This is Your Brain on Music - "The Musical Brain" by Abel James

“There is evidence that animals reared without exposure to music develop characteristics of human music perception, giving credibility to the theory that these characteristics are probably innate features of the brain.”

-Abel James, “The Musical Brain”

Although he’d call himself a “guitar player”, my father has always been a musician. Growing up, I remember listening to him play and thinking how mysterious it was.  It seemed to be a conjurers act, that of coaxing a living song from an inanimate object.  Whether among friends or strangers, he could pick up his guitar and, with a few chords, capture their attention, inciting them to move and sing along.  

In the ensuing years, I have sporadically attempted to learn the guitar myself.  Each time, coming closer and closer to grasping that thing called “playing”; a word that I find ironic.   Based on my experience, it would be more appropriate to call it something else, “struggling” perhaps, but, my efforts aside, when performed by an adept, the words “play” and “music” exist together harmoniously.

Despite lacking the ability to play music myself, I find it interesting that I can nevertheless appreciate works of musical skill.  If the global music industry is any indication, this is not an uncommon experience.  In fact, music (as well as other forms of artistic expression) is universal, and is found in all human societies.  Musical instruments are themselves derived from or extensions of the human body, from a chanted verse accompanied by clapping hands and stomping feet, to room-sized pipe organs and priceless Stradivarius violins.  

It was after I read the late Denis Dutton’s excellent book, “The Art Instinct” that I was, for the first time, able to see music and the arts through the lens of evolution.  Dutton makes a compelling case based on the evolutionary principle of sexual selection, which, essentially asserts that art emerged from ancestral humans in much the same was as the peacock's brilliant tail arose from ancestral forms.  Both seem to be unnecessary and potentially counterproductive to survival, but when considered as arbitrary ways of signalling reproductive fitness, the picture becomes much clearer.  

As the peahen discerns subtle differences in the quality of the peacock's’ tail, and selects for a mate the most pleasing specimen, female humans may have similarly selected as mates those with the most attractive voice or ability to craft visually appealing objects.  In each successive generation, these selection biases would have been further reinforced driving further development of art and artistic appreciation.  (When considering whether or not this makes sense, I urge you to think about any rock concert that you have ever attended.)  

However, I recently came across another book that has caused me to question and expand my basic assumptions about music and musical ability.  Authored by Abel James, a Strategy Consultant, Fitness Blogger (The Fat Burning Man), and professional singer-songwriter, “The Musical Brain”, is a technical review of extraordinary breadth.  In seeking to answer the question, “What is the origin of music, and why does it play such an enormous role in our lives?” James raises many additional questions as well as paths for continued exploration into the causes and effects of musical expression.

I found the following ideas presented in “The Musical Brain” to be the most compelling although they by no means encompass the entire book.  I also would like to add the disclaimer that any inferences I make are my own and not necessarily that of the author.  (Although I do hope that I sufficiently understood the information as it was presented.)


Innate “brain features” underlie musical perception

The underlying “machinery” of musical perception is derived from brain regions developed for the processing of other types of information.  In evolution, such co-opting of “features” is quite common.  One analogy is how the hands of ancestral whales provided the basic structure for what later became flippers.  

We might also imagine that whales (or birds) with their famous “songs” would be the best candidates for investigating musical ability in non-human animals.  However, James cites research by Wright, Rivera, Hulse, Shyan, & Neiworth that demonstrates that “like humans, rhesus monkeys have the ability to identify octaves. Rhesus monkeys tended to judge two melodies to be the same when transposed by one or even two octaves when chroma, or key, was preserved.”  Additionally, “primates, but not songbirds, have the faculty to transpose melodies,” which “suggests that this ability evolved after the evolutionary divergence of birds and mammals.”

What this implies is that the sexual selection explanation for musical ability is incomplete as the evidence suggests a more likely explanation that links the basic framework for musical perception with the development of systems related to general auditory perception.  Later, these same systems, paved the way for both human speech and musical expression.


The emotional impact of music is universal 

I remember listening to Mumford and Sons perform “The Cave” live on TV and, without ever having heard the song before, felt the hairs on my arms stand on end.  It was a profound emotional experience that does not have an easy explanation.  This type of deep emotional response to music is apparently well-documented.  As listening to music has been shown to stimulate “tears, tingles down the spine, and changes in heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and skin conductance levels.”  

