“I certainly like pauses in DJing,” the electronic music pioneer Sam Shepherd (who releases under the pseudonym Floating Points) says in his label biography. “Especially in all-night sets where I assume dancers would welcome moments of calm…I’ve found that with my dancefloor productions, patience with build-ups can make that release all the sweeter.”
Shepherd’s hypothesis may now have some empirical backing, specifically in a research paper written by Professor Giovanni di Liberto of Trinity College Dublin, Professor Shihab Shamma of the University of Maryland and ENS Paris, and Guilhem Marion of ENS Paris. The study, recently included in the Journal of Neuroscience, has clarified the role of music not solely as a form of sensory stimulation, but also a game of pattern recognition in which the brain is engaged in a constant guessing game about what will happen next.
It transpires that music is far more intimately related to imagination than even the most devoted of us cared to admit; to listen to a piece of music is to unknowingly call upon a reservoir of lifetime acoustic experience in order to imagine what will happen next.
It’s not hard to think of examples from across musical genres. Sonata form has occupied the human imagination for centuries with its magical trinity of exposition, development, and recapitulation. Jazz has enthralled with its head-solo-head mapping, sandwiching the unexpected between the thick castle walls of repeated main melodies. Contemporary electronic productions made by the likes of Shepherd are distillations of the same old routine, with modern sampling devices and digital audio workstations making it easier than ever to satiate the ears of pattern-hungry listeners.
“Di Liberto explains how when imagining music, human brain activity has the opposite electrical polarity to when we listen to it.”
Working in Trinity and in ENS Paris, the researchers used electro-encephalograms (EEGs) to measure the brain activity of musicians while they listened to or imagined a set of Bach piano melodies. Di Liberto explains how when imagining music, human brain activity has the opposite electrical polarity to when we listen to it. However, the scans revealed that the same activity occurs during quiet parts of listening as when imagining music outside of listening.
Using EEGs afforded Di Liberto and the team a quick imaging time of just 10 milliseconds. Unlike other scanning methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures blood oxygen levels, these images measured electrical activity. This helped to solidify the understanding that when listening to music the brain is both responding to the sound on a sensory level and calculating whether the sound matched its expectations on a pattern-recognition level.
“The method could also provide the sort of painless and accurate picture of brain health useful for identifying early signs of dementia and attention-deficit issues.”
The study demonstrates how the brain responds more strongly to unforeseen events and how simply imagining music can heighten brain activity, in doing so bringing us “one step closer to understanding why music is so important and interesting for our brain”, as Di Liberto explains to online magazine Inverse. EEGs, and the method of comparing the brain activity of imagined music and predicted music, may hold the key to a deeper understanding of the human imagination. In a clinical sense, the method could also provide the sort of painless and accurate picture of brain health useful for identifying early signs of dementia and attention-deficit issues: a tantalising possibility Di Liberto says he is interested in exploring.
It is ultimately the brain activity flared by the imagination and prediction of music in the context of this study that makes music such an interesting thing to the mind. No matter how well-versed or confident we are in the future direction of a piece of music, we still experience the warm glow, the buzz, the curiosity of what will happen next. We can only hope that over time that studies such as these will throw more and more light on what has and will continue to be this central means of human expression and entertainment.