Music on the Brain

It’s hard to exaggerate the effect music can have on the human brain. A mere snippet of song from the past can trigger memories as vivid as anything Proust experienced from the aroma of his petite madeleine. A tune can induce emotions ranging from unabashed joy to deep sorrow and can drive listeners into states of patriotic fervor or religious frenzy–to say nothing of its legendary ability to soothe the savage beast.

Yet in spite of music’s remarkable influence on the human psyche, scientists have spent little time attempting to understand why it possesses such potency. “We tend to think of music as an art or a cultural attribute,” notes Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, “but it is a complex human behavior that is as worthy of scientific study as any other.”

That’s why Zatorre helped organize a conference, “The Biological Foundations of Music,” sponsored last week by the New York Academy of Sciences, at which experts in disciplines ranging from neuroscience and neurology to brain imaging and psychology met to exchange notes about what’s known–and, more important, what remains to be learned–in this small but growing field.

What seems clear is that the ability to experience and react to music is deeply embedded in the biology of the nervous system. While music tends to be processed mostly in the right hemisphere of the brain, no single set of cells is devoted to the task. Different networks of neurons are activated, depending on whether a person is listening to music or playing an instrument, and whether or not the music involves lyrics.

Specific brain disorders can affect the perception of music in very specific ways. Experiments done on epileptics decades ago showed that stimulating certain areas of the temporal lobe on both sides of the brain awakened “musical memories”–vivid re-creations of melodies that the patients had heard years earlier. Lesions in the temporal lobe can result in so-called musicogenic epilepsy, an extremely rare form of the disorder in which seizures are triggered by the sound of music. Autism offers an even greater puzzle. People with this condition are mentally deficient, yet most are proficient musicians; some are “musical savants” possessed of extraordinary talent.

The opposite is true of the less than 1% of the population who suffer from amusia, or true tone deafness. They literally cannot recognize a melody, let alone tell two of them apart, and they are incapable of repeating a song (although they think they are doing it correctly). Even simple, familiar tunes such as Frere Jacques and Happy Birthday are mystifying to amusics, but when the lyrics are spoken rather than sung, amusics are able to recognize the song immediately.