Music is a particularly interesting area for science because it spans a number of different scientific doctrines including: Neuroscience, cognitive, and evolutionary psychology to name a few. FMRI studies have shown that music engages many fundamental areas of the brain[1] and encompasses a vast array of cognitive functions. While researching for blog I found two areas in which music research is being used that I found particularly surprising and intriguing. In this blog I will focus on how the scientific study of music is aiding our understanding of human ancestry and potentially providing an animal model for language research.

Brain scanning studies in the past decade have investigated an emotion phenomenon known as “Chills”. Chills can be described as an intense emotional response typified by shivers and tingling of the spine. PET and FMRI studies have shown that music which induces “chills” results in the stimulation of brain areas involved in the reward system [2,3]. This is particularly interesting because such stimulation is generally the associated with biologically beneficial behaviours such as eating and procreation. What can such research potentially tell us about early humans? Dr Pinker of Harvard University suggests that music is merely a bi-product; that human’s ability to extract meaning from sounds around them has been important for survival. As a result we have created sounds that stimulate our sensitive hearing for the sake of pleasure [4]. However evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller suggests that music may in fact have a functional purpose in attraction and procreation. Miller believes that musical performance is a display of healthy functioning; to singfor example you must co-ordinate cognitive, motor and auditory functions. Evidence for his claims comes from retrospective studies of Jazz musicians, Miller has shown that their musical productivity was highest during years humans are typically most virile. This may explain why people tend to be particularly attracted to music in their teens. [4] This hypothesis also fits with our understanding of music in the animal kingdom, as it primary function is for attracting the opposite sex e.g. mating calls. However the exact role of music in human evolution is still very speculative, although most will agree that music has been important to humans for a long time given archaeological evidence. [5]

In order to understand the musical sounds around us we must correctly interpret them using our knowledge of these sounds, in this sense music is similar to language. Music like language has it’s own grammatical rules, which dictate which notes go together and which do not. The easiest way to demonstrate this is with some sound examples; Take this first example of notes which do go together, compared it to this second example where the notes clash.Amazingly most of us have internalised these rules despite never receiving formal training. Researcher Aniruddh Patel suggests that language has been a particularly challenging for neuroscience, because it lacks an animal model. By this Patel means that there are no non-human animals with an equivalent language systems that we can study to better understand human language. Patel argues that music however may enable researchers to bridge this gap, as both music and language utilise many of the same cortical areas [6].This is reflected in the fact that individuals with language comprehension difficulties will show difficulties with music comprehension [7]. Patel is beginning to make some of these links by investigating the relationship between synchronisation to musical beat in birds and learning of vocal language. Research is currently showing us that a link exists, which is helping us understand the role of midbrain in vocalisation in humans [8]

This shared system of language and music has not only been beneficial in a theoretical sense but also a practical sense in development of therapies. Pam Heaton at the University of London believes that music could help those with autism better understand emotion and social cues [9] Here is an excerpt taken from Rubin Walsh a young man with autism, who claims music has aided his understanding of emotions;

“The Structure is all very ordered, and that makes the emotions in it much more accessible, than they are when you encounter them with real people on a day to day basis. So it develops your ability to understand emotions and also enables you to enjoy them in a much more relaxed way”[9]

In conclusion, the processing of musical sounds is a complex and rich area to study, which engages a wide range of doctrines from Cognitive Neuroscience to evolutionary psychology.
It can give us insight into humans evolutionary history, potentially provide an animal model for scientific study of language and even used to develop therapies for autistic spectrum disorder.


[1] Koelsch et al (2005) /papers/Koelsch_adults+children_pr.pdf
[2] Blood & Zatorre (2001)
[3]Menon & Levitin (2005)

[6] Brown, Martinez, Parsons (2006).;jsessionid=D2969E875B202AF78E22FDFE9BEAC958.d02t02
[7] Patel, Iversen & Hagoort (2004) ICMPC8.pdf
[8] Patel, Iversen, Bregmen & Schulz (2009) Bregman_Schulz_2009_NYAS.pdf