Scientists of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may have discovered the music room of the brain, in a bid to get to the bottom of why human beings respond to music so naturally.
Some of the earliest instruments created by human beings, dates as far back as forty three thousand years ago; music has therefore always been a primary part of our existence and evolution.
Scientists were determined to find out just which part of the brain it is that responds to music. What they have found is a music room of the brain so to speak. It’s an aspect of the brain dedicated to detecting and interpreting music.
The researchers developed a new approach to brain imaging that earlier studies had missed.
“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. When a musical passage is played, a distinct set of neurons tucked inside a furrow of a listener’s auditory cortex will fire in response.”
They have also found that this cortex or music room of the brain only responds to music. It completely ignores other every day sounds like cars skidding, toilets flushing, and dogs barking.
The brain has six basic response patterns to incoming noise. In the ten volunteers that they used for the survey they determined that four of the patterns were linked to general physical properties of sound, such as pitch and frequency. The fifth traced the brain’s perception of speech, and for the sixth the data turned operatic, revealing a neuronal hot spot in the major crevice, of the auditory cortex that attended to every music clip the researchers had played.
“The sound of a solo drummer, whistling, pop songs, rap, almost everything that has a musical quality to it, melodic or rhythmic, would activate it. That’s one reason the result surprised us. The signals of speech are so much more homogeneous.” Said Dr. Norman-Haignere.
Josh McDermott, a former club and radio disc jockey, and Norman-Haignere, an accomplished classical guitarist, began gathering a library of everyday sounds — music, speech, laughter, weeping, whispering, tires squealing, flags flapping, dishes clattering, flames crackling, wind chimes tinkling. Wherever they went, they asked for suggestions. Had they missed anything?
They put the lengthy list up for a vote on the Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing service to determine which of their candidate sounds were most easily recognized and frequently heard. That mass survey yielded a set of 165 distinctive and readily identifiable sound clips of two seconds each. The researchers then scanned the brains of 10 volunteers (none of them musicians) as they listened to multiple rounds of the 165 sound clips.
Focusing on the brain’s auditory region — located, appropriately enough, in the temporal lobes right above the ears — the scientists analyzed voxels, or three-dimensional pixels, of the images mathematically to detect similar patterns of neuronal excitement or quietude.
“The strength of our method is that it’s hypothesis-neutral,” McDermott said. “We just present a bunch of sounds and let the data do the talking.”
The computations generated six basic response patterns, six ways the brain categorized incoming noise. But what did the categories correspond to? Matching sound clips to activation patterns, the researchers determined that four of the patterns were linked to general physical properties of sound, like pitch and frequency. The fifth traced the brain’s perception of speech, and for the sixth the data turned operatic, disclosing a neuronal hot spot in the major crevice, or sulcus, of the auditory cortex that attended to every music clip the researchers had played.
“The sound of a solo drummer, whistling, pop songs, rap, almost everything that has a musical quality to it, melodic or rhythmic, would activate it,” Dr. Norman-Haignere said. “That’s one reason the result surprised us. The signals of speech are so much more homogeneous.”
The researchers have yet to determine exactly which acoustic features of music stimulate its dedicated pathway. The relative constancy of a musical note’s pitch? Its harmonic overlays? Even saying what music is can be tricky.
“It’s difficult to come up with a dictionary definition,” McDermott said. “I tend to think music is best defined by example.”