November 30, 2012

Black Holes Can Sing, Too.

Black holes vibrate at a frequency whose pitch corresponds to the note of B flat. However, don’t be surprised if you can’t find any recordings of it; the note that black holes create is 57 octaves below any B flat that can be detected by human ears.

The above fact blows my mind for a number of reasons. First of all, it is astounding to think that the beauty of music can literally be found throughout the universe, existing in forms that we can’t even comprehend. Second of all, it unites the two seemingly disparate disciplines of music and science in a fascinating, seamless fashion.

I learned this bit of information about black holes while watching ‘The Music Instinct: Science and Song’ on Netflix over Thanksgiving break. The documentary, originally aired on PBS in 2009, attempts to explain the intensely subjective experiences of music listening and performance by pairing it with objective scientific fact. Far from losing its magic, music becomes even more mysterious after having watched the film.

If you think about it, music is really just a highly organized collection of sound waves. Furthermore, these sound waves are merely vibrations that sail through the air at a variety of frequencies. So how could something so simple as vibrations affect people in such vastly different ways? Also, how is it that it even affects you in the first place? These aren’t questions that are easily answered, as the many of the answers have yet to be discovered.

Science is not only able to explain the mysteries of music, but in doing so can also create novel and useful applications for it. For example, take your brainwaves. The electrical activity of your brain does not exist at a constant energy level; rather, the frequency of your brainwaves changes depending on your mental state. Making note of the connection between the frequency of brainwaves and the frequency of sound, some scientists have gone about creating binaural beats, music that is meant to mimic the neural activity of your brain during certain mental states. For instance, there are binaural beats that are meant to induce meditation, sleep, lucid dreaming, and even happiness. The idea that something so simple as music could change our mental state—and even our outlook—is phenomenal, and some early studies have given evidence for binaural beats’ anxiety-reducing properties.

Other researches continue to explore the practical medical uses of music in healing the brain. Researchers as close as those at the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have begun to uncover some of music’s powerful properties. The lab, directed by neurologist Gottfried Schlaug, has conducted ample research on music’s ability to help patients with stroke-induced aphasia and to induce speaking in autistic children, among other things. The evidence is accumulating, and other current projects—such as research that looks into music’s effects on things like emotion and cognitive skill—show hope for future useful findings.

To bring up such research on music’s beneficial effects isn’t to say that music can mend all mental ailments. There are some mysteries of science and music that may never be solved – such as the infamously baffling Deep Ocean Bloop. But as our understanding of the links between the two grows—and as the technology allowing us to investigate these links improves—it will be interesting to how music and science may come to explain and influence each other.

If you’re interested in the mysterious and endlessly fascinating connections between music and science, I highly suggest watching “The Music Instinct: Science and Song” (the video may be accessed in its entirety on Netflix), or reading This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin (which, if you do not wish to purchase it, can be found at Mugar Library when I’m not busy renting it out).

As a parting gift: Have scientists really created the “most relaxing tune ever”? Judge for yourself.

-Allison

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About bucallison

Allison is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, studying neuroscience. She hails from the steamy swamplands of New Orleans, Louisiana, and as a result spends her time watching Saints games and trying to convince people that her house "doesn't look like one of those ones on 'Swamp People'". She's been known to be mildly obsessed with Lady Gaga, but also enjoys everything from Queen to Ratatat to Garth Brooks. She also loves photography, food (all of it), making things, and super fun people.

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