Music, the Unspoken Language

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A new study suggests the brain really does see music as “the universal language of mankind.”

Researchers have revealed a link between the way the brain processes music and the spoken word. Charles Limb, a hearing specialist at Johns Hopkins University, hypothesized that musical improvisation such as the trade-off duets popular in jazz are similar to the way we improvise with words in everyday conversation. Limb and a team of researchers compared the brain scans of professional jazz pianists as they played memorized pieces of music and performed improvised exchanges with another musician in a control room. The results showed significant activity in the brain areas associated with spoken language during the spontaneous improvisation, suggesting that the brain reads and responds to music as a type of language.

Unlike during spoken conversation, when processing music, the brain shuts down areas linked to meaning and activates areas linked to syntax and structure. This allows musicians to focus on playing and responding to music within an intuitive framework. “We think that to be creative, you have to have this weird dissociation in your frontal lobe,” says Limb. “One area turns on, and a big area shuts off, so that you’re not inhibited, so that you’re willing to make mistakes, so that you’re not constantly shutting down all these new generative impulses.” Discoveries such as these in musical neuroscience lead to a better understanding of how the brain innovates and can help scientists develop new treatments for neural disorders.

Charles Limb explains the results of the study in this extract from his TED Talk.

Photo by John Gullo, licensed under Creative Commons. 

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