Listening to music is one of the most compelling human experiences. Music taps deeply into our sense of feeling, often highlighting and perhaps even giving a voice to our emotions.
For this reason, it’s no surprise that in Holhe Fels cave in the hills of west Ulm Germany, archeologists discovered an ancient flute that carbon dates to 35,000 years ago. What’s kind of surprising is that it’s made of a vulture bone.
What’s very surprising is that it’s tuned to the pentatonic scale.
The pentatonic scale is the set of notes virtually every song you know is built on. Everything from German Baroque to ragtime to West African music to to jazz to Sami joik singing to polka to third-wave Canadian psychobilly, and even that earworm that was in your head all of yesterday, the one you finally managed to shake a few minutes ago.
Fundamentally, music is just a set of vibrations operating at a frequency level (measured in Hz or cycles per second) detectable to human ears, which our brains translate into something enjoyable.
Of course, there are all kinds of frequencies we can’t detect. Dog whistles, of course, play too high for our ears to register, and some theorize that the reason animals sometimes flee an area prior to earthquake or tsunami is that they’re picking up on extremely low frequencies created by the oncoming waves or tremors.
Aside from perhaps that earworm stuck in your head again, there is a totally different kind of music going on in your brain at this very moment, one that you’ll never hear. In fact, there are a number of frequency patterns, or waves, that your brain generates based on specific neural activity.
In an article for Thought Medicine, Linda Gabriel explains, “There are 4 basic wave frequencies and each correlates with a specific state of consciousness. Like sound frequencies, brain waves are measured in Hz. In general, the slower the frequency of your brain waves, the more relaxed you feel.”
Beta Waves operate between 13-30Hz. These resonate when you are concentrating, trying to pay attention, or diligently reading posts on blogs. When you are worrying about whatever you worry about, that’s some Beta music at work.
Switch on your TV or your computer screen for a little relaxing mindless surfing, you’ve just changed your brain’s radio station to Alpha Waves, which operate at 8-13Hz. This state is sometimes referred to as a “hypnogogic” state associated with the very beginning of a meditative experience. Alpha Waves are considered by some to be the connector between the conscious and subconscious mind.
Theta Waves operate between 4-8Hz. They occur when you’re in the deepest state of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Testing shows younger children appear to be operating in Theta for the majority of their day. If you are skilled at meditation, you are very familiar with blissed out sense associated with Theta Waves. So Swamis and kids have it figured out. When you found yourself daydreaming, or dropping into the ‘Ghost Curve’ during your boss’s last presentation, you’ve got a little touch of Theta action going on.
Delta Waves operate at 4 HZ. This is often referred to as ‘slow wave’ sleep and you’ll find yourself experiencing this after a bout with insomnia. This is the brain in recovery mode. If you drink too much, you’ll interfere with your Delta sleep waves. Conversely, a low carb diet will increase Delta activity. This is when you’re totally zonked out; no dreaming occurs in this state. This is how we might imagine bears during hibernation.
Neuroscientists are experimenting with different forms of meditation to actively induce different brain wave states. In other words, you can, with practice, consciously control your brain waves. It’s not all that different than the idea of changing to another radio station, or flipping to the next song on your playlist.
Even though you can’t hear your brain waves, like music, they are deeply associated with how you feel. The orchestration of neural activity is much like a beautifully balanced symphony where the harmonic resonance is perfectly aligned between all of the musicians.
Just think, it’s nonstop concerts going on in your head every day of your life, and it’s all free. Too bad you can’t actually hear it.