Wednesday, October 14, 2009

“This is your brain on music.”


Fick, Steven and Elizabeth Shilts. “This is your brain on music.” Canadian Geographic. 126:1 (2006): 34-16.



This is a very basic article discussing how the brain responds to music. It suggests that since all people respond to music, our brains are predisposed to it. A comparison is drawn between the brain and an orchestra. In an orchestra each instrument has a unique function. When an instrument is isolated from the orchestra the sound it produces has less meaning because, it lacks the orchestral context. If you observe the full sound of the orchestra the role of each instrument can be difficult to decipher. The parts of the brain, like an orchestra, work together to create an overarching, coherent pattern.  In musicians the area of the brain that controls the fingers is enlarged. If a musician practices too much the brain can become confused and one is no longer able to move their fingers properly.  Brain mapping studies often use music because, music involves numerous parts of the brain.


I recently heard Liona Boyd speaking on Arts and Minds about focal distonia. I hadn’t heard of it before. It is surprising that one can practice to the point that the brain can no longer produce the proper signals to the fingers. I can’t imagine how intensely frustrating it must be to have fingers that, for no apparent reason, don’t move.

According to this article when we recall a tune without hearing it the auditory cortex is simulated, but to a lesser degree than actual listening. I find it interesting that we can “hear” noise very vividly in our minds, though no noise is actually produced and our ears are not  being used. Imagining noise also stimulates the inferior frontal gyrus which accesses memories. Interestingly, the auditory cortex has multiple levels. At the core of the auditory complex basic elements such as pitch and volume are analyzed. The outer areas of the auditory complex evaluate timbre, melody and rhythm. The article implies that pitch and volume are more basic than timbre, melody and rhythm. “In the core, basic musical elements, such as pitch and volume, are analyzed, while surrounding regions process more complex elements, such as timbre, melody and rhythm” (Flick 35).  However, from a musician’s point of view pitch fluctuations are very specific and can be difficult to detect. This article is obviously directed at the general public, not advanced musicians. It would be really interesting to analyze the auditory complex and  isolate the part of the brain responsible for pitch and rhythmic perception. Perhaps then we could better understand why some people have an innate sense of pitch or rhythm.  The article does not discuss whether these areas in the auditory cortex are more developed in musicians, this would be interesting to know. When we respond emotionally to music the same parts of our brain that respond to basic needs such as hunger and sexual desire are stimulated. The article proposes that listening to music can activate the same circuits in the brain as those in a drug addict when he/she takes a drug.  Is it possible that music is addictive? I think it is. I have often craved a song and don’t feel at ease until I hear it. The article also notes that few activities use as much of the brain as performing music. This article is only an introduction to how music is distributed within the brain. I found it beneficial to read as it refreshed what was touched upon earlier in class and provided some new analogies to help me understand this complex topic. 


No comments: