Music and the Functions of the Brain

Music impinges upon the body and the brain and has inductive power, relying on both innate dispositions and acquired mechanisms for coping with the sounds. This process is partly autonomous and partly deliberate, but multiple interrelations between several levels of processing can be shown. There is, further, a tradition in neuroscience that divides the organization of the brain into lower and higher functions. The latter have received a lot of attention in music and brain studies during the last decades. Recent developments in neuroimaging techniques, however, have broadened the field by encompassing the study of both cortical and subcortical processing of the sounds. Much is still to be investigated but some major observations seem already to emerge. The domain of music and emotions is a typical example with a major focus on the pleasure that can be derived from listening to music. Pleasure, however, is not the only emotion that music can induce and the mechanisms behind its elicitation are far from understood. There are also mechanisms related to arousal and activation that are both less differentiated and at the same time more complex than the assumed mechanisms triggering basic emotions. It is tempting, therefore, to bring together contributions from neuroscience studies with a view to cover the possible range of answers to the question what pleasurable or mood-modifying effects music can have on human beings in real-time listening situations.

These questions were the starting point for a special research topic about music and the functions of the brain that was launched simultaneously in Frontiers in Psychology and Neuroscience. Scientists working on music from separate disciplines such as neuroscience, musicology, comparative musicology, ethology, biology, psychology, evolutionary psychology, and psychoacoustics were invited to submit original empirical research, fresh hypothesis and theory articles, and perspective and opinion pieces reflecting on this topic. Articles of interest could include research themes such as arousal, emotion and affect, musical emotions as core emotions, biological foundation of aesthetic experiences, music-related pleasure and reward centers in the brain, physiological reactions to music, automatically triggered affective reactions to sound and music, emotion and cognition, evolutionary sources of musical sensitivity, affective neuroscience, neuro-affective foundations of musical appreciation, cognition and affect, emotional and motor induction in music, brain stem reflexes to sound and music, activity changes in core emotion networks triggered by music, and potential clinical and medical-therapeutic applications and implications of this knowledge. The response to the call for papers yielded a wealth of proposals with 11 accepted papers by 43 contributing authors. Most of them originate from a neuroscientific orientation with only some contributions from the comparative and ethological approach. The common feature between all contributions was rigorous application of methods and inferences made with empirical data. As a whole, the topic seems to be timely, being exemplary of the increased interest toward music and emotion. There are, however, discrepancies in theories, observations, and approaches, as exemplified in the individual contributions.

This e-book is the outcome of this research topic. The bulk of contributions revolves around the specificity of music experience in terms of perception, emotional reactions, and aesthetic assessment. Since these constituents are also part of the experience of visual art, it seemed to be a fruitful strategy to analyze similarities and differences between these two modalities. As a whole, these studies present new data as well as new hypotheses and theoretical claims which can contribute to a better understanding of the functions of the brain as related to musical experience.

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