Music has been tagged with superlatives, such as: “the fundamental pleasures of mankind”; “universal language”; “a playground of our senses”; “the most cognitively complex uses of sound by the human species”; “a hacker of our pleasure and motivation”…
“Music is medicine” – the beneficial influence of listening to music reads like an advertisement for a “super drug”, healing almost everything. According to Verrusio et al. (2015) and Chanda and Levitin (2013), a vast amount of scientific evidence demonstrates that music can have a positive effect on a large number of medical conditions, for instance epileptiform activity in patients with seizures, stress-induced conditions such as anxiety and depression, it can reduce language impairments, attention deficits and the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. Music is used to regulate mood and arousal – neurosurgeons use it to enhance concentration, armies to increase cooperation, workers to improve vigilance and athletes to increase stamina and motivation. It lowers requirements for opiate drugs in postoperative pain and reduces anxiety in adult and pediatric patients undergoing medical procedures.
In spite of this, the strong power music has over humans has been a mystery since the times of Aristotle (1995), who listed it as one of the enigmas of humanity, and Darwin (1871), ranking it among the greatest mysteries with which man is endowed. As stressed by Abbot (2002), the reason why melody, harmony and rhythm are so important to us remains a mystery at the beginning of the 21st century.
Hence, we must wait for Arnold Schoenberg’s “children’s children of psychologists who will decipher the language of music”. It is therefore not surprising that music is deemed a phenomenon in need of scientific explanation. Another example of its uniqueness: in general we are not interested how great paintings or literature “work” (Ball, 2008). It is worth mentioning that in the middle ages scholars studied music alongside geometry, arithmetic and astronomy to understand the natural harmony of the world.
Some general considerations about music
Technically what we hear – music and language – depends on changes in air-pressure waves. The brain transforms them into action potentials which are further converted to perceptual representations – hierarchically structured sequences according to syntactic principles. This directs us to the first big question scientists are facing: the relationship between music and language.
In a review paper Robert Zatorre and colleagues (2003) argued that - although music and speech share several general properties (e.g., acoustic modulations, they consist of discrete elements, phonemes and tones organized by rule-based principles), as well as specific characteristics such as fixed developmental time courses and they are universal in all known human cultures – they are in several aspects also fundamentally different:
- Speech can be produced only by the human voice – air passing through the vocal tract (the pharyngeal, oral, and nasal cavities, nostrils and lips). In contrast, music can be produced by practically anything capable of generating sound.
- However, the main difference is that speech crucially depends on temporal properties of sound. For example, an association between expressive aphasia and temporal judgment could be observed. On the other hand, tonal patterns of music depend on the arrangement of the pitches’ duration and the intervals between them which tend to be much slower than in speech.
The conclusion was that because an acoustical system cannot simultaneously analyze temporal and spectral aspects of sound, hemispheric differences emerged so that temporal resolution is better in the left and spectral resolution is better in the right auditory brain areas.
In contrast, Patel’s (2003, p. 674) focus on syntax in language and music led him to conclude that both “share a common set of processes (instantiated in frontal brain areas) that operate on different structural representations (in posterior brain areas).” It is worth mentioning that the shared syntactic integration resource hypothesis postulating that shared neural substrates serve syntactic processing in both language and music, was also based on the analysis of Broca’s aphasia. Further support for the neural overlap between music and language processing comes from a recent fMRI study comparing jazz improvisation to playing memorized music (Donnay et al., 2014).
Another question that divides the scientific community is whether music is a product of natural selection, or a human invention being biologically useless. The adaptationist theorists, suggesting that music originated through biological evolution, proposed several survival values for human ancestors. Darwin, for instance, argued in The Descent of Man (1871) that music subserved mechanisms of sexual selection similar to bird song. A second strand of adaptationist theories proposed parental care as the main reason for the development of music – vocal communications (“motherese”) to calm or arouse toddlers. Yet a third theory suggested that music may have served as a mechanism to promote social cohesion within groups (a cohesive group is more likely to survive and produce offspring), similar to today’s use of music to stimulate social interaction among group members, as for instance in group drumming or marching to the sound of music (Patel, 2010; Chanda and Levitin, 2013).
