Music is the most complicated sound the brain can process. But why did our brains evolve such advanced tools to create and enjoy it? Neuroscientist and jazz musician Charles Limb recently got together with songwriter and musician Meklit Hadero to discuss music and the brain, and the report is published on TED ideas.
Music is the most advanced auditory stimulus there is. “When we look at the brains of humans, and how they evolved from the brains of animals, it becomes clear rather quickly that the human auditory system is capable of processing sound at an enormous level of complexity,” Limb says. “Music, I think, is the highest refinement of that complexity, meaning that as far as I know, there’s nothing in the auditory world that is harder for the brain to process than music.”
For many musicians, the path to creation leads them through some very specific (often odd) behaviors. For Hadero, a musician who grew up in a household of scientists, “composition mode” is a sometimes weeks-long fugue of discovery. In general, she tries to “swim into a song rather than approach it solely intellectually.” She might start with vocal improvisations that sound like babble, just noises and sounds over a melody, and later she’ll excavate phrases on which a song can take shape. For his part, Limb’s quest to understand what’s actually going on in the brain during this instinctual process has shown that the area of the brain related to self-monitoring and observation deactivates when musicians are improvising, while the region linked with self-expression lights up. So Hadero’s babble in fact represents an important internal physiological change. “You’re actually changing the way your brain is functioning,” he tells her.