The speech of angels. Mismatched music chords activate brain areas normally recruited by language.

Brain's Language Centers Listen to Music

The essayist Thomas Carlyle called music "the speech of angels." And indeed, a new study shows that music and language have quite a lot in common. When people judge "musical syntax," researchers found, some of the processing goes on in an area of the brain chiefly associated with language.

Music, like language, has its own syntax, or system for putting its parts in a correct order. The researchers tested people's responses to three sets of five chords each. The first set consisted of five chords in the key of C major that ended, following convention, on the so-called tonic (C major) chord. The second and third chord sequences threw in a wild card: a "Neapolitan" chord that contains two notes that are not found in the key of C major. When inserted as the third in the five-chord sequence, this chord is a bit incongruous. When put in the fifth position it definitely sounds inappropriate.

Physicist Burkhard Maess and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in Leipzig, Germany, looked for changes in the brain's electrical response to these sequences with an imaging technique called magnetoencephalography. The team played the chord sequences for six right-handed people with no musical training. Each sequence produced its own electrical pattern, with the largest difference seen between the normal sequence and the one ending with the Neapolitan chord, the researchers report in the May issue of Nature Neuroscience. The chords that stayed in C major mainly registered in the primary auditory cortex, located in the temporal lobes. But the sound of a Neapolitan chord lit up areas above and in front of the temporal lobes, in the speech area known as Broca's on the left side of the brain and its corresponding region on the right.

"Studies such as this teach us to be cautious when talking about 'language areas' in the brain," says Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. The finding that a part of brain thought to be devoted to speech is involved in processing music "raises the question of what these brain areas are really doing."

Related sites

More recent brain imaging studies of music perception
The Max Planck Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience