Great expectations – Music helps us understand how the brain works
In a new article – published in the leading international journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience – researchers at the Center for Music in the Brain At Aarhus University and the Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus/Aalborg, Denmark, have reviewed the past 20 years of research in music and the brain. In the article, the authors provide a new synthesis of how music can be used as a crucial key for understanding the fundamental functioning of the brain as an ‘expectation machine’ that is constantly optimizing our chances of survival.
The most important task of the brain is to make sure that we are able to survive at all times. The brain must therefore be able to precisely interpret the incoming sensory impressions such that it can tune behavior in the best possible way. A prevailing theory of how the brain works is built on the idea that the brain creates expectations, which are constantly compared with the outcomes in the environment. But this theory has proved difficult to test thoroughly. Music has the unique property that it uses expectations to a greater extent than perhaps any other sensory impression to influence human behavior and emotions. The article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience shows how brain research in music can produce crucial new knowledge about how the human brain works.
Think, for example, of how the first four notes of Beethoven’s symphony of fate, “da, da, da, daah”, immediately create expectations that both seem disturbing, but also make us curious to listen further and perhaps even give us musical chills . The article describes, among other things, how such expectations help to activate the brain’s reward system through the release of dopamine, but also explains why we move to Jackson 5’s “Blame it on the Boogie”, how the brain processes melody, chords and rhythm in the classic Beatles song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, what happens when we make music together, and ultimately how the brain works on the most fundamental level.
The lead author of the article, Center Director Professor Peter Vuust says: “We have been working for a long time on this new synthesis of music and brain research, which gives us a better understanding of the fundamental principles of the brain and why we have music at all. In the long run, the research will be of great importance for musical learning and will be able to contribute to new ways in which we can use music for the benefit of, for example, patients with Parkinson’s disease, sleep problems and in connection with pain relief.”
Professor Morten L. Kringelbach, co-author of the article, adds: “Our article shows how, for the first time, we are being able to understand how meaning and pleasure are created in the brain. Music is a fantastic tool that helps to bind people closer together and can help us understand how we improvise and create new music.”
The Danish National Research Foundation’s Center for Music in the Brain is currently the largest research center in the world that combines music with brain research.
Reference: Vuust P., Heggli O., Friston K. & Kringelbach ML (2022) Music in the brain, Nature Reviews Neuroscience. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41583-022-00578-5.
Professor Peter Vuust, Center for Music in the Brain, Aarhus University
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