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Patterns of brain activity differ with musical training, not cultural familarity

University of Washington

There's more to music than meets the ear.

Researchers trying to understand how the mind comprehends music and the role that cultural familiarity plays in the process have found that exposure to music of another culture produces no differences in brain activity than when people are exposed to music from their own culture. This is in contrast to research on language comprehension, which has shown that the brain responds differently when exposed to familiar and unfamiliar language.

The researchers, headed by Steven Morrison and Steven Demorest of the University of Washington's School of Music, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how professionally trained American musicians and untrained control subjects responded to Western and Cantonese (Chinese) music. While they uncovered no overall differences in brain activation while listening to the two styles of music, they found differences in people's ability to remember if they had heard a musical excerpt based on the style of music. They also found differences in brain activation based on musical training.

Their findings have been published in the current issue of the journal NeuroImage.

"There are data that show training affects how a person approaches music," said Demorest, an associate professor of music education. "We all learn music by acculturation -songs from the radio and what our families did musically, for example. We are interested in uncovering the impact of culture and acculturation and how it affects learning. In our culture informal musical training can amount to a significant part of musical learning. It shapes the way we think musically."

"We came to this topic as people learning and teaching about all kinds of music across time and cultures," added Morrison, an associate professor of music education. "Scientific research in music has primarily focused on Western music yet we know all societies have vibrant musical cultures. Can those results be generalized to other cultures, and does musical training prepare people to deal with all kinds of music?"

To begin finding out, the researchers recruited six professional musicians who played the violin or viola and six people with little musical training. The latter each had less than one year of private music instruction and had participated in an instrumental or choral ensemble for less than two years. All 12 were native English speakers and had no Cantonese language skills.

Each subject was individually sent into the fMRI scanner wearing headphones. Brain scans were made while the subjects heard six musical excerpts, each of which lasted about 30 seconds. Three excerpts came from a rather obscure baroque sonata for recorder, strings and basso continuo by the Italian composer Alessandro Scarlatti and three were taken from a traditional Cantonese composition, "Liu Qin Niang." Afterward, the subjects also heard six speech examples, three each in English and Cantonese, drawn from newscasts by National Public Radio and Radio Television Hong Kong. Each musical or speech excerpt was followed by a 30-second period of silence.

Then the subjects took a recognition test, listening to a dozen 2-to 3-second musical and speech snippets, half of which they had heard in scanner and half that they hadn't heard. The subjects were asked if they had heard each excerpt in the scanner and how confident they were of each answer.

The researchers found similarities in brain activity when the musicians and untrained listeners were exposed to the Western classical and traditional Chinese musical excerpts. All subjects showed significant clusters of activation in the brain regions called the right transverse temporal gyrus and left superior temporal gyrus. However, some differences did emerge based on musical training. The musicians exhibited significantly greater activity in the right superior temporal gyrus when listening to both types of music. In addition, the musicians also showed significant brain activity in the right middle frontal gyrus when listening to Western music and in the left middle frontal gyrus when hearing the Chinese music.

These findings support the idea that formal training influences patterns of brain activity in response to culturally familiar and unfamiliar music, according to the researchers.

By contrast, brain activity was similar among all subjects when comparing English speech to Cantonese. There was significant brain activity in the left insula and lesser activity in the left superior temporal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus that was not present while listening to Cantonese.

Despite similar activation patterns while listening cross-culturally, in the recall test, both groups were significantly more successful in identifying the Western music excerpts they had heard. Trained musicians were more confident of their responses to Western music than to the Chinese excerpts. The untrained subjects' confidence was similar for both types of music. With the speech recognition examples all subjects were significantly more successful recognizing English than Cantonese and their confidence also was greater for the English excerpt than for the Cantonese ones.

"Our recall task indicates that when it comes to the ability to remember, music is not so much a universally understood language as it is a universally understandable language," said Demorest. "With language you can be right or wrong in determining the meaning. But with music people may try to interpret it using the rules of music they learned whether they are culturally appropriate or not."

Morrison added, "This is important in music education because when you get up in front of a class or audience everyone might be dealing with the music in a different way, depending on their culture."


Co-authors of the study are Elizabeth Aylward and Kenneth Maravilla, UW professors of radiology, and Steven Cramer, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California, Irvine. The research was funded by the Royalty Research Fund and supported by the Helen Riaboff Whiteley Center, both at the UW.

For more information, contact Morrison at (206) 543-8986 or or Demorest at (206) 543-7587or

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