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The Musical Brain
The Musical Brain
Music is found everywhere in humans groups. Musical information consists of pitch, loudness, timbre, location, and movement of the sound source. A combination of sounds of different pitches produces harmony and a sequence of pitches becomes melody. Timbre describes the harmonics in a sound that give it recognizable qualities. A range of timbres in human voices provides for the sound identification of individuals. You can identify who is talking from voice timbre and intonation, just as you can identify a trumpet, an oboe or a violin. Formal music is assembled into language-equivalent structures, suggesting phonemes, syntax and semantics.
The elements of music began millions of years ago with other animals. We humans are just recent practitioners of the art of sound communication. Music in the original sense is communication, part of group assemblies that featured drumming, vocalization and dance. In an evolved sense, music became attached to rituals, celebrations, theatre and entertainment. Active group participation in creating music and dance has often become passive as audiences collect to sit and listen to professional musicians perform.
Our brains have evolved to detect and evaluate discrete low volume sounds. Everyone who has spent time in natural environments will know that little sounds are ubiquitous in nature. Loud sounds are unusual and signal danger. A nature person will be able identify birds, insects, and other animals by their characteristic sounds. Wind sounds inform about weather changes. Some trees can be identified by the sounds of their leaves vibrating in the wind. A sailor can determine wind direction and velocity by moving his head slightly to hear changes in pitch and timbre as the wind blows around his head.
The human brain extracts several kinds of information from the components of sounds: pitch, loudness, timbre, location and direction of movement. Animal communication begins with sounds that declare specific meanings such as the alarm cries of squirrels and monkeys, bird songs that regulate mating and social activity and human grunts, shouts and cries that attract attention, signal danger and express emotion.
The auditory system is organized into spatial and nonspatial, processing streams. In the monkey, the posterolateral auditory cortex is more responsive to spatial features than the anterolateral region that is more selective for vocalization. Single neurons in these cortical areas respond differentially to features of the auditory input.
Neurons selectively responsive to vocalizations were found in the ventral prefrontal cortex. Neurons responsive to spatial features were found in the dorsal prefrontal cortex. The responsiveness of auditory neurons in both the prefrontal and parietal cortices is dependent on the significance of the stimulus. The superior temporal sulcus in humans exhibits selective activation for voices.
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