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Every brain needs music book cover

Columbia University Press

The camera shows an apartment with cracked and peeling walls, empty except for two old lamps that flicker, only deepening the gloom.

A masked figure pushes a wheelchair into the center of the room, then leaves. In it sits a young man dressed in a hospital gown, hunched over an acoustic guitar. A title card flashes: “Hi Ren.” Looking up, the guitarist begins to pluck out a flamenco-style tune, which, after a few bars, lingers on a bended note before sputtering into a series of dissonant arpeggios that climb the neck. The melodic line pivots again—now to a simple round of harmonious chords, the stuff of countless folk songs. And then the performer begins to sing …

The next eight minutes defy genre labels, although the song contains elements of hip-hop and punk, plus a little yodeling. It is a piece of one-man musical theater featuring two characters, both called Ren. (The artist is a young Welsh singer-songwriter named Ren Gill.) One of them is a musician, just barely back on his feet after years of a debilitating illness. The other is a personification of his anxiety and self-contempt, with a raspy voice full of needles and poison, who gets the best lines. The characters have contrasting demeanors and even play the same tune differently. Clearly they have been fighting for a long time. The healthy Ren wants to escape his doppelgänger, or even destroy it, but he remains at a profound disadvantage: you cannot escape your own shadow.

A common response to “Hi Ren” seems to be “What the hell am I watching?” It usually gives way to astonishment and then to more complex emotions. Released in December 2022, the video received two million views in its first month; as of this writing the figure has reached 13 million, all without the benefit of major-label promotion. That does not count the audience for scores of reaction videos, which sometimes end with the video maker sitting in stunned silence, or in tears. (I came across “Hi Ren” via The Charismatic Voice, the YouTube channel of an opera singer who comments on popular artists’ technique. She was among the overwhelmed.)

The release of a new Ren song has of late become something like a communally celebrated event. Some of the enthusiasm is support for an underdog: now in his early 30s, the performer signed a recording contract with Sony in 2010, only for it to be canceled after he succumbed to a debilitating autoimmune condition that left him in bed for long stretches. The source was eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease, though only after he spent years being dosed with psycho-pharmaceuticals.

But little (if any) of his story was known to those who initially discovered “Hi Ren” and set the algorithmic ball rolling. The musicianship, verbal dexterity and performative brio are what hit first and hardest. There is also what might be called the shock of recognition. Listeners hear an echo of their own harshest self-doubts, sung with a snarl reminiscent of Johnny Rotten in his prime.

Music is one nervous system’s action at a distance upon another. That is an admittedly oblique way of looking at things, but it feels apt after reading Larry S. Sherman and Dennis Plies’s Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music (Columbia University Press) during a week when I’ve had Ren’s playlist on heavy rotation.

Every Brain Needs Music is a work of scientific popularization drawing on brain-mapping studies, insights culled from composers and performers, and the authors’ own experience with music making. (Sherman is a professor of neuroscience at the Oregon Health and Science University, and Plies is a former music professor at Warner Pacific University.) The authors review in detail the fantastically intricate connections within the nervous system involved in playing a single note—and the still more complex control of refined motor skills required to play it well, with feeling and effect. Illustrators often go unheralded, but Susi B. Davis makes following the anatomical connections much easier; all due props, then.

The appetite for making and listening to music has deep roots in human prehistory and in our biology as a social animal. Archaeologists have unearthed “flutes made from bones … dating to 40,000 years ago” in caves once occupied by Homo sapiens. They “are relatively sophisticated,” the authors note, “suggesting that the technology to make them occurred well before these examples were made.”

They are also “relatively advanced instruments, suggesting that they developed from more primitive instruments or musical practices.” Hominid drumming, ululating and the like probably went on for eons before anything so fancy as a bone flute was invented. Sensitivity to rhythm and pitch may have been an evolutionary advantage for a species whose youngest members remain in a dependent condition long after other animals’ newborns have matured: the vocalizations of parents and other caregivers can warn, admonish or comfort. It seems plausible that the earliest songs were, in effect, lullabies.

Magnetic resonance imaging and other tools suggest that we are hardwired for music appreciation. Neurons in the auditory cortex distinguish between music (the elements of rhythm, harmony, etc.) and other sounds. In response, they activate neurons in other parts of the brain, including the limbic system (the home base for emotion and long-term memory) and the basal ganglia (in charge of voluntary motion), as well as the nucleus accumbens (associated with pleasure and addictiveness).

These processes take place in infinitesimal fractions of a second and include anticipations of what notes may come next. The brain also distinguishes between major and minor chords, which are then “processed by different areas of the brain outside the auditory cortex, where they are assigned emotional meaning.” Minor chords or scales are typically experienced as dark or melancholic, while their major forms can sound bright or happy. (Or at least vigorous: death-metal guitarists play them.) And then there’s rhythm, which, “once detected and maintained, activates neural circuits involved in motor processing, suggesting that there could be direct circuits connecting rhythm centers and movement centers in our brains.”

These are, so to speak, the factory-installed settings, with considerably enhanced functionality for people who dedicate themselves to the study and practice of music. Researchers have determined that musicians’ brains show differences in structure from those of nonmusicians, including increased volume in the auditory cortex and the areas involved in motor control. A study of pianists who had been playing since age 6 determined that “the number of practice hours during childhood correlated positively with increased measures of myelination,” which increases the brain’s ability to coordinate movement, absorb sensory inputs and connect its left and right hemispheres.

Some of the musicians responding to the authors’ questionnaires seem aware of the neurobiological import of their art. “When I practice something,” one saxophonist and singer told them, “I know I am creating, altering, or reinforcing neural pathways.” Another “wrote that practice is ‘like creating a new road’ in her brain: ‘first it is wilderness, then rough (dirt, gravel, potholes), then smoother, then eventually a sturdy highway.’”

This is all very effective as an advertisement for the benefits of practicing one’s instrument—or for taking one up, even late in life.

Left unexplored is the enigma of musical variety, including differences in the appeal or intelligibility of a given composition. An almost inconceivable range of rhythms, timbres, tunings and so on can be identified as musical by the neurons in the auditory cortex in charge of making that determination. One brain may be deeply enthralled by a piece of music while another responds by immediately directing the fingers into the ears. A third might not register the sounds as music at all.

The authors cover a lot of ground, and I do not fault them for overlooking this. But a focus on the common ground of musical experience—the fundamental processes making it possible—heightens one’s sense of how many different ways it can resonate across the human lifeworld.

And there are moments when an artist turns the noise in people’s heads into something with shape and substance. A couple of generations have now grown up in a state of rolling personality crisis under contemporary mental health care. A new pill is offered to handle the side effects of another pill, prescribed to manage emotional difficulties that nobody seems to have the time to address. This is a common experience, if an intensely private one, and Ren is its bard.

It’s not just that he sings about difficult episodes, or even that he can express jolting mood shifts on guitar through a perfectly fractured melodic line. As Sherman and Plies suggest, the musician’s brain, when highly developed and alive to its own potentials, can connect with that of the listener at levels where language does not go. It is that experience, perhaps, that inspired Nietzsche to write, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

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