How music touches the brain

December 27, 2011 - 07:56

New method reveals how different musical features activate emotional, motor and creative areas of the brain.

Finnish researchers have developed a new method that makes it possible to study how the brain processes various aspects of music such as rhythm, tonality and timbre.

The study reveals how a variety of networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity, are activated when listening to music.

According to the researchers, the new method will increase our understanding of the complex dynamics of brain networks and the way music affects us.

Responding to Argentinian tango

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the research team, led by Dr. Vinoo Alluri from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, recorded the brain responses of individuals who were listening to a piece of modern Argentinian tango.

"Our results show for the first time how different musical features activate emotional, motor and creative areas of the brain", says Professor Petri Toiviainen of the University of Jyväskylä, who was also involved in the study.

This figure shows that listening to music activates not only the auditory areas, but large networks throughout the brain.

Using sophisticated computer algorithms developed specifically for this study, they then analysed the musical content of the tango, showing how its rhythmic, tonal and timbral components evolve over time.

According to Alluri, this is the first time such a study has been carried out using real music instead of artificially constructed music-like sound stimuli.

The whole brain reacts to music

Comparing the brain responses and the musical features led to an interesting new discovery: the researchers found that listening to music activates not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also employs large-scale neural networks.

For instance, they discovered that the processing of musical pulse activates motor areas in the brain, supporting the idea that music and movement are closely intertwined.

Limbic areas of the brain, known to be associated with emotions, were found to be involved in rhythm and tonality processing.

We believe that our method provides more reliable knowledge about music processing in the brain than the more conventional methods
Professor Petri Toiviainen

And the processing of timbre was associated with activations in the so-called default mode network, which is assumed to be associated with mind-wandering and creativity.

"We believe that our method provides more reliable knowledge about music processing in the brain than the more conventional methods," says Toiviainen.

He adds that brain areas related to emotion and reward have in previous studies been found to be activated during intensely pleasurable moments of music listening. But this study, he says, is the first one to specify which particular musical features activate these areas.

The study was recently published in the journal NeuroImage.

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