Music and Your Brain- A Summary of an Important Lecture

Music and Your Brain- A Summary of an 
Important Lecture
by Dr. Robert Zatorre of McGill University
presented by The Cleveland Orchestra

Dr. Robert J. Zatorre is one of the world's leading authorities on
music and the brain.

His two key questions are:
  1. How does what we know about music reveal how the brain works?
  2. How does what we know about the brain reveal how music works?
He has explored these questions to great depths at his laboratory in 
McGill University in Montreal, Canada, the Brain, Music and Sound
Research Center.

The Cleveland Orchestra has been very interested in these questions as well.
Our music director, Franz Welser-Most, has pursued these interests with
formal seminars on the subject, the most recent in Salzburg, Austria, and
featured Dr. Zatorre as well as leading researchers from Case and the
Cleveland Clinic.

On November 23, 2009, Dr. Zatorre presented findings from his work
under the auspices of the SAGE undergraduate seminar program at Case,
and The Cleveland Orchestra. I had the privilege of attending.

A few basics

Reading was invented by humanity, and was invented roughly
5-6,000 years ago.

Music goes back to at least 40,000 years
There are some indicators that the Neandertal people
made music.

Bone flutes from China have been found that are
7-10,000 years old, and they play haunting tones
in the traditional Chinese pentatonic scale.

The deep, deep history of human music suggests it is not an
invention, but as much a biologic event as walking. The
fact that animals use music, particularly birds, is further evidence
that music is a biologic, not invented, function.

Over time, neuroscience has established that the brain contains
areas or modules of specific function, and that complex brain
function results from these areas creating complex connections
between their various functions.

Simple cognitive tasks such as bending one finger may require
only a handful of brain areas.

Complex cognitive tasks require far more areas. How they occur
is not well understood even today.

Examples of complex cognitive tasks include:
perception, motor skills, creativity, emotions, and memory

Evidence That Music is
a Biologic, Hard-Wired Function
Consider pitch.

Pitch is the quality of a sound that tells you if it is higher or lower than another
sound. It is closely related to how rapidly each second the air vibrates in a sound,
its frequency.

The human mind can perceive astoundingly small difference of pitch, down
to close to one 5,000th of an octave!

In the 1800's the great scientist, Dr. Helmholtz, proved that humans
"fill in" pitches. You can play a tune with key pitches missing, but the mind
will re-create how it should have been.

If you remove a piece of someone's brain on the right side, near the ear,
the right auditory cortex, you can no longer fill-in a pitch.

If you play a tune missing a pitch to a monkey, an area of the brain in the R
auditory cortex starts firing, suggesting monkey's fill-in pitch too.

If you do a special MRI that shows what part of the brain is active during 

an activity, a functional MRI, or fMRI, you will see the R lateral auditory cortex
light up when a person tries to fill-in a pitch.

Does musical training impact R lateral auditory cortex function?

The density of grey matter in the R lateral auditory cortex is much higher in
trained musicians.

Now, play a very simple tune.  Then play it backwards with one note altered.
How well can someone identify the original tune backwards from the altered
tunes backwards.

Testing hundreds of subjects, Dr. Zatorre found the level of activity the
R lateral auditory cortex was highly correlated (r=0.48) with the ability
to tell the original from its imposters.

Others have figured out just how thick a small area of the brain is at any moment,
and found those with a thicker R lateral cortex, independent of musical training,
did better on this task.

The fact that animals rely on music, that humans have as well for perhaps longer
than they have talked, as well as evidence that areas of the brain physically
change as they manage the perception of pitch, all highly suggest music is
indeed a hard-wired, basic, physical property of how our brains work.

Music and emotion

Emotion is one of the most powerful properties of music.
Music activates a vast range of emotions.
Music alters moods.

How powerful is the emotional force of music?

