Two Neuroscientists and a Musician Join Forces

Jasmin Wu/Guardian

The phrase “dance to the beat” is taking on new meaning: Research shows that the motor system is stimulated by musical rhythms before any movement actually occurs.

According to Neurosciences Institute fellow Aniruddh Patel, clinical observations show a correlation between how music and movement are processed in the brain even when the body is still.

“[We found] activation in what looks like the motor areas of the brain; even though you are not moving you are listening to musical rhythms, suggesting that the motor system is used to analyze sound even when you are not moving,” Patel said.

Using various brain imaging techniques, Patel and colleague John Iversen ­— whose research looks at how humans use sensory stimuli to perceive the world — found that both the auditory and motor system activate in response to musical beats.

For people with Parkinson’s disease — a degenerative nervous system disease that impairs one’s motor abilities — listening to musical beats can facilitate movement.

“Nobody really understands the mechanism by which that works,” Patel said. “Ultimately, the research could help design better therapies for these patients [with nervous system diseases].”

To understand the mechanisms through which music is processed, using a magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine, Iversen and Patel measured the brain waves generated when different individuals listen to a particular rhythm.

“If you play different rhythms to them, you can see how the brain responds to the rhythms,” Iversen said. “So it’s the same sound that’s going into the person’s ear, but what they are ‘hearing’ [or perceiving] is different because they’re hearing the beat differently.”

Correlating the rhythm with resulting brain waves, they then look at the different parts of the brain that control the timing of the beat.

Their research also focuses on the correlation of music and language in the brain.

According to Patel, music, language and speech are processed together and have similar processing pathways. What applies to music, then, can also be applied to speech and movement.

“People who have stuttering can sing beautifully with no problem,” music professor Steven Schick said.

To further explore the extent to which this overlap occurs, the two neuroscientists and Schick will present at “Rhythm, the Brain and a Drum,” hosted by the Bronowski forum.

The event — part of a series of talks designed to unite the arts and sciences — will include performances by Schick, a world-renowned percussionist, and host an open forum for discussion on the perception of rhythm and how it affects speech.

“This is a convergence of three people working on the same topic from different perspectives,” Schick said. “As musicians, we’re always aware of the relationship of musical phrases to daily speech.”

According to Schick, mechanisms allowing music processing have not been studied, though music is processed systematically.

The forum brings together different perspectives to further understand how language, speech and culture influence the composition of musical beats.

“Rhythm, the Brain, and a Drum” will be held today, Jan. 13, at the Neurosciences Institute, located at 1640 John J. Hopkins Dr. The event is free and open to the public.