There has been a lot of research on the neuroscience of listening to music. It sometimes seems as if there is a new paper published every day. Recently, researchers in Denmark and the UK thought it was time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. In late March, they published an article that takes a new look at what they and other music researchers have learned in the last few decades.
“We have been working for a long time on this new synthesis of music and brain research,” says Peter Vuust in a statement to Aarhus University. He adds that this “gives us a better understanding of the fundamental principles of the brain and why we have music at all.”
In their paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Vuust and colleagues from Aarhus University and University College London take into account over two hundred existing studies related to music listening and music learning. They look at all this research from the perspective of predictions.
When listening to music, your brain makes certain predictions about what comes next in the melody, harmony or rhythm. Whether those predictions are met or not then determines how you respond to it.
One of the examples mentioned in the research paper is that of chord progressions and melodies following certain rules. People will have certain expectations about what the melody or chords should sound like, and if something unexpected happens in the music, their brains will respond differently than if the music follows their expectations.
When the music researchers analyzed all the different studies about music and the brain, they did notice that most of the research so far has been on Western cultures and Western music (such as classical, pop, rock, and folk). Since other music styles don’t follow the same rules, cultural expectations will be one of the important factors that determine how someone responds to music. And again, that can be explained by predictions: If you hear an unfamiliar music style that doesn’t follow the musical conventions and rules you grew up with, it will be much harder for your brain to predict what it will sound like, which in turn affects how you react to it emotionally or physically.
Comparing all these studies is useful for several reasons. First, it paints a more clear picture about what happens when we listen to music, and how it creates meaning.
“Music is a fantastic tool that helps to bind people closer together and can help us understand how we improvise and create new music,” says Aarhus University’s Morten Kringelbach, who was also involved in the research.
But it also helps researchers better understand how the connection between music and the brain could be used in new contexts.
“In the long run, the research will be of great importance for musical learning,” says Vuust, “and [it] will be able to contribute to new ways in which we can use music for the benefit of, for example, patients with Parkinson’s disease, sleep problems and in connection with pain relief.”
We’re not quite there yet, but framing music listening through the lens of predictions and expectations could give music researchers and neuroscientists a useful tool to think about these connections.