In one study, students were asked which of several experiences gave them the most
powerful pleasure.
Top 5 evokers of pleasure were: romance , sex, success- each 98.4%, the sun 96.7%,
and music  95.1%.
Below music came good grades 91%, food, 88%, money 83%, sports 73%, art 69%.
Notice that music was rated as nearly as pleasurable as sex and more pleasurable
than food or money!

We now know what parts of the brain light up when we feel pleasure, from any cause:
an area of the brain tucked under the mantle of the overlying cortex, but sitting well
above the spinal cord:  the mesolimbic system.
In particular, networks that are run with the neurotransmitter dopamine seem to
be creating our sensations of pleasure.  The names of the structures where many
of these networks reside are:  the caudate, putamen, and nucleus accumbens.

Typically, these systems are activated by events that our very life depends on.
Our life as an individual ,and as a species, namely:  food and sex.
It makes great sense that we would have a system that would grant us the
powerful incentive to eat enough to survive, and mate enough to reproduce.

This same system can be activated for reasons having nothing to do with
the survival imperative.  A wide variety of drugs, gambling, smoking, and video
games all activate this system quite powerfully.

What about music?

 Dr. Zatorre looked for something that could measure the presence of a jolt of
pleasure, of strong emotion.  He found he could measure the presence of
a sense of chills.  That is, when subjects reported that a piece of music "gave them
the chills,"  he found their heart rate went up, their palms got a bit sweaty, he could
measure if chills occurred or not.

In studying music and its chills, he found that it is experienced by everyone.
Musicians and non-musicians alike have a similar intensity of emotional
response to music.

He also found there is no one type of music that can generate emotion.
That is a product of culture, the sort of music you have learned, have heard,
and in turn, love.
When an fMRI is done to see what part of the brain lights up when you experience
the chills from music, he found that  the striatum, thalamus, insula, and anterior cingulate
light up.

A PET scan allows scientists to actually track when a dopamine receptor gets active, a
very precise way of knowing just when, and where, the brain's pleasure wires get activated.

With this level of detail, it was found that there are really two types of pleasure music
generates, and very strongly.

One is actually anticipation.  If you hear a piece of music and think a great bit of music
is about to be heard, your caudate will activate.

The other is the actual chill, a savoring.  When you actually hear the bit of music
you love, a separate area of the dopamine system activates- the nucleus accumbens.

Once the chills cease, no dopamine activity is seen.

Dr. David Huron at OSU describes how many composers use the difference between
anticipation and savoring to heighten our emotional response to the music.

A dearly loved theme will be delayed, or a cadence slowed, to heighten the pleasure
of anticipation, which, in turn, strengthens the savoring when it arrives.

Music clearly creates emotion.  It creates emotions as strong as any we can experience.
We are learning where, physically, the brain creates the emotions that music provokes.
Anticipation and savoring are two distinct emotional responses to music.  Music, then,
also helps us understand how our brain works.

  1. Music is a physical, very real part of our biology.
  2. We now know parts of the brain that generate our sense of properties such as pitch.
  3. The notion music generates strong emotion is clearly true, and we now know the parts of the brain that respond to music with emotion.
  4. The emotions that music generates are as powerful a source of pleasure as any we ever will experience.
  5. The nature of our emotional response to music is helping us understand how our minds actually work, what is emotion, and how it operates.
Music is a central part of being human.

Enjoy it, make sure your children get plenty of chances to enjoy it.

Cleveland offers some of the greatest music in the world, including
one of the world's best orchestras, just down the block.
So come to the Cleveland Orchestra, let your mind and family
have a powerfully great time.

Dr. Arthur Lavin

The comments contained in this electronic source of information do not constitute and are not designed to imply that they constitute any form of individual medical advice. The information provided is purely for informational purposes only and not relevant to any person's particular medical condition or situation. If you have any medical concerns about yourself or your family please contact your physician immediately. In order to provide our patients the best uninfluenced information that science has to offer,we do not accept samples of drugs, advertising tchotchkes, money, food, or any item from outside vendors.

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