How Biological Is Music?by Asha Jhamandas
/ October 2, 2002
Music is a spiritual enigma. It can elevate us to
the loftiest heights of ecstasy, unlock repressed memories in a heartbeat, or
unleash a flood of emotion to leave us breathless. Research reveals that music
has a similar effect in the realms of sex and food.
Here in Montreal, scientists are
discovering how music acts in the brain to stir our souls. How does music tug
heartstrings in ways that words cannot? "The message of music and its ability to
touch our emotions is more abstract than by language," said Ante Padjen, a
musician and neuroscientist at McGill University. "Music exists within a
cultural context and one musical piece can elicit different emotions from
different cultural groups. Even within cultural groups each individual has a
unique life experience that is drawn from when reacting to music."
The daunting challenge that
neuroscientists face is to uncover how biology fits in among all these social
variables. What biological rules persist despite the different cultural contexts
in which music is appreciated?
Montreal scientists are not in
full agreement about the nature of the quest. Is there a single music centre in
the brain? Groundbreaking brain imaging studies suggest that several distinct
brain areas are involved in the processing and appreciation of music. However,
studies on musically impaired individuals also suggest that there may be some
distinct specialized networks in the brain devoted specifically to music
without music for some
For example, some of the brain
circuits involved in music perception appear to be separate from those that
process language and other sounds in the environment. Evidence for this comes
from studies on people with amusia, a severe form of tone-deafness. Amusical
individuals are unable to perceive pitch differences in music, and consequently
may have an inability to sing in tune, dance to music, or remember songs.
Surprisingly, such individuals have otherwise fully normal cognitive abilities,
and their language and hearing abilities are unscathed.
These studies also suggest that
people must first perceive music normally in order to experience the joy of
music. One amusical individual studied by Dr. Isabelle Peretz, a psychologist at
the University of Montreal, could not detect pitch variations in music smaller
than two semitones apart and reported that music sounded like noise and in fact
Another study by the same author
reported that amusical individuals were unable to identify wrong notes and
musical dissonance. Most of those individuals also said that they did not
appreciate music. Some found it so unpleasant that they tried to avoid it
Clearly a functional problem in
the brain is involved in amusia. However, brain imaging studies on amusical
individuals have not yet revealed any obvious anatomical differences from the
brains of normal individuals.
Pleasures heard in Xanadu
Although the suspected damage in
amusical individuals may be too fine to identify with current scientific imaging
techniques, other imaging studies such as those conducted in Montreal have led
to some spectacular discoveries about emotional responses to music.
One such study, performed by
scientists at McGill University, showed for the first time that music activates
the same reward or pleasure centres in the brain that respond to the pleasures
associated with eating and sex.
The study is significant because
it suggests music is as important to us as biologically relevant survival
stimuli. "Although we can theoretically live and procreate without the ability
to appreciate music, it seems important as far as our happiness and well-being
is concerned," said Anne Blood, a co-author of the study, who is now at the
Massachusetts General Hospital.
The study found that only music
beautiful enough to consistently elicit the highly euphoric experience of chills
or "shivers-down-the-spine" activated reward centres that are popularly
recognized as pleasure centres of the brain.
These reward centres are part of a
highly complex system that includes constellations of cells organized into
functional precincts. The system is responsible for the natural pleasures
associated with taste, sex, and warmth, for example. Such natural rewards lead
to reinforcement or repetition of behaviour.
Although all pleasurable
experiences seem to feed into a common reward system, the system has the power
to discriminate and does not respond equally to all. The system may also be able
to discriminate between different types of music, explaining why not all musical
pleasures are equal, either intrapersonally or interpersonally.
Neurotransmitters deliver both the music and the
Scientific studies have identified
these pleasure centres by using psychically active chemicals and electrical
stimulation. They have revealed that the nerve pathways require a
neurotransmitter called dopamine. The action of this chemical seems critical in
mediating responses that we perceive as rewarding, and it probably plays a key
role in generating feelings of euphoria. Thus a blissful music experience quite
likely has a chemical basis in the dopamine molecule.
The discrimination of musical
sounds takes place in a recently evolved brain region called the auditory
cortex, which is responsible for integrating and responding to a musical piece
and deciding whether or not it is spiritually inspiring. However, musical
information is processed in many other areas of the brain before it reaches the
auditory cortex. Relatively primitive brain areas that regulate movement and
memory may also contribute to our emotional response provoked by music. After
various consultations, the brain makes a decision that leads us to dance, tap
our fingers, grimace, or smile in appreciation. Interestingly, research shows
that while we listen to music, motor areas of the brain also become active even
if we don't initiate movement.
Singing as evolutionary anthem
Scientists are undecided on why
such a refined system for music processing has evolved in humans or in other
animals, for that matter. According to Blood, song may have evolved out of the
language phenomenon called prosody, or the changing of tones in our speech when
asking a question or making a statement. Other scientists, such as Dr. Sandra
Trehub from University of Toronto, think it may have evolved out of attempts to
soothe infants with non-verbal sounds.
Whatever the case, the discovery
of Neanderthal flutes in Europe suggests that a "music instinct" has been
developing within us for thousands of years. In the words of Ian Cross, a music
psychologist at the University of Cambridge, "Without music, it could be that we
would never have become human."