"Music is a strange thing," Heinrich Heine wrote. "I would almost say it is a miracle. For it stands half way between thought and phenomenon, between spirit and matter, a sort of nebulous mediator, like and unlike each of the things it mediates - spirit that requires manifestation in time, and matter that can do without space ... we do not know what music is" (Critchley, 1977, 217).


For the most part, the process by which the human brain is able to perceive and translate music into neural impulses is still a mystery. Though a few attempts have been made to isolate the particular locations in the brain that play a role in music perception and processing, research in this area has not been extensive and findings are somewhat inconclusive. Different theories have been proposed to explain how we perceive and remember pitches, tones, and intervals, but these hypotheses require an in depth understanding of technical terms and concepts that are not explained in this general overview. This section will endeavor to provide a comprehensive summary of the information that is available concerning musical function, the specialization of cerebral hemispheres in relation to music perception in the brain, and the internalization of rhythm in the brain.

Basics of Sound

Sound is composed of pitch, loudness, and timbre. Pitch corresponds to the fundamental frequency of the sound being perceived. Loudness, or intensity, is a perceptual dimesion of sound that is the function of the degree to which the condensations and rarefications of air differ from each other. Timbre refers to the complexity of a sound and this is determined by the unique blend of frquencies of vibrations that compose a particular sound. For musicians, the sense of sound is enhanced to enable them to perceive tonal relationships, melody, harmony, and tones sounded consecutivley or simultaneously, and tones sounded in terms of time and rhythm (Hanson, 1942). Music exists on three interrelated levels: notes, chords and keys. Combinations of tones and rhythms in connection with these three levels creates what we know as melody and harmony.

Now that you know the nitty gritty, let's get down to business!

How do we listen to music?

Most of us as musical listeners, have certain expectations concerning the way music sounds. These expectations are almost intuitive, based on our previous experiences with music. "The listener expects to hear a particular set of harmonic relationships, expects certain chords to resolve to others, and expects the notes of one key to modulate to the notes of another key" ( (Handel, 1989, 380). Listening is like reading in that each note serves as a point of reference for perviously heard notes and future tones in the melody. If the melody is new to the listener, then he or she able to form a framework with these points of reference that give meaning to the melody, much as unknown words give meaning to unknown sentences (Handel, 1989).

What is musical functioning?

Before looking at other aspects of music processing in the brain, it is important to establish a working definition of musical functions. According to Critchley and Henson (1977), this term refers to a set of three specific elements: a sense of rhythm, a sense of sounds, and "the aptitude to convert musical perception into emotional or intellectual content." The rhythmic sense is thought to be biologically based and extends beyond the musical context to encompass the rhythms that regulate many of the systems in our bodies (more about this coming soon). The sense of sounds is the ability that allows one to correctly perceive the four basic physical properties of a sound nal l l l l l l l l l irical study of music performance and theory that is pursued by musicians. While performers and composers may demonstrate higher levels of musical ability based on further development in the three areas mentioned here, normal musical function simply requires a basic combination of these main elements.

*Cerebral Dominance Cerebral dominance is noted in many abilities, such as language. Can such patterns be extended to musical ability? The survey says...YES! Some aspects of musical ability ether differences may be attributed to the indements.

Cerebral Dominance

Cerebral dominance is noted in many abilities, such as language. Can such patterns be extended to musical ability? The survey says...YES! Some aspects of musical ability correlated with cerebral dominance are: (a) musical execution, independent of musical knowledge and training (right hemisphere specialization), and (b) dominance for musical perception. Specifically, right hemisphere dominance for musical perception occurs in those with little musical knowledge while left hemisphere dominance is prevalent among musically adept individuals. One possible explanation for this disparity is that dominance begins in the right hemisphere but is gradually transferred to the opposite hemisphere as musical knowledge increases (Critchley and Henson, 1977). A study by Zalanowski (1990) regarding effective methods for increasing music appreciation among college students found that individuals with right hemisphere orientation reported greater appreciaiton when drawing a visual representation of music they heard. Conversely, students with left hemisphere orientation reported greater appreciation when writing a verbal description of the music that was played. In discussing cerebral hemisphere dominance in musicians, it is important to ask whether differences may be attributed to the individuals musical training, the location in which music develops in passive listening tasks, or whether specialization is determined by a random act of nature (Gordon, 1983).


Rhythm is the structural support of a musical composition. It dictates the perceived motion of the piece through note lengths and accents. Tempo is related to rhythm and refers to the pacing of the music and its internal rhythmic structure. Tempo is linked to pulse which is the steady level of rhythm that can be felt throughout the piece. Pulse is thought to have a biological as well as musical basis. "The periodic manner in which our biological timing mechanisms function is seen as the quintessential factor that controls our sense of pulse" (Epstein, 1995, p. 136). Many systems within our bodies are based on rhythm, for instance, the cardio-vascular system, the glandular system, and the nervous system. Rhythm is present in the nervous system on three levels: first, the rhythmic mode by which the nervous system acts and transmits signals, second, fusing the perception of rhythmic activity such as light or sound waves with rhythmic movement like breathing and talking, and third, the interaction between the nervous system and biological rhythm found in other systems in the body. Though evidence is inconclusive, it is possible that the natural internal rhythms of our nervous system play a key role in the brain's ability to perceive musical rhythm (Epstein, 1995). Aside from this physiological theory, different theories have been proposed to explain how people respond to rhythm. These include instinctual theory, and motor theory (Lundin, 1953). According to Seashore, the instinctual theory is based on the hypothesis that "subjective rhythm is deeply ingrained in us, since we have an irresistible tendency to group uniform successions of sound" (Lundin, 1953)

The motor theory described by Lundin (1953) centers around the idea that rhythmic responses are dependent on the action of voluntary muscles. According to this theory, our perception of rhythm is based on our responses to our own sequential voluntary muscular activity. One example of our voluntary muscular responses to music is our natural tendency to tap our feet or hands to the beat of a song. Stetson, a supporter of this theory, points out that "even when larger muscle groups are not observed responding to rhythmic stimuli, there are smaller groups still operating often in a more implicit way" (Lundin, 1953). A study by Ruckmick found that muscle movements are an essential part of the rhythmic response. He further noted that the rhythmic response is not confined to a particular set of muscles, but can actually occur in any part of the body. Evidence has shown that people exhibit muscle responses in the head, chest, limbs, and even in respiration (Lundin 110).

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