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Why is music hard-wired into every human’s brain?

IT is a striking fact that no human culture yet discovered does not have its own forms of music.

The human appetite for music goes back a long way.

Archaeologists say musical instruments could have been around some 35,000 years ago – and activities such as singing, clapping and dancing probably started much earlier still.

In the modern age, music of any kind can be found almost anywhere on the planet.

We are curious to find out more about why humans are so obsessed with an activity that, on the face of it, doesn’t seem that essential.
More than 2,000 years ago Plato and Aristotle recognised that music could calm and soothe people as well as stir up trouble.

But it’s really only in the last 20 years or so that neuroscientific techniques have allowed us to explore what is going on in people’s brains when they listen to music and make music.

Research shows that listeners can tell what kind of music they’re hearing, whether it’s opera or reggae, from as little as a 20th of a second of sound.

This is mostly because we’re so tuned-in to the particular sounds that different musical instruments make.

And that’s all down to something called timbre – the particular pattern of frequencies that act like the fingerprint for a violin, a trumpet, or an electric guitar.

Neuroimaging studies in humans have shown ‘selective entrainment’, the synchronisation of neural circuits in the brain, to the beat in music.

However, so far no one understands what determines exactly how the beat is ‘felt’ in the brain.
Ongoing work in our labs at Oxford University is exploring how the auditory system might ‘find’ the beat in the first place.

It turns out that that the distinct 1-2-3-1-2-3 of a waltz is no accident.

Simulations of neural activity at the various stages between the ear and the brain show that neurons might entrain to prominent sounds that occur at regular time intervals, and that the timing in music is key to where the beat will be felt.

Entrainment of neurons to precisely timed sounds in music could explain why hundreds of people on a dance floor naturally synchronise – maybe with a few exceptions – to the same beat.

It seems as though beat-based music just locks into something in our bodies that we can’t resist – and that ‘something’ is an urge to synchronise.

But it’s not quite that simple: What seems to really get us up on the dance floor are those rhythms that tease us a bit – when we are not totally certain about when the next beat is going to arrive.

In another project, we have been looking at whether, and how, music can act as a medium for feeling empathy with other people, and whether this might have implications for overcoming cultural differences.

We found that even brief exposure to the music of another culture can change people’s attitudes to members of that culture – but only for those listeners who are already inclined to feel empathy for others.

Not quite the silver bullet, but another reason to feel positive about music’s psychological and social potential.

By Erik Clarke, www.oxfordmail.co.uk, www.msidallas.com