Scientists Are Using 'Alien Music' to Unlock the Secrets of Our Brains

Tuesday, 13 March 2018 - 1:16PM
Technology
Neuroscience
Tuesday, 13 March 2018 - 1:16PM
Scientists Are Using 'Alien Music' to Unlock the Secrets of Our Brains
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Image credit: YouTube/Outer Places

We've seen the first album released by an AI and heard that annoying Star Wars cantina song more times than we can count, but Vincent Cheung's 'alien music' is different. Though it's not meant to be based on an extraterrestrial civilization, it is meant to be utterly foreign and bizarre, except for one key feature that may reveal how the brain processes music.



First, let's back up for a moment. Most music is based on "dependencies," a fancy word for the connections within the pattern of a song.

 

When a song is built on verses and a chorus, connections are drawn between the verses that follow each other, called local dependencies, which create expectations about what the next verse is going to be like. There are also connections between choruses, which don't directly follow each other but are instead spaced out.

 

These connections between non-adjacent chunks of music are non-local dependencies. These patterns are one of the major keys to music's impact, but scientists are still unclear how the brain processes these patterns.


This is where Vincent Cheung and his alien music comes in.

 

Cheung created "randomly generated combinations of tone-triplets that were combined in a palindrome-like manner" to manufacture music specifically designed to activate a part of the brain on the right hemisphere, which is the mirror to "Broca's area," a piece of the brain on the left hemisphere that deals with processing the rules of language, including dependencies in grammar.

 

The hypothesis was that the brain has one area for processing language and a similar area on the other side for processing music.



Isolating that mirror region in the right hemisphere has proven to be quite the puzzle, but Cheung's alien music seems to have done the trick: in a new study, published in Scientific Reports, Cheung explains how he used MRI scans of musicians to discover that the recognition of dependencies in music is indeed accomplished by the mirror region to Broca's area, as well as the brain's memory areas and a part of the brain called the inferior frontal gyrus.

 

Now maybe he can use his research methods to figure out why pop musicians all use the same four chords.

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