Time is a slippery continuum. Watching the hands on a clock tick will feel way, way different depending on the situation; trying to frantically write something on deadline with five minutes to spare ain’t the same as desperately willing a conference call to finish more quickly. It turns out that music can have an equally brain-bending effect on how we process the days of our lives.
Composer Jonathan Berger wrote a recent essay in Nautilus about how tunes can “hijack our perception,” going into detail about some of the most confounding effects. Basically: clocks keep track of the objective end of things, but our brains and bodies can perceive time with an entirely different rhythm; a subjective take dictated by what Berger describes as “physiological metronomes.” (That is such a great term! Sounds like we’re half-bot, half-human, pulsing with cool personal chronographs.)
But music exists outside of both of those units, Berger suggests. “This other time creates a parallel temporal world in which we are prone to lose ourselves,” he says. When we’re engaged, our introspective pre-frontal cortex “switches off” — which allows us to go all Zen.
Berger includes data that seems tailor-made for marketers — apparently people spend more time shopping for groceries and buy more drinks at the bar if the background soundtrack is slow — and for drivers, too.
Hot tip: never put on Wagner in the car. Ride of the Valkyries is most dangerous thing to listen to on the road, apparently, because the the amped tempo is likely to make you feel like you need to speed to keep up with the music.
One of the most interesting parts of the piece is how much early tech influenced our general tolerance for track lengths. When Thomas Edison began recording on tinfoil-covered cylinders in 1877, those babies could hold about four minutes of audio, which, over time, shaped our collective attention spans; to this day, popular music still caps out about there.
Head over to Nautilus for more specifics on the neuroscience of Adagio, Scherzo, Allegro na mon troppo.