Page 2 of 2   <      

Same Old Song, but With a Different Meaning

"Because music was abstract, we thought it would activate higher levels of cortex," he said. "Instead we got this very ancient system which is usually involved in biological reward. . . . What we found in a nutshell is when people experience chills, there was a huge range of activity all over the brain. It lit up like a Christmas tree."

Music seems to activate pleasure networks that are typically activated by food, water and sex. Why would music have the same effects on the brain as biological experiences integral to survival?

Zatorre hypothesized that the capacity to appreciate music might be an accidental outgrowth of other abstract human skills. But Mark Jude Tramo, a neuroscientist at Harvard University and a songwriter, said that notion sells music short -- and overestimates the importance of words to survival.

"Some of the most emotionally laden sounds we hear and make are non-speech vocalizations, like moans and groans and oohs and aahs and laughing and crying," Tramo said. "If you believe music does not have evolutionary significance you are in a very small minority."

Tramo argued that the sounds and grunts widespread in the animal kingdom set the stage for the human brain to appreciate music. If music grew out of nonverbal communication, and nonverbal communication is essential to survival in much of the animal world, it would make sense that music should hook deep into the brain. For social species such as humans, Tramo said music can bind groups together.

"In a tribal courtship dance, the other members of your group who share that same experience can also relate to it through music," he said. "So music is iconic. There are wedding songs and funeral songs. You would never play a wedding song at a funeral. . . . A culture depends on such associations."

Werner, who was part of a band that used to play at Colorado's Fort Carson base during the Vietnam War, said the issue of music always comes up around veterans. But as he started researching his book, which is to be called "We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music and the Experience of Vietnam Vets," he found that songs popular among troops in the field were not always the ones popular on the home front.

Music by the Doors, for example, was huge on campuses back home and even in Saigon, but not out in the field where the battles raged: "Some of the psychedelic music was more popular in Saigon than in Khe Sanh," Werner said.

Credence Clearwater Revival was always popular with vets, as was that old sailor's anthem, the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." Martha and the Vandellas' hit, "Nowhere to Run," and the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" were others. As with Sherpe and Sam Cooke's "Another Saturday Night," Werner said the vets often took away their own meanings from songs. The lyrics of "Sloop John B" -- why don't they let me go home / this is the worst trip/ I've ever been on-- came to be about wanting to leave Vietnam.

Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" was about a relationship gone bad -- f ive long years I thought you were my man/ but I found out I'm just a link in your chain. But for many vets, especially blacks, Werner said it became a song of disillusionment after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Why, these soldiers asked themselves, were they being asked to fight for freedom in a distant land, when their own country had allowed a leader who fought for their freedom to be murdered?

"The lyric is, ' one of these mornings, the chain is going to break,' " Werner said. "One guy said he thought the song was about the chain of command and how it was going to break."


<       2

© 2007 The Washington Post Company