Your Brain on Music

Dr. Levitin tries to pinpoint the region responsible for the inexplicable popularity of Soulja Boy's "Crank Dat"
courtesy of Dr. Daniel Levitin

What enables music to engage and touch us so deeply? The advent of brain-imaging technology has ignited a firestorm of study into the connection between music and the brain, and has suggested that the processing of music is tied to our basic emotional and motor centers, the amygdala and cerebellum, as well as the hippocampus (involved in spatial navigation and the creation of memories).

Even before today's fine-tuned MRIs, studies of people with brain damage had turned up interesting facts about how the brain parses music. Case studies of brain lesions indicated a separation between the processing of language and music, as many people have lost one but not the other.

Different areas of the brain process different musical elements. Damage to the right and left temporal lobes will affect ability to perceive meter and rhythm, respectively. Timbre is handled in another area (some neurologists have argued a particular progressive brain aphasia was responsible for the timbre—as opposed to melody—driven nature of Maurice Ravel's final works). Music also activates reward centers in the brain, releasing dopamine like sex or chocolate would.

With as many different segments of the brain that light up when listening to music, it's not surprising that studies have demonstrated increased brain activity and intelligence in young children who play an instrument, as well as an increase in size of particular regions in adult musicians—notably the cerebellum, primary motor cortex, and the area that connects the two hemispheres, the corpus callosum. The difference is visually discernible on a brain scan.

Even more fascinating are the advances being made in the study of memory and music. One justification put forth by evolutionary biologists for the development of musical aptitude is because music eased the memory and passage of social histories. Songs and music can wield an undeniable hold on our imagination—as anyone who's had an insistent tune stuck in her head can testify.

Dr. Daniel Levitin, a leading neuroscientist, has always been fascinated by music. He's been a musician, record exec (415 Records), engineer/producer (Santana, Jonathan Richman, Blue Öyster Cult) and music consultant (Good Will Hunting) before getting a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon a dozen years ago. Since then he's explored, among other things, our unusual capacity to remember music.

In his book, This Is Your Brain on Music, Levitin recounts a study he did that invited non-musicians to sing their favorite songs. Comparing them to the original versions, Levitin found most people could replicate the tempo within a 4 percent margin of error, and two-thirds sang within a semitone of the original pitch.

A later study by Glenn Schellenberg (a former member of '80s new wave act Martha and the Muffins) found that people could identify a top 40 song from hearing a tenth-of-a-second snippet (meaning they could rely only on timbre and tone, not melody or rhythm). Other studies have shown an ability to identify familiar songs regardless of changes to tempo, melodic intervals, the key, or even the instrumentation.

This tweaking of our expectations is one of music's enjoyments—just as syncopation teases the anticipation of the downbeat. Perhaps it explains some of the appeal of overhauled covers, such as the Cowboy Junkies' "Sweet Jane," or Aztec Camera's "Jump." These and other studies have heralded a new understanding of memory that incorporates our ability to remember music absolutely (as in terms of pitch) and to recognize it relationally, and out of context.

Levitin notes that an individual's voice possesses a unique timbre, and cites an evolutionary advantage to such sharp memory. "Timbre is important because a voice can be heard in the dark, around the corner, or even during the hunt, which is helpful in recognizing friends or enemies," he says.

He's currently studying people with Williams syndrome for connections between musical ability and emotion. Those with the rare disorder display great sociability and musical facility that far outstrips their low intelligence. They're very open and unafraid of strangers, although utterly unable to understand nuance or subtext.

Levitin believes music is intimately related to social bonding—even beyond its importance in teenage identity—and suggests it may be related to the most basic human approach/avoidance mechanism, which he believes inhabits a similar area of the genetic chromosome. He explores this in a book due in August titled, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.

While Dr. Steven Pinker has said that music is nothing more than "auditory cheesecake" piggybacking on the powers of speech, Levitin is among those who believe that music is something more. He notes a study of women that demonstrated a preference to be impregnated by a musician, arguing a musician exemplifies creativity, flexible thinking, and an ability to express and process emotions—not to mention that their musicality, like a peacock's feathers, is a symbol that they can spend their time on something not related to food-gathering and shelter. (That's what musicians' girlfriends are for, after all....)

"Darwin thought [music was important] for sexual selection. I'm not going to contradict him. The evidence for that is good. But I also think it was and continues to be a form of communication for communicating emotions and that as a form of emotional communication it can actually be better than language," Levitin says.

Beyond, or maybe because of, its involvement in critical brain areas, music is something capable of spanning wide social and cultural chasms. It brings people of disparate backgrounds together, partly through its ability to concisely address universal human truths, and partly, it would seem, because of something even more innate.

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