Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The road to music is lined with emotion

I know in my bones that music is one of the greatest human connectors. It’s communication, it’s entertainment, it’s engagement, and it’s emotion. Music accelerates us right into the Everywhen, that place where past, present, and future connect. It does it more quickly than pictures and more deeply than words. No big surprise then to learn that musicians have brains more tuned to identify emotion than the rest of us. Given that the ability to detect emotional resonance from sound is a key survival skill (think of understanding in a heartbeat what a branch snap in the forest means), you have to wonder why musicians haven’t done better in world domination.

At Northwestern University, they have put some facts around the connection between musicians and how they are tuned into emotion. They found that because musicians spend so much of their time doing close listening, they have highly developed auditory systems. That seems reasonable to me although a little underwhelming – but there is more. Over the years, researchers have found that musicians are much more sensitive to nuances of emotion in speech. Recent studies suggest that musicians may even be able to sense emotion after hearing a sound for no more than 50 milliseconds. When you consider that a millisecond is one thousandth of a second – that’s fast!

The way they tested this response was very cool. Students were invited to watch a subtitled nature film while wearing headphones. During the film, the sound of a distressed baby crying was played for 250 milliseconds. That’s not much crying time. What’s interesting is that musicians locked onto the emotional component of that sound immediately, whereas the non-musicians did not. Even better, they de-emphasized the simpler part of the sound; that’s the part that carries less emotion. I think this is brilliant. Scientists categorizing sound with emotion as more complex and more important. We’ve come a long way.

It certainly got me thinking about how so many of our ideas people in Saatchi & Saatchi are obsessed with music. Open most doors in our offices and there’ll be music playing. Maybe this isn’t a diversion but simply the way they keep their emotional muscles in tune. The next time you’re hiring, watch out for the musicians.