The Biological Role of Music: Week Two

This week was dedicated to a whole lot of organization. I mostly spent the 20 hours summarizing the articles I had read, isolating the main purposes of each, finding additional articles to cover up holes in content, and organizing them thematically.

I found myself framing my research around the two perspectives on the evolution that I discussed in the previous post. To recap: there is the view that music is an offshoot of language; musical brains were not specifically selected for by evolutionary pressures. On the other side of the argument is the belief that music evolved as an evolutionary adaption. This argument asserts that certain neural networks and behaviors associated with musicality increased our fitness as a species, biologically imprinting musicality into our DNA. I had spent last week familiarizing myself with the subjects, and looking into the more abstract evolutionary theories on how music arose in humans. Although studying the evolutionary theories is informational, I decided that this week I would focus more on current scientific research.

I looked into various topics surrounding music and its biological effects. Even though I was honing in on quantitative data, each article or study I considered was written in an evolutionary light. Some of the studies I found compared the parts of the brain that were activated when listening to speech versus when listening to music, which provided insight into the neurological relationship between language and music. Music and language are very similar, in that they are auditory modes of communication and have an organized structure. If music was a spandrel of language, only the regions of the brain associated with language would be activated when people listened to music. If a music-specific neural network existed independently of language, there would be evidence that music was an adaptation.

I read three studies that evaluated the neural activation of language versus music, each testing different variables. The first study simply tested the domains that involved music and language processing, and came to the conclusion that they were overlapping. The second study found that there was definitely overlap, but there was also a considerable amount of non-overlap in musical and language regions. The third study was more concerned with emotion activation rather than language or music itself. The third study concluded that language and music were mostly non-overlapping, but pitch changes and emotion tracing activated overlapping sections of the brain due to social cognition. The conclusions of these studies gave me some trouble because they are all contradictory in some sense or another. Even though science is seen as a clear cut subject because of the use of quantitative data, I realized that there can be significant variation in results. From what I can gather, the variation arose from differing methods and differing emphasis on certain variables.

I also looked into the emotional aspect of music, as it is the strong feelings that music inspires that makes it so whimsical. The activation of emotion by music and language differ. Language requires a higher level of cognition, since the information that the auditory messages carry is what evokes emotion. In music, emotion is inspired instantly even without elaborated messages. This is demonstrated in instrumental music; even though there are no vocals or words to convey direct meaning, the music itself may still inspire emotion.

One paper I looked at studied the connection between emotion and reward. They compared dopamine release in response to pleasurable vs. neutral music, and concluded that strong emotional responses to music lead to dopamine release in the brain’s reward centers. This could partly explain why music has persisted in our species for so long even after it has served its evolutionary purpose. I found this study particularly interesting, because they provided physical chemical evidence that music causes pleasure. Although I am stating the obvious, it is intriguing to me because art and science are subjects that are seen as radically different- almost as opposites. While the study of art might involve analyzing things that are beautiful, science may explain the neural mechanisms by which we find them beautiful. This study bridges the two worlds of science and art, making the abstract somewhat concrete. I realized that this is one of the reasons why I chose this subject to research in the first place; to uncover the underlying connection.

These next two weeks are dedicated to writing the literature review itself. See you on the other side!