Neuroscience of music

Jessica Grahn

Dr Jessica Grahn is this year’s Charles Darwin Award Lecturer.  Here she tells us about her particular area of research – the neuroscience of music.

About  Two decades ago, using music as a tool to study the brain was uncommon, but nowadays, ‘neuroscience of music’ is a rapidly developing field. In the past, the only way to learn about how the brain worked was to wait for someone to have an accident or disease that caused brain damage. If they had difficulty with particular behaviours, that area of the brain could be assumed to be important for that ability. Nowadays, however, we can measure brain activity in healthy people, and distinguish those who claim to be tone-deaf from elite professional musicians, or compare babies, open-eared and waiting to learn about their musical culture, to adults who have well-formed musical preferences.

 The influence of music on our brains starts early—you may have seen even very young babies moving to music. But beyond observing their behaviour, it can be difficult to learn about how the very young experience music and what their musical capacities are. To illustrate, if a scientist wants to test your musical ability, he or she can ask you to tap out a rhythm, or press a button when two melodies are the same, or indicate when you recognize a familiar song. Babies can do none of these things, so how can we learn about their musical world? One approach is to use neuroscience—babies’ brains can respond for them, without the need for instructions, pressing buttons, or even speaking. For example, a recent study used electrodes to record the brain activity of newborns only one to two days old while they listened to different musical rhythms. Even at this early age, the babies’ brain responses changed when the rhythm changed, indicating they were sensitive to some of the ‘rules’ that music follows. In fact, we know from further research that babies are in some ways more sensitive to rhythm than adults, because they can sense differences in very complex rhythms, of the sort found in non-Western cultures. However, this ability diminishes after only one year if they listen to music with mostly simple rhythms (such as those usually experienced in Western music).

Music is also being used by neuroscientists and neurologists to rehabilitate disabilities that result from stroke or disease. For example, music therapy can help individuals who have lost language abilities after having a stroke. Research suggests that when the language part of the brain has been damaged, sometimes brain areas that process music can be recruited to take over. The effects of music can also be seen on patients with Parkinson’s disease. Hearing a steady rhythm can improve walking speed, and tango lessons have been shown to improve balance more than the standard physical therapy. Although we don’t fully understand why this happens, some of my own research shows that musical rhythms activate the same brain areas that are responsible for initiating and controlling movement. It may be that the brain’s motor areas are directly involved in our experience of music.

 There is still a lot that we don’t know about how music affects our brains, but it is an exciting time to be a scientist in this area, and music will be sure to teach us about how our brains work for decades to come.

If you want to find out more why not come along to Jessica’s Award Lecture ‘Hit me with your rhythm schtick’ on  Wednesday 15 September at 12 noon.  Click here to buy a ticket


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