Your Brain on Music

My building’s laundry room has a swapping bookshelf – you can take or leave as many books as you want.  Of course I’ve done my share of both – my most recent find is “The New Brain,” by Richard Restak, M.D., a 2003 book published by Rodale on the changes wrought by modernity on the most important and least well-understood of human organs.

Since I finished my masters, I haven’t done much hardcore reading on neuroscience outside of news and science articles I’ve run across online.  There are few areas of science developing more rapidly than neuroscience (genetics is one), so Restak’s book, 11 years old now, must be taken within the context of a rapidly progressing field.  But the book was definitely written for laypeople, and I’ve not yet within encountered anything I know to be out of date.

Chapter 5 of the book is called, “The Happy Brain:  The Joy and Music in You,” and deals with the biologically brainy parts of both humor and music.  The musical part gets going with a discussion of congenital amusia, popularly known as tone deafness.  About 5% of the population exhibits some of its characteristics – an interesting point I had never considered is that tone deafness can impact the perception of the prosody of spoken words too.  Restak gives the example of an amusiac being unable to appreciate the intentional sarcasm in a statement like “He’s a real genius,” which of course in people with normal brain pathology turns the meaning of the literal statement into its exact opposite.

But for me the most interesting part of the chapter is the discussion of the nuts and bolts of the brain and musical appreciation –  I have never investigated the brain structures responsible for musical appreciation, and, while brief, “The New Brain” provides a good overview of the most significant structure, worth quoting at some length:

As an example of how musical training influences brain circuitry and enhances emotions, consider the auditory cortex, which is located slightly above the ears.  Operationally, the auditory cortex occupies a privileged place midway between the frontal lobes – just behind the forehead – and the deeper dwelling limbic system components.  Thanks to the two-way connections between the auditory cortex and the frontal lobe, we can intellectually appreciate, compare, and judge a musical performance.  And thanks to the two-way connections between the auditory cortex and the limbic system, we can respond to the emotional resonance that accompanies all great musical compositions.  Not surprisingly, the auditory cortex is larger in musicians compared with the brains of non-musicians.

To hear some armchair neuroscientists talk, the mysteries of the brain are all within the grasp of our investigations.  I’m happy to read that Restak has a little more humility – even fatalism on the subject.  He concludes the chapter with a nod to the ephemerality of the greatness of music, “While it’s true that we wouldn’t be able to appreciate and perform music without contributions from specialized areas within the brain, we cannot hope to understand the seven different attributes or ‘dimensions’ of music (pitch, rhythm, tempo, contour, timbre, loudness, and spatial location) in terms of electrical currents across nerve cell membranes or the transport of neurotransmitters across synapses.”

Written into the chapter is the assumption that our different ways of interfacing with music develop these parts of the brain in different ways.  Amateur musicians, professional musicians, and people who listen to but do not play music all exhibit specialized brain structures to handle their ways of interacting with music.  The chapter also notes that music is, as far as we know and like language in general, a uniquely human adaptation.

Thanks for reading.


One comment

  1. […] that, to date, I have not learned much about.  In reading for and writing a recent post on music and the brain, I found author Richard Restak, MD identifying “seven different attributes, or dimensions, of […]

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