Mini-Science 2014 Q&A: “Why we love music: A neuroscience perspective”

Mini-Science logoAt the conclusion of each Mini-Science lecture, audience members submit their questions to the evening’s presenter. If there is not enough time to answer them all on the spot, some of the other unanswered questions are sent to the presenter for posting here. Here are questions from Prof. Robert Zatorre’s lecture, “Why we love music: A neuroscience perspective” (March 19, 2014).

Q: Since motor skills are related to dopamine imbalance and music releases dopamine, has music helped people who have problems with motor skills?

A: The pathology of Parkinson’s is quite complex, and involves various systems, so dopamine is only one part of a more complex picture. That said, there are a number of labs that are indeed working on using music as a way to enhance motor function in Parkinson’s, and in other movement disorders. The results are promising so far, but still limited. What we need is a better understanding of the mechanism of action of music on the nervous system in my opinion, which is why we are pursuing the link between music and the motor system in the lab.

Q: People with Parkinson’s disease have dopamine deficiency. How do they enjoy music?

A: See above. As for enjoyment, the jury is still out, but it does seem like there is a reduction in the pleasure experienced from music. However, there is a general reduction of enjoyment in Parkinson’s diseases to many kinds of stimuli.

Q: Are people from different cultures sensitive and appreciative of the same intervals in music?

A: Some intervals seem to be present across almost all cultures, especially the octave, and to a lesser extent the fifth and the fourth. This make sense since they are prominently present in the harmonic series, which is a physical phenomenon. However, some cultures make extensive use of certain metallic objects, which do not produce harmonics; their partials are inharmonic (non-integer-ratio). For example bells and xylophones are such instruments. So in Balinese music for example the scales are rather different than Western scales in part because they use instruments whose partials don’t conform to the harmonic series. All of that said, however, all human cultures use the voice, and the vocal apparatus is the same across all human beings (and it does produce harmonic partials).

Q: Is there a form of “habituation” in musical arousal? (I.e., Should I listen to the Hallelujah chorus only once a year?)

A: There is a little bit, but nobody has really looked carefully to see if the effects really extinguish as such. For many people it does not seem to be an issue (those who listen to a certain piece obsessively, but also for professionals who have to practice and perform the same piece many many times).

Q: Can psychopaths enjoy music, given that the processing of music involves the emotional centres of the brain?

A: Excellent question. I don’t think anyone has studied this, but it is something we may try to do.

Q: I fear the day when Apple and Google will be able to “make me” buy music. You mentioned that one of your students interned with Google. How would they use your type of research?

A: I don’t think anyone can make you do anything you really don’t want to do. But the point would be more that if we know more about how different individuals appreciate different aspects of music, we could do a better job of introducing them to music that they may find enjoyable. I don’t see why there would be an ethical problem if some piece of software is available that lets me listen to music that I otherwise would not have known about, but which I end up really appreciating. Indeed, this is what we rely on our friends and social networks for, isn’t it? It’s as if someone we know, who is likely to know what types of music we might enjoy, says to us “you know I heard this interesting new artist recently, and I thought you might like to listen to their recording”. This would be the goal for a software recommendation system, that it could give you that kind of advice; nothing more coercive than that. If you decide you don’t like the recording, nobody is going to force you to pay money for it!

Please visit the Mini-Science website for more information about the lecture series. In specific, you may wish to review the readings and links for Professor Zatorre’s talk.

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