The Science Within Music

Written by Maia Dall'Acqua
Illustrated by Peter Hong
Music and science have long been intertwined. Even Albert Einstein, one of the most famous scientists of all time, was a violinist. But the connection between music and science goes far beyond that. Complicated physics operates behind every musical note and centuries of evolution predate the melodies we know well. While there’s still much to be learned about the science of music, our current knowledge provides us with meaningful tools that can be helpful to human society now and in the future.

All music begins with a vibration, whether it comes from the beat of a drum or the strumming of a guitar. Imagine plucking a guitar string: its vibration creates sound waves that travel outwards with a specific frequency. Frequency is simply how quickly the air is vibrating, and changing the frequency will change the pitch of the sound! On a guitar, this is done by pressing down on a string, causing it to become shorter. When plucked, the shorter string makes the air particles around it vibrate more quickly, resulting in a note with a higher pitch. Humans are able to hear and interpret this sound with the help of a little structure in our ears called the eardrum. When a soundwave reaches the eardrum, it causes it to vibrate. Then, the inner ear converts this vibration into neural impulses that the brain interprets, allowing us to make sense of those original vibrations and listen to music!

How did humans start making and listening to music in the first place? Many human behaviors evolved because they ultimately aided in the survival and reproduction of individuals. So why would the ability to make music evolve given that it doesn’t inherently improve our odds of survival? It turns out that music may have served purposes even before human speech developed. Sounds that mothers make to calm their babies and other similar non-verbal signals already exist in animals like birds, which who emit melodic calls that have a distinct signaling function. Evidence that music was an early form of communication in humans can be found in Neanderthal remains: anatomically, they were able to produce sounds and control pitch similar to humans. Additionally, primitive instruments like bone pipes have been found that are over 40 000 years old! It makes sense that music may have predated speech given that it can convey emotion and meaning through fairly simple rhythms and tones. It’s suspected that early forms of music served a social function, enabling communication and a sense of unity between members of a group—much like it does today.

Our scientific knowledge of music not only makes it fascinating, it also provides new tools that can change lives. One way in which music has been coopted to serve a new purpose is through music therapy. Music’s strong effects on emotions serves as the basis for this type of treatment, which is administered by professional music therapists. It’s been proven that music can provoke the release of certain mood enhancing chemicals in our bodies, like dopamine and endorphins, which can reduce pain and help with recovery. Music can also be used to regulate heartbeat speed and blood pressure, both of which can alleviate symptoms of certain disorders. Listening to music isn’t the only form of music therapy—singing and playing instruments can beneficially impact people struggling with illness or disabilities as well. Without scientific research into music and emotions, music therapy would not be a prevalent and effective form of treatment that improves the quality of life for so many people. Understanding how music works, why it came to be, and how it can help solve problems demonstrates the wealth of knowledge that can result from scientific inquiry into an artistic field.