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Why Some Tunes Are So "Unforgettable"

Why Some Tunes Are So "Unforgettable"In a newly released study, Tufts’ Provost – and his colleagues at Dartmouth – mapped the mind to locate the brain’s musical center.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.20.02] How can we tell if someone is playing out of key? The answer may lie in the brain's "music center," newly identified in a recently published study conducted by a team of researchers, including Tufts' Provost Jamshed Bharucha.

"The many thousands of tunes most of us know, from arias to singles and jingles, are locked in a shifting pattern of neural circuits in a region just behind our foreheads, scientists say," reported London's The Guardian newspaper.

Contrary to previous assumptions, music is not processed solely in the brain's auditory cortex - which controls hearing. Instead, a team of researchers - including Tufts Provost and Senior Vice President Jamshed Bharucha - discovered that the brain tracks tunes in an area located behind the forehead where learning, the response and control of emotions, and memory converge. The brain activity in this area mapped a four-dimensional donut-shaped geometric surface called a torus.

"Using functional resonance imaging, which detects the part of the brain active in response to specific stimuli, they found that the ability to recognize music is contained in a centrally located area [called the rostromendial prefrontal cortex]," reported the New York Times.

The discovery required high tech equipment and an innovative approach.

"The researchers took eight subjects, all of whom had years of musical training, and conducted ‘functional magnetic resonance imaging' experiments while asking the subjects to listen to a particular piece of music," reported the Ottawa Citizen.

The research team found that the part of the brain that responds to melodies was consistent in each subject.

"As a result of behavioral experiments and computational neural net modeling in our earlier work, we were convinced that there had to be circuits that recognize and track keys, as well as the relationships between those keys," said Bharucha, who has a faculty appointment in Tufts' Department of Psychology. "This is the culmination of hard work in the lab to locate circuits in the brain that are sensitive to harmonic structures in music."

From their work, scientists now have a better picture of how musical notes and patterns are identified and processed by the brain.

"Their research, published in the Dec 12th issue of the journal Science, explains why our ears might spasm when a pianist hits a wrong note," reported the Ottawa Citizen.

More than a half dozen researchers contributed to the study.

"The lion's share of the credit belongs to Petr Janata, who came to the lab three years ago and is the lead author on this paper," said Bharucha, who has drawn up plans for a new lab in Tufts' new psychology building that will continue to extend the findings of this research. "Although it was one of the main themes of our grant proposal, it was a risky venture because it was exploratory."

The study - part of the Program Project in Cognitive Neuroscience funded by the National Institutes of Health - is expected to open up new avenues of research.

"Next, we're interested in understanding cross-cultural aspects of perception," Bharucha said. "Will brain activity differ for two people with different cultural backgrounds hearing the same sample of speech or music? In other words, can we find evidence that cultural learning of auditory patterns has been internalized in the brain?"


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