Why music makes our brain sing

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By ROBERT J. ZATORRE and VALORIE N. SALIMPOOR
Published: June 7, 2013

Music is not tangible. You can’t eat it, drink it or mate with it. It doesn’t protect against the rain, wind or cold. It doesn’t vanquish predators or mend broken bones. And yet humans have always prized music — or well beyond prized, loved it.

In the modern age we spend great sums of money to attend concerts, download music files, play instruments and listen to our favorite artists whether we’re in a subway or salon. But even in Paleolithic times, people invested significant time and effort to create music, as the discovery of flutes carved from animal bones would suggest.

So why does this thingless “thing” — at its core, a mere sequence of sounds — hold such potentially enormous intrinsic value?

The quick and easy explanation is that music brings a unique pleasure to humans. Of course, that still leaves the question of why. But for that, neuroscience is starting to provide some answers.

More than a decade ago, our research team used brain imaging to show that music that people described as highly emotional engaged the reward system deep in their brains — activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion. Subsequently we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.

When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.

But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.

The idea that reward is partly related to anticipation (or the prediction of a desired outcome) has a long history in neuroscience. Making good predictions about the outcome of one’s actions would seem to be essential in the context of survival, after all. And dopamine neurons, both in humans and other animals, play a role in recording which of our predictions turn out to be correct.

To dig deeper into how music engages the brain’s reward system, we designed a study to mimic online music purchasing. Our goal was to determine what goes on in the brain when someone hears a new piece of music and decides he likes it enough to buy it.

We used music-recommendation programs to customize the selections to our listeners’ preferences, which turned out to be indie and electronic music, matching Montreal’s hip music scene. And we found that neural activity within the striatum — the reward-related structure — was directly proportional to the amount of money people were willing to spend.

But more interesting still was the cross talk between this structure and the auditory cortex, which also increased for songs that were ultimately purchased compared with those that were not.

Why the auditory cortex? Some 50 years ago, Wilder Penfield, the famed neurosurgeon and the founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute, reported that when neurosurgical patients received electrical stimulation to the auditory cortex while they were awake, they would sometimes report hearing music. Dr. Penfield’s observations, along with those of many others, suggest that musical information is likely to be represented in these brain regions.

The auditory cortex is also active when we imagine a tune: think of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — your cortex is abuzz! This ability allows us not only to experience music even when it’s physically absent, but also to invent new compositions and to reimagine how a piece might sound with a different tempo or instrumentation.

We also know that these areas of the brain encode the abstract relationships between sounds — for instance, the particular sound pattern that makes a major chord major, regardless of the key or instrument. Other studies show distinctive neural responses from similar regions when there is an unexpected break in a repetitive pattern of sounds, or in a chord progression. This is akin to what happens if you hear someone play a wrong note — easily noticeable even in an unfamiliar piece of music.

These cortical circuits allow us to make predictions about coming events on the basis of past events. They are thought to accumulate musical information over our lifetime, creating templates of the statistical regularities that are present in the music of our culture and enabling us to understand the music we hear in relation to our stored mental representations of the music we’ve heard.

So each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future. When we listen to music, these brain networks actively create expectations based on our stored knowledge.

Composers and performers intuitively understand this: they manipulate these prediction mechanisms to give us what we want — or to surprise us, perhaps even with something better.

In the cross talk between our cortical systems, which analyze patterns and yield expectations, and our ancient reward and motivational systems, may lie the answer to the question: does a particular piece of music move us?

When that answer is yes, there is little — in those moments of listening, at least — that we value more.

Robert J. Zatorre is a professor of neuroscience at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University. Valorie N. Salimpoor is a postdoctoral neuroscientist at the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.

Thanks to S.R.W. for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Christian metal singer Tim Lambesis charged with attempting to hire hit man to kill his wife

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The lead singer of the metal band As I Lay Dying has been arrested and charged with seeking to have his wife killed, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said.

Authorities said Tuesday that Tim Lambesis tried to contract an undercover detective posing as a killer for hire to murder his estranged wife, who lives in Encinitas, California.

Arraignment was set for Thursday afternoon at North Division Court in Vista.

The department said it learned on May 2 that Lambesis, 32, had asked someone to carry out the killing and an investigation was initiated.

The investigation culminated Tuesday afternoon, “when Lambesis solicited an undercover detective to kill his wife,” it said. He was arrested without incident at a business in Oceanside and taken to the Encinitas Station and booked into the Vista Detention Facility.

Last September, Meggan Lambesis filed with San Diego Superior Court to have the marriage dissolved.

Christian metal singer charged with attempting to hire hit man

Former Beatle Paul McCartney will fill in for Kurt Cobain in Nirvana reunion

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70 year old Sir Paul McCartney filled in for Kurt Cobain as the surviving members of Nirvana reunited at the Superstorm Sandy benefit in New York on Wednesday.

Grunge stars Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic have reportedly enlisted the Beatle to play onstage with them at the Madison Square Garden charity gig.

The Fab Four legend reveals Grohl invited him to “jam with some mates”, but admits he had no idea he was filling in for tragic rocker Cobain, who committed suicide in 1994.

Sir Paul tells Britain’s The Sun, “I didn’t really know who they were. They are saying how good it is to be back together. I said, ‘Whoa? You guys haven’t played together for all that time? And somebody whispered to me, ‘That’s Nirvana. You’re Kurt.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, and Eric Clapton were also on the bill for the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief.

http://www.torontosun.com/2012/12/12/paul-mccartney-to-fill-in-for-kurt-cobain-in-nirvana-reunion-gig

Landfill Harmonic

As the world tries to come up with interesting ways to spread the word about saving our environment, a man in Paraguay has found an innovative way to promote “green” ideas and social awareness – while also encouraging music.