It is not surprising that Pinker’s (1997, p. 534) idea that "music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties" earned much criticism and opposition from the adaptationist theorists. Today preliminary evidence suggests that this “auditory cheesecake” relates to the engagement of neurochemical systems for (1) reward, motivation, and pleasure (dopamine and opioids); (2) stress and arousal (cortisol, corticotrophin-releasing hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone); (3) immunity (serotonin and the peptide derivatives of proopiomelanocortin); and (4) social affiliation (oxytocin) (Chanda and Levitin, 2013). The authors concluded that the evidence is promising, but due to numerous confounds and limitations of the studies, does not yet allow for a generalization. Another aspect in support of nonadaptationist theories is the fact that animals lack music – song is absent in most primates, including the apes (McDermott, 2008).
Nowadays several nonadaptationist theories of music exist. Patel (2010) for instance sees music as a human invention as "a transformative technology of the mind (TTM)" that can have lasting effects (similar as reading) on brain functions involved in language, attention and executive function. On the other hand for Perlovsky et al. (2013), music evolved jointly with language for the purpose of overcoming the morbid consequences of cognitive dissonance and is in that way fundamental to the human ability to accumulate knowledge. The authors suggested that new knowledge contradicts inborn needs of an organism which implies cognitive dissonance in the sense of Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Grapes. It is difficult to tolerate cognitive dissonance, hence, people sometimes make irrational decisions to avoid contradictions. Pleasant music helps to overcome negative emotions related to cognitive dissonance allowing contradictory cognitions to be kept in mind and in that way new knowledge can be acquired.
There are several other characteristics and mysteries related to music that have attracted the curiosity of researchers. Some of these have been discussed in a series of essays on music in Nature (2008) titled “Bountiful noise”. Huron (2008) for example, argues that most of research on music has been conducted in Western cultures, which can limit our understanding of it. Western melodies have a tendency to rise and then fall in pitch. Hence enculturated listeners expect the ends of melodies to descend. Similarly Patel (2008) claimed that listeners hear long events as final, while the opposite is true for many Japanese adults. Furthermore, some phenomena neither fit into the language nor the music category, like “talking drums” of west and central Africa and whistled languages that occur in Africa, Asia and Central America. Hence, the observed globalization of music will soon prevent researchers to study these cultural differences.
Music and Intelligence
According to Bonetti and Costa (2016), the relationship between intelligence and music has been explored in four main areas:
- In relation to the intelligence types identified by Gardner (1983).
- The relationship between general intelligence and auditory discrimination.
- The relation between intelligence and music preference.
- Music as an enhancer of intelligence, either via a passive approach (e.g., simply listening to music – the Mozart effect, background music) or an active approach (music training).
I will just briefly address the first three aspects of the intelligence-music relation and focus largely on the last one: music as a mediator of intelligence, tackling the Mozart effect in one of our next blogs.
Contrary to the accepted idea of g (general intelligence), Howard Gardner’s (1983) multiple intelligences theory postulated 8 independent ability areas, one of which was also musical intelligence. It involves the ability to appreciate, produce, and combine pitch, tones, and rhythms. The theory was accepted by educators yet it had a minor effect on main stream intelligence research (e.g., Deary, 2001). The problem is that the independence of the multiple abilities could not be empirically verified. Visser et al. (2008) tested Gardner’s theory and revealed large g-loadings for all eight ability factors, including musical intelligence, which are assumed to be independent. In Deary’s (2001) opinion the theory is not more than arbitrary slicing-up of mental test items, which seems to have run out of steam.
In fact, investigating the correlation between intelligence and auditory discrimination is in sharp contradiction with Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory assuming zero correlation with other components of intelligence. As reported by Bonetti and Costa (2016), moderate correlations with general intelligence were found (i.e., r ≈ 0.5). Schellenberg and Weiss (2013) summarizing research on the relationship between music aptitude and cognitive abilities reported positive correlations with language (e.g., phonological awareness, reading ability, the ability to acquire a second language), mathematics (basic arithmetic abilities in children), spatial abilities, working memory and academic ability.
