Daily Bow: A Look at Your Brain on Music

Daily Bow LogoIf the latest stories on my Facebook news feed are any indication, people can’t get enough of little personality tests. As all good parents remind their children, everybody’s different, and it’s our differences that make us interesting. Maybe that’s why we as social creatures feel the urge to compare notes with each other on every possible personal dimension. A smattering of recently seen online quizlets reflects our fascination with personal data: What’s your sign? Which Disney princess are you? Which wine is most like your personality? Which political party should you belong to? What color is your parachute? Are you right-brained or left-brained?

The question of being left- or right-brained has been transformed into a pop-psychology issue. Individuals who characterize themselves or are characterized as being right-brained tend to be associated with creativity, spontaneity, and an artistically inclined disposition. The left-brained people of the world are typically cast as logical, analytical, and organized. The delineation has become a very popular one, and it has carried over into our system for classifying professions and intellectual pursuits. The sciences typically fall into the left-brain camp, and the arts are often grouped into the right-brained.

It’s a fair bet that most of us have taken some version of a quiz to let us know which side of the line our brains prefer to function. It’s just as fair a bet that many among us are in fields that are “opposite” to that which would be predicted by our test results. For musicians, it’s easy to find contradictions within our own line of work. For those individuals who consider themselves to be dominated by the left brain, are we to suppose that they cannot create music artistically and beautifully and are instead consigned to the fate of a cold, calculating technician? Or for those individuals who consider themselves to be right-brained–are they impulsive artistic scatterbrains? Wide experience in the music world provides all of us with ample evidence to the contrary. Certainly, logical and analytical types thrive with certain tasks in music, just as creative and impulsive types thrive with others. That’s simple human nature. However, if it was as simple as hemispheric preference, we would find that, firstly, there would be a great deal more one-dimensional musicians out there, and, secondly, we’d see quite a bit less information that testifies to music’s beneficial effects on the whole brain.

The fact of the matter is–of course–that music is not so simple, and, for that matter, neither is the brain. Take the simple act of listening to music. The task screams neither left nor right brain, but it does suggest from an intuitive standpoint that it would primarily focus on the brain’s auditory systems. A recent study has indicated that even that is not so simple. Rather than simply involving the auditory areas of the brain, it also draws on larger-scale neural networks. The study in question, led by Finnish researcher Petri Toiviainen, was published in November of this year and finds that music, even the passive act of listening, involves not one hemisphere but the whole brain. Here’s a quick look at what the study says in its abstract:

We investigated the neural underpinnings of timbral, tonal, and rhythmic features of a naturalistic musical stimulus. Participants were scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) while listening to a stimulus with a rich musical structure, a modern tango. We correlated temporal evolutions of timbral, tonal, and rhythmic features of the stimulus, extracted using acoustic feature extraction procedures, with the fMRI time series. Results corroborate those obtained with controlled stimuli in previous studies and highlight additional areas recruited during musical feature processing. While timbral feature processing was associated with activations in cognitive areas of the cerebellum, and sensory and default mode network cerebrocortical areas, musical pulse and tonality processing recruited cortical and subcortical cognitive, motor and emotion-related circuits. In sum, by combining neuroimaging, acoustic feature extraction and behavioral methods, we revealed the large-scale cognitive, motor and limbic brain circuitry dedicated to acoustic feature processing during listening to a naturalistic stimulus. In addition to these novel findings, our study has practical relevance as it provides a powerful means to localize neural processing of individual acoustical features, be it those of music, speech, or soundscapes, in ecological settings.

That thick block of scientific text is somewhat intimidating, but the gist is this: music activates vast cross-hemispheric networks in the brain. The pulse of music activates motor centers, reinforcing the idea that music and movement are closely related. Furthermore, the limbic areas of the brain–areas that are closely associated with the processing of emotion–are involved in the processing of rhythm, tonality, and key identification. The manner in which timbre is processed was shown to be associated with activations in the “default mode network,” which is generally associated with mind-wandering and creativity.

Music, as we can see from this study and others like it, is essentially wrapped inextricably in and around the neural pathways throughout the brain. The study also does much to highlight the physiological reasons for the emotional reaction that we have to music. To echo Richard Dawkins’s sentiment in his collection of essays entitled Unweaving the Rainbow, the explanation of the phenomenon–the unweaving of the rainbow–does nothing to detract from the wonder we feel at our reaction to music. Instead, it adds another layer of beauty to realize that our brains are wired for music, from the technical to the emotional. It seems that, from our brains to our fingers, we are a musical species, and we’re just beginning to see how organic that connection is.

Mr. Toiviainen has a video titled “The Tango Brain” that illustrates some of these concepts. Check it out!

3 Responses to Daily Bow: A Look at Your Brain on Music

  1. liz garnett January 5, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    What a fascinating video. There’s scope also to cross-reference the fMRI and acoustical feature correlations with music-theoretical approaches to understanding musical structures. There are conspicuously high levels of activity in places one would typically identify as ‘climactic’, and interesting patterns through melodic activity where there’s less activity in the middle of the phrase, then a burst just after the cadence. The late LB Meyer would have loved this!

    • Colin Cronin January 7, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

      Hi Liz! I’m glad you enjoyed this video. There is some fascinating research out there when it comes to the brain and it’s exciting to see what happens when we see how this information can be applied to our lives as musicians.


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