Monday, December 22, 2008

The Neural Roots of Music

Trainor, L. J. (2008).
Science & Music: The Neural Roots of Music.
Nature, 453, 598-599.

In this article, Dr. Trainor traces the brain map of our auditory perception and processing to explain the reasons for certain inclinations in our responses to different characteristics in music.
The rhythmic and pitch structures in music play a fundamental role in infants' sensory development. Due to a combination of external stimuli, the auditory and motor areas in infants' brain develop simultaneously. As a foetus, an infant first experiences movement and its mother's heartbeat in the womb. After birth, an infant is often rocked and bounced by caretakers while they sing infant-directed songs. This multi-sensory connection in infants' brain development continues to influence adults' auditory perception of rhythm. How we interprete and understand rhythmic pulse depends on how we move to the pulse. The basic rhythmic groups of two and three pulses can be felt in the movements of walking and dancing a waltz, perspectively.
Pitches are perceived as vibration of basilar membrane in the cochlea of the inner ear, which activates auditory nerve fibres to fire neuron patterns to the brain. What we perceive as consonance and dissonance have their distinct firing patterns in auditory nerves and induce feelings of release and tension in the listeners.
How we perceive music in its components of rhythm and pitch is also affected by our experience and exposure to a variety of traditions. What sounds good to one culture may have a very different reception from another. Similarly, a piece that outraged audience 100 years ago may find welcoming ears, now.

Review & Reflection
Dr. Trainor's research provides a clear explanation for the way we understand and respond to music. It also helps music educators understand what we are teaching, how to enhance the quality of our teaching, and why.
Instead of listening to music in a strictly musical sense, feeling music in a wider context - multi-sensory, intellectual, and emotional - provides a richer and more rewarding experience. As musicians, we have often heard sayings like: "you have to clap and conduct this passage to feel time;" and "you need to play like you are singing it." Experiencing music through physical movement and actual singing (note by note, from one interval to another) deepens the impression and impact that music makes on our system.
It is possible to say that our musical experiences (listening, performing, creating) become increasingly enjoyable as they change from passive to active processes. The more we link music to other aspects of our life, the more meaningful music can become. It is not only a source of stimuli for our brain development, but it also helps us regulate our emotional state and create social links with our fellow human beings. Scientific knowledge in the field of education helps us promote what we teach, but more importantly, it shows a wider spectrum of possibilities for us to explore and improve the quality of our life.

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