Neurobiology of Orchestra


UBSO performing in Slee Hall, University at Buffalo

For most things or people in the world, you have to know them to love them. Nobody can say that I never did any numerical problem in my life but I love Math. But when it comes to music, you can easily say I love music but I don’t know its grammar. Same thing goes for me, I consider myself as an illiterate lover of Western Classical music.

My naivety in Western Classical is to the extent that I cannot name all the instruments that were in the orchestra I went to last night. Nonetheless, I had no trouble in understanding when the notes were coming from two different instruments. How does our brain do that? It turns out that we are wired to note different aspects of music even as a newborn. Our brain solves this problem by allocating different areas of the brain to different property of the music. In a sense we are analyzing the music we listen to every step of the way and differentiating the harmonical aspect from the beat aspect. Whenever we listen to any musical piece, there is a meeting of the musical board in our brain where the basal ganglion and cerebellum gives input about the rhythm, the inferior frontal cortex gives input about the harmony and so forth. Considering this complex computation, I might not be as illiterate in musical grammar as I think.

That being said, not everyone has the same level of musical perception. In fact musicians can have upto 130% more voluminous auditory cortex compared to non-musicians while others with congenital amusia might be unable to perceive music altogether. People with amusia have perfect hearing; they are just oblivious to musical movements. Interestingly, they can even love music because they can still feel the mood of the piece.

From these findings, it feels like we, as a species, went into a lot of trouble to perceive music. This makes me curious about its evolutionary cause. A simple explanation for development of every sensual modality is survival. We improved our sense of hearing to be warned of a dangerous predator before we could see them. How does music perception fit into this theory? Several possibilities come to mind. Music can make us happy. Evolution might have thought happiness is an important aspect of survival. Alternatively, it might have been passed down as an index of attractiveness from mating rituals of birds. Another interesting hypothesis can be related to the therapeutic effects of music. Recent studies suggest that music therapy has widespread effect in psychopathological diseases. It is possible that our ancestors figured that out and decided to devote a lot of brain areas for music perception. Comment with more ideas!

**Unrelated Note** : Read this before sitting on the second row of a concert hall. (I did not).


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