Music and the Brain

Juan Manuel Gonzalez, Staff writer

Ever hear a song and instantly either loved or hated it? There are some genres of music which certain people enjoy while others can’t stand. But can people learn to love music they hate, and can that music help in understanding how the human brain works?

According to a study performed by the University of Melbourne, researchers found that an individual can indeed learn to love music based on certain chords which are used in a particular genre.

In the study, nineteen participants who had no musical training were provided with the training necessary to be able to distinguish certain chords. After several experiments, they found that the participants were able to distinguish the chords, but also found the chords pleasant to listen to, despite the fact that others who had traditional training in music had found the chords to be unpleasant.

In a similar study performed by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, certain forms of classical music could make individuals better at understanding their surroundings. Using symphonies from William Boyce, they tested how the different chords affected the way an individual sorts out the world around them. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI), the researchers were able to pinpoint the locations in the brain that were activated while the participant listened to the music. The study found that the brain was utilized most during the transition period between songs and identified that the key parts are involved in paying attention, making predictions and memorizing events.

The point of the study was to find out how the brain organizes events, and what they found was that music helped the participants organize incoming information. The researchers’ findings have been published in the August second issue of Neuron. The senior author of the paper, Vinod Menon, compares the findings to what occurs during a concert, he states “different individuals listen to a piece of music with wandering attention, but at the transition point between movements their attention is arrested.” He later goes on to discuss “event segmentation.” Event segmentation is the process in which one’s brain separates information and stores it.

The scans of the participants’ brains showed that the right sides of their brains were more active during the peak of the symphony. It also showed that during a pause, the brain movements mimicked the actions of those that the brain makes when memorizing information. The researchers believe that perhaps this study may help answer the age old question of how it is possible for one to follow a single conversation in a room full of crowded people.