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Study finds brain regions respond to familiar and unfamiliar music, even without musical training

Rockville, Md. (April 7, 2021)—New research suggests that people without musical training have areas of the brain that can identify and respond to music, even if they are unfamiliar with the genre. The study is published ahead of print in the Journal of Neurophysiology (JNP). It was chosen as an APSselect article for April.

“These results show that passive exposure to music is sufficient for the development of music selectivity … and [the] responses extend to rhythms with little melody and to relatively unfamiliar musical genres.”

Research has shown that exposure to specific sounds can cause long-term changes in the auditory cortex—the area of the brain that processes sound. Studies of experience-driven plasticity—the ability of the nerve cells (neurons) to change with exposure to sound stimuli—have been done in animals, but less is known about these adaptations in people.

In a new study, researchers used fMRI imaging to look at neural populations that respond more to music than other kinds of sounds—called music-selectivity—in young adults. Half of the volunteers, considered “nonmusicians,” had less than two years of musical training. The other half of the volunteers had an average of 16 years of musical training and were considered “musicians” in the context of this study. The musician group started their music training before the age of seven and were currently training at the time of the study. The participants listened to two-second clips of 192 natural sounds, which included several different genres of music. Some of the musical sounds were drums and less melodic in nature, and others were clips of musical genres that most people raised in a Western culture are not accustomed to.

The research team found that music-selective regions in the brain’s cortex responded strongly to both the familiar and unfamiliar musical sounds—compared to nonmusical sounds—in both the musicians and nonmusicians. “These results show that passive exposure to music is sufficient for the development of music selectivity … and [the] responses extend to rhythms with little melody and to relatively unfamiliar musical genres,” the researchers wrote.

“One of the most interesting open questions raised by our findings is whether cortical music selectivity reflects implicit knowledge gained through typical exposure to music or whether it is present from birth,” the researchers wrote. Further analysis can help answer these questions and explore “the quintessentially human ability for music.”

Read the full article, “Music-selective neural populations arise without musical training,” published ahead of print in the Journal of Neurophysiology (JNP). It is highlighted as one of this month’s “best of the best” as part of the American Physiological Society’s APSselect program. Read all of this month’s selected research articles.

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: To schedule an interview with a member of the research team, please contact the APS Communications Office or call 301.634.7314. Find more research highlights in our Newsroom.

Physiology is a broad area of scientific inquiry that focuses on how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function in health and disease. The American Physiological Society connects a global, multidisciplinary community of more than 10,000 biomedical scientists and educators as part of its mission to advance scientific discovery, understand life and improve health. The Society drives collaboration and spotlights scientific discoveries through its 16 scholarly journals and programming that support researchers and educators in their work.

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