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Who hasn’t felt the urge to sing in the shower, to chime in on the chorus of their favourite tune or belt out an anthem at a sporting event? Melodies ring out at every important human activity — from romancing mates to soothing babies, from worshipping to mourning, celebrating to protesting. 

But why? Are we hardwired for music? Addicted to rhythm? What power does music have over our bodies and our brains? Scientists have only recently begun to seriously examine how and why music has such a profound effect on humans. 

People at LiveLab with brain sensing hats onPartipants at LIVELab music experiment

Some of the newest research is playing out in Canada, at musical laboratories such as LIVELab in Hamilton,  Ontario, a one-of-a-kind concert hall where scientists are measuring brain waves of musicians and their audiences to determine how music creates undeniable social bonds. Archaeologists have also produced significant keys to unlocking music’s mysteries, particularly in caves of Germany’s Swabian Alps where they’ve unearthed from Ice Age sites the world’s oldest known musical instruments. These ancient flutes are surprisingly sophisticated artifacts that attest to music being played more than 40,000 years ago, by the first Homo sapiens.

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According to archaeologist Nicholas Conard, even that far back in time, music appeared to be a staple of human existence.  Alongside tools and materials from cooking and heating, they found flutes. It appears that music and musical instruments were part of daily life.

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Like language, music seems an essential tool employed by humans for multiple needs. Babies studied by researchers in Canada draw on their experience of synchronous and asynchronous musical rhythm to define people who are friendlies; researchers studying heavy metal fans in Australia find that aggressive music actually calms and reduces hostility; in Sweden a researcher and musician discovered that choirs that sing certain melodies together cause their heart rates to synchronize. Now a cardiologist is exploring if guided breathing while listening to music can normalize heart rate variability and improve recovery for a stress-related heart ailment. 

Rapper Sean forbesDeaf rapper Sean Forbes

Humans’ unerring ability to anticipate the beat in music showed neuroscientist Jessica Grahn that rhythm triggers the exact areas of our brains that control movement, a discovery which she’s trying to use to allow Parkinson’s patients and others without muscle control to regain that function.

Even when our innate link to music is physically challenged, humans instinctively still strive to connect with it. Severely tone deaf Tim Falconer feels such an emotional connection to music that he’s spent years with a professional music coach attempting to overcome what is truly a genetic mutation. The amusia that affects his brain in a condition that occurs in almost four per cent of the population.

Deaf rapper Sean Forbes has created a successful career out of writing, recording and performing music even though he has a 95 per cent hearing loss. It’s the continual tug of the beat he can feel that’s creating such a wide range of emotions in him.

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All our crooning and trilling, strumming and drumming propels our bodies and minds to behave and react in ways that still aren’t clearly understood. I Got Rhythm: The Science of Song is a documentary that vibrates in perfect harmony as it unravels some of the most compelling mysteries of music.

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