A mezzo in a class by herself
(New York Times)

The Science of Music

The Origins of Tempo “Tempo is the skeleton upon which music is built” Sometimes we wonder why music moves us so. I recently heard someone say music is the language of the heart. Current scientific research indicates this may be exactly the case. Newborn babies when exposed to a recording of the heartbeat of an agitated mother become distressed and fussy, and when distressed, are soothed by exposure to a recording of a mother’s heartbeat which is calmer. The mother’s heartbeat as well as its own is one of the first things a fetus hears, and apparently there is a sympathetic response to the pace of a heartbeat. People respond when it slows down or speeds up. Most mothers instinctively hold their babies over their left sides to calm them. Infants respond and are soothed to what is most familiar. They also prefer their mother’s voice to another, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a contributing factor to why we prefer the timbre of certain voices over others. Bonobos chimpanzees also hold their babies over their left sides to calm them, even though they gesture with their right hands. However, one of the things that makes us uniquely human is the ability to reproduce tempo and turn it into music. The ability to do this begins in the temporal lobe of the brain. Recent studies indicate that people prefer a resting tempo in music, one which most closely approximates the pulse of their own heartbeat. Tempo changes which most closely mimic the ratio and proportion of the heart as it accelerates and returns to its resting pace during an excitable situation, such as being in danger, becoming angry, or in an erotic encounter, are the most likely to induce a sympathetic response. The greatest works take us on a roller-coaster of tempo change, taking us to a resting point temporally, then taking off again. Works vary in how they play with tempo. Some works resolve temporally, but not harmonically, while in others, the harmonic resolution mirrors the temporal one. Some composers have experimented with sound effects that don’t have an underpinning of tempo change and the music just doesn’t go anywhere and becomes either boring or irritating. The only exception seems to be the lullaby, a slow three between 60 and 72 beats per minute, duplicating the pattern of the heart beat at a resting point, and only for a reasonably short period of time. Artists at some point learned how to paint and draw in perspective, giving the brain visual cues to fool it into seeing something three dimensionally. Auditory illusions can also be reproduced which deceive the listener into believing that there has been a tempo change when there hasn’t been one. An example would be a slow three that turns into a duple with a dotted rhythm mimicking the heart at a faster pace. In times of terror, when our heartbeat races we rarely perceive the “lub dub” action of the heart, and perceive only pounding of the heart, one pound for each beat. Another example would be increasing the number of divisions of succeeding beats then returning to a strong pulse on each beat. It is no accident that a unit of time within the tempo of a piece of music is called a beat, nor that tempo is employed the same way throughout the world even though musical scales and pitch patterns differ widely. This implies that perception of tempo is innate at birth, while perception and organization of pitch is learned and imprinted at a later point in development such as language is. Tempo is the skeleton upon which music is built. This holds true even in atmospheric or impressionistic pieces where tempo is not so obvious but implied with layering washes of sound and harmonic changes. The heartbeat is still there, and the greatest musicians instinctively know how to reproduce this and recognize its effect, not only on themselves, but also on others. Tempo is by no means the only aspect of music, let alone opera. There are many factors in performing that need to be considered, but if the tempo of a work is not done well, the rest regardless of its quality is much less effective. I suspect that in our ancient past, music was born when a mother first sang a lullaby, or maybe when men danced to rev themselves up for a raid or protection from one, or maybe they did it simply because it was fun. Music reaches to our earliest roots, to a time when our strongest perceptions and feeling had no words. We knew music before we even knew we existed. By Dolora Zajick