Recently there is also increasing interest in the relationship between music preference and intelligence. Bonetti and Costa (2016) demonstrated a significant (moderately high) association between preference for the minor (sad) mode and fluid intelligence (r = 0.34). Sad music is often connected to the experience of more complex emotions such as nostalgia, which could be a possible explanation for the obtained positive correlation. Another complementary explanation could be the preference of more intelligent individuals for negatively valenced stimuli (worry and rumination). Kanazawa and Perina (2012) reported that more intelligent individuals prefer classical music. This was considered as evidence for the Savanna Principle – a theory of the evolution of general intelligence. The theory postulates that more intelligent individuals are more likely to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel values and preferences than less intelligent individuals. More intelligent individuals have fewer problems with novel situations, on the other hand, intelligence is not central in dealing with evolutionarily familiar entities and situations. Further, from an evolutionary perspective music was always vocal in its origin. On the other hand, purely instrumental music is evolutionarily novel, which can explain the relationship between intelligence and the preference for classical music. In contrast, listening to rebellious and conventional music was related to lower intelligence and lower school grades (e.g. George et al., 2007).
Music training and cognitive abilities
Research has shown that music training is associated with enhanced performance on a wide variety of cognitive tasks and tests including general intelligence as well as school performance suggesting far transfer effects. Furthermore, this link appears to be causal. (Benz et al, 2016; Kaviani et al., 2014; Moreno et al., 2009; 2011; Bergman Nutley et al., 2014; Schellenberg and Weiss, 2013; Schellenberg, 2004; 2011; Silvia et al., 2016; Wang et al., 2015).
In several review articles (e.g., Benz et al, 2016; Schellenberg and Weiss, 2013) it was reported that musically trained individuals outperform their untrained colleagues on a variety of tests of music cognition (recognizing melodies presented in transposition, how many notes are played simultaneously in a chord and similar), which extends to lower-level auditory tasks (pitch and timber discrimination), a variety of low-level tests of speech perception, perceiving speech in noise, better memory for auditory stimuli, prose, and also visual memory. A recent study by Bergman Nutley et al. (2014) demonstrated that musical practice had an overall positive association with verbal and spatial WM capacity. Positive correlations of music training were further reported for tests of verbal ability such as vocabulary and reading, visuospatial skills (line orientation, memory for line drawings, block design). Less clear cut is the influence of music training on mathematics, showing positive relations just for some tests of mathematical ability suggesting that it is more likely that they are the result of individual differences in general intellectual ability. It is worth mentioning that Root-Bernstein (2001, p. 63), who focused on scientists who had been musicians (presenting a list of 76 scientists-composers), proposed that “music and science are two ways of using a common set of “tools for thinking” that unify all disciplines”.
A great amount of findings further suggests that music training positively correlates with general intelligence. Reported were correlations between r = 0.27 and r = 0.35 (Schellenberg and Weiss, 2013). In a recent study by Silvia et al. (2016), correlations between music training and fluid intelligence (r = 0.23) as well as crystalized intelligence (r = 0.46) in adults were observed. Moreover, a confirmatory factor analysis revealed a rather high positive relation between g and music training (β = 0.74; p < 0.001).
In Schellenberg’s (2011, p. 285) view the most likely explanation for the positive relation between intelligence and music training was that: “High functioning children are more likely than other children to take music lessons, and to perform well on virtually any test they take.” However, there are also several studies that suggest a causal direction from music training to cognitive abilities. In a study by Schellenberg (2004), children were for one year randomly assigned into 3 groups: music training, drama training and no training. The music group showed improvements of about 3 IQ points in comparison to the other two groups. Similar findings were reported by Moreno et al. (2009; 2011) and in a recent study conducted in Iran (Kaviani et al., 2014).
As stressed by Schellenberg (2011), it was further observed that the duration of music training positively correlated with intelligence, which would imply that professional musicians are geniuses. However, when musicians are compared to non-musicians, the association breaks down. Cognitive advantages are present only in those who take music lessons in addition to their professional training, but not for those who study music.
The explanation for the observed positive relation between music training and intelligence was shared processing structures and brain plasticity – playing an instrument induces structural and functional changes in the brain. Musical expertise was associated with increased gray matter density in the left inferior frontal gyrus and in the left intraparietal sulcus (for a review see Benz et al., 2016). Both areas have been identified as crucial for intellectual performance in Haier’s (Jung and Haier, 2007) P-FIT, as well as in Duncan’s (2010) multiple-demand theory of intelligence - the most influential neurocognitive theories of intelligence to date.
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 Pinker was not the first to oppose the adaptationist viewpoint. For instance, Spencer (1857) argued that music grew out of language, and Wiliam James (1890) regarded music as a coincidence of having a hearing organ.
 Expressive aphasia, also known as Broca's or motor aphasia is characterized by the loss of the ability to produce spoken or written language.