Does music speak to the brain “in its’ own language”?

The course gave us an convincing crash-course on the anatomy and mechanisms the of auditory system, from the outer ear to the cochlea which, rather beautifully, seems to be performing a analogical spectrum analysis on the incoming vibrations and transferring that into nerve impulses headed towards other parts of the brain. But this is only the first part of the story. How does the brain respond to music? Edward W. Large , a neuroscientist at the Music dynamics Lab in the University of Connecticut approaches the problem from a neurodynamic perspective: in his view, music speaks to the brain in its’ own language. The brain resonates to music.

Music evokes feelings in us. Yet, it seems like music is not exactly about anything specific in the world and even when they are the connection seems somewhat arbitrary. The only connection is the match between musical emotion and the context. Music seems to stand on its’ own, and indeed may sometimes determine any other meaning if coupled with visual stimuli:

It also seems like music has evoked emotions in human beings for a long time: the oldest flutes date back to over 40,000 years, and every known civilization creates music to communicate affect. But how has this remarkable ability come about? Some have suggested that music stimulates emotional experiences by triggering evolutionarily ancient response mechanisms in us, somehow piggy backing on other systems. For others, the connection between emotion and music is a learned statistical one and thus fundamentally arbitrary. Still others have thought musical expectations and frustrations of such expectations as well as surprise elements contribute to musical emotion.

For Ed Large, there is no need to hypothesize any secondary mechanisms. Rather, he thinks music couples with oscillatory neural processes and directly modulates core affect (or emotional state). The neurodynamic approach sees mind and experience as something that emerges as different brain regions are integrated through neural synchrony. I can’t claim to understand the approach very deeply, but it certainly seems to be at least in parts in clear distinction to the “classical cognitivist” view. According to the classical approach what the brain is fundamentally doing, is analyzing the incoming signal and then representing and interpreting it as meaningful. Here the neurons are the logic gates, the hardware that underlies the binary code of the brain which acts as the substrate for the computations. In this view, mental activity is computational and representational (for an overview of the different approaches see 5.2 of Georgios Diapoulos’ presentation on the relationship between the arts and the sciences). This is clearly different from the picture neurodynamics paints: a brain that resonates and oscillates, rather than computes. Whatever the truth may be, Large’s approach certainly has intuitive appeal. Or does it feel like this is what your brain is doing as you listen to music? (Credit for the video to Large himself).

Besides intuitive appeal, Large has some intriguing facts to back his view up. For instance, it seems like the brain both phase- and mode locks with the structure of the auditory stimuli on multiple neural levels, both to pitch and to rhythm. In more plain English, the natural rhythms of the brain become coupled with the beat and tonality of the music. Thus the brain is fundamentally not computing or analyzing the music to decide what to feel about it, rather it simply and parsimoniously resonates to music. To quote Large (Flaig & Large 2014, 6) :

“We can summarize the above discussion by saying that music taps into brain dynamics at the right time scales to cause both brain and body to resonate to the patterns. This causes the formation of spatiotemporal patterns of activity on multiple temporal and spatial scales within the nervous system. The dynamical characteristics of such spatiotemporal patterns – oscillations, bifurcations, stability, attraction, and responses to perturbations – predict perceptual, attentional, and behavioral responses to music, as well as musical qualia including tonal and rhythmic expectations. Conceptualization of consciousness in similar neurodynamic terms leads to a new way to think about how music may communicate affective content. Neurodynamic responses that give rise to musical qualia also resonate with affective circuits, enabling music to directly engage the sorts of feelings that are associated with emotional experiences.”

While I certainly can’t arbitrate between opposing views on this issue, I will keep following Large’s work, since if he is right, it sheds an interesting kind of light to the workings of the brain and the mind – perhaps far beyond “just” music.

For a more technical description read Dynamic musical communication of core affect (Flaig & Large 2014)

For a fairly approachable video series on his work see below.


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