Scientists unlock ‘music room’ inside brain

Feel the beat: American neuroscientists have isolated the part of the brain that detects music.

Music: we know we love it, but we don’t know why. That could change, however, with the discovery of an area in the brain devoted to picking up musical sounds. How important is this find?

What do a Kanye beat, a drum recital and the sound of your dad whistling in the shower have in common? They are all, technically speaking, music. That may seem obvious – but until recently, it was not.

What is music? The definition of the word eludes us. We think we know it when we hear it, yet experts have struggled to explain how the brain recognises and interprets it. That is set to change: neuroscientists at MIT have isolated a part of the brain that reacts when it is played music, and otherwise stays dormant.

Volunteers were played an array of everyday sounds: some musical (pop songs, classical pieces), some not (tires squealing, flags flapping). Using brain imaging techniques, the scientists found that a certain group of neurons in the auditory cortex were activated almost exclusively by the music clips. Another group responded to sounds of speech.

Researchers have long suspected that humans are equipped with a ‘music room’: a place in the brain dedicated to detecting music. This study presents the strongest evidence yet. The cut-off point between music and ordinary sounds may sometimes be unclear to us, but never to our brains.

This is a momentous finding. Yet far from settling anything, it only throws up more questions. We know that the brain can differentiate between properties of sound, such as pitch and frequency; but these are not consistent across all types of music. So what do our brains hear in common between, say, a banjo solo and a Disney tune?

The question of how the brain distinguishes music, then, is a pressing one. The MIT team are also keen to find out at what age it begins to do so. And then, most fundamentally, why. Does music serve an evolutionary purpose, or is it just a bit of fun? If it disappeared overnight, would humanity get by?

Facing the music

Yes it would, say some. Music is no more than the accidental by-product of other faculties, such as speech and motor functions. We practise it because we like it, not because we need it. Psychologist Steven Pinker famously compared music to cheesecake: it exists because of evolutionary necessities (in the cake’s case, fats and sugars), but it is not in itself necessary. It merely pleases us.

Hang on, others counter. There are plenty of ways in which music could help you pass on your genes. It gives groups a sense of identity; it is a powerful way to communicate emotions; and if you believe Darwin, it can find you a mate. In other words, music helps societies to survive. The theory that it bestows an evolutionary advantage is backed up by the MIT study, which shows that musical sensitivity is deeply embedded in our circuitry. It isn’t just a superficial feature of our culture.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite piece of music, and why?
  2. Does music have to sound pleasant to be good?

Activities

  1. Compose a short piece of music – with your voice, your hands, an instrument, anything! Pair up, and try to teach your piece to your partner.
  2. What steps should the MIT team take next in their research into music and the brain? Write them a letter, putting forth five questions that you would like them to answer.

Some People Say...

“Where words fail, music speaks.”

Hans Christian Andersen

What do you think?

Q & A

If humans are so musical, why can’t I play music to save my life?
There are various factors at play. Clearly, upbringing plays a part: if your parents push you to take piano lessons as a kid, you’ll have an advantage. Yet time and again, studies reveal the importance of genes too. It is not clearly understood why people can enjoy listening to music, but lack the talent for it.
Well done, MIT. But what next?
There’s plenty of follow-up research to be done. The volunteers in the study were non-musicians; next time musicians will be tested, in order to find out whether a talent for music enhances the brain’s sensitivity to it. The scientists will also bring in children of various ages, so as to determine at what age this sensitivity develops. The science of music is only getting started.

Word Watch

Definition
The primary definition of ‘music’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion’. This may sound reasonable, but there are grey areas: does it cover rapping, or out-of-tune singing, or the steady beat of a hand on a table?
MIT
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Arguably the most prestigious scientific research centre in the USA.
Auditory cortex
The part of the brain that processes auditory (sound) information. It is located in the temporal lobe, just behind your ears.
Steven Pinker
A cognitive scientist, psychologist and linguist famous for his popular science books. Pinker’s ‘cheesecake’ simile has been widely cited, and also widely criticised for downplaying the use of music to communicate and express emotions.
Darwin
Charles Darwin argued that music evolved as a tool to help men find a mate, as it did in other species. Some have elaborated on his theory, while others believe it inadequate, as it does not explain why females are musical.