Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Music gets on my nerves?

with 12 comments


This week tens of thousands of Elvis fans and Elvis impersonators have gathered in stifling Tennessee heat to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death. So far one waiting fan has died as a result of the heat, yes, thirty years after his death people are still dying for Elvis. Who knew? What is it about this singer that inspires the devotion of multitudes of fans decades after he died?

Beats me. Historically his influence cannot be ignored. He was the progenitor of the modern music concert where a singer or group played to a live audience rather than just stood on a stage and performed. The Beatles, John Dylan, and numerous others who followed Elvis were tremendously inspired by him. John Lennon even going so far as to say there would have been no Beatles without Elvis.

However, saying that many people were influenced by Elvis doesn’t help explain why his voice had such a remarkable effect on them? What is it about Elvis’s music that stirs people’s souls? In fact what is it about music in particular that invokes such powerful emotions in people? And there we are up against a mystery of the ages.

Is music merely a byproduct of evolution? Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker thinks so:

“Music is auditory cheesecake. It just happens to tickle several important parts of the brain in a highly pleasurable way, as cheesecake tickles the palate”

Most scientists vehemently disagree with him, even Darwin argued that music preceded speech and was crucial in the evolution of same. I would argue that the size and scope of the music industry and musical expression across all of human history and culture makes nonsense of the idea that it is just “cheesecake.” Especially the way that music can inspire emotion in people, cheesecake usually doesn’t inspire people emotionally, no one ever changed their life because of cheesecake I would wager. (Or stood in line for days in stifling heat to see where a piece of cheesecake died.) For a well thought out more detailed refutation of the cheesecake analogy, see Babel’s Dawn.

While I can’t really add anything profound here, I too am mystified why listening to “Greensleeves” sends shivers down my spine, musing about this did make me wonder if a recent scientific theory might help explain this. It was proposed earlier this year that nerves do not transmit electrical impulses, they transmit sound. This is, to put it mildly, a revolutionary theory. How did anyone arrive at this idea?

In short, there is an unsolved problem with nerves transmitting electricity, electricity should produce heat, and no one has ever been able to detect a nerve heating up. And no one really understands how anaesthetics work, but scientists do know the efficacy of an anaesthetic can be rated by how well it dissolves in olive oil. This new theory could explain that since it proposes that an anaesthetic merely changes the melting point of a critical nerve membrane fluid (a fluid very similar to olive oil in some ways) to the point where it can’t transmit sound. And thus the nerve is “deadened.”

Most scientists aren’t buying it, there’s a lot of good reason to believe nerves are electrical impulses. The “nerve impulses are sound” theory should stimulate more research though, and that should be interesting. And the point I was leading too, if nerve impulses are actually sound, then wouldn’t that hint that music might actually sometimes directly enter our nervous systems rather than stimulating? IE our other senses work by “translating” the world into nerve impulses, might music go beyond that and actually directly resonate through our very beings? Maybe because of our very biology we can experience music and sound in a deeper and more intimate way than we experience everything else? Food for thought, and a new meaning for “feel the beat.”

A tip of the hat to in2thefray and Wh|te Russian for suggesting this post’s topic.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit, it’s central to illustrating the post, and it is an historically important image. I believe it is titled “The Sacred Heart of Elvis” but I don’t know who the artist is. Their initials are C.R. and the painting is dated 1996. If anyone knows I will properly attribute it.)

Written by unitedcats

August 17, 2007 at 8:59 am

12 Responses

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  1. Excellent !


    August 17, 2007 at 9:04 am

  2. Thanks for the tip


    August 17, 2007 at 10:19 am

  3. Nerves vibrate.


    August 17, 2007 at 11:25 am

  4. Don’t think of your nerves as electrical wiring, they are living cells. They move.


    August 17, 2007 at 11:26 am

  5. Interesting post! I’m going to absorb some neurologically exciting sound right now.


    August 17, 2007 at 2:19 pm

  6. I was wondering why everyplace I looked had Elvis.

    If my grandfather was still alive, he’d be out bitching up a storm about how much he hated Elvis. God bless him.


    August 17, 2007 at 2:59 pm

  7. Wonderful!

    If (and only if) that theory about nerves transmitting some kind of sound eventually turns out to be true, that would make a lot of sense to me. To me it would finally explain why music can have such an impact on someone. Why people after 30 years still choose to die for their musical idol. Etcetera.
    I always use to say that it’s music that drives me, resonates through me, keeps me alive by flowing through me together with my blood. So who knows.

    But still… let’s hope most Elvis fans stay alive while ‘remembering’.

    Wh|te Russian

    August 17, 2007 at 4:05 pm

  8. Interesting, as usual. The idea that nerve impulses are transmitted as sounds is indeed revolutionary.
    I read long back about another effect of music on the brain. After 5 years of age, you neural pathways are fixed. Your thought process pretty much follows these pathways. After this age, the only two ways of adding newer pathways are by learning music or a new language!!!

    I recommend you read “Phantoms in the brain” by VS.Ramachandran. He provides some amazing insights into the working of the brain. I have written a couple of posts on this book.


    August 17, 2007 at 10:39 pm

  9. Nice. Gives a little support to the 60’s “vibes” thing or the ever ancient “music of the spheres” concept perhaps.

    A couple of other recommendations I got when recounting this article to some friends were Joel B. Green, What About the Soul: Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, and Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession.


    August 18, 2007 at 9:23 am

  10. Obviously, you were not having a case of the budding hormones when Elvis first walked onto the screen. “Love Me Tender.” I felt like I was seeing God. … A few years later I was able to more accurately identify that “special” feeling … But a girl doesn’t forget a moment like that.


    August 20, 2007 at 4:09 am

  11. For an alternative to the “auditory cheesecake” theory, you might like to look at my “auditory super-cheesecake” theory, which is explained at .

    Philip Dorrell

    November 20, 2007 at 1:40 am

  12. […] tip of the hat to Doug, who had a different take on the whole […]

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