In recent years, Canadian researchers have been trailblazers in studying the impact of music on the brain, introducing new ways to understand the neurological, psychological and cognitive aspects of music.
Robert J. Zatorre, co-director of BRAMS, or the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, and professor of neuroscience at McGill University, reveals some of the impacts music can have on the brain.
- Can you tell us a bit about your background, and where did your interest in music and the brain come from?
Personally, I have always been interested in science. And I really started to love music when I was a student; I then wondered if it wasn’t possible to join the two fields.
At the time, I realized that it was an almost unexplored field of research; so I seized the opportunity to develop it.
Music helps us better understand the human brain because it stimulates all of its most advanced cognitive functions, including perception, memory, attention, motor skills, creativity and emotions. It thus serves as a working tool while allowing us a deeper understanding of the brain – that is, by understanding its biological and neuronal bases.
- What is the real impact of music on different areas of the brain?
Music doesn’t affect only one region or part of the brain; it engages almost all neural circuits, since it effects all of the functions mentioned above. So when we speak of the "perception of music", we obviously activate the auditory paths, that is to say the auditory cortex and the brain stem as well as the regions of the frontal lobes that are also involved in memory.
If you listen to a song you like, the reward system is activated. But if you play music or sing, it’s the circuits of the motor system that are activated.
- Do you have concrete examples how music was used?
A concrete example of how music has helped us understand the brain is the research we’ve conducted on musical pleasure. It’s been discovered, using functional neuro-imaging, that the reward system is involved in musical pleasure. A mechanism is triggered that causes the release of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that leads to pleasure.
It is the same system that intervenes for other biologically important stimuli, such as food, or even sex. It was a great surprise to find that music (a completely abstract stimulus) could activate the same areas.
- What are the remaining challenges in this area?
There are still many. It’s not clear how all these circuits interact with one another. We must study in detail the functioning of all of this in order to develop applications. There is a lot of interest in clinical interventions (for degenerative diseases, for example), but more research is needed to find the right ways to help people with music.
To find out more about current research at BRAM, please see the following video