In a society where talent shows dominate our TV programmes and we secretly cannot wait for our weekly X factor fix, it is surprising how little we actually know about the science of music. While we’re swinging that leg over the dance floor and belting out to our favourite tune on the karaoke machine, neuroscience is probably the last thing that pops into our minds. But in fact, even humming a melody involves a range of complex cognitive processes, ranging from processing the music and sensory motoric functions such as dancing or balancing to memory storage and retrieval.
Once belittled as “auditory cheesecake”, the neuroscience of music is a relatively young field that aims at understanding cognitive brain functions and processing, in particular speech, and is gaining increasing attention by scientists. And as such, we are now beginning to understand how music is processed in the brain, and whether it is similar to language processing.
It was once thought that the left-brain hemisphere is responsible for language processing, while the right hemisphere is responsible for music processing. Nowadays it is known that listening and engaging to music is processed bilaterally throughout the brain, involving the cortex, sub-cortex and cerebellum mainly in the right but also in the left hemisphere. Brain areas processing speech and music do not completely overlap but some common grounds can be found, for example in the syntax. However, lateralities exist in some cases, that is certain information is only processed on either left or right side of the brain. Melodic attributes can also be found in the way we talk, which is with different pitches. High flat pitches are associated with fear; while falling pitches are comforting and large bell shaped pitches are associated joy or surprise. It was even shown that with composers, the rhythm of the native language is reflected in their instrumental music.
Music also changes brain structure and function and it was found that brains of musicians differ in morphology and function to the brains of non-musicians. Music enhances brain activity, and those who learned to play an instrument at a very young age show a lot more changes in the brain than the ones learned as a teenager or in later years. Moreover, links between musical discrimination and cognitive abilities have been found, for example children with dyslexia have impaired melodic and rhythmic tasks abilities. A change of brain morphology was shown not to only occur in musicians’ brains, but also in people suffering from amusia; a deficit in music processing in which people cannot discriminated between pitches less than a semi tone apart, although it is nowadays seen as a rather selective impairment of perception, concerning either rhythm, or melody, or both, or in more simple terms “tone-deafness“.
Many people see emotion as the essence and purpose of music. And although the role of emotion in music processing is still widely debated, it was shown that music can indeed trigger emotional responses such as shivers, thrills and changes in heart rate. When listening to music, the same brain areas are activated in a similar manner to other emotional stimuli, and dopamine, a chemical that triggers the brain’s sense of reward, is released. Oddly, sad music can make people happy. It tricks the brain to release prolactin, a bonding hormone released during breast feeding or sex, which induces a positive mood change.
Undoubtedly, music has a great significance in our lives and as John Miles put it in his ode to music “Music was my first love and it will be my last, music of the future and music of the past”, no one can imagine a world and life without music.
The field of neuroscience of music has only recently started to flourish and due to the advancement of brain scanning methods, research in processing music will provide us with a better understanding about cognitive abilities, from auditory to motor processing and speech. It will also bring us more insight about developmental disabilities such as autism. And it may answer the maybe the most intriguing question, why have we evolved music and a musical brain? Although scientists argue that music has no purpose in an evolutionary context and had no adaptive value for our survival, it certainly has an uncannily important value for our wellbeing and society, now as much as in the past, as well as in the future.
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