Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Exploring the Musical Brain


Leutwyler, Kristin. (January 22, 2001). Exploring the Musical Brain. Scientific American. Retrieved December 1, 1009 from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=exploring-the-musical-bra


The title of this article, “Exploring the Musical Brain,” is wonderfully appropriate as the article explores research investigating where music occurs in the brain and looks to the brain to help identify the origins and purpose of music. In this article, Leutwyler cites research attesting to the amazing power and universality of music, and also its tremendous capacity to baffle scientists with some of the most fundamental questions surrounding its very existence.

The study of music and function is explored, and Leutwyler presents the idea that music, like language, activates various areas of the brain in conjunction with the concept that there is no one part of the brain dedicated exclusively to music. This information is stated through referencing a few examples of scientists’ work in the area and shows that even the very general finding that the right hemisphere is more dominant in musical activities is contentious when considering all the various functions involved in perceiving music.

To further compound matters, Leutwyler cites studies showing that even the visual cortex is activated during the act of perceiving music. Findings suggest that areas of the brain previously understood in terms of our “imagination’s canvas” are involved, perhaps suggesting that the brain creates a symbolic image from which it can better decipher changes in pitch.

Having described how certain brain structures are involved in certain higher-level processing tasks associated with music, Leutwyler shifts the attention to the most basic level of processing. The limbic system, seat of our emotions, is also affected by music. Leutwyler explains that emotions produced in the limbic system generate a series of well-documented physiological responses (for instance, the tendency for heart rate to increase as a result of fear.) A number of scientists have determined that listening to music can evoke physiological changes known to be associated with certain emotions, consequently indicating that music can directly elicit a range of emotions.

The limbic system is evolutionarily an ancient part of the brain, present in many other members of the animal kingdom. Research showing that this ancient system is strongly influenced by music suggests to some scientists that music may have come into existence before humans. This proposal leads to the final section of this article, which explores the use of music by other species and the potential evolutionary advantage of music.

The first member of the animal kingdom whose music is analysed is the humpback whale. In citing Gray and colleagues’ work, the article mentions a variety of musical qualities that are characteristic of both human and humpback whale music. These qualities include rhythms, phrase lengths, use of themes, length of music, range, tone qualities, and even form. Humpback whale music apparently even makes use of rhyme.

The other natural choice of animal in discussion about music is the bird. The same scientists who analysed the music of the whales also identified the presence of Western classical scales in the calls of certain species of bird. The canyon wren is said to sing in the chromatic scale (as well as perform a trill cascade down the musical scale that resembles the opening of Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary’ Étude), while the hermit thrush sings in the pentatonic scale. The existence of these musical universals across species has led some scientists to postulate that there may in fact be some kind of musical universal, as of yet undiscovered.

The final topic of the article is the evolutionary purpose of music. Leutwyler quotes Daniel Levitin’s account of the two oppositional views relating to the evolutionary purpose of music: that music is “an evolutionary accident piggy-backing on language,” compared to the idea that music “must have some ancient and important function.” Possible ancient and important functions that are suggested by Levitin include music as a demonstration of fitness to a potential mate, music as communication, music as a means to stimulate our primitive timing mechanisms, and finally music as a means to stimulate our drive to find patterns in the environment. Leutwyler concludes the article stating, “to be certain, researchers won’t agree on the purpose of music anytime soon which fortunately shouldn’t stop any of us from enjoying it.”


This article, though brief, covers an impressive number of topics and issues relating to the origin and purpose of music, along with its relationship to the brain. Leutwyler explores research from a variety of related fields to get various perspectives on the mysteries of music. I found this article quite interesting, even if the broad number of topics meant that not many of them were explored in tremendous depth. Concepts that were explored, however, proved to be quite intriguing.

I was admittedly rather dumbfounded while reading the passages referencing the work of Gray and her colleagues. I was unaware of the fact that the music of humpback whales had been studied from a Western classical music perspective, and certainly did not realize that these analyses had yielded such strong parallels between the techniques used by “humpback composers” and “human songwriters.” The assertion of the existence of ABA form in whale music was interesting and the claim that “humpback whale songs include repeating refrains that rhyme” was even more entertaining, though my favourite line was likely the one that stated, “as a recent study showed, whale songs are often rather catchy.” It is admittedly tempting to disregard these claims as an example of overzealous anthropomorphizing, but these statements appear to indeed be well supported.

The proposition that music may have originated before humans came as a bit of a surprise to me. Since I first studied music from more of a psychological perspective, I have viewed music, like language, as a uniquely human creation. In the same way as I came to believe that the complexity and variety of our languages are unique to humans, I quickly accepted a similar view of music. This article has made me question my views of music and language, and even my views of humans. I wonder where one draws the line between holding a human-centric view of the world or having a perceived sense of human superiority, and stretching the definition of activities or qualities that many consider human creations such that they become interspecific universals.

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