“The Musical Brain” did give me a way to understand these types of responses by illuminating a connection between music and the human voice that I had not previously considered.  “While there are noted similarities between musical instruments and the (human) voice, many instruments far exceed the human voice in terms of speed, pitch range, and timbre.  Consequently, there is speculation that many musical instruments are processed by brain modules as super-expressive voices.”  Essentially that the “super-expressive voice” of a musical instrument has the capacity to elicit supranormal emotional responses.

Regarding the “universality” of human musical appreciation, James suggests “it is reasonable to hypothesize that music developed from a means of emotion sharing and communication to an art form in its own right.”  Which is supported by the fact that cross-culturally, “Listeners can accurately categorize songs that serve different emotional functions (e.g., festive, mourning, war, lullabies) that come from different cultures and that there are similarities in certain acoustic characteristics used in such songs.”

Playing music is a complex biological process that creates a “training effect” not unlike that of other forms of exercise

When one lifts weights, goes for a run, or performs any other sort of physical exercise, there is an expectation of “results” in the form of increased muscle size, decreased body fat, improved endurance, etc.  However, musical training also elicits a “training effect” due to the fact that “musical information processing requires dynamic cooperation between several cortical areas of both hemispheres.”  

That music would demand such “dynamic coordination” within the brain is plain to see when one considers that a musician is simultaneously reading sheet music (or performing from memory), processing such information with consideration for rhythm, timing, and emotive impact, and ultimately coordinating fine motor actions with the hands (and in the case of wind instruments the breath as well) to produce the music itself.  It is no wonder then that experienced musicians often show “higher cortical connectivity” and ambidexterity.

The effects of musical training are also cumulative and increase over time.  As James states, “Gaser and Schlaug (2003) found gray matter volume differences in motor, auditory, and visual-spatial regions of the brain when comparing professional musicians with a matched group of amateur musicians and non-musicians, which contributed to higher overall gray matter volumes in musicians.”  These researchers speculated that the brain changes were the direct result of “long-term skill acquisition as well as the repetitive rehearsal of those skills.”   

There is a formula for “talent” 

For much of my life, I had what was called a “fixed” mindset.  For whatever reason, I mistakenly assumed that whatever “talent” an individual possessed was either a gift from God or just “good genes.”  Thankfully, I rejected this assumption (mostly out of pure frustration) and embarked upon a transformational journey that has shifted me to a “growth” mindset.  Essentially, it is now my belief that “talent” can be cultivated through practice, and I was encouraged by evidence in “The Musical Brain” that seemed to validate by belief in “growth”.

First, James cited research that showed that “perfect pitch” (also known as “absolute pitch” or simply AP), the ability to identify a musical note by ear alone, was not simply a matter of “having it” or “not having it”.  When examining a study population of musical students, it was found that on average students with AP began musical training at 5.4 years of age, whereas the average age when non AP students began musical training was 7.9 years.  What this shows is that beginning musical training “before the age of 6 years”.  The study author suggested that this was because “the ‘preoperational period’ of Piaget (1950) – ages 3 to 6 years – is when children have not yet begun to think of music in a more relativistic manner.”

Even if one were to miss this critical early exposure, however, musical talent can still be developed.  As stated in “The Musical Brain”, “Ericsson and colleagues suggest that many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of extensive practice for a minimum of 10 years, which is known as the expertise theory.”  However, this “10 year rule” could also be stated as the “10,000 hour rule” given that Ericsson identified this as the number of hours “the best experts” had invested in their training.  

Simply playing guitar for 10,000 hours, however, will not an expert make, as this quality of practice is just as important as the quantity.  Building from Expertise Theory is the concept of “deliberate practice”, which essentially states that “intentional and well planned training” is required in order for practice to be effective in developing talent.  

Essentially, the formula for “talent” is as follows:

Talent = (Individual Predispositions + Environment + Deliberate Practice) x Time

Final thoughts

There are books that you read and there are books that you study, for me, “The Musical Brain” fell into the latter category.  I had been lagging in my own practice routine and after discovering the myriad benefits of musical training, I dusted off my guitar, tuned it, and went to YouTube to learn how to play “Dust in the Wind” (Don’t judge! It’s great practice for learning how to finger pick!)

After a few minutes of studying the videos, trying to understand the pattern, and clumsily plunking on the strings, I began to lose myself in the process.  The familiar melody started to take shape and, ironically, with the music came a silence.  The normal chatter of thoughts faded and my "musical brain" was at peace.  

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About Unknown

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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