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Winter 2014


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Brain processes each type of music differently

The genre of music one is hearing can be determined by observing brain function. Whether we're listening to Vivaldi, blues or the Beatles, our brains can reveal which one. Each type of music activates very different combinations of brain regions, according to recent experiments. The difference between instrumental music and songs with text was particularly pronounced. In the latter case the activity shifted to the right brain, as reported by an international research team in the journal NeuroImage.

When we listen to music, it is not only the primary hearing centres which are activated, but rather a whole network of brain regions. No wonder. After all, music awakens a panoply of memories, associations and, of course, feelings. The determination of whether and how the pattern of brain activity differs for different musical genres was investigated by a team of Finnish, Danish and British researchers.

The study involved 15 test subjects who were played several different musical works, including excerpts from a Vivaldi concerto, a jazz piece by Miles Davis, blues, an Argentinian tango, and a song by the Beatles. While the subjects were listening to the music, their brain function was recorded by means of functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRT). For the evaluation, the researchers determined various characteristics of the musical pieces - timbre (tone quality), rhythm and tonality - and arranged these in relation to the activated brain regions.

The result: As expected, some regions are activated by all types of music. These include areas in the auditory cortex and the emotion processing limbic system, but also the region responsible for movement, the motor cortex. The researchers report that sections of the front brain and the so-called cingulum also became active in the test subjects. We use these, for example, when making aesthetic judgements as well as for reflecting on observations.

There were also differences between musical genres: Particularly complicated musical works triggered increased activity in the right temporal lobe, the respective patterns differing according to the type of music. Therefore, by simply observing brain function, researchers had no difficulty recognizing whether the test subjects were listening to the Beatles or Vivaldi.

They noticed something else: If the music had a text such as in a pop song, the activity moved more strongly to the right auditory cortex. Apparently, the processing of music occurs primarily in the left brain, though texts seem to shift it, the researchers conjecture. "Our method offers a powerful technique for identifying and recording the reaction of the brain to music and other sounds," says Vinoo Alluri, leader of the study at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

Suomen Akatemia, 08.08.2013 - NPO

To view the illustrations accompanying this German news story, translated by Karl Raab,
go to the Scinexx website link

To look at this press release from the academy 'This is your brain on Vivaldi and Beatles',
go to Alpha Galileo website

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