I can feel what I see and work with my imagination (e.g. I hear my neighbours arguing or hear the clink of forks when they eat).

Publications approaching this subject are numerous, even in Italy. But few can give a wide-ranging question without confusing the rigor of a serious study with the intention of esotericism, building a serious and reasoned bibliography that can stimulate new avenues of research. Especially, few are those who manage to generate a short circuit in the reader, presenting the themes without simplifying and compelling both the conceptual complexity and the research.

I would like to mention a few books, over the volume of Silvia Bencivelli, “Why do we like music. Ear, emotion, evolution (Sironi Editore, Milan 2007), that help us to understand further the question which seeks to address the relationship among music, communication and emotion. The first is Oliver Sacks, “music lovers”, Adelphi, Milan 2008, the second by Daniel Levitin, “Facts of music. The science of a human obsession,” Code Edizioni, Torino 2008 and the third by Silvia Vizzardelli, “Philosophy music “, Laterza, Roma-Bari 2007.

Silvia Bencivelli is a freelance medical and science journalist. She studied at Pisa and Trieste, where she attended the Master in Science Communication of SISSA. Part of the editorial staff of Radio3 Science, the scientific dailiy of Radio3 Rai. She also collaborates with the agency of scientific journalism Zadigroma, with numerous national journlas and with De Agostini School.

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Simone Broglia: How did the idea to address this topic of study start?

Silvia Bencivelli:To tell the truth, it was almost a case. I found (and I will not say how, even under torture) a special edition of Nature Neuroscience, devoted entirely to music. So I realized just how interesting the topic was, how I teased the question: why humans like such a useless thing, so intangible, so laborious and costly as music? Why, even now, in the office, we are here listening to a mambo and moving chairs in time, while each of us write, phone, reads, does research for the next episodes of Radio3 science?

And then I played the violin for many years and the viola in an amateur quartet and in an orchestra of amateurs. I stopped in the third year of university (I did medicine), when I could no longer have time for everything. But I still have a great curiosity and a great attraction for music, even from the theoretical point of view. I speak not only of music theory (solfeggio).

Simone Broglia: Have you struggled to find material for the book?

Silvia Bencivelli Quite a lot. When I started there were no books on the subject for the general public, at most a few articles here and there. My father says it was the part of the PhD that I never did: I downloaded hundreds of articles, I bought books on American university press, very hard and long to die. I was also at a conference in Germany, to pursue the authors of the more interesting researches. Then I had (and I still have) a great fear of making mistakes.

The parties devoted to theoretical classification of the problem contain a lot of physics and music theory, and I admit that I had never fully understood them. While those on the brain are slippery by nature, often seem contradictory. Then I came to the conclusion that the important thing is to use common sense, to separate the wheat from the chaff, which you find in this research.

Simone Broglia: Neuroscience in recent years is having a great success. Why is this, in your opinion?

Silvia Bencivelli: I find it very fascinating. It is a synthesis of different scientific fields that travels so far apart (in a neuroscience lab you find physicists, computer scientists, physicians, biologists, psychologists …) which give a quantifiable and objective basis to psychology. Certainly, for me I do the journalist, I also have the indisputable advantage, ehm …, to sell well. It is fascinating, but also lends itself easily to narrative, fiction.

It is a delicate matter and that is why if you want to be serious must be very careful, patient, and have a few trusted friends among authentic neuroscientists. Around the corner there is the so-called PopEp, the pop evolutionary psychology, that unscientific, that tells you the reasons for the compulsive shopping or attachment between siblings, but often it is baseless stuff that they have the only honor to be so pretty if you put it on the front page.

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Simone Broglia: The diffusion of studies on neuroscience is perhaps also due to the fortunate discovery of mirror neurons, or visuomotors. What has this component of the brain to do with music?

Silvia Bencivelli: Well, is not just about mirror neurons. There have been some people who have been able to make a breakthrough in this field, for some reason unclear even to those who do the same job as me: they become famous in the general public and attract a lot of attention. And maybe even give a nice shine to all neuroscience. But today they are alleged to have exaggerated. That they proposed as an explanation for everything, have become pop.

Last summer there was an interesting controversy among neuroscientists (or perhaps, I should say academics, since there are issues of research funding behind it), that has not been confined between the professionals and had some vice on the bright path for neuroscience. However, for music, mirror neurons have certainly an important role. As in all physical activities, they have great merit in learning, imitation. Probably listening too.

