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By: Rabbi Zamir Cohen

Music touches a person’s soul. Music has a huge impact on the mind. (In Judaism, it is said that a melody begins where words end...) Music can bring a person to feel such exaltation and inner joy that he spontaneously breaks out in dance. Kabbalists write that the “gate of music” originates from the heavenly realms, near the “gate” of divine inspiration. In the Book Melachim II (3:15), it is written: “And when the musician began playing, a Gdly spirit came upon him.”

Researchers from Dartmouth College’s Center of Cognitive Neuroscience conducted a study that mapped the brain regions associated with musical activities. They recruited eight participants who had a musical background and training, and asked them to listen to a musical composition lasting eight minutes that was composed by a well-known music arranger who was also a researcher in the school. The composition was designed to utilize all 24 scales that comprise conventional music. Their goal was to see how music affects the human brain.

Before looking at their findings, let us first examine the Hebrew word for “song” – “shir.” The word “shir” is used by the Mishnah in Masechet Shabbat in reference to a round ornament – a bracelet. A song is referred to as “shir” because a song is a circle. Kabbalists teach that when a person sings, his song binds his soul to the highest spiritual levels, in the sense of the Sefer Hayetzirah’s remark, “Its end is attached to its beginning.” When a person sings, his soul longs to connect to its heavenly source, and this creates a kind of spiritual gravitation between him and Gd. The Maharal explains that this is why dancing profoundly stirs a person’s soul.

Of course, we are not referring to the wild dancing that people do today. We speak of a refined form of dancing that exalts the soul, such as dancing in a circle.

What does a “dance” require? A dance cannot exist without music, and a person who dances without music will feel silly. Why is a song or music so essential? It induces longing in a person’s soul to cleave to his Creator. Even if a person cannot express this feeling in words, his soul longs for spirituality.

Another explanation for dancing is that when someone dances and leaps, he seeks to elevate and disengage himself from the material world and the confines of earth, and thus dancing expresses the soul´s longing to cleave to its Creator.

With this in mind, we can return to the Dartmouth study.

Fascinatingly, the researchers found that the scales of a musical composition create a circular geometric pattern in the brain similar to a ring. As the subjects listened to the composition, their brain waves were scanned using a method similar to an MRI. The scan showed that listening to music caused activity in a “ring” which surrounded the brain in a perfect circular pattern.

This unique pattern in the brain’s activity is what causes pleasure when one hears a harmonious composition.

Studies have thus shown that the impact of music on the brain is in the shape of a ring. It is remarkable how closely this parallels the Kabbalists’ comment on the word shir (song): that it comes from the same word used for “bracelet,” whose “end is attached to its beginning,” referring to the soul’s spiritual longing aroused by music.

Rabbi Zamir Cohen is the chairman of the Hidabrut organization,
the world's largest Jewish network, www.