Your Brain on Music

Science starts to unravel our natural affinity

How does music engage and touch us so deeply? Why is its presence so intrinsic to what we do? It's everywhere, from stereos and headphones to movie soundtracks and commercials. Even our voices possess a unique musicality. It's hardly essential to life, yet music's been a part of every human culture dating all the way back to the Neanderthals.

One of the reasons music moves us is that listening to music invokes many integral areas of the brain, not just a single locus. The advent of brain-imaging technology has ignited a conflagration of study into the connection between music and the brain, and studies suggest that the processing of music is tied to our basic emotional and motor centers, the amygdala and cerebellum, as well as the hippocampus, which is involved in spatial navigation and the creation of memories. Scientists are exploring clues that there may be long-term benefits to learning how to play music as a youth, as well as connections between music and memory, and the effects of music on people with mental disabilities.

The starting point for research is the brain's processing of sound. Even before today's fine-tuned MRIs, studies of people with brain damage turned up interesting facts about how the brain parses music. Case studies of brain lesions indicate a separation between the processing of language and music, as many have lost one but not the other (aphasia vs. amusia). Author Dr. Oliver Sacks (Awakenings) writes about musician/conductor Clive Wearing, who suffered brain damage and lost all his memory except for musical ones and those of his wife. Russian composer Vissarion Shebalin suffered a stroke in 1953 and could no longer talk or understand speech but continued to write music until his death 10 years later.

The loss of some functions but not others could stem from the fact that different areas of the brain process different musical elements. Damage to the right and left temporal lobes will impact ability to perceive meter and rhythm, respectively. Music also activates reward centers in the brain, releasing dopamine the way sex or chocolate does.

Perhaps this explains why orthopedic surgeon Tony Cicoria developed a sudden passion for piano music several days after being struck by lightning. As described in Sacks' book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Cicoria developed an "insatiable desire" for piano music (Chopin, in particular). He ordered the sheet music and began playing piano for the first time in 35 years. He even started composing, though he needed lessons to translate the new music in his head to the page.

Even more fascinating are the advances being made in the study of memory and music. One justification put forth by evolutionary biologists for the development of musical aptitude is that music eases the memory and passage of social histories. Songs and music can wield an undeniable hold on our imagination, as anyone who's had an insistent tune stuck in their head can testify.

Dr. Daniel Levitin, a leading neuroscientist, has always been fascinated by music. He's explored, among other things, our unusual capacity to remember music. In his book This Is Your Brain on Music, Levitin recounts a study he did which invited non-musicians to sing their favorite songs. Comparing them with the original versions, Levitin found most people could replicate the tempo within a 4 percent margin of error, and two-thirds sang within a semitone of the original pitch.

A later study by Glenn Schellenberg (a former member of '80s New Wave act Martha and the Muffins) found people could identify a Top 40 song hearing only the timbre and tone, not the melody or rhythm. Other studies have shown an ability to identify familiar songs regardless of changes to tempo, melodic intervals, the key, or even the instrumentation.

This tweaking of our expectations is one of the enjoyable aspects of listening to music — just as syncopation teases the anticipation of the downbeat. Perhaps it explains some of the appeal of overhauled covers, such as the Cowboy Junkies' "Sweet Jane," or Aztec Camera's "Jump." These and other studies have heralded a new understanding of memory that incorporates both our ability to remember music absolutely (as in terms of pitch) and recognize it relationally, and out of context.

Levitin says each human voice possesses a unique timbre, which he considers an evolutionary advantage. "Timbre is important because a voice can be heard in the dark, around the corner, or even during the hunt, which is helpful in recognizing friends or enemies," Levitin says.

He's currently studying people with Williams Syndrome — a rare genetic condition that causes developmental disabilities — for connections between musical ability and emotion. Those with the disorder display great sociability and musical facility that far outstrips their low intelligence. They're very open and unafraid of strangers, while conversely utterly unable to understand nuance or subtext.

Levitin also believes music is intimately related to social bonding — even beyond its importance in teenage identity — and suggests it may be related to the most basic human approach/avoidance mechanism, which he believes inhabits a similar area of the human genome.

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