Interesting patterns of brain activity emerge during musical analysis exercises

What better way to start this new year – Happy New Year, btw – than with music? Or better: research about music! Researchers found that students trained to play music from a young age exhibited certain kinds of brain activity more strongly than other students. This is not unreasonable to expect, as well, they use their brains differently than others. But there is more as the researchers also observed a specific link between musical processing and areas of the brain associated with language processing. Is music a language? I do think so.

From the press release:

Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo is a keen musician, as are many of his colleagues. Although Sakai has studied human language through the lens of neuroscience for the last 25 years, it’s no surprise that he also studies the effect music has on the brain. Inspired by a mode of musical training known as the Suzuki method, which is based on ideas of natural language acquisition, Sakai and his team wanted to explore common neurological aspects of music and language.

“In the field of neuroscience, it is well established that there are areas of the brain that deal specifically with language, and even specialized regions that correspond to different parts of language processing such as grammar or syntax,” said Sakai. “We wondered if training under the Suzuki method might lead to activity in such areas, not when using language, but when engaging with music. Our study reveals this is indeed the case.”

For their investigation, the team enlisted 98 Japanese secondary school students classified into three groups: Group S (Suzuki) was trained from a young age in the Suzuki method, Group E (Early) was musically trained from a young age but not in the Suzuki method, and Group L (Late) was either musically trained at a later age, but not in the Suzuki method, or were not musically trained at all. All the students had their brains scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which produced dynamic 3D models of their brains’ activity. During this time, they were given a musical exercise to identify errors in a piece of music played to them. The musical pieces played had errors in one of four musical conditions: pitch, tempo, stress and articulation.

During the exercises, groups S and E showed more overall brain activity than Group L, especially during the pitch and articulation conditions. Furthermore, groups S and E showed activity in very specific regions depending on the kind of error being tested for. Interestingly, Group S showed some unique patterns of activation mostly in areas of the right brain, associated with emotion and melody, during the tempo condition, supporting the ideas behind the Suzuki method.

“One striking observation was that regardless of musical experience, the highly specific grammar center in the left brain was activated during the articulation condition. This connection between music and language might explain why everyone can enjoy music even if they are not musical themselves,” said Sakai. “Other researchers, perhaps those studying neurological traits of artistic experts, may be able to build on what we’ve found here. As for ourselves, we wish to delve deeper into the connection between music and language by designing novel experiments to tease out more elusive details.”

Abstract of the paper:

Although music is one of human-unique traits such as language, its neural basis for cortical organization has not been well understood. In the present functional magnetic resonance imaging study, we tested an error-detection task with different types of musical error (pitch, tempo, stress, and articulation conditions) and examined three groups of secondary school students having different levels of music experience. First, we observed distinct activation patterns under these music conditions, such that specific activations under the pitch condition were consistently replicated for all tested groups in the auditory areas, as well as in the left language areas under the articulation condition. Second, music-experience-related activations were observed in multiple regions, including the right sensorimotor area under the pitch condition, as well as in the right premotor cortex under the articulation condition. Indeed, the right homologs of the language areas were specifically activated under the stress and articulation conditions. Third, activations specific to the group with the highest proficiency in music were observed under the tempo condition mostly in the right regions. These results demonstrate the existence of music-related signatures in the brain activations, including both universal and experience-related mechanisms.

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