Simone Broglia: Very popular is the alphabetical theory on building a capacity of abstraction in Western culture. What relationship exists between music and abstraction, and which role has had in developing brain of the species?

Silvia Bencivelli: Some say that music was just to make us human. Because music (ie: the first systems of human communication, which were, according to some, characterized by the emission of lines with the mouth that can give not standardized and complex informations to other individuals) is an exercise in abstraction. It says nothing concrete, but it uses different parts of the brain, sets them in motion, coordinates them. We must also distinguish between listening to music from the music excercise. Listening now, for us, is an ubiquitous and constant experience.

Changing our mood, or adapts to it (if we can choose what to listen to), but has no effect on the structure of our brain. Instead, playing an instrument changes the relationship between parts of the brain: a violinist, for example, has a superior cortical representation of the left hand (a part of the brain reserved for its movement, hence the precision and speed with which we use it) than a tango dancer.

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Simone Broglia: So the link between music and communication is essential to understanding human relationships?

Silvia Bencivelli: Music is communication. Communication can convey moods, or may establish membership in a group, for example. Even when we listen to music alone, with our earphones, we’re talking to ourselves or let the mp3 tell us something at that time. That’s why most of the theories about its birth and its success in our species reflect the communication. They say, more or less, that music has made our groups cohesive and, for those who want it has preceded the development of language, has allowed our ancestors to understand each other before having the words to do so.

However, careful here too: the views change a lot depending on how you define the terms of the problem, that is how you define music and language. For example, doing well at all to say that a song is a complex learned vocalization and devoided of any semantic content? In this case, we must recognize that there are other animals that sing and are not very close to us, from the phylogenetic point of view. But, be careful, because song is not music and music is not only sound. So the question of boundaries are blurred and complex. And the risk of falling into popEp becomes frighteningly real.

Simone Broglia: It is also interesting to see the communication and learning by the child’s mother. What role does the music in the stratification of the experience of the person and what remains in the growth?

Silvia Bencivelli: The music accompanies our life and is one of the first beautiful things we learn to appreciate. The very young children begin with the siren’s voice, or modulate the babbling as if singing. And indeed sing. They understood that it is a nice thing and play. For this spontaneous learning, just as the spoken language, it is of no use to sit behind a school desk. Just live among other men. Then comes the growth and awareness of having to do with a communication system that does not pass accurate messages, like words, but that has to do with emotions and feelings.

And you begin to differentiate. Then, there is someone who decide to study it (in our world, all hear but few play). But for all, there will be a background of experiences and memories that will be crucial in shaping our tastes and our culture. I was born in the late seventies and still listen to that British rock of the early nineties which defines my high school years!

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Simone Broglia: The fact that music communicates emotionally is clear, but what I would understand is what determines the sharing of emotional reaction.

Silvia Bencivelli: It’s because we are human. We humans have a strong sense of community, we empathize, we live in a group, suffer from loneliness and isolation. And the music is a vehicle of our sociability. To understand that (and how) the notes affect our mood, was not at all trivial, because we have seen that this is a stimulus for the gratification areas of the brain, those that are activated when we do something good from the evolutionary point of iew (ie when we eat and have sex, laudable activities that nature encourages us to pursue with enthusiasm, since they are the only guarantees the success of the species).

This can mean two things: either the music is or was an advantage for us humans, or the music (as well as drugs and masturbation) is a phenomenon that has succeeded because it was able to parasitize precisely those circuits. Causes and effects cross, in fact. And perhaps we will never find the key of the coil.

Simone Broglia: In conclusion, I would like to ask you something about music therapy. What are the roots and how did it evolve?

Silvia Bencivelli: I suspect the honest answer is simple: music therapy has always existed, it’s just we called it that. After all, the lullabies are a form of music therapy. They serve to calm the child and to make them sleep. Only today there is a concrete attempt to put it in the clinical ambit with science shared basis, making it one of the concrete tools of the clinic analysis and not an improvised stuff by a freak guy. For children with expressive difficulties, but also for adults with mood or coordination problems, and in many other situations, music therapy is having more and more success.

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The music, however, without any treatment behind, is not used in practice or in a safe place: we can listen to it anytime, anywhere. It seems a normal thing, but it is a special one that only we humans seem to have: the most mysterious gift that nature gave us, as the old Charles Darwin said.