There are many ways that music affects the brain—so many that what music does for the mind is still being studied. New research from a cooperative of researchers in Finland, Denmark, and the United Kingdom has documented the use of a novel method for studying how music affects the brain in a realistic listening situation. This work contributes to the corpus of research about music and the brain by offering additional information about how the brain processes vocal versus instrumental music.

The research team, led by Dr. Vinoo Alluri of the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to identify the regions of the brain that respond to musical input. Subjects listened to music from artists such as Antonio Vivaldi, Miles Davis, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and The Beatles while undergoing the fMRI. After the scans, the researchers analyzed both the music and the brain images. The musical selections were evaluated by a computer program that identified features like timbre, rhythm, and tonality. The researchers then correlated that data to their brain images to discover what different aspects of music caused in the brain.

The researchers identified several parts of the brain associated with continuous music listening. Brain activity was apparent in the auditory, limbic, and motor regions. One of the notable findings was that there was also brain activity in the medial orbitofrontal region and the anterior cingulate cortex—two parts of the brain involved in self-referential appraisal and aesthetic judgments. Additionally, they discovered a shift in processing location for music that contained lyrics. Lyrical music was pushed toward the right auditory cortex, which suggests that the left hemisphere is typically dominant for such processing.

“The new method provides a powerful means to predict brain responses to music, speech, and soundscapes across a variety of contexts,” noted Dr. Vinoo Alluri.

This research is published in the journal NeuroImage.

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