Historically, we are used to studying and thinking about music as a self-contained field. When we talk about music theory we concentrate on the harmony and on the rhythm of the music piece, but not on the effect it has on human perception. What if music were to be studied through the reactions it produces in the listeners’ minds? Musicians could then incorporate insights deduced from the study of music perception to revolutionize the fields of composition and music pedagogy, while scientists could use the research results to promote science in the fields of neuroscience and psychology .
The difficulty to view music through the neurobiological prism comes from two directions. The first one is our unwillingness to examine our own sources of pleasure. We do not want a scientific explanation as to why music evokes our emotions and why we like it. On the contrary, we prefer to experience these illusions and simply enjoy them, similar to the way we prefer to watch a magic show without knowing the secret behind the tricks. Discovering the psychological and neurobiological roots of the art might spoil the pleasure.
Another obstacle to studying music through interdisciplinary research is the not fully recognized potential spin-off for neurobiology and psychology. Robert Zatorre, a pioneer in the field of neuroscience whose first paper about the connection between music and the brain was in 1979, recalls that back then the scientific community would look askance on this topic. And indeed, the first European Research Music Conference was held only two years ago, in 2018.
Nowadays, it has been proved that music can play a big role in brain development. Several studies have shown differences in the brain, when comparing musicians and non-musicians . Music is proven to benefit children in reading, speech-processing and mathematics . Moreover, understanding why we enjoy music and how we perceive it, could open new doors for music therapy and help explain how the information-processing mechanism of our brain works.
Marvin Minsky, an American cognitive scientist, suggested two answers to the question of “Why do we like certain tunes?” The two reasons were: the structural features of the tunes, and the resemblance of the tunes to the ones that we already like. The first answer looks for the laws and rules that make tunes pleasant. How does our brain define what melody is harmonic? What we like or dislike has to do with its biological value. Tonality has biological value to us because of its similarity to human speech .
The experiment conducted by Duke University built a spectrum of the recorded sample of speech (using the amplitude of the sound against its frequency) and compared it to the chromatic scale tones. The results proved that we are being exposed to music ratios all the time. The ratios of music intervals are equivalent to the most prevalent formant ratios in speech.
As for the second answer, Minsky sought the explanation beyond the structure of the tune itself. We tend to like things that remind us of other things that we like: for instance, the songs and melodies we were exposed to and liked in our childhood. This leads us to a fascinating connection between music perception and our memory functions. We hear music all the time, but most of it fades away from our memory. However, when the tunes are played again, we recall the same melodies and recognize them. This process demonstrates our ability of holological mode of storage and associative recall - ”a partial reenactment of the neural activity that occurred during the storage act suffices to release the full specific activity display.” Not only does this allow us to have musical memory and imaging, but it also builds up our musical preferences.
The neuroscience of music, a relatively new field, has already given us new perspectives in the areas of memory and development. We can only imagine what new discoveries it will uncover if we urge the importance of interdisciplinary music research. Despite the difficulties created by the uniqueness of each person’s brain, the potential rewards stemming from breakthroughs in music perception are worth investing more resources into this field.
- Minsky M. (1982) Music, Mind, and Meaning. In: Clynes M. (eds) Music, Mind, and Brain. Springer, Boston, MA https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4684-8917-0_1#copyrightInformation
- Gaser C, Schlaug G. Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians.JNeurosci. 2003;23(27): 9240–9245. 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.23-27-09240.2003
- Fernandex Sabrina, Music and Brain Development. Pediatric annals, 8/1/2018, ISSN: 1938-2359, Volume 47, Issue 8, p. e306
- Duke University. "Music and speech based on human biology, new evidence shows." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 December 2009.
- Roederer J.G. (1982) Physical and Neuropsychological Foundations of Music. In: Clynes M. (eds) Music, Mind, and Brain. Springer, Boston, MA
- Peretz, Isabelle, and Robert J. Zatorre. 2009. The cognitive neuroscience of music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.