In this modern age, there are a variety of products marketed towards us with the bold claim that they can improve brain function. Whether it’s a particular kind of memory technique, a specific type of “super food” or an audio clip sending out subliminal stimulation for the mind; there is something for everyone. Since the 1993 study dubbed “The Mozart Effect”, it has been widely believed that listening to classical music (Mozart in particular) can increase your intelligence. But is there any substantial scientific backing for this claim? Cognitive Neuroscientist, Jessica Grahn, would say no. While she does believe that music has the power to transform the human mind, she would argue that this transformation is caused by the emotion that the music instils in you, rather than the music itself. Supporting her claim, a follow-up study on “The Mozart Effect” showed that listening to their favourite nursery rhyme before performing a task had a greater effect on the child’s brain function than listening to Mozart. This would point towards the spike in performance being induced by the happy state that the child was in after listening to the nursery rhyme, rather than the nursery rhyme itself somehow mysteriously stimulating parts of the brain.
A wonderful illustration of this unique power of music to elicit a strong emotional response resulting in positive effects on the brain was demonstrated to us directly last week in world news. After almost two weeks of political unrest and violent protests in Turkey, it was one single man and his piano that were able to completely transform the atmosphere and bring a relative calm to Toksim Square, the centre of the resistance movement that started off as a dispute over a development project in a local park but soon escalated into broader dissent over Prime Minister Erdogan and his authoritarian style of governance. On the evening of the 12th of June, German musician Davide Martello arrived at the Square with his piano and began to play. An angry crowd that had been gearing up for war; gathering protective gas masks and equipping the first aid tent were suddenly transformed into an enraptured and tranquil group of listeners. He played non-stop for 12 hours, drawing his audience in and relaxing and calming them more and more with each key stroke until even the police officers joined in, now using their riot shields to lean on, rather than for protection.
Martello, who had made the stop in Turkey during a planned worldwide tour with the aspiration of playing in as many major cities as possible, said that his aim was to manipulate people’s minds with his music and to encourage a sense of togetherness and peace. He played over two more nights, including whilst being soaked by a thunderstorm, until he was detained by police and his piano confiscated. When both he and his instrument were released on the 18th of June, he resumed his tour. Although the conflict in Turkey is far from over, his job there was done. A week after his first performance, Erdem Gunduz, now nicknamed “the standing man”, began what has come to be known as the silent, standing protest. All across Turkey, rather than engaging in violent confrontation with the authorities, protestors have been gathering at famous landmarks to merely stand, silently, in protest. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, agreed that it was difficult for them to still condemn and oppose the protests as they had now become peaceful demonstrations. The man and his piano may be gone but the miraculously calming effect of his music seems to have endured. He may very well have changed the course of history. I would say that makes music extremely powerful.
Closer to home, the power of music in our country’s history is undeniable. One only needs to watch Lee Hirsch’s 2002 film “Amandla: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony” which documents the role of music in the South African struggle against Apartheid and the history of how it was used as a form of social protest. The film uses interviews, archival footage and live performances to highlight the way in which music was used to communicate ideals and to unify communities in their common struggle. As singer and actress Sophie Mgcina puts it, music was used to spread the notion that, “you are strong, you are beautiful, you belong”. Music gave people a sense of belonging and a sense of power that they were otherwise denied. To point to a few examples, Miriam Makeba’s famous song “Naants’ Indod’ Emnyama”, the lyrics of which translate to “Beware Verwoerd, here are the black people” was sung loudly to protest against the then president, Hendrik Verwoerd, who has since been labelled as “the architect of Apartheid”. As the words were not sung in English, it enabled black people to sing it proudly right in front of the very people who were oppressing them. Another example would be the enduring melody of “Meadowlands”, composed in 1956 as a poignant, emotional comment on the forced removal of Sophiatown’s residents to the newly created township of Meadowlands. The song has a very upbeat tempo and could easily be mistaken for a light hearted tune in support of the white government’s decision to create these townships. The lyrics however, written in three different languages, tell a completely different story of defiance and refusal to move. Once again, music allowed the severely oppressed to reclaim even the smallest sense of power. As Miriam Makeba says in the documentary, each phase of Apartheid had its own song. And each song had a power to pull people together and to give them hope and strength and a dream to strive towards.
Travelling across the world, we find ourselves in Brooklyn, New York where three 11 year old 6th graders are defying every stereotype in the book. Malcolm, Jarad and Alec, all African-American, make up the heavy metal band “Unlocking the Truth”. Joined together by their mutual love of the heavy metal genre, as well as a strong sense to be true to oneself and not be intimidated by what others say, the trio busk regularly at Times Square and have performed various shows for competitions in and around New York. They are highly ambitious and drummer Jarad is working on a book about young kids who are bullied until they join a band that starts touring the world. While the band becomes hugely successful, the bullies become homeless. And these kids aren’t just using their music to send out the all important message of embracing who you are and not being afraid to stand out from the crowd, they’re also really, really good. And not just good for 11 year olds, they’re good period. Once again music shows itself to be an extremely powerful force in bringing people together and in bringing out the best in them.
Everyone has a soundtrack for their lives: songs or pieces of music that can immediately transport you to a very specific time and place; melodies that can allow you to relive some of the most poignant moments of your life and “sing-out-loud” choruses that have the seemingly magical ability to instantly transform your mood in any direction. For me, no morning drive to work is complete without Emeli Sande’s soothing voice keeping me company and mentally preparing me for the day ahead; and no evening drive home is complete without at least one fast paced, post-hardcore song to jam to (whilst keeping perfectly focused on the road at all times of course). And, if Jessica Grahn is correct, the power of these songs to improve my mood is also improving my brain function, and who doesn’t want that? So what music does it for you? What music transports you through time and space and potentially increases your intelligence? For me, it has to be “Mr Brightside”, by The Killers. That song has a power over me like no other, whether I’m tapping my foot to it in quiet contemplation or belting it out at the top of my lungs, my mood is instantly uplifted (and I’d like to think my intelligence along with it). Let us know what song has a power over you in the comments below…