The language of music
Despite its prominent role in virtually all cultures, the perception of music remains one of the more mysterious aspects of human cognition. It has long been recognized that music is distinguished from random arrangements of notes by a variety of rules not unlike the syntactic rules governing the construction of sentences. These musical rules vary from culture to culture, and it is unclear to what extent they are learned from exposure to music as opposed to being genetically programmed. However, people often agree on whether or not pieces are musical, suggesting that these rules are somehow embodied in the brain.
In this issue (Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 4, No. 5, 01 May 2001), Burkhard Maess and colleagues report that the rules of music may be represented in the same part of the brain that represents the syntactic rules of speech.
Maess and colleagues used a technique called MEG to measure the magnetic fields produced by the brain's electrical activity during exposure to brief sequences of musical chords. Some of the chord sequences followed the accepted rules of Western classical music, while others contained a chord toward the end of the sequence that was musically 'wrong' in the context; the latter sequences violated the rules of music.
The authors report that the brain response to the 'wrong' sequences differed from the response to the musically coherent sequences. The difference in response was localized to a brain region known as Broca's area, which is involved in the analysis of linguistic syntax. These findings suggest that Broca's area also analyzes musical syntax. That is, the brain region that tells us what a sentence means may also tell us how a piece of music sounds. Music training is known to lead to enhanced verbal abilities, and Maess and colleagues suggest this may happen because the same brain mechanisms are being refined by the training. The results are additionally important because it has been widely held that the brain regions that analyze language are highly specialized for that purpose. This finding suggests, to the contrary, that they may serve a more general function, and that there may be brain structures specialized for dealing with complex, rule-based information such as speech and music.
Dr. Burkhard Maess
Max-Planck-Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience
PO Box 500 355
tel: +49 3 425 8875 26
fax: +49 3 425 8875 11
(C) Nature Neuroscience press release.
Message posted by: Trevor M. D'Souza