Music is virtually universal in human society: it serves many crucial social, cultural, and emotional purposes, it even has its own place in the brain. Researchers at Dartmouth have mapped the area:
- The study by Petr Janata, Research Assistant Professor at Dartmouth’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and his colleagues is reported in the Dec. 13, 2002, issue of Science. Their results indicate that knowledge about the harmonic relationships of music is maintained in the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, which is centrally located, right behind your forehead. This region is connected to, but different from, the temporal lobe, which is involved in more basic sound processing.
“This region in the front of the brain where we mapped musical activity,” says Janata, “is important for a number of functions, like assimilating information that is important to one’s self, or mediating interactions between emotional and non-emotional information. Our results provide a stronger foundation for explaining the link between music, emotion and the brain.”
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments, the researchers asked their eight subjects, who all had some degree of musical experience, to listen to a piece of original music. The eight-minute melody, composed by Jeffrey Birk, Dartmouth class of ’02, when he was a student, moves through all 24 major and minor keys. The music was specifically crafted to shift in particular ways between and around the different keys. These relationships between the keys, representative of Western music, create a geometric pattern that is donut shaped, which is called a torus.
….Not only did the researchers find and map the areas in the brain that track melodies, they also found that the exact mapping varies from session to session in each subject. This suggests that the map is maintained as a changing or dynamic topography. In other words, each time the subject hears the melody, the same neural circuit tracks it slightly differently. This dynamic map may be the key to understanding why a piece of music might elicit a certain behavior one time, like dancing, and something different another time, like smiling when remembering a dance.
The LA Times covered the story as well:
- The flash-dance of these brain circuits, which process the harmonic relationship of musical notes, is shaped by a human craving for melody that drives people to spend more every year on music than on prescription drugs. The circuits center in a brain region that responds equally to the musical patterns of Eminem’s hip-hop busta rhymes and Bach’s baroque fugues.
“Music is not necessary for human survival, yet something inside us craves it,” said Dartmouth music psychologist Petr Janata, who led the global research team. “Our minds have internalized the music.”
This helps explain the power of Top 40: repeat, repeat, repeat until the songs are indelibly imprinted in the brain and the familiarity subsumes our critical facilities to the point where we may not even remember if we like the song or not. My older daughter listen to a fair amount of Top 40 although she admits she doesn’t really like a lot of the songs. Why? “Because I can sing along.”
Music literally bends the brain to its form:
- Through constant exposure, synapses are trained to respond like a series of tuning forks to the tones characteristic of Western music, several experts said. So far, no one has tested the music of other cultures, but researchers speculate that all music should have the same effect.
The pattern in the music literally becomes a pattern in the brain. “It shows this link between music theory and perception and brain function,” said Frances H. Rauscher, an expert in music cognition at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. “No one had looked before.”
I try to avoid the “running through my brain” phenomenon by listening to a wide variety of music and not repeating songs unless I have to. When I do have to – like when I am writing a review or making music – that starts the loop spinning in my poor little brain and I have to listen to other music to “cleanse my palate.”