Neuronal concert: How does the brain make music?


“All over the world, people listen to, make and, enjoy music. All this music could not be more diverse, and yet throughout the world, it determines the way we live together. We are interested in why this is so,” began PD Dr. Daniela Sammler her lecture. As head of the Neurocognition of Music and Language research group, this psychologist from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main is investigating to what extent – if at all – the human brain makes differentiations in the perception and production of music and of language, and how the neuronal anchoring and the cognitive and aesthetic connection between music and language functions.

The bone flutes that were discovered in 2008 during an excavation in the Hohle Fels karst cave in the Swabian Alb region of southern Germany are around 35,000 years old and thus number among the oldest preserved musical instruments in human history. People have been making music for at least as long. “Is there a sense of music innate to us as humans? Do other animals have this sense as well? Do animals have musicality and a sense of rhythm?” With these words Sammler outlined her research topic. Such questions become particularly interesting when we examine species relatively closely related to us humans. The genome of bonobos is almost the same as ours, but like gorillas and apes, they do not sing or dance – nor do dogs, which have lived alongside humans for around 30,000 years.

Charles Darwin assumed that musicality has its origins in affective animal sounds. "Our musicality, or our sense of rhythm, does in fact appear to be hereditary to a certain extent," added Sammler. Researchers have come to the conclusion that a combination of 69 genes that are responsible for the structure of the brain play a significant role in this regard.

Daniela Sammler used two experiments with the audience to demonstrate that people actively construct a musical beat in their brains when they clap to music. In the first experiment, the audience was to continue clapping to mark the beats in a given tempo. “If we had now measured the timing of your claps in the laboratory, we would have found that the beats often unconsciously come a little too early,” said Sammler. This is an indication that the beat is anticipated or actively thought out: “So you are not reacting, but are anticipating the beat.” In the second experiment, the audience was to clap along to the first and third beats of a given 4/4 bar. Sammler used this to explain the so-called “tick-tock phenomenon”: although the given notes of the bar are all equally loud, the brain constructs a second metrical level, in which the stronger beats of the bar (one and three) are more accentuated. This emphasis of metrical hierarchy within the bar is particularly evident in corresponding body movements in dance.

Synchronization with music on all levels requires a large number of cognitive processes in the brain. To depict the cerebral regions involved, the researchers use imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These experiments have shown that the auditory and motor centers of the brain, which are connected by a thick bundle of fibers, are involved in audiomotor coupling and anticipation.

“The biological origins of our musicality therefore lie in our genes and our brain structure,” said Sammler in summarizing the results. Incidentally, she continued, rudimentary musical abilities can also be observed in seals, whales, and cockatoos. One well-known example that amazed even scientists is the cockatoo “Snowball,” which achieved fame on YouTube in 2007 with its rhythmically synchronized dancing to the music of Michael Jackson.

This biological foundation in our genes presumably explains why all peoples and cultures throughout the world make music. “But where does the joy of doing this together and synchronizing with others come from?” Sammler asked. One explanation is offered by simulation theory: “When we synchronize with others, we simulate the actions of our interactive partners in our own audiomotor system: Our own action planning and the simulated action planning for our partner run in parallel.” Sammler and her team verified this simulation by observing two pianists playing at the same time. Using a piano specially developed for this research, which can fit into the MRI machine together with a pianist, the musicians could play and have their cerebral activity measured at the same time. The researchers thereby established “a balance of multi-tasking between listening, motor planning, their own actions, and the simulated actions of the respective partner.”

Nevertheless, this cerebral activity that is necessary for making music does not automatically mean that music makes people smarter and more intelligent, as Frances Rauscher’s study, which achieved renown in the 1990s under the catchphrase “Mozart effect,” attempted to prove. “This is probably not the case; at least it is not so simple,” Sammler explained. It has however been established that years of practice bring about changes in the auditory centers of musicians. Because their primary auditory centers contain more gray matter, they can perceive finer differences in pitch than non-musicians. The fiber bundles connecting the brain to the hand are also more pronounced in musicians, which results in much faster transmission of signals. “This means that the brain adapts to the demands of musical practice and of a particular instrument,” said Sammler.

“There is reciprocal interaction between music and the brain,” Sammler concluded, “in the form of give and take between our biology and our behavior, and between our genes and the demands that an instrument places on us.” A crucial question for ongoing research is how the power of music can be put to therapeutic use, for example in stroke patients or in the treatment of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. “For as long as we ask ourselves these questions, it’s a good idea to keep making music and singing together,” Sammler advised.

Dialog in the Museum
June 4, 2024
Mercedes-Benz Museum
70372 Stuttgart

PD Dr. Daniela Sammler
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics