What makes a song stick in your head, and why does a wrongly played note sound so awful? New research shows the brain has specific structures that are designed to perceive and remember musical patterns. This area of the brain gives people their innate sense of melody and is the reason why familiar tunes can almost become part of our brains. Neurologist Petr Janata thinks his research can also explain why we tap our feet to music and like to dance. It turns out the part of the brain that interprets music also plays a role in directing the body’s motion.
To map the brain’s response to music, Janata had eight students with musical experience listen to a 8-minute piece of originally composed music while an imaging scanner took detailed pictures of their brains. The melody was designed to use all 24 major and minor keys. As the students listened to the music, they performed two simple tasks. Janata noted their brain activity as they performed the tasks and used this information to figure out what part of the brain keeps maps of the melodies it hears.
Some people are more musical than others because their brains have absorbed and mapped many melodies. Researcher Mark Tramo says, “Four of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century?Stevie Wonder, Irving Berlin, John Lennon and Paul McCartney?wrote most of their music without musical training or before they had studied music theory. That’s because they could rely on implicit knowledge about how to become the most effective manipulators of music.”
One thing we don?t know is to what extent the brain’s music hardware is there at birth and how much is acquired through listening to music. Tramo thinks it?s a combination of both. “There’s fairly good evidence that it’s possible to acquire structures through repeated exposure to music,” says Janata. One way to test this question would be to compare brain scans of experienced musicians with people who have no musical background.
There?s plenty about our brains we still don?t understand because we haven?t yet done the Seven Experiments That Could Change the World.
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