Scientists have been searching for the ways that music is expressed in the brain for years. Neuroimaging techniques (such as MRIs) reveal the that the brain processes music in different areas and in different ways than it does other sounds, but until recently, not much more has been probed in this direction.
Researchers at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA and other US-based institutions wanted to look more deeply into what they call “the neural code for music itself”. Their study, titled A neural population selective for song in human auditory cortex (Norman-Haignere, Sam V. et al.) was published in the journal Current Biology, Volume 32, Issue 6 in 2022.
Just what happens in the brain when we listen to music?
The results of previous studies, the authors note, have already confirmed the idea that the brain responds differently to speech and music. Their new study measured responses using fMRI along with electrocorticography (ECoG), a technique which places electrons directly on the brain’s surface in order to map it more precisely. Fifteen consenting patients reacted to 165 different sounds in the study, and the study references 88 other pieces of research.
The combination of two complementary techniques revealed something new: we respond to singing with a specialized area of the brain that does not react to other types of music.
- Specific groups of neurons in the brain react to song, and either not at all, or in a very muted fashion to other types of music or any other sounds, including the spoken voice;
- It suggests that our brains not only represent music differently than other sounds — it responds to the multiple elements of music with different representations at the neural level.
The results are undoubtedly intriguing, and raise even more questions, as the paper discusses. What exactly is it about singing in particular that we respond to in a unique way? Does it break down to elements such as pitch or timbre, or is there something else at work?
Since music has a strong association with memory, future studies could look at how those connections are represented in the brain. Do the areas of the brain that respond to music communicate in some way with those that represent memory?
The American study is quoted in The Guardian. “Our study presents a first step toward answering these longstanding questions,” the authors write.
As it turns out, one of our brain’s specialties is analyzing song.
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