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Musicians’ brains synchronise with rhythm

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Washington: Musicians get more out of music because their brains are better able to synchronise with rhythm, a new study has found. Cortical oscillations – the rhythmic firing of neurons in the brain – are fundamental to our ability to hear and process sounds. Aligning the frequency of these cortical oscillations with the frequency of the sounds we wish to focus on allows us to better tune into these sounds.

New York University researchers have discovered the same kind of synchronisation happens when we listen to music, and the better we are at synchronising our brain waves with the music, the better we process the music. Lead author and PhD candidate Keith Doelling and Professor David Poeppel mapped neuronal activity in the brains of 27 non-musicians and 12 musicians as they listened to three clips of classical music multiple times.

They found that the cortical oscillations of both musicians and non-musicians synchronised with the tempo of the different pieces of music, but musicians were better at tracking very slow beats; less than one beat per second. “Maybe non-musicians are having a harder time gro ping the notes, so if you hear a note that just once every two seconds you might not really make it into a melody, you might just see it as individual notes,” Doelling said.


The musical clips were from music by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and the musicians who participated in the study came from a wide range of musical backgrounds, ‘ABC Science’ reported. “The more musicians had been training, the longer they had been training, the more they were able to synchronise,” Doelling said.

The study also showed that the degree of synchronisation affected how well listeners processed the content of the music itself. The researchers tested this by including a slight pitch distortion at one point in the musical segment, and asking listeners firstly if they heard the distortion and secondly, if the pitch went up or down during the distortion.

They showed that participants whose cortical oscillations were better synchronised with the music were also better able to pick the pitch distortion.