Neuroscience and music appreciation in humans

This one isn’t really about children specifically, but I found it fascinating. It recently appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. Humans like music. The kind of music we like varies greatly, but love of music and rhythm seems to be something that crosses all cultural boundaries. Why is this? It would appear to be something intrinsic to being human, which implies that love of music is hard wired into our brains. So why is that? Until I read the above article in Lancet I was unaware there is an entire scientific field regarding the neuroscience of music appreciation. Some experts in this field believe music appeared even before the maturation of language:

Somewhere along the evolutionary way, our ancestors, with very limited language but with considerable emotional expression, began to articulate and gesticulate feelings: denotation before connotation. But, as the philosopher Susanne Langer noted, ‘The most highly developed type of such purely connotational semantic is music.’ In other words, meaning in music came to us before meaning given by words.

The authors of the Lancet study investigated the response to various musical things in macaque monkeys and compared them to those in human brains. There are portions of the brain that are devoted to perception of musical pitch and the investigators used those areas for comparison. The research team set out to compare how the brains of humans and those of rhesus macaques reacted to auditory stimuli that characterize music and speech. Speech and music contain harmonic frequency components, which are perceived to have pitch. Highly inflected human languages in particular, such as Chinese, rely on pitch and tone to convey meaning, and humans recognize this very early in life. Humans have cortical regions with a strong response preference for harmonic tones versus noise. But is the same true for nonhuman primates? The answer was no. In their words: “The results raise the possibility that these sounds, which are embedded in speech and music, may have shaped the basic organization of the human brain.”

Humans but not macaques showed regions with a strong preference for harmonic sounds compared to noise, measured with both synthetic tones and macaque vocalizations. . . . This species difference may be driven by the unique demands of speech and music perception in humans.

So OK — we differ from monkeys. But pet owners will tell you that other animals besides us are affected by music, although a dog howling along like the one above. Some research suggests dogs find classical music calming and heavy metal rock music annoying (just like me!). As a pediatrician, and like many parents, I have noticed infants respond to music. This begins so early that it strongly suggests to me the circuits to respond to pitch and harmony are already hard-wired into the human brain at birth.

At any rate, this little excursion is a great example of why it’s fascinating to peruse from time to time general scientific journals. You come across things you never otherwise would have encountered.


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