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Music and the brain: the very best of Quirks & Quarks

Jennifer Van Evra

For four decades, the award-winning CBC Radio program Quirks & Quarks has been bringing fascinating stories about science to audiences across Canada and around the globe.

Along the way, the show has talked to top researchers about science and music, from how music affects our brains to why some people have no sense of rhythm.

So as part of Science Week, we are bringing you some of Quirks & Quarks' very best stories about music and the brain, including a feature interview with Daniel Levitin, author of the bestseller This is Your Brain on Music.

Listen in below.

We Got the Music In Us

Music is a universal part of the human experience. It saturates our lives, and exists in every human society we have ever discovered. But why?

Is music a cultural artifact that we've created using our large brains? Or is it part of our biology that gave us an evolutionary advantage? Are specific tissues in our brains devoted to music? And how does music change our brains? Scientists are just starting to investigate these questions.

Included are McGill neuroscientist Robert Zatorre; University of Montreal psychology professor Isabelle Peretz; Rotman Research Institute senior scientist Christo Pantev; Ohio State University professor and composer Dr. David Huron; and McMaster University psychology professor Laurel Trainor.

This is Your Brain on Music

Daniel Levitin went from being a session musician and producer working with world-famous recording artists to an academic in neuroscience with a fascination for the link between music and the brain.

In his book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Levitin explores how humans seem to be adapted specifically for music. Music activates the pleasure centres in ways similar to drugs, food and sex. We also perceive the patterns and features of music as distinct from ordinary sounds, which explains some of what we find attractive in musical harmonies and rhythms.

Levitin is a professor in the department of psychology and Bell Chair in Psychology of Electronic Communication at McGill University.

Musical Brains

Many of us have experienced getting a pleasurable "chill" when we listen to music. Now, research "orchestrated" by Valorie Salimpoor, a PhD candidate at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, has shown that this "chill" is the direct result of music affecting our brain chemistry.

Researchers looked at dopamine production and uptake while subjects listened to chill-inducing music, and what they saw was a burst of dopamine.

Since dopamine is the same neurotransmitter that activates the brain's reward circuitry when we eat or have sex, this suggests that the enjoyment of music might well be a deeply evolved human behaviour.

Missing Every Beat

A dancer who sticks out in a crowd because "he's got no rhythm" may suffer from more than just a lack of talent: he may have a new scientifically described disorder called "beat deafness."

Dr. Jessica Phillips-Silver, a postdoctoral researcher at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research at the Université de Montréal, reports the first case of the disorder ever studied in the lab: a 23-year-old man named Mathieu.

Mathieu is a music lover who has taken both music and dance lessons. Despite that, Phillips-Silver's experiments showed he could not bounce to the beat of a merengue song, nor could he tell whether someone else was dancing in sync with the music. Phillips-Silver suspects beat deafness is a new form of congenital amusia similar to tone deafness.

Music Doesn't Move Me

Music has been thought to be universal among humans, appreciated by everyone in all cultures. Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University, was interested in testing that fact.

There was already anecdotal evidence of people who didn't appreciate music, and researchers suspected this might be the result of a deeper problem, such as depression or an inability to appreciate positive experiences.

But in his study Zatorre found there is in fact a small percentage of people who do not respond to music, despite having the ability to perceive it accurately. Further, they respond normally to other rewarding experiences, so their lack of appreciation may not relate to any other deficit.

Early Music Lessons Boost the Brain

If you started taking music lessons before you were seven, you may have boosted the area of your brain responsible for motor skills. That is the finding of a study by Virginia Penhune, a psychology professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

In Penhune's study, brain scans determined that musicians who started taking lessons earlier had more and thicker fibres in a tissue known as "white matter" in a part of the brain called the corpus callosum, which plays an important role in a person's ability to coordinate both hands — a significant skill for a musician.

When the brain scans of musicians who started playing later were compared to a third group comprised of non-musicians, there was little difference. This suggests that there is a critical developmental period when musical training interacts with brain development.

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