A study from the Stanford University School of Medicine has found that different people’s brains respond in remarkably similar ways to music. The research was conducted using and fMRI to do brain imaging scans and was published in the European Journal of Neuroscience.
The research team selected music that had no lyrics so that they would be sure they measured the effects of the music itself and not words. They also picked an obscure piece so participants reactions would not vary based on prior interaction with the music or memories associated with the piece. To this end, they choose a piece by 18th century English composer William Boyce, whose work somewhat resembles that of Bach.
The study’s senior author and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Vinod Menon stated of the research “We’ve shown for the first time that despite our individual differences in musical experiences and preferences, classical music elicits a highly consistent pattern of activity across individuals including those involved in movement planning, memory and attention.”
The study focused on 17 right-handed participants (brain mapping studies are based on right-handed people) with little or no musical training and no previous knowledge of Boyce’s music. Participants were outfitted with headphones and listened to the music while maintaining a stationary position in an fMRI chamber. The team conducted brain imaging for a full nine minutes on each participant.
They discovered that various parts of the brain are active when people listen to music and that different people’s brains light up in the same regions when listening to the same piece of music. They found that music works its way along a hierarchal network in the brain that comprises low-level auditory relay stations in the midbrain to high-level cortical brain structures, as well as working memory, attention, and movement-planning.
Notably, each region of the brain that is involved in processing music processes according to its own speed. The midbrain auditory processing centers worked mostly in real time, while the right-brain versions of Broca’s and Geschwind’s areas spent more time working through bits of music. This could be a key to how the brain makes sense of the entirety of a piece of music.