Autism and music: Do autistic brains have DIFFERENT auditory fibres? Can autists FEEL music differently?
Do some autistic people FEEL music differently?
This blog post is quite a personal one, and it is about music. Like the vast majority of the population, including those who are neurotypical (NT), as well as autistic people, I really enjoy music. I’d like to discuss here how music makes us feel; I can only speak as an autistic person, as I only know how music feels to me; and I don’t know if what I feel is the same for other neurodiverse or autistic people, or indeed for NT people across the population. As rather than just listening to and enjoying music, I feel it.
Before delving further into this blog, I will highlight an interesting article I read, called ‘If Music Gives You Goosebumps, You May Have A Very Special Brain’. It reports that: ‘People who get a reaction from music make an emotional and physical connection to the sounds they’re hearing… [and] actually have a different brain structure to people who don’t. The fibres that connect the auditory cortex (the part that processes everything you hear) and the areas that process emotion have a denser volume [in people that feel and ‘react’ to music, as opposed to …] people who feel nothing at all.’
This article leads me to believe that (a) NOT everyone feels or interprets music in the way that myself and many other people do, and (b) there could be a very real chance that some autistic brains have DIFFERENT auditory fibres, giving the autist a very different experience of listening to music.
So… for me, as an autistic person, most of all, I think I like to feel the baseline – you simply can’t beat a good base drum or a good base guitar (and preferably both); a nice way to experience this is at a live gig, and often the louder the better – this is quite a physical feeling, in terms of the beat going through your body. It is also great to feel and interpret music when listening to it at home, ideally via good-quality headphones. As an autist, e.g. with the autistic trait of challenges in processing emotions (they are usually deemed too fast or too slow, too obsessive or too far removed, at the appropriate moment!), music changes the way I am feeling in an extremely fast way – with a mechanism that can over-ride usual emotional proccessing speeds. For me, it isn’t necessarily about the lyrics; these may count of course, but it is more the key of the music, the timbre of the voice, and the emotional tone of the piece. One of the best ways to illustrate this is with a song: “I Believe (When I fall in love with you it will be forever)” by Stevie Wonder. It is in my opinion one of the best pop songs ever written. (Art Garfunkel’s version is my favourite – see below). The key changes at: “The many sounds that meet our ears, the sights our eyes behold… will open up our merging hearts and feed our empty souls,” and a stringy, uber-emotional pre-chorus bridge lifts you up into the chorus. It’s unrivalled in my mind. Just that sixteen-second piece of music (the bridge!) brings me to tears sometimes, not because of sadness, but because it is so moving.
This is a lovey-dovey song of course, so it makes sense that it’s been created in order to ‘move’ us. But more upbeat (and / or non-loved-up themes) can have a similar effect. If I’m feeling particularly sensitive then good ‘bassy’ music works well. Robert Plant, in some of his more recent works, has used African drum rhythms and a type of drum called a ‘bendir’, and literally hearing one or two of these drum beats on a song of his that I enjoy can fill me with uplifting emotion.
The timbre of someone’s voice can give me goosebumps, and again this is not necessarily about the words they are singing – a good example of a voice conveying emotion is George Michael.‘The first time ever I saw her face’, originally sung by Peggy Seeger and made famous by Roberta Flack, is sung beautifully on George’s Symphonica album. Although the words are beautiful, it is the sound of his voice and the intent of his words, e.g. his emotional delivery, that makes this version especially spine tingling.
Another thing I enjoy doing is picking apart a song – for example, on one hearing, listening to vocalist A’s voice, and then re-playing and focussing on vocalist B’s voice. (Lady Antebellum are great for this, due to their perfect harmonies and clever production). And I like identifying the different instruments on a song, and perhaps who is playing them!
The point of discussion here on Spectra.blog I suppose is: are these feelings and interpretations of mine linked to being autistic, and if so, how amazing! Many musicians, singers and songwriters seemingly have autistic traits, even if the artist themselves is unaware that they may be on the autistic spectrum, or at the very least has not come out as being autistic! This is probably because autism can bring great creativity, and a fascination with word play, particularly rhyming, and also a dedication to learning, possibly linked to repetitive thought processes; this surely lends itself to learning a musical instrument, or honing one’s voice with hours of practice.
NB – there are studies linked to autism and music – this one titled ‘Neural systems for speech and song in autism’ and published in the journal ‘Brain’ concludes that: ‘In autism, functional systems that process speech and song were more effectively engaged for song than for speech.’(Click HERE for info).
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. Click HERE for info on the author of this piece.
(You may also like to read this POST on functioning labels for autists).
I’d love to know from readers (autist and NT alike!) their opinions and experiences, regarding HOW they enjoy music.
Also published on Medium.