The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music

March 9, 2006

Behold! I have finished 440 pages of the nerdiest book I’ve ever read! All in all, it was extremely enlightening. I got through about 14 essays before I began to just finish the book off with essays that actually seemed interesting like “The Brain that makes music and is changed by it.” I’ll break down some of the essays in the book which seemed most intriging. After this I’ll probably be reading Color: the Secret Influence and while I’m in Arizona I’d really like to finish a book on Arvo Part and his tintinnabuli style.

There’s 2 solid essays about the role music may have played in evolution but other essays revist the evolution of music from time to time. Unfortunately all of the ideas about the origins of music are strictly speculative. Essentially they say that music stemmed from either a linguistic need or a social need. Species/social groups would use music to establish territory (think the present-day howler monkeys), as well as establish cultural individuality. They also make sure to include the idea that music may have been a form of proto-language, or should I say, pre-language. It makes a lot of sense when you consider that music consists of rythm, pitch, tone, and timbre. All these aspects are pretty much the same aspects of lanuage. Mainly spoken language, but there is enough flexibility of music to make comparisons to written work such as poetry, in fact there is a great essay in the last section about comparing the sounds of music to a Robert Frost poem. Darwin, however, suggested that language predates music.

One pretty interesting finding was a flute fashioned from a bone (I want to say it’s a wolf femur but I frankly don’t remember, I might be mixing that up with the wolf bone found which suggested that cavedwellers had a sexigesmal number system). This suggests that music, specifically wind instruments that predate percussion (drums) instruments, was used in upwards of hundreds of thousands of years ago instead of recently (as in the last 5,000 years). What was strange was that the flute was found in a Neanderthal excavation. That’s right… music came before our modern day species of homo sapien. And this ALSO suggests that music pre-dates PAINTING!
Infant Predispositions and Temporal Universals:

Apparently, infants have the same musical predispositions as most adults, but just not as specialized. Basically, they aren’t as judgemental of dissonant sounds. Infants will focus more attention to higher-pitch simple ratio sounds than barotone complex ratio sounds. This, as they suggest, correlates to the music babies listen to from their mother’s singing. A woman’s speaking voice is lower than that when they are talking to a child. Their speach to their children is higher still than their singing voice. This high-frequency sounds in a woman’s speach to their infant is probably a way of transmitting much needed emotional information to the infant. 3 month infants are barely able to cognitively distinguish dissonant (unpleasant, unharmonious) music from consonant (pleasant, harmonious, expectational) music. From 6 to 9 to 12 infants continue to become more discriminant of tones, pitches, and tempos.

A later chapter basically confirmed the ancient claims of previous scientific theories of musical consonance, specifically Pythagorus’s claim that people prefer simple ratios to complex ratios. People will enjoy octavs that are something like 3/4, 2/3 and consider ratios like 16/25, 36/45 unpleasant. There is evidence of this all the way to neuronal activity. Without going too techincal (and because I don’t have the book anymore and just going of what I remember) dissonant sounds will cause uneven periodicity in brain activity (maybe even brain waves) whereas consonant, simple ratio, sounds do.

The infamous and notorious myth of the “Mozart Effect”

Debunked. The writer goes off on a dozen or so experiments and studies which attempt to suggest a correlation to listening to Mozart and an increase in intelligence and pointing out where and why they failed to properly make the connection. Mainly because, there isn’t one. Previous chapters essentially prove that there is no specific area of the brain concerned specifically with just music or just language (unlike motor control). Language and music are inherently connected but are different enough in that people who are suffer from amusic (tone deaf) are still able to understand and speak in tonal languages (like Chinese). So it is, in part, so far, inaccurate to make the connection that listening the Mozart will enhance non-musical areas of the brain. But that doesn’t mean there absolutely isn’t a connection, just that any attempts and finding the connection have not been valid enough to be considered proof.

Music and Emotion

What was interesting here is that they suggest that music doesn’t express specific emotions but rather induce emotions through common cues. Slow, unrythmic music will induce sad and relaxed emotions whereas fast, rythmic music will induce happy and energetic feelings. But music, unlike R. G. Collingwood’s theories of art, do not express emotion explicitly but rather mimic emotions by using similar triggers. Consonant and dissonant tones can be used to cause conflicting emotions or series of emotions as well. Because music is (or can be) highly organized and pattern oriented, we tend to expect certain sounds to be played, all the way to the point of prediction and musicians can either confirm these predictions which gives rise to validation and resolution, or revolt against these assumptions/predictions which will give rise to tension/stress and confusion.

There are other areas the book covers but these seemed the most interesting and the easiest to summarize and grasp (one being a very muddled discussion of where in the brain high-pitch frequencies are oriented in the brain versus low frequencies). I kinda wish I had been writing notes while reading this book (which I really should have done since it’s a scientific book) or at least practices marginality (but it’s a university library) book, so I probably should’ve bought the book. Unfortunately, the essays are really disorganized if you are reading the book sequentially. Each section is has an unhealthy balance of muddled writing and clear writting. The first essay on evolution was ridiculously and unnecessarily florid that I could barely understand a single sentance. The second essay on evolution, by David Huron, was way more accessible and now that I think about it was simply a restating of a lot of the concepts described in the first essay.

I figure now I can pretty much read any book that I want and not worry about how confusing it’s writting will be, how complex the ideas (except maybe some advanced mathematics books) are, or how drab and unattentive the subject matter.


2 Responses to “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music”

  1. […] The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music – an excellent book, summarized here on the Paintest Blog. SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "Episode 101: The Psychology of Music: The Role of Expectations and Minor Chords", url: "" }); If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed! […]

  2. Mal said

    I want to read this book! Would it be above the level of a middle schooler, perhaps? I’m studying the cognitive neurosicence of music, and I want to read this book. Since the Mozart theory is debunked, does that mean that no music makes you smart? Or at least cause a brain stimulation? Does it have therapeutic effects? (I’m a poor speller)

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