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The University of Jyväskylä is putting science into the art, decoding how brains break down music.

If you get 12 people to discuss the same song, you’re likely to get twelve different descriptions and opinions. Finnish research at the University of Jyväskylä has been mapping what the brain is doing while listening to a song, and there have been surprises along the way.

“When you looked at certain brain areas, people tended to react quite similarly, especially when it came to the auditory cortex. But then also some other areas in the deeper parts of the brain had similarities,” states Petri Toiviainen, professor and researcher at the University of Jyväskylä. “What we were surprised about was that the areas where participants showed consistent patterns were so large.”

Toiviainen has been studying how the brain processes music. By scanning almost a dozen people’s brains while they listen to a specific song, Toiviainen was able to measure which areas were active during different sections of the performance. “It was a very exploratory study, so we did not know what to expect,” he says. “The study raised many more questions, there are more things to investigate. There are a lot more things to do, so I think it’s very exciting.”

Measuring with music and MRIs

Participants were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imager, an fMRI, which measures the blood flow in the brain. They were then played an Argentinian Tango. When your grey matter does something, it uses glucose. Blood then rushes in to replenish the glucose in that area, so clever researchers can measure that blood flow to find out what areas of your brain were just active.

The brain controls the entire body, so having the brain “light up” when listening to something is certainly no surprise. What past research into music processing has been able to discover is that there are particular sections that handle different aspects of music. For example, the rhythm and beat is handled by certain spots, while melody and the tune are handled by other areas. Toiviainen was able to anticipate to a certain degree what areas of the mind the music would activate.

“We started with one piece of music, and we were able to predict what was happening in the brain when people were listening,” Toiviainen recalls. “We have localised certain areas of the brain. For instance, when it comes to rhythm, some motor areas are active in the processing of music. I find that very interesting, because it suggests this very close relationship between music and movement.”

This isn’t the only research and studying being done at the University of Jyväskylä surrounding music. There is a music therapy program at the university, as well as a music, mind, and technology program, which focuses on research surrounding different aspects of music and the brain. In addition to having access to brain-measuring equipment, there is a motion capture lab that can record the movement of the body, so that the relationship between music and movement Toiviainen mentions could also be explored here at home.

Past experiments have used artificial music when examining the mind, mainly to control as many variables as possible. A beat with no melody while people were asked to think about the rhythm, or a series of notes all at a steady pace while suggesting to listeners they consider the “feeling” of the notes. What set this research apart is the music wasn’t created by a researcher, and listeners weren’t told to do anything but take it in.

“We wanted to know how brains would react to real life music without any specific task. Very often in these kinds of studies there is a task related to the listening. They might be asked to evaluate something or detect something. That certainly tells us something, but in real life we are just listening and enjoying the music.”

Reading music, or reading minds?

Mozart could play music set in front of him both backwards and forwards, which was considered quite a feat at the time. Using present-day technology and analysis, models are being built not only to predict how the mind will react to certain music, but also to anticipate what music is being heard by looking at the brain activity.

“Another process we have is to use the reading of the brain responses to music to try and predict what kind of music they were listening to,” says Toiviainen. “This kind of study was not possible before because it was not possible to analyse the musical features of the recordings. This is now doable because of the advances in music information retrieval.”

Brains are complicated things, and separating all of the relevant musical activity from the other things your grey matter handles was no easy task. “Brain data is so noisy, so many things are happening in the brain, because of course it controls everything, not just music processing. To extract those music processing dependent parts is really challenging.”

Now that theories and predictive models for those listening to Argentinian tango have been made, the next step is to see if those theories and models work on other tunes, which means there is a lot of work left to be done. By taking different types of music and applying the same ideas, researchers can solidify their theories and find out if the things they discovered apply to more than just the tunes used before. That means a variety of artists need to be used, from Baroque to the Beatles and beyond.

“We have a study where we have used the music by the Beatles, the music by Vivaldi, and the Shadows. What we want to do now is cross validate,” says Toiviainen. “We have build a model with one stimulus and see if the same model works with the other stimuli. They seem to generalise to some extent, we have been able to narrow down particular areas where the processing patterns are consistent.”

The studies are measuring multiple different things at once, as opposed to the singular approach used in past research. Instead of focusing on one aspect, the entire symphony of brain activity is being taken into consideration. “It’s a new area, definitely,” said Toiviainen. “There have been some studies using real music earlier, but they have focused on just one single feature, for instance only the tempo curve, or the tonality. Ours is the first study where a whole set of musical elements were considered.”

The research at the University of Jyväskylä was exploratory, which means that it wasn’t trying to answer a specific question. However, any further understanding of how the brain works will help us understand ourselves. Discovering the beneficial applications of knowing our minds is only a matter of time. “The more long-term goal is to localise the brain areas that process different musical elements. That kind of knowledge could be used in music therapy,” says Toiviainen. “For example, if someone had some brain damage in a certain place, maybe, we could use some particular targeted music to target that part of the brain.”

With so many aspects to music, it looks like it will be occupying our minds in many ways going forward.

Adam Faber