There was a nice article in The Times on Sunday about the research of Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill (and former record producer) who studies the neural substrate of music:
Observing 13 subjects who listened to classical music while in an M.R.I. machine, the scientists found a cascade of brain-chemical activity. First the music triggered the forebrain, as it analyzed the structure and meaning of the tune. Then the nucleus accumbus and ventral tegmental area activated to release dopamine, a chemical that triggers the brain’s sense of reward.
The cerebellum, an area normally associated with physical movement, reacted too, responding to what Dr. Levitin suspected was the brain’s predictions of where the song was going to go. As the brain internalizes the tempo, rhythm and emotional peaks of a song, the cerebellum begins reacting every time the song produces tension (that is, subtle deviations from its normal melody or tempo).
“When we saw all this activity going on precisely in sync, in this order, we knew we had the smoking gun,” he said. “We’ve always known that music is good for improving your mood. But this showed precisely how it happens.”
In my forthcoming book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist, I discuss The Rite of Spring in the context of this research. How does a symphony cause a riot? Why was Stravinsky’s music so magisterially upsetting? The answer, I believe, is that The Rite was so dangerous because it was so new. Nobody had ever written a symphony like this before.
This sort of brazen newness doesn’t feel good. The brain is designed to learn by association: if this, then that. Music works by subtly toying with our expected associations, enticing us to make predictions about what note will come next, and then confronting us with our prediction errors. In fact, the brain stem contains a network of neurons that only responds to surprising sounds. When the musical pattern we know is violated, these cells begin the neural process that ends with the release of dopamine. (As Levitin notes, dopamine is also the chemical source of our most intense emotions, which helps to explain the strange emotional power of music, especially when it confronts us with newness and dissonance.) By tempting us with fragile patterns, music taps into our most basic brain circuitry and activates our most primal emotions.
Stravinsky simply took this idea to its logical extreme. His musical violations were more violent than anything that had come before. (Although , to be fair, Wagner and Schoenberg had also caused violent riots.) When he sat down to write The Rite, Stravinsky wanted to dismantled the edifice of classical music. It was time to listen to something completely new.
Of course, The Rite is now a revered work of modernism. While it still sounds aggressive, that aggression is no longer so shocking. Forty years after The Rite caused a riot, Walt Disney included it in Fanatasia, a cartoon for children. How does this happen? How does a violent work of art become suitable for toddlers? The answer returns us to the brain, and its ability to learn new patterns. After a few listens, the painful Augurs chords that begins Stravinsky’s symphony ceases to be so painful. Our dopamine neurons have learned how to listen.