Words & Music Monday with Alex Hughes

WordsAndMusicMondayHughes_authorphoto_verysmallMusic and the Brain

A blog post by Alex Hughes

If you know me for very long, it becomes obvious that I’m a science geek. I’ll happily discuss cool biology, interesting math, even the occasional physics for fun. But one of my all time favorite topics is neuroscience, the study of the brain and the study of the brain and human behavior. For one thing, we don’t know all that much about the brain; it’s still one of the frontiers of science. And for another, what we do know is so cool! We’re engineered in an amazing and complex way.

When Jennifer asked me to write about music and my writing process, I immediately jumped to a conversation I’d had with a journalist friend recently. She had been doing research on Beethoven and the brain. Beethoven was deaf for a lot of his music writing career, she said, and thus his music had to exist entirely in his brain as he was writing it. Let’s pause and think about this for a second. Writing music while deaf—holding the sounds or the representations of sound in your head so well you can write amazing music without hearing it. It’s kinda awesome.

But, my journalist friend argued, the way Beethoven wrote makes his music a particularly good fit for how the human brain operates. His music had to be pleasing to the brain because that’s how he wrote it. She went on to say that his Fifth Symphony, for example, has the reoccurring notes we all know–“da da da dummm”—repeated in different patterns and keys and instruments. They say that even people who are musically untrained can recognize what the next note in the series should be, even in another key or tempo. It’s fascinating. There’s something about the patterns Beethoven used that just makes sense to our brains.

I’m at C2E2, a huge comics convention in Chicago, as I write this, still thinking about music. They brought in a DJ in the main atrium area, mixing a steady beat with interesting quiet sound lines, something that you’d never notice if you weren’t paying attention. The beat repeats over and over, but the variance makes it fun to listen to rather than repetitive. After awhile, it falls out of your conscious attention; you don’t hear it anymore. But even so you feel more energized and excited and happy the whole time you’re in the area. It’s brilliant, and well worth the expense of the very talented DJ. He’s literally setting a mood through sound.

sharp-185x300When I’m writing, I find that different kinds of music help me write different things. Dramatic movie and video game soundtracks help me write action and dramatic change over time. Soothing spa music helps me write the calm-down scenes after a big moment, or to focus on writing after a stressful day. But the kind of music I prefer—something complex, with movement and pattern—seems to hit me in much the same way the Beethoven symphony hit the subjects of the experiment. It makes my brain happy, and it makes me more able to form patterns and string together words in a faster, more satisfying way.

So as I listen to The Gutan Project, to Lindsay Stirling, to jazz fusion, to latin lounge, I’m listening for pattern and beat. I’m listening to enjoy the music, but I’m also listening until it all falls away and I find that moment everyone found here at ComicCon: where the sound makes your brain work better.

What music makes your brain happy? Comment below with your happy-making musical choice, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of book 1 in the Mindspace Investigations Novels, CLEAN!! (US only, sorry.) And check out our blog post (with blurb and excerpt) for Alex’s SHARP Blog Tour HERE!!


  1. Ping from Blog Tour: SHARP by Alex Hughes | Books Make Me Happy:

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  2. Comment by bn100:

    like all kinds of music

    bn100candg at hotmail dot com

  3. Comment by Barbara E.:

    I like a great mix of music, but what makes my brain really happy is bagpipes and other Celtic music. There’s just something about it that sets my heart soaring and my toes tapping.

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