Friday, July 10, 2009

Music makers and Music lovers

An excerpt from The New York Times

Research into how the brain decodes music reveals insight about what makes music so interesting to most people. It is a matter of surprise, researchers say. The brain becomes accustomed to patterns of music based on exposure to various musical traditions, Dr. Bharucha said. Groups of cells may be especially attuned to sounds heard in rock-and-roll, Mozart or riffs on a sitar. When the brain hears, say, 10 notes of a melody, it will predict the 11th note based on these stored connections. When the note is predicted correctly, he said, the cellular connections become even stronger. If a note is slightly off, it can be either jarring or aesthetically pleasing.

It is the violation of these brain-based expectations that makes music interesting, Dr. Bharucha said. Composers regularly exploit them. For example, the note-to-note violations in classical music are very subtle. "At the beginning of a Handel violin sonata, the violin plays notes that lead you to expect completion of a chord with a D on the musical scale," he said. "Instead, you hear an E, which is a subtle violation in the same key in the same scale.

"If you want more serious violations, you pick notes out of key," Dr. Bharucha continued. "Western music pushed the limit of these violations until, in the early 20th century, the whole thing collapsed." Composers like Schoenberg minimized the degree of expectation completely, but it never caught on with popular audiences. Minimalist music by composers such as Philip Glass is a revenge against excess surprise, he said. It is very predictable, some would say boring.

Rock-and-roll, Dr. Bharucha said, is often thought to be a new form of music, but in fact it uses chords and elemental patterns that go back centuries. Ironically, as far as pitches and harmonies go, rock-and-roll is more traditional and has changed less than classical music, he said, which may help explain its popularity.

Musical talent is another mystery. As with any kind of intelligence, the neural maps that serve music perception may be stronger or larger or better in some people. Earlier this year researchers reported that people with perfect pitch have in their left hemispheres highly developed structures associated with musical perception. But there is no single musical talent, said Dr. Peter Ostwald, a psychiatrist at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco. There may be separate talents for tone recognition, melodic structure, movement, ability to play an instrument well, and the gift for dramatizing oneself and playing in public.

Nevertheless, early exposure to music and musical training does make a difference in musical talent. Like language, music follows a course in infant and child development, Dr. Zatorre said. Six-month-old babies are sensitive to musical patterns. A 2-year-old hearing the Barney song will pick it up and start singing it incessantly. Children sing songs to themselves as they play.

At the University of California at Irvine, researchers built computer models of how cells in the auditory cortex might fire together during learning. When the computer program was connected to a device that translated its mathematical code into sounds, musical themes appeared.

"It got us to thinking," said Dr. Gordon Shaw, a physicist at Irvine's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. He said that the way cells are connected throughout the cortex might compose the basic neural language of the brain. "When you hear music, you are exciting inherent brain patterns that derive from this structure and connectivity.

"Then we made another big jump," he added. "Musical training at an early age might reinforce these patterns. Music is structured in space and time. Could it enhance or strengthen the circuits that help you think and reason in space and time?"

To find out, Frances Rauscher, an Irvine researcher, has been working with preschool children in Los Angeles. One group of 3-year-olds received weekly piano lessons and participated in daily sessions of group singing. Another group did not get the extra training. After a year, she said, the musically trained children scored 80 percent higher on tests of spatial and temporal reasoning, an ability that underlies many kinds of mathematics and engineering.

Could this explain why so many physicists and mathematicians are also gifted musicians? Scientists who study music and the brain may soon find the answer. The Series

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