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Music pervades every kind of difference that exists between human beings. That’s why scientists have always wondered whether our brains have a common ‘music room’ that makes us respond to music.

“It has been the subject of widespread speculation,” says Josh McDermott… “One of the core debates surrounding music is to what extent it has dedicated mechanisms in the brain and to what extent it piggybacks off of mechanisms that primarily serve other functions.” Via MIT News

Regardless of whether you hate or love any particular piece of music, you recognize it as music. And while it may be difficult to describe music in words, an example will always suffice. Scientists have in the past come close to proving this ‘music room’ exists in our brains. Unfortunately, technological shortcomings ensured that their efforts always fell short of expectation – until now.

M.I.T. researchers Nancy Kanwisher, Josh H. McDermott and Sam Norman-Haignere have uncovered specific parts of the brain that are activated primarily by music — and not, say, human speech or ambient sound. In fact, according to the findings they published in the journal Neuron, the circuits that “light up” to different kinds of sound are located in completely different parts of the auditory cortex.

In unpacking this groundbreaking study, M.I.T. News explains that by utilizing a new method working with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers were able to identify six different neural population response patterns in 10 human subjects who were each played 165 sound clips. In summary, “one population responded most to music, another to speech, and the other four to different acoustic properties such as pitch and frequency.” Via Billboard

According to the study, the brain responses for music were observed for all types of sounds that had a melodic or rhythmic quality to them – a solo drummer, rap, pop songs and even whistling. The breakthrough for scientists was the idea that the brain gives specialized treatment to music recognition.

A radical new approach to brain imaging was what made it possible to discover what past studies couldn’t.

Marcos Chin
Marcos Chin

By mathematically analyzing scans of the auditory cortex and grouping clusters of brain cells with similar activation patterns, the scientists have identified neural pathways that react almost exclusively to the sound of music — any music. Via NY Times

By contrast, other sounds, such as those of a barking dog, flushing toilet, skidding car, had no effect on the musical circuits. Another interesting finding was that the speech and music circuits are in different parts of the brain area that interprets sound signals. Additionally, the speech and music circuits are deaf to each other’s cues, though some overlap was observed when responding to songs containing lyrics.

The new paper “takes a very innovative approach and is of great importance,” said Josef Rauschecker, director of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition at Georgetown University. “The idea that the brain gives specialized treatment to music recognition, that it regards music as fundamental a category as speech, is very exciting to me.” Via NY Times

Additionally, the study discredits a lot of the rationales that were given in the past as a result of neuroscientists’ inability to find a music center in the brain that was anatomically distinct.

Marcos Chin
Marcos Chin

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, the director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, said that when previous neuroscientists failed to find any anatomically distinct music center in the brain, they came up with any number of rationales to explain the results.

“The story was, oh, what’s special about music perception is how it recruits areas from all over the brain, how it draws on the motor system, speech circuitry, social understanding, and brings it all together,” she said. Some researchers dismissed music as “auditory cheesecake,” a pastime that co-opted other essential communicative urges. “This paper says, no, when you peer below the cruder level seen with some methodologies, you find very specific circuitry that responds to music over speech.” Via NY Times

Based on the findings of this study, researchers can now explore even more aspects of human musicality. For instance, researchers are currently investigating whether the parts of the brain that respond to music are also broken down into neurons that respond to the different aspects of music – beat, melody, rhythm. Another interesting area is the effect that musical training and experience might have on these neurons.

“Why do we have music?” Dr. Kanwisher said in an interview. “Why do we enjoy it so much and want to dance when we hear it? How early in development can we see this sensitivity to music, and is it tunable with experience? These are the really cool first-order questions we can begin to address.” Via NY Times

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