The Neuroscience of Bass, Guitars and More

I’ve always been fascinated by the way our brains process music. There’s no real evolutionary need for us to have music, but our brains seem to come pre-wired for it, anyway. Why do we crave it? Why do we like bass so much? Why does some music entrance us while other songs bore use? And what happens in our head when we hear something we really like? This is more than just personal taste. It’s also very important neuroscience. NPR takes a look.

In June of 2001 musician Peter Gabriel flew to Atlanta to make music with two apes. The jam went surprisingly well.

At each session Gabriel, a known dabbler in experimental music and a founding member of the band Genesis, would riff with a small group of musicians. The bonobos — one named Panbanisha, the other Kanzi — were trained to play in response on keyboards and showed a surprising, if rudimentary, awareness of melody and rhythm.

Since then Gabriel has been working with scientists to help better understand animal cognition, including musical perception. Plenty of related research has explored whether animals other than humans can recognize what we consider to be music — whether they can they find coherence in a series of sounds that could otherwise transmit as noise. Many do, to a degree. And it’s not just apes that respond to song.

Parrots reportedly demonstrate some degree of “entrainment,” or the syncing up of brain wave patterns with an external rhythm; dolphins may — and I stress mayrespond to Radiohead; and certain styles of music reportedly influence dog behavior (Wagner supposedly honed his operas based on the response of his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel). But most researchers agree that fully appreciating what we create and recognize as music is a primarily human phenomenon.

Recent research hints at how the human brain is uniquely able to recognize and enjoy music — how we render simple ripples of vibrating air into visceral, emotional experiences. It turns out, the answer has a lot to do with timing. The work also reveals why your musician friends are sometimes more tolerant of really boring music.

Read the whole article here. It’s very good.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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