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Listening to music lights up the whole brain

05 December 2011 Suomen Akatemia (Academy of Finland)

Finnish researchers have developed a groundbreaking new method that allows to study how the brain processes different aspects of music, such as rhythm, tonality and timbre (sound color) in a realistic listening situation. The study is pioneering in that it for the first time reveals how wide networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity, are activated during music listening. The new method helps us understand better the complex dynamics of brain networks and the way music affects us.

The study was published in the journal NeuroImage.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the research team, led by Dr. Vinoo Alluri from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, recorded the brain responses of individuals who were listening to a piece of modern Argentinian tango. Subsequently, using sophisticated computer algorithms, they analyzed the musical content of the tango, showing how its rhythmic, tonal and timbral components evolve over time. This was the first time such a study has been carried out using real music instead of artificially constructed music-like sound stimuli. Comparison of the brain responses and the musical features revealed many interesting things.

The researchers found that music listening recruits not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also employs large-scale neural networks. For instance, they discovered that the processing of musical pulse recruits motor areas in the brain, supporting the idea that music and movement are closely intertwined. Limbic areas of the brain, known to be associated with emotions, were found to be involved in rhythm and tonality processing. Processing of timbre was associated with activations in the so-called default mode network, which is assumed to be associated with mind-wandering and creativity.

"Our results show for the first time how different musical features activate emotional, motor and creative areas of the brain", says Prof. Petri Toiviainen from the University of Jyväskylä. "We believe that our method provides more reliable knowledge about music processing in the brain than the more conventional methods."

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