What Music Creators Should Know About Music, Language and the Brain

How music affects listeners…a Neuroscience perspective

Aniruddh D. Patel

Imagine that you write or perform a new song, and it’s a hit. Fans contact you to tell you it touches something deep inside them. When they hear your music, their response wells up naturally. Being drawn in by the music doesn’t take any conscious effort: it’s like breathing or walking or seeing the face of a loved one. But as a music-maker, you know that creating or playing that song took more than just love. It took a lot of hard work. Many skills, developed over many years, came together to make that piece happen. Just as a lot goes into making music, modern cognitive and brain science is learning that a lot goes on “under the hood” of a listener when they appreciate it. Listeners may think that their response is effortless and intuitive, but brain scans show that they are using a lot of their brain, including a surprising number of brain areas normally involved in processing language, even when the music doesn’t have words. This has been an exciting discovery, with many implications. One is that we can use regular musical activities (even instrumental training, without singing) to actually change and improve the way the brain processes language. Research is now underway to see how music-making can help dyslexic children to improve their reading, and can help adults recover speech abilities after a stroke.

When people feel a beat in a rhythm, even if they’re not moving, there is brain activity buzzing back and forth between distant brain regions.

Another surprise from cognitive neuroscience has been how even “basic” aspects of music depend on delicate interactions between different brain systems. For example, feeling a beat in music and moving in time with it seems simple, like it taps into something ancient and primal. Even young children have this response to beat, and it’s the basis of dance all over the world. Darwin thought that our sense of rhythm reflected basic physiological processes that we share with many other creatures. But we’ve discovered that when people feel a beat in a rhythm, even if they’re not moving, there is brain activity buzzing back and forth between distant brain regions. In particular, auditory regions of the brain are communicating with regions in the frontal lobes that normally help us plan movements. Why are we using our motor planning areas to analyze rhythms with a beat? Perhaps because the motor system helps us predict the timing of beats, and prediction is fundamental to beat perception. Surprisingly, our close evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees and monkeys, don’t seem to perceive beat or move in synchrony with a beat like we do. This means that our response to beat reflects something special about how human brains work. Research is showing that this powerful connection between beat and movement in our brains can even help people with Parkinsons’ disease to move and walk, when their own motor system has started to fail.

For most of us, the reason we are so drawn to music is the emotion it evokes. We talk about being “moved” by music, as if we were being passively picked up by some unstoppable force. Research is teaching us, however, that our emotional responses to music require the active participation of multiple brain systems. Some of these are evolutionarily ancient and shared with other animals, and others are evolutionarily modern and perhaps uniquely human. We’ve discovered that there are some people for whom one or more of these systems isn’t working, and who get no pleasure from music. Fortunately, the systems work for most of us, making music a powerful source of emotion. This link to emotion is one reason music also has such a strong ability to evoke vivid memories of where we were and what we were feeling many years ago. This allows music to even reach people with Alzheimer’s disease, and reawaken memories when very little else can. Research is teaching us how and why this works.

If you want to explore the power of music in a whole new way and learn more about music and the brain, join me in my Great Courses lectures.

ANIRUDDH D. PATEL is a Professor of Psychology Tufts University. He won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award in 2009 for his book, Music, Language and The Brain. This articleprovides insights from “Music and the Brain,” a set of lectures by Patel recently produced by The Great Courses

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