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Thread: What Does Music Tell Us About the Brain?

  1. #1 What Does Music Tell Us About the Brain? 
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    Aug 2012
    Can music be an insight into the workings of the brain? For example, why does the brain like to hear octaves, certain harmonies and pitch resolution?

    Music is the manipulation of audible frequencies. More specifically, it is the establishment and manipulation of frequency patterns and frequency intensities. So why does the brain find patterns and various sequences of frequency intensities stimulating?

    Some Background:

    The ear converts all sound waves into electrochemical impulses that charge the neocortex of the brain. More specifically, the basilar membrane of the brain in the cochlea, the small snail-like structure in the inner ear, vibrates to incoming sound and at different sinusoidal frequencies due to variations in thickness and width along the length of the membrane. Tonotopy studies the spatial arrangement of frequencies along the basilar membrane.

    The tonotopy of frequencies projects through the vestibulocochlear nerve, through associated midbrain structures, through the auditory radiation pathway and to the primary auditory cortex. Throughout the radiation pathway, frequency organization is linear in accordance to neural sensitivity; (human auditory neurons react to vibrations in air pressure that occur between 20 to 20,000 times per second—20hz to 20,000hz on the human audible spectrum). However, binaural fusion in the superior oliviary complex affects the signal strength of each ganglion. As a result, six tonotopic maps have been identified in the primary auditory cortex of humans.

    Pitches are frequencies of increasing or decreasing multiples. Higher pitches translate to higher frequencies. Lower pitches to lower ones. Pitches that are an octave apart correspond to frequencies that have exactly half or double the frequency. For example, if one note has a frequency of 440 Hz, the note an octave above it is at 880 Hz, and the note an octave below is at 220 Hz. Harmonies are frequencies with whole number multiples of the fundamental (or lowest) frequency of any pitch.Resolution in western tonal music theory is the move of a note or chord from dissonance (an unstable sound) to consonance (a more final or stable sounding one). In terms of audible frequency, resolution is the move from non-multiple frequencies back to a frequency that is a multiple of the dominant fundamental frequency.

    Theories and Questions:

    1. Patterns, whether visual, rhythmic or audible have been shown to stimulate the brain. Patterns facilitate and reward prediction and prediction is a network and prioritization of associative memory. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) shows that the orbitofrontal cortex plays a critical role, amongst others, in making predictions and leads to an increase in B-endorphin levels and a decrease in plasma cortisol, a marker for stress. So what does the desire for predictions tell us about the brain?

    2. Similar, to reading a book or watching a movie, the manipulation of frequency intensities found in music can mimic human life experiences and all the stimulating associations that come with it. The second question therefore, is why does the human brain like to experience a duplication of its experiences?

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