In a follow-up post to one about Nathalie Angier’s earlier article about the experience of being a subject in an M.I.T. study,
Whether to enliven a commute, relax in the evening or drown out the buzz of a neighbor’s recreational drone, Americans listen to music nearly four hours a day. In international surveys, people consistently rank music as one of life’s supreme sources of pleasure and emotional power. We marry to music, graduate to music, mourn to music. Every culture ever studied has been found to make music, and among the oldest artistic objects known are slender flutes carved from mammoth bone some 43,000 years ago – 24,000 years before the cave paintings of Lascaux.
Given the antiquity, universality and deep popularity of music, many researchers had long assumed that the human brain must be equipped with some sort of music room, a distinctive piece of cortical architecture dedicated to detecting and interpreting the dulcet signals of song. Yet for years, scientists failed to find any clear evidence of a music-specific domain through conventional brain-scanning technology, and the quest to understand the neural basis of a quintessential human passion foundered.
Other sounds, by contrast – a dog barking, a car skidding, a toilet flushing – leave the musical circuits unmoved.
Nancy Kanwisher and Josh H. McDermott, professors of neuroscience at M.I.T., and their postdoctoral colleague Sam Norman-Haignere reported their results in the journal Neuron. The findings offer researchers a new tool for exploring the contours of human musicality.
“Why do we have music?” Dr. Kanwisher said in an interview. “Why do we enjoy it so much and want to dance when we hear it? How early in development can we see this sensitivity to music, and is it tunable with experience? These are the really cool first-order questions we can begin to address.”