Music and the brain

The connection between baby talk and music. Insights into how great jazz players improvise. Music strong enough that it might drive people to kill.

The “Music and the Brain” lecture series that started this month at the Library of Congress, sponsored in part by the Dana Foundation, demonstrates just how far researchers have come in understanding the physical processes behind mental abilities—and how far is left to go.

Ellen Dissanayake, a music professor at the University of Washington, kicked off the series Oct. 17 with a discussion of the similarities between “motherese”—that characteristic singsong way to talking to infants—and music. Studies show that these parallels hold across many different cultures and aid in the child’s brain development, language learning, socialization and bonding with the mother. Motherese also appears to make people more receptive to both creating and listening to music, as individuals and as societies, Dissanayake suggested.

Jessica Krash of George Washington University and Norman Middleton of the Library of Congress’s Music Division outlined some of the most extreme emotional reactions in their “Dangerous Music” lecture Oct. 30. Using clips from the blues of Robert Johnson and the heavy metal of Black Sabbath for emphasis, the pair pointed out how music made dissonant through the tritone—or “Devil’s interval”—has been linked to evil throughout history. Even in modern times, such songs have been alleged to drive people to murder (Body Count’s “Cop Killer”) or suicide (Judas Priest’s “Beyond the Realms of Death”).

But for neuroscientists, the most interesting and provocative presentation so far was Charles Limb’s “This is Your Brain Jammin’! Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Improvisation” on Oct. 24. Limb, a musician and surgeon at Johns Hopkins University, outlined brain changes detected during fMRI research on six jazz experts using a special keyboard. Much of the prefrontal cortex—including regions associated with self-monitoring—was deactivated, and limbic areas tied to emotion also showed a “surprising” lack of activity, Limb said. In contrast, activity increased in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region associated with autobiographical thought; and several sensorimotor areas.

Jazz keyboard fMRI_feature
A jazz player improvises music using a special, metal-free keyboard while lying in a brain scanner. (Image courtesy of Charles Limb)

It’s a remarkable study both on a conceptual level—how far science has come to even consider studying the biology behind something as abstract as creativity—and a technological level. Because magnetic resonance was used to make these images, the keyboard couldn’t contain any metal parts. The study also required a jury-rigged set of mirrors, so musicians could see what they were playing without moving their heads and messing up the results.

But many in the audience, who began asking Limb about how they can use these findings to improve their own creativity, didn’t understand the many limitations of brain-imaging studies. For instance, they can only tell us where the brain activity is happening, often in a very limited way—and not how or why.

Neuroscientists have come a long way in tying specific mental tasks to parts of the brain and even in mapping its connections, but figuring out how these incorporate into complex conscious actions such as creativity and improvisation is still far, far away. For now, the findings are just an incremental step in understanding how the brain might work—and offer no chance of taking the magic away from music.

The next lecture is Friday, Nov. 7, at 6:15 p.m., with more to follow over the next year.

Aalok Mehta

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