How the brain hears music and lyrics

March 10th, 2010 - 6:23 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, March 10 (ANI): Does the brain process words and music separately or as one? Well scientists in Germany seem to have found an answer to the hotly debated question.

The research team found that the brain first deals with music and lyrics together and then, after passing through more complex processing, like understanding what lyrics mean, the two are treated separately.

In their research, Daniela Sammler of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues worked out a way to determine when active regions were processing just music and when just lyrics, by studying a functional MRI brain scan of someone listening to songs, reports New Scientist.

The team knew that when neurons process the same stimulus repeatedly, their response to it decreases over time.

They reasoned that if they varied just the tune and kept the lyrics the same, areas showing a decline in activity must be processing lyrics.

And if they varied just the lyrics, areas showing a decline must be processing the tune, while any regions declining when both the tune and lyrics are repeated must be processing both.

The research team wrote four different sets of six songs and played these to 12 volunteers while scanning their brains. In one set, all songs had different melodies and lyrics.

In another, the melodies were different but the lyrics were the same, while in the third set, the opposite was true. The fourth set were identical to each other.

From the fMRI scans the team worked out that one particular part of the brain - the superior temporal sulcus (STS) - was responding to the songs. In the middle of the STS, the lyrics and tune were being processed as a single signal. But in the anterior STS, only the lyrics seemed to be processed.

Sammler said that her team couldn’t find an area specific to processing tunes. This may be because no individual, complex processing occurs for melody, although it might in professional musicians.

She concluded that the brain first deals with music and lyrics together. Then, after passing through the mid-STS more complex processing kicks in, such as understanding what lyrics mean, and the two are treated separately.

“The more they are processed, the more they are separated,” she said.

The study has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience. (ANI)

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