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Tuning in to the music of the mind SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY; Science takes notes on how the brain responds to melody, harmony and rhythm.


There aren't any neuroscientists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But someday a neuroscientist might be inducted for figuring out why there's a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the first place.

Researchers are probing how the brain's circuitry helps people make and listen to music. Scientists have already found, for example, that in people who get musical training as children, certain parts of the brain grow bigger than normal. New research is helping scientists identify areas of the brain that can distinguish music that sings from music that clashes, and pick out errors in melody, harmony or rhythm.

And, researchers said recently, if scientists learn more about how the brain responds to music, they may be able to come up with new treatments for brain diseases.

"If we can find music that stimulates certain parts of the brain, it's possible that with time, certain music could reactivate those brain areas," said Anne Blood, a music and brain researcher at McGill University in Montreal.

Understanding how the brain reacts to music could also teach scientists more about the basics of communication.

Music was on the brains of many scientists in Los Angeles recently at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Blood and Robert Zatorre at McGill reported on studies examining which parts of the brain become active when people listen to music that's either pleasing or annoying. A colleague in the music department composed a simple melody that the researchers played to the people in the study. Musical chords that either "matched" or clashed to varying degrees with the melody served as a series of six accompaniments.

The research subjects - five men and five women, all non-musicians - listened to the music while they were hooked up to a brain scanner. When the accompaniment "matched" (consonance, in musical terms), areas on both sides of the brain became active. But the more the accompaniment clashed - and the more the research subjects found it unpleasant - the brain had a completely different response.

The brain activity switched over to the right side of the brain, in an area deep in the brain called the parahippocampal gyrus. Some of the regions in the new study matched with regions known to be involved in emotion. "That makes sense, because there are people that know nothing about music, but can still have an emotional response to it," Blood said.

People who do know something about music are also helping scientists understand how the brain keeps track of music's complicated notes and beat. At the neuroscience meeting, researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio reported what they learned as eight Ph.D.'s from a college music department listened to a Bach chorale.

While hooked into a brain scanner, the faculty members were asked to read the correct printed musical notes while listening to a computer-generated version of the performance that contained errors.

Paying attention to the different aspects of the performance, the researchers found, caused different areas of the brain to become active. Listening to melody especially caused certain parts of the brain associated with hearing to become active; listening to harmony activated separate but nearby areas. Rhythm activated mostly the cerebellum, an area at the bottom and back of the brain.

Health Science Center researcher Lawrence Parsons, along with colleagues Donald Hodges and Peter Fox of UT San Antonio and the late Justine Sergent of McGill, have also tried to pick apart which areas of the brain are at work when musicians perform. For these studies, the researchers had several pianists lie on their backs, with eyes closed and heads inside a brain scanner, and play on an electronic keyboard suspended above them.

The musicians played either simple scales or a much more complicated piece, the third movement of the Italian Concerto from Bach. The scientists took brain scans under both conditions, and then compared the two to find patterns of brain activity exclusive to playing the concerto.

It was a surprise, he said, to find that many areas of the brain quieted down as the musicians were immersed in the Bach.

"The whole front part of the brain shuts down when musicians are in the zone," Parsons said. "They're really focused on the task."

The front part of the brain is known to be devoted to aspects of daily life such as planning and decision-making. Parsons and Fox said what they saw inside the brains of their subjects might explain a sensation many performers have.

"It's pretty common to have singers and performers say they were very nervous but didn't notice the crowd until they were all done," Fox said. "They can completely shut out everything else."

Overall, Fox said, studies are suggesting that many different parts of the brain contribute to people's ability to make or appreciate music. But scientists don't think the brain evolved to be able to accept music. In other words, music appreciation may get you course credit in college, but it won't help you escape predators or find food.

Rather, scientists think, music evolved the way it has because of the way the brain is set up to begin with. Communication is probably necessary for the survival of animals, and evolution might have favored creatures that could understand one another - even, eventually, in musical terms.

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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