My new Discover brain column: Music and the brain

By Carl Zimmer | December 23, 2010 12:43 pm

When it rains it pours. A bunch of stories I’ve been working on for a while have all surfaced over the past week. Here’s the very last…for now: my new Discover brain column. The topic is music. What is it? What is it for, if anything?

I’ve long been interested in music and the brain for some time, along with the study of the evolution of music. Over the summer, at a meeting called SciFoo, I got to hear an excellent talk by Aniruddh Patel of the Neuroscience Institute, which finally spurred me to write something. If my column piques your interest, Patel’s web site has lots more to read.

And if you haven’t met one of his favorite subjects, Snowball…well, here he is:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Brains, Evolution, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (7)

  1. johnk

    Terrific piece on “music in the brain”. A complex subject with many fascinating aspects.

    Some thoughts.

    1. I’m not a specialist, but my initial bias, which isn’t changed by your article, is to support Robin Dunbar. I lean toward the notion that music’s original function was social bonding. This remains a strong aspect of music.

    Jamshed Bharucha has interesting ideas about the role of music in the synchronization of brains.

    http://www.edge.org/q2009/q09_14.html#bharucha

    2. Another guess is that music and language have a lot in common, both functionally and biologically. One example, which I haven’t seen referred to, is that both depend on an “auditory loop” or auditory short term memory. Another similarity is that both have highly complex “producing” and “receiving” components.

    3. The objection to the social theory, that individuals with social defects can still appreciate music, does not seem profound to me. The social theory, as I understand it, is that the evolutionary drive for music for socialization. This does not, remotely, suggest that the motivation for music appreciation in individuals is social. Evolutionary drive and individual motivation are not the same thing.

    4. The idea that evolutionarily “new” brain functions should evolve in new, highly localized brain centers is weak. I can’t think of an example that supports this. Music seems about as localized as language.

    5. The link between music and emotion is fascinating.

    6. The link between music and specific memories is fascinating.

    7. Why can I remember the works and tune to so many songs? Why should I never sing in public?

  2. Jim Miller

    Do you have any thoughts on the extremely small number of people, such as myself, who have good hearing but have never liked music?

  3. The cognitive nature of music is fascinating stuff… rhythm, prosody, accent, are some of the least understood (yet significant) aspects of speech, and likely represent some sort of link between music and the wonder that is language.
    Another thing that fascinates me, is the frequency of great mathematicians harboring some keen musical talent, and vice-versa, the number of great musicians displaying innate mathematical talent; i.e. there seems to be a cognitive link between the analytical basis of mathematics and the creative basis of music.

  4. Chip

    IMO and probably only IMO music serves a function like carrier waves do for radio. They help to carry a conceptual or historical memory, often from generation to generation. Whether evolutionary or by design I tend to think is makes no difference music is useful to carry information that needs to follow the race verbatim for many generations without being written down. Organized groups of people are tied together by their history and language and music helps to carry the history with no external storage necessary.

  5. I agree this is a fascinating subject! It is also a relatively new one, so I’m hoping more and more fascinating discoveries will be coming up during the next months and years :)

    There’s a good book called The Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithen that is really thought provoking.

    Some of the music-language analogies are unfortunately oh-so-close (the author makes it clear that he’s a paleoanthropologist and that he doesn’t know a lot about music ;) ), but reading the book really made me conscious of the musicality of language. The way you can tell someone’s emotion by listening to their speech is more or less the same way melody conveys emotion.

    One of the unexpected advantages of focusing on the prosody and not on the ideas (the old “not what you said but how you said it”) is that I have learned to enjoy listening to El Perro Bermudez. He’s the most famous football commentator here in Mexico. I used to hate him because 90% of what he says senseless babble and the other 10% is obvious, that was until I discovered his musical skills! His melodies are well paced, exciting arcs with unexpected turns.

    Apart from proposing a common ancestor to both music and language (which split once the verbal ability to express complex ideas evolved), the book proposes a link between rhythmic ability and bipedalism. I think at the moment all this is more or less educated guessing, but it is really exciting to think of where new research in this line would take us! I see, for instance, the impossibility for linguists to use the comparative method to go really deeply back in time, but the universality of “motherese” much more closer to a fact than Chomsky’s universal grammar. Maybe it’s time for linguists to take prosody more seriously, and that, together with neurology and paleoanthropology could lead us to understand the origin of language!


    ps. I hope it’s ok to come here and promote a book , I really liked it and I’m not some kind of stealth-marketer :)

  6. jess tauber

    Look for the Golden Ratioooooo, look for the Golden Ratioooooo! Its popping up everywhere, from the electronic and nuclear structures of atoms, to phrasal and clausal structures in languages.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if someone doesn’t find it in the operations of the two hemispheres of the brain (1.618 vs. 1.000, or .618, or some other multiple of Phi or Fib, Lucas, etc.).

  7. The dancing parrot vid is so good that I’ll be showing this my mum because she loves parotts and….. cats – better if they dance too! Good idea to link music with brain. It would be a different story if it where politics and brain – or climate change and brain (would reslut in billions of comments?). I am also glad that I am not the first to comment!

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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