Music and Dreams: The Case of the Beatles

Why is some music so rare in dreams?

Posted Jan 25, 2015

I have had vivid dreams where I hear a beautiful melody in the dream but then I wake up and promptly forget the melody to my great distress! Although I can remember these musical dreams they have been quite rare in my life. Research has confirmed that this is the case with most people: very few of us recall dreams with music in them. This lack of music in dreams is surprising given that music is a very big part of daily life for a lot of people. If the content of dreams generally reflects our everyday activities one would expect “heard” music to show up in quite a few dreams but this is simply not the case. A search for musical content in the dreams archived at derambank.net for example, returns very few such dreams--with the partial exception of dreams derived from musicians. While Kern et al (Kern, S., Auer, A., Gutsche, M., Otto, A., Preuß, K., & Schredl, M. 2014,  Relationship between political, musical and sports activities in waking life and the frequency of these dream types in politics and psychology students. International Journal of Dream Research, 7(1), 80-84) recently reported an association between time spent in daytime musical activities and percentage of dreams reflecting some amount of musical activity, the frequency with which musical phrases occur in dreams still appears to be quite low. Why is music so rare in dreams?

One speculative possibility I want to explore in this post is that the dreaming mind treats musical phrases as “foreign” or "parasitic" on the dream's processing resources, and that dreams therefore normally protect us against these sorts of "parasitic" ideas. This idea goes back to the novel hypothesis concerning the function of dreams advanced by Crick and Mitchison back in 1983 (Crick, Francis; Mitchison, Graeme (1983). "The function of dream sleep". Nature 304 (5922): 111–4. doi:10.1038/304111a0. PMID 6866101).  They suggested that the REM sleep/dreams system functions as a kind of reverse learning mechanism that isolates non-essential, and potentially parasitic informational elements and then eliminates them from the brain/Mind. For most of us the dreaming mind treats musical phrases as non-essential and parasitic and it therefore prevents musical phrases from catching hold and entering long term memory. This is not the case for musicians. For these people music is essential and non-parasitic so their dreaming systems allow processing of musical phrases (see Uga, V., Lemut, M. C., Zampi, C., Zilli, I., & Salzarulo, P. (2006). Music in dreams. Consciousness and cognition, 15(2), 351-357). If this specualtive account of the relation between dreams and music is right then we have to assume that the brains and dreams of musicians are very different from the rest of us.For most of us the dreaming mind treats most musical phrases as 'foreign" and they therefore get eliminated from the system.

But why would the dreaming mind treat most musical phrases as non-essential or parasitic for most of us? Music has been part of human story since the dawn of history so we would expect the dreaming mind to accommodate music if not welcome it. Perhaps musical phrases put too great a burden on memory systems? Or perhaps musical phrases compete with verbal and language -related information for access to memory stores?  Music is, after all, extremely easy to remember, particularly if the music is a catchy tune or melodic.

The mind has to be selective in what it thinks. Most of the time I want to think my own thoughts, have my own feelings and entertain my own images. Occassionally however I like to hear others tell stories, or I like to read a book or watch a movie. In these cases I voluntarily allow entry of ideas and images of others into my consciousness. Once done with the book or movie however I can generally discard the ‘foreign’ material and ideas and return to my own.

It aint the same with music.

When a catchy tune enters my consciousness it is much harder to delete the tune than it is to discard images from a movie or book. The brain/mind needs help to discard musical phrases it doesn’t like.or that burden the processing resources of the cognitive system. While we can screen out the thoughts, images, memories, opinions and ideas of others as foreign and potentially noxious, we typically do not have the same leeway when those same ideas are packaged into a well-crafted song. In that case we not only let them in and take them to heart and constantly repeat them, we go in search for more of the same.  The well -crafted song is an extremely powerful way to colonize or influence other minds. While most of us can resist this colonization of our minds, mentally ill people have less ability to do so.

A friend of a friend of mine is a young mother of a toddler and a recent baby. Even though she is only in her late twenties she loves Beatles music. She began telling her husband and her friends that George Harrison and John Lennon had been speaking to her in her dreams from beyond the grave, telling her to change her life. She began to neglect her children and her daily life. Within weeks she had a major nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. Over many months she recovered shed her delusional beliefs but never lost her love of Beatles music. Psychiatrists tell me that delusional content involving one or more of the Beatles is not uncommon among young and old alike when they slip into psychoses.

Delusional beliefs very often recruit cognitive content that, in the larger culture, refers to powerful or ultimate figures. Delusional content also very often recruits ideas and content that is intimately bound up with the sense of Self. That is why many delusional belief systems reference religious belief systems. Demons possess souls and psychotics reveal that they either are Jesus or have been communing with Jesus or some angelic messenger from God. In the modern world Beatles music is ubiquitous enough and loved enough to sometimes get bound up with the sense of Self and thus gets recruited to build delusional belief systems when psychosis intrudes. In a weird way the incorporation of the Beatles into dreams and delusional belief systems of psychotics is a macabre witness to their extraordinary infiltration into the modern mind and to the amazing ability of their music to invade the consciousness of the ordinary individual who daily confronts life in all its quotidian perplexities and magnificent mysteries.