Favio Chávez was working at a huge landfill south of the capital, Asunción, several years ago when he made friends with the families who worked as recyclers and lived among the trash. He eventually figured out how to use the scraps of dirty oil cans, jars, wood, forks and other junk in the Cateura Landfill to make instruments for his very own orchestra, with the local kids as its members.

“One day it occurred to me to teach music to the children of the recyclers and use my personal instruments,” explains 36 year-old Chávez, who worked as an ecological technician at the landfill. “But it got to the point that there were too many students and not enough supply. So that’s when I decided to experiment and try to actually create a few.”

A musician himself, Chávez had experience forming classical ensembles. But constructing a brass and string section from scratch wasn’t part of the plan.

At first, he just threw together a few for the children who didn’t have something to play with. But after hearing the good sound the objects produced, he consulted the help of a resident garbage picker nicknamed “Cola” to gradually perfect them over time. 

What astonished everyone was how the recycler used his basic carpentry skill to engineer such smooth sounding, built-to-scale cellos and violins in his workshop just from scraps.

“It was very difficult at first and it has been a learning process,” says Favio. “But after four years of testing them out, we discovered which materials were better for resonance effects and built the instruments that we use now.”   

His love of music is what made Chávez form the orchestra, now 30 member-strong. 

While it has been a big commitment for the children and families, it has paid off – they’ve received worldwide recognition and have performed throughout the world, from Argentina to Brazil to Germany.

Their unique story is so special that a U.S.-based filmmaker is currently making a documentary about them. “Landfill Harmonic” follows Favio’s ensemble as it takes what the world throws away and turns it into a piece of beauty.

The children orchestra has donated some instruments to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona and plans to play a show there soon.

“It’s awe inspiring that people could live in that degree of squalor and still have the spirit to make this orchestra,” said documentary director Graham Townsley. “It’s breathtaking.“ 

The ultimate goal of the music project is to educate the public about a world problem, they say, that shouldn’t be ignored. Plus, it’s giving the children an opportunity they otherwise would never have had.

“I made this orchestra to educate the world and raise awareness,“ says Chávez. “But it’s also a social message to let people know that even though these students are in extreme poverty, they can also contribute to society.  They deserve an opportunity.”
Read more: http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/lifestyle/2012/11/21/landfill-worker-in-paraguay-turns-trash-into-orchestra/#ixzz2E7NjZBTB

Zic Zazou

This is a pretty incredible musical performance: the members of French artistic troupe Zic Zazou play a piece from Bizet’s opera ‘Carmen’ using sandpaper, handmade instruments, tools, a few beer bottles, some pots and pans, and yes, a balloon.

A couple of questions come to mind: first of all, how many years did it take them to get this good at playing random objects like they’re instruments?

Quite a while, as it turns out. The troupe has been together since 1987. The guys in the video above are the same nine people who started out making music and performance art together all those years ago.

To find out more about them, you can check out the Zic Zazou website right here.

The Bizet performance was recorded for the French TV show ‘La Grande Battle,’ in which people competed to create the most innovative, clever cover of a classical composition.

Zic Zazou won the whole thing.

Other entrants include Joanda, who interpreted a piece by Verdi using only traditional Mediterranean instruments, Whiskybaba, who dressed up like weird circus performers and turned Mozart’s ‘A Little Night Music’ into a wonky polka, and crooner Tony Vitti, who adapted Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’ into a jazz tune.

Musicians’ Brains Synchronize During Duets

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The brain waves of two musicians synchronize when they are performing duet, a new study found, suggesting that there’s a neural blueprint for coordinating actions with others.

A team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin used electrodes to record the brain waves of 16 pairs of guitarists while they played a sequence from “Sonata in G Major” by Christian Gottlieb Scheidler. In each pair, the two musicians played different voices of the piece. One guitarist was responsible for beginning the song and setting the tempo while the other was instructed to follow.

In 60 trials each, the pairs of musicians showed coordinated brain oscillations — or matching rhythms of neural activity — in regions of the brain associated with social cognition and music production, the researchers said.

“When people coordinate their own actions, small networks between brain regions are formed,” study researcher Johanna Sänger said in a statement. “But we also observed similar network properties between the brains of the individual players, especially when mutual coordination is very important; for example at the joint onset of a piece of music.”

Sänger added that the internal synchronization of the lead guitarists’ brain waves was present, and actually stronger, before the duet began.

“This could be a reflection of the leading player’s decision to begin playing at a certain moment in time,” she explained.

Another Max Planck researcher involved in the study, Ulman Lindenberger, led a similar set of experiments in 2009. But in that study, which was published in the journal BMC Neuroscience, the pairs of guitarists played a song in unison, rather than a duet. Lindenberger and his team at the time observed the same type of coordinated brain oscillations, but noted that the synchronization could have been the result of the similarities of the actions performed by the pairs of musicians.

As the new study involved guitarists who were performing different parts of a song, the researchers say their results provide stronger evidence that there is a neural basis for interpersonal coordination. The team believes people’s brain waves might also synchronize during other types of actions, such as during sports games.

The study was published online Nov. 29 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

http://www.livescience.com/25117-musicians-brains-sync-up-during-duet.html