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Music is an integral part of humanity, from large societies to small tribes--but why? Music and the Brain probes this profound mystery, exploring the origins of music's emotional powers; the connections between music and language; the links between hearing, moving, remembering, and imagining; and beyond.

The Great Courses
1 Season, 18 Episodes
July 24, 2015
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Music and the Brain Full Episode Guide

  • Conclude the course by examining the biological significance of music though the lens of neuroscience. Look at five aspects of language that point to biological specialization in humans, and ask whether the same evidence also applies to music. How have we been shaped by nature to enjoy this very special type of sound?

  • See how actively engaging in music can enhance communication and movement in patients with a variety of neurological disorders, including aphasia, Parkinson's disease, motor disorders, and autism. Music's connection to multiple brain systems appears to underlie its beneficial effect on these conditions.

  • Consider how the biological effects of listening to music might affect people with a wide range of medical conditions, from those undergoing surgery to premature infants, stroke victims, and Alzheimer's patients. Search for the biological mechanisms that make music a powerful balm for the mind and body.

  • Turn to cases where music cognition breaks down in disorders such as dystimbria and amusia. General Ulysses S. Grant and novelist Vladimir Nabokov appear to have been affected by amusia. Investigate what they and others with similar deficits miss when listening to music, and explore the underlying cause.

  • Probe the ongoing research into the effects of musical training on the microstructure of the brain, which points to cognitive benefits in areas such as speech processing. Focus on how learning to play a musical instrument influences language acquisition and reading ability in children.

  • Use neuroimaging to investigate the ways that brains of musicians differ from those of non-musicians, asking whether the differences are due to nature or nurture--whether they are inborn or the result of experience. Pinpoint brain structures involved in such musical skills as absolute pitch.

  • Look beneath the surface of a seemingly simple feature of music: beat. Discover that beat perception in humans is exceedingly complex and incorporates six distinct criteria. Then survey animal studies to see if other species share our talent for getting the beat.

  • Begin your study of musical rhythm by distinguishing periodic from non-periodic rhythmic patterns. Periodicity can be thought of as beat; non-periodicity involves expressive techniques such as timing variations and phrasing. Close by asking whether composers write music in the rhythmic patterns of their native language.

  • Melodies and harmonies combine pitches according to rules that we have internalized through experience. Listen to musical examples that demonstrate unresolved and resolved expectations. Consider the analogy to grammar in language, and search for a connection between music and language in the brain.

  • What brain processes lead people to hear certain intervals as more consonant and others as more dissonant? Evaluate the major theories, one of which traces the phenomenon to the acoustic quality of the human voice. Then examine the structure of musical scales.

  • Focus on two processes that are fundamental to musicality: the perception of pitch and timbre. Pitch allows us to order sounds from low to high. Timbre lets us distinguish two sounds with the same pitch, loudness, and duration. Both pitch and timbre are constructed by the brain and have deep evolutionary roots.

  • Delve deeper into the emotional reactions that people have to music. Feel the chills induced by certain musical passages and study the theories about where these powerful feelings come from. Then look at eight distinct psychological mechanisms by which music arouses emotions in listeners.

  • What makes a piece of music sound sad? Or joyful? Or angry? Why does music have expressive power beyond words? Explore the different ways that music conveys emotion. Test your own responses to musical passages composed especially for the course.

  • Follow two lines of research that have put ideas about music's origins to the test. Start with studies of music perception in monkeys. Then turn to an ingenious experiment with young children, designed to evaluate the theory that musical behavior enhances social bonds between group members.

  • Darwin believed that musical behavior arose because it gave our early ancestors a biological advantage. But what advantage? Investigate Darwin's theory and other adaptationist explanations for the evolution of music. Then look at two alternatives: invention theories and gene-culture co-evolution theories.

  • Explore the distinction between music and musicality. While musical styles change, musicality is the stable array of mental processes that underlie our ability to appreciate and produce music. Begin by looking at our capacity for relative pitch perception, asking why we excel over all other animals at this skill.

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