Is classical music meant for the brain and light music for the ear?

by Dr. Soubhik Chakraborty
Department of Applied Mathematics
BIT Mesra, Ranchi-835215, India

Abstract: This is a comment article and gives the author's subjective personal opinion on the debatable question: Is classical music meant for the brain and light music for the ear?


While citing reasons on the declining popularity of classical music (?) compared to light music, Doglas (1) has argued that classical music is meant for the brain and light music for the ear in that people after a hectic day's work seek relaxation in that form of music where they do not have to use their brains any further! One must not forget that, since classical music is a "soul-purifier" and not merely a medium of entertainment (like watching a football match), the strength of Doglas' argument--seeking relaxation only through light music--does not carry much weight. From my personal experience I can assure you-listening to one good classical music concert relaxes you for the day in entirety. You have to listen to too many songs to come anywhere close to this charismatic effect!

But Doglas (1) has given another argument which is very interesting and cannot be thrown away: Beethoven composed incredible western classical tunes (e.g. the celebrated ninth symphony) despite deafness. It is argued that he perceived music directly through the brain (1) (2). Why did he not compose light music? Is it because that would mean using his ears which he was unable? If so, the debate is very much open:

Is classical music meant for the brain and light music for the ear?

Here is my subjective personal opinion on this debatable issue. I write "subjective personal" being a statistician-cum-music analyst. Perhaps a neuro-musicologist would be a more qualified person to carry on the debate.

It is true that classical music involves the brain intensely. However, it does not follow that light music does not! There are many good songs in different cultures whose creations involved deep thoughts and experimentation. Additionally, one must accept that light music essentially is a composite art in which contributions are threefold: the lyrics (this comes from the song writer), the composition (this comes from the music director) and the singer(s). Of course, all these can come from the same person (if he/she is talented enough!) but the point is: there are three categories of contributions coming from one or more than one individual. Given that the interactive processing of speech and music takes place in the brain (3), the claim that only classical music involves the brain stands refuted. To realize the importance of the interaction of speech and music it suffices to quote E. Y. Harburg: "Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought."

From a critical angle, composite art is very valuable in that

(1) one can intuitively guess that those light music items must be the coveted ones where the strength of composite art is fully realized: that is to say, the three categories of contributions are all lucid, for instance, consider the Bengali song (Rabindra-sangeet) "Diner Sheshe Ghumer Deshe..." sung by Hemanta Mukherjee, written by Rabindranath Tagore, the tune being composed by Pankaj Mullick.

(2) Distributing credits among the three different categories is accepted as an imbroglio by music critics.

Nevertheless, it is still correct to assert that classical music requires more brainwork while ear is more vital in light music. To see why, compare a raga with a raga-based song in Indian music. A raga is a melodic structure with fixed notes and a set of rules characterizing a certain mood conveyed by performance(4). While purity more than pleasantness is crucial in a raga rendition, hiding the raga is what beautifies a song. Purity is decided more by the brain, pleasantness more by the ear. In most of the raga based songs, the ragas are not maintained correctly. But the role of these pleasant songs in promoting Indian classical music among laymen cannot be denied. Secondly, in classical music, the stress is more on the depth and seriousness. Light music is more interesting than serious (this difference between serious and interesting can also be discovered by comparing a research paper with a popular science article on the same topic). The ear is quick to respond to something interesting that we hear. For seriousness, the brain enters the scene. It is to be understood, however, that in both forms of music the ear-brain coordination plays an active role. Thus, although we say "we heard a pleasant song," the decision that it was "pleasant" actually took place in the (paralimbic part of) the brain!(5).


1 Y. Doglas, A Biological Explanation on the Declining Popularity of Classical Music, Philica (11/03/2009).
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2 S. Chakraborty, Review of the book The physics and psychophysics of music (4th ed.): an introduction authored by J. Roederer, Springer Pub. Co. Inc., 2008 published in Computing Reviews, Nov 4, 2009 (
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3 A. D. Patel, Music, language, and the brain. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2008.
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4 S. Chakraborty, K. Krishnapriya, Loveleen, S. Chauhan and S. S. Solanki, Analyzing the Melodic Structure of a North Indian Raga: a Statistical Approach. Electronic Musicological Review, vol. XII, 2009.
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5 A. J. Blood, R. J. Zatorre, P. Bermudez and A. C. Evans, Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions. Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1999, 382-387.
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