Despite the inbuilt protective system the dreaming mind has built up to protect against musical dreams and memories the Beatles were able to consistently bypass that system and infiltrate dreams, minds and hearts of millions of people for several decades. By any measure of financial and artistic success the Beatles were a very successful band. But they were not just a commercial and popular success they were a huge success, a smashing, out of the ballpark success! - they were and remain an anomaly, an outlier in the annals of popular music. I have seen videos of kids in an orphanage in 2013 central Africa dancing to “Baby you’re a rich man”, heard tell of crowds swaying to “Dear Prudence” in Buneos Aires, saw the you tube footage of Paul McCartney playing to thousands in Moscow all of whom were singing along to “Its getting Better”. The Beatles were and remain popular across the globe and across cultures and across decades. They are and remain loved by millions in the North and South and from east to west. The modern consciousness is permeated with Beatle’s melodies. My 7 year old daughter is equally likely to ask to hear a tayloy Swift song as a Beatles song. If we want to understand how cultural figures like artists, authors, philosophers and religious figures are so effective at gaining access to the dreams, hearts and minds of so many people we could do worse than to look at a striking instance of this sort of feat in the modern era-the Beatles.

The Beatles melodies invade the consciousness and the dreams of people and occupy their dreams for longer periods of time than most other competing cultural memes. Those songs elicit devotion on a mass scale and for mentally disturbed people it frightens them enough to attempt murder of the authors of those tunes. As we all know Lennon was in fact murdered by a deranged fan and Harrison was almost murdered by a deranged fan. It is sad but very likely that that McCartney and Starr have been attacked as well. It is unclear if anyone has ever been given such great access to the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people from so many cultures across such a long period of time. We all know that the Beatles not only influenced popular music they set fashion trends, hair styles, transformed discussions of creativity, reinvigorated the reign of melody and harmony, initiated the global music revolution, turned on millions to acid and transcendental meditation, and helped create the 1960s. But how did they manage all this? How did they do it?  Why have so many people allowed Beatles songs into their dreams, hearts and minds for so long a period of time? What does the Beatles phenomena tell us about ourselves and dreams and music?

One thing that all seem to agree on, including those who love Beatle music and those who hate it, was that the Beatles wrote some good songs, catchy tunes, with beautiful melodies. The Beatles haters deplore this fact while Beatles fans love it. To understand the Beatle’s songs ability to access the dreaming mind we need to understand what it is about song that is so powerful.

As mentioned above songs have an uncanny ability to invade and occupy the minds of people. Sometimes even the author of a song will claim that it just came to him/her and that he could not get it out of his head as in the famous story of McCartney waking up with the melody of Yesterday swirling around in his head. Why do songs get this privileged access to dreams and hearts and minds?

Song can be seen as a cultural tool that manipulates the mind in such a way as to change its mode of operation. A song can open us up in anticipation of rewards to come or can put us in a reflective, introspective mode or transform the mind’s perceptual capacities or jinn us up to prepare for a challenge and so forth.

Beatles songs could do all of these things, put you in a reflective mood, uplift your spirits, rev you up for a challenge but the thing they did most consistently it seems to me, and this is the secret to their special power, is that they consistently give the listener the capacity to see the world in novel ways. The brain-mind is known to orient to novelty and unexpected rewards via its ability to identify redundant elements in a message. The ease with which redundant elements are identified allows the dreaming brain to switch into a mode where it can very efficiently ignore the repetitive elements and then reorient to pick up non-redundant or novel elements in the environment. The Beatles were masters at manipulating placement of repetitive elements in a song so as to maximize the resolution effect after a climatic moment. They were also masters at delaying climatic moments and placing them in all kinds of unexpected places in a song. They frequently used non-harmonic tones in connection with a blues derived harmonic progression, ostinato harmonic progressions (repeat), interpolation of unrelated chord progressions, countermelodies, unusual instrumentation styles, triadic melodies, rhythmic and metric experimentation of all kinds and dozens of other tricks. None of these tricks concerning manipulation of repetitive elements are very innovative but they were effective at facilitating the mind/brain switch into novelty-seeking mode after every song. That may be one reason why Beatle’s songs can seem fresh even after hearing them all too often over the years.

What happens when you have a catchy or beautiful melody and well-placed repetitive elements littered throughout a song that builds tension and then creates unexpected climatic moments throughout the song? In my view that song will create a variety of opportunities for the mind/brain when in REM sleep/dreaming mode to firmly identify the redundant elements in the song and thereby be better able to switch into a deeper more prolonged novelty-seeking stance during waking life. That is the consistent thing Beatles songs deliver to listeners. Apparently the dreaming mind prefers this kind of novelty-seeking information processing as well and that is why it excludes some musical phrases while preferring others like Beatles music! In short, consideration of the ways in which dreams process musical phrases suggests that the dreaming mind is a very sophisticated and selective processing system that can eliminate redundant informational elements that are parasitic on the system (which includes much of the music we are exposed to everyday) and it acts, conversely,  to retain non-redundant novel types of informational elements which only a few songs display-including it seems some of those old Beatles tunes....