What happens in the brain when we listen to music? What happens in the brain when we play an instrument? These have been a couple of the fundamental questions in the neuroscience of music. By making use of a method called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists have been able to take a peek into the brain and examine the activation patterns related to music listening and more recently, also playing.
fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, is a method frequently used in neuroscientific investigations. It detects changes in cerebral blood flow while subjects are performing tasks within the scanner. The measurement will reveal which parts of the brain are important for the task at hand, since active areas in the brain require more fuel, and oxygen-rich blood will flow to these areas. The method is exciting, because it lets researchers “look” at the brain without the need to open the skull. Plus, the results can be shown in the form of beautiful colorful pictures.
Investigations of music listening have revealed that activation in the brain is very broad - there is no single area responsible for music processing. For example, take a look at a video created by Professor Petri Toiviainen on what listening to tango looks like in your brain.
Recently, there has been critique over use of the popular method, since it seems that even trained scientists can mistake an article including colorful fMRI images to contain better scientific reasoning than one without the images, but exactly the same data. Also, there are inherent caveats that need to be taken into consideration in using the method, such as the risk for false positives, such as in the case of imaging brain activity in this one, dead salmon.
That said, fMRI continues to be one of the most important methods for investigating brain processes. With carefully designed experiments, it continues to broaden understanding of brain processes and provides an unparalleled method for investigation. Recently, in addition to music listening, imaging what happens in the brain while the subject is playing a musical instrument has become possible. The restrictions related to movement are a concern, but another relates to the technique of the fMRI: it generates a very powerful magnetic field.
Therefore, any instrument used in the scanner must not contain any metal and must be something that can be used while lying in the confines of the MRI tube. This has required that neuroscientists and engineers get creative and build completely new, MRI-compatible instruments. Take a look at what an MRI-compatible cello looks like, and how it can be played during measurement. In the video, Neurologist Robert Zatorre and his PhD student (and cellist) Melanie Segado, and Prof. Marcelo Wanderley,and his student Avrum Hollinger present the fMRI-cello and discuss its use in research.
The brain is a tricky thing to investigate. It resides within living organisms and without invasive methods, our possibilities for looking at what happens during different activities are very limited. Some scientists have compared studying the brain non-invasively to having the world’s most exquisite computer and trying to figure out how it works by knocking on its cover. fMRI is an important and admittedly exciting tool for just this reason - we can take a look inside this exquisite organ. In the realm of the neuroscience of music, the fMRI as a method of investigation is vital for understanding the mechanisms that underlie music perception and production. With the help of creative thinking and engineering, the possibilities for exploring mechanisms related to more real life like music-making are expanding.
By Marko Ahtisaari and Ketki Karanam
McCabe, D. P., & Castel, A. D. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107(1), 343–352. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2007.07.017