• Curious Holes

Research Reveals a Mental "Music Room"

Updated: May 17

I’ve battled with the legitimacy of a career in music my whole life, as many people of the general public view music as a noncritical byproduct of human evolution. The insecurities which that creates are hard to ignore. Still, I’ve felt that the presence of music in our lives is even harder to ignore and is more nuanced than trivializing it as being for pleasure only. One practical theory states that it evolved as a way of attracting a mate. There are many. Frankly, I have never read a claim that has vindicated my passion for music more than the research presented in the NYTimes article “New Ways Into The Brain's Music Room”. Maybe because for the first time, they have mapped unique areas in the brain dedicated solely to music processing. Finally, the eccentric stepsibling of human speech has a bedroom of their own.

What researchers have found is that the “brain gives specialized treatment to music recognition, [and] that it regards music as fundamental a category as speech…” said Josef Rauschecker, director of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition at Georgetown University.

Rauschecker goes as far as to say that music sensitivity may be more fundamental to the human brain than is speech perception. “There are theories that music is older than speech or language,” he said. “Some even argue that speech evolved from music.”

For me, this meant that what I chose to do with my life, to work in and with music, is somehow integral to our existence. Even though we may never know why, the discovery of a separate and unique neural network dedicated to music was enough to convince me that the field I love, a field of auditory recognition, interpretation, manipulation, and organization, was more than advanced arts & crafts class. Also, I’m just always excited when advancements in science and technology help us form a closer bond with the nature of ourselves.

Previous experiments were unable to show enough detail on how the brain illuminated when stimulated with music, but “when you peer below the cruder level seen with some [other] methodologies, you find very specific circuitry that responds to music over speech” says Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, the director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas.

From an ethological perspective, lots of progress has been made on understanding human vision, like the discovery that key portions of the visual cortex are primed to instantly recognize a few highly meaningful objects in the environment, like faces and human body parts. The researchers wondered if the auditory system might be similarly organized to make sense of the soundscape through a mental categorical screen. If so, what would the main categories be? What are the aural equivalents of a human face or a human leg — sounds or sound elements so essential the brain assigns a bit of gray matter to the task of detecting them?

The test was designed to cycle through 165 sounds clips of various origins (music, speech, laughter, weeping, whispering, tires squealing, flags flapping, dishes clattering, flames crackling, wind chimes tinkling) while the subjects were monitored through a fMRI machine. I’m not a scientist and won’t write too much about the details of the experiment but the takeaway for a curious musician like myself was that the computations generated six basic response patterns, six ways the brain categorized incoming noise.

Matching sound clips to activation patterns, the researchers determined that four of the patterns were linked to general physical properties of sound, like pitch and frequency, which makes sense given how fundamental and identifiable those properties are. The fifth category traced the brain’s perception of speech, and for the sixth, the data turned operatic, disclosing a neuronal hot spot in the major crevice of the auditory cortex that responded to every music clip the researchers had played. “The sound of a solo drummer, whistling, pop songs, rap, almost everything that has a musical quality to it, melodic or rhythmic, would activate it,” Dr. Norman-Haignere said. “That’s one reason the result surprised us. The signals of speech are so much more homogeneous.” The researchers have yet to determine exactly which acoustic features of music stimulate its dedicated pathway, like perhaps the relative constancy of a musical note’s pitch.

“One of the core debates surrounding music is to what extent it has dedicated mechanisms in the brain and to what extent it piggybacks off of mechanisms that primarily serve other functions. Our findings are hard to reconcile with the idea that music piggybacks entirely on neural machinery that is optimized for other functions, because the neural responses we see are highly specific to music,” says Nancy Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

Even though survival value, which music held for our ancestors, may not be as immediately obvious as the power to recognize words, Dr. Rauschecker adds, “music works as a group cohesive. Music-making with other people in your tribe is a very ancient, human thing to do.”

After each existential crisis passes, after I've asked, “could I be using my skills and talents to contribute more to people’s lives?”, (after all there is so much work to be done to solve serious existential problems, locally and globally) I like to think that maybe I'm simply following a physiological predisposition to music. Maybe this is life imitating art and I’m projecting my prejudices on this research, but for now knowing that my brain's architecture has a designated wing for music built into it will help me sleep at night as I think, to quote Gaga, maybe I was "BORN THIS WAYYY”.

Just kidding. Who knows. More exploring to do…


© 2020 Aleksandra Georgievska (dba Aya Nori)