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How would the brain process alien music?

Vincent Cheung, along with Angela Friederici, Stefan Koelsch, and Lars Meyer, has been investigating non-local dependencies in music and trying to determine how the human brain processes them. In language and music, dependencies are conceptual threads that bind two things together. Non-local dependencies bind non-adjacent items. For example, in pop music, the second instance of a verse, following a chorus, would have a non-local dependency with the first instance of the verse. Experientially, it is clear to us that we are hearing a sequence that we have heard before. According to Cheung, composers use such devices to build up our expectations and elicit strong emotional responses to the music. But how does the brain recognize these patterns and what does this have to do with Paul Broca?

Paul Broca was a famous French physician and anatomist whose work with aphasic patients in the 1800s led to the discovery of Broca’s area; a small patch of the cerebral cortex just above the temple, specifically on the left side of the brain. Broca’s area is critical for speech production and for the processing of, you guessed it, dependencies in language. For example, Broca’s area is active when we detect violations to our well-learned grammatical rules. Surprisingly, despite Broca’s area being one of the most studied human brain regions, neuroscientists are still not exactly sure what the same region does, on the other side of the brain.

Theory suggests the right hemisphere equivalent, or homologue, of Broca’s area plays a similar role but for the processing of music instead of language. However, researchers have had difficulty demonstrating this, partly due to an inability to tease apart contributions of local and non-local dependencies to the structural hierarchy of the music. Enter Vincent Cheung’s alien music.

Of course, Mr. Cheung doesn’t really have authentic music from a distant

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