The Brain and Music

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Born with a ‘music module’?

May 15th, 2007 · No Comments · how the brain works, music and the brain

This is an excerpt from a fascinating interview:

JEFFREY BROWN: Music, of course, comes in many forms and appears to have been part of every age and every known culture. There’s a continuing debate among scientists as to music’s exact role in human evolution.
But Levitin believes that the brain itself has evolved to make sense of music and that we’re each born wired for music, just as we are for language.
DANIEL LEVITIN: If you’re born listening to Chinese opera, your brain is going to become wired to the rules of that musical form. If you’re born listening to Pakistani music, Indian music, Indian ragas, your brain will become wired to those. Our brain is plastic, and malleable, and able to wire itself up to whatever language we hear, to learn those rules.
Similarly, I would argue that we all are born with a music module. We’re born with the wiring to accommodate any music that we hear, and we learn those rules effortlessly just by listening.
JEFFREY BROWN: Levitin says there’s an area of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex, specifically dedicated to comparing what we hear with our expectations of learned patterns of music. That’s the reason we can be surprised, pained or delighted when those expectations are tampered with, something great musicians know to exploit.
DANIEL LEVITIN: When you listen to Stevie Wonder drumming on “Superstition,” for example, he’s playing in time, and you’re forming predictions about what’s going to happen next. The additional nuance that he brings to it is that he changes the beats ever so slightly, throughout the whole song, “Superstition,” never the same.
So he’s going a little bit different. He varies the pressure on the high-hat cymbal, so it’s a little bit louder, a little bit softer. The beauty of it is that the cerebellum is trying to figure out, “OK, where is the next beat going to come? What’s it going to be?” And he’s surprising the cerebellum at every turn, so that your brain…
JEFFREY BROWN: We don’t talk to too many scientists who are doing Stevie Wonder drum solos for us, I’ve got to tell you that.

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