How the brain responds as the beat goes on


McGill, Stanford researchers first to map neural responses to transitions in music

A study by researchers at McGill and Stanford universities has uncovered how the human brain responds to the transition from one movement to the next in a piece of music.

The results of the groundbreaking study co-designed by McGill Psychology Professor Dan Levitin and conducted by a Stanford team led by graduate student Devarajan Sridharan and including researchers Chris H. Chafe, Jonathan Berger and Vinod Menon appear in the August 2 edition of the journal Neuron.

“This study is the first to show that there is a distinct brain network that defines the beginnings and endings of events in music, probably in preparation for memory encoding,” said Prof. Levitin, James McGill Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and author of the recent bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.

The team recruited subjects drawn from the general population of Stanford and the surrounding community of Palo Alto, CA. The subjects were placed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner – a neuroimaging machine that measures neural activity in the brain – where they listened to several complete symphonies by the English baroque composer William Boyce.

“These were non-musicians, and they may not have necessarily been able to say which movement was an adagio and which an andante, but they had a good sense for when the music underwent a salient change,” said Levitin, noting the results might also apply to musical styles other than classical, though further research would be required.

As those salient changes took place between musical movements, the researchers observed brain activity in the ventral fronto-temporal network – which is associated with detecting such events in music, conversation or other auditory stimuli – followed in time by a dorsal fronto-pariental network associated with attention and updating working memory, such as spoken and sign language, visual perception and tactile perception.

“An event, by definition, must have a beginning and an ending,” Prof. Levitin explained. “These are the brain regions that ‘decide’ where those are and mark them.”

The study has important implications for understanding how auditory events are perceived, he said. “Set in context, this may help us better understand how people can follow one conversation in a crowded room – the so-called ‘cocktail party’ phenomenon. We have learned that one of the cues people use to infer which noises go together is the onset of words and of sentences. Things that start together go together.”

McGill University is among the leading centres in the world for the scientific study of music. Dr. Levitin is an associate professor of psychology at McGill and Director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise.

On the Web: Neuron

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Michael Bourguignon
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