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What Happens in the Brain While Composing Music?

Music is an integral part of human life. Research on music listening and music-making is abundant, and has shown us the multitude of ways in which music moves us, affects our brain and physiology, and can even treat health conditions. Although music is present in all of our lives in many ways, very few of us become professional musicians, and even fewer become professional composers. What do we know about musical creativity? How is new music born in the human brain? A recent study bravely tackled these fundamental unanswered questions in the field of the neuroscience of music.
In the study, 17 music composition majors were asked to compose a new piece of music while lying in an MRI scanner. The participants looked at a page with one bar of notes and were asked to imagine a composition to follow these beginning notes. The measurement took five minutes, after which the participants were asked to write down the composition they had created in their minds during the measurement. The activation in the brain during composition was compared to activation that was measured before the participants began working on the composition while they lay in the scanner relaxing with eyes closed. According to the results, during composition, connectivity in the visual and motor areas of the brain decreased and at the same time connectivity in other brain networks increased. Particularly, the anterior cingulate cortex and the default mode network in the brain showed increased connectivity. These networks are important for emotional processing and for the integration of information, respectively.
The researchers speculate that these changes in the brain’s activity patterns mean that during music composition, the brain allocates resources usually taken up by basic sensory processes to strengthen connectivity in other networks that are responsible for emotion processing and integration of information from large-scale brain networks. From the perspective of brain activation, this would mean that a central part of composing is combination of musical structures to convey emotion. One could perhaps propose that at its core, composing music is the art of translating emotional information into acoustic features.

written by marko ahtisaari



Lu, J., Yang, H., Zhang, X., He, H., Luo, C., & Yao, D. (2015). The Brain Functional State of Music Creation: an fMRI Study of Composers. Scientific Reports, 5, 12277. doi:10.1038/srep12277