Scientists have found the group of people that might respond the most to music – musicians. As they spend more and more time around music, musicians’ brains increasingly become more synchronized with the rhythms.

Jonathan Gross, CC by 2.0
Jonathan Gross, CC by 2.0

In a new study, New York University researchers isolated the rhythms in the brain that can coordinate with music. However, only the brain oscillations of musicians were able to synchronize with the unusually slow music clips used in the experiments, say the NYU researchers — the brain waves of non-musicians could not match the unhurried tempo. Via Medical Daily

Our ability to hear and process sound is dependent on brain processes referred to as cortical oscillations during which neurons are fired rhythmically in the brain. Previous studies showed that human brain rhythms coordinate with speech, allowing us to isolate syllables, words and phrases during a continuous stream of spoken words.

We process music better when the frequency of the oscillations is more aligned to the frequency of the musical sounds. A good example of this kind of processing is when you zone in to hear what one person is saying in a room full of people talking.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Mr Doelling and Professor David Poeppel mapped neuronal activity in the brains of 27 non-musicians and 12 musicians as they listened to three clips of classical music multiple times. Via ABC

listen to music
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In the three experiments, MEG (magnetoencephalography) was used to measure the tiny magnetic field that the brain generates when active. The classical piano music pieces they listened to were each 13 seconds long and varied in tempo – the slowest was half a note per second while the longest was eight notes per second.

The researchers found that the cortical oscillations of the participants (whether musician or non-musician) synchronizes with the music’s tempo. However, musicians were at an advantage when tracking very slow beats (less than one per second), suggesting that non-musicians were having difficulty processing the notes in clusters and instead focused on the individual notes.

“Maybe non-musicians are having a harder time grouping the notes, so if you hear a note that just once every two seconds you might not really make it into a melody, you might just see it as individual notes,” Mr Doelling said.

While the musical clips were from music by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, the musicians who participated in the study came from a wide range of musical backgrounds.

“The more musicians had been training, the longer they had been training, the more they were able to synchronise,” he said. Via ABC

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The researchers also found a link between synchronization and how listeners processed music. They discovered that individuals with a higher degree of synchronization also tended to be better at processing the music content.

The researchers tested this by including a slight pitch distortion at one point in the musical segment, and asking listeners firstly if they heard the distortion and secondly, if the pitch went up or down during the distortion.

They showed that participants whose cortical oscillations were better synchronised with the music were also better able to pick the pitch distortion. Via ABC

According to the researchers, when the brain waves are better able to align themselves with the rhythm of the music, we are also able to better process other aspects of the music, making for a more enjoyable experience.

When we are able to align our brain waves with “the temporal structure of music,” this allows our brains “better access to other aspects of musical processing as well (certainly pitch, and potentially things like melody and harmony),” Doelling explained.

Ultimately, our brain rhythms strive to align with and group any sound, whether music or speech, into small chunks to be analyzed. Via Medical Daily

musical symbols
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This is not the first research of its kind. A few years ago, researchers discovered that the brainwaves of musicians synchronized when playing different parts of a duet. An even earlier study showed that when instrumentalists play exactly the same tune, their brainwave patterns began to match.

But researchers are not about to stop anytime soon!

The team is now hoping to look at whether repeatedly listening to the same piece over and over again can train the brain to better synchronise with musical rhythms.

“So we’re looking to see if the non-musicians get up to the level of the musicians by the end of it,” Mr Doelling said. Via ABC

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