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Heather M. Whitney


Your Brain on Music

The science of music cognition.

The idea is at once intriguing and fanciful: capture both the image and function of the human body and determine the location of neurological function in many forms—love, hate, problem-solving, language comprehension, music appreciation, even the act of lying. Such is the purported promise of functional imaging that is achieved by procedures such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and combination positron emission tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT). These diagnostic imaging tools allow for spatial localization of signals that are a measure of blood oxygenation level and metabolic processing, respectively. Changes in these levels can be correlated with brain activity, and the analysis has given way to an explosion of studies that subject persons to stimuli while they are undergoing these measurements. While the medical applications are obvious, these tools are being used not only to assess pathology but also to attempt to measure the human experience. It is deceptively simple to play music through a subject's headphones, perform the standard pulse sequences for fMRI studies or inject a subject with a biological marker and run them through a CT scanner, and then point to the part of the brain that is thought to process the cognition of the music. Interpretation of the results is complicated and requires great depth of understanding (and a healthy commitment to disproving null hypotheses). Yet, the technology continues to capture the attention of scientists and non-scientists alike as a way to peek into the wondrous inner workings of the human body, to link the sublime with the physical.

Three recent books draw on advances in the science of music cognition, largely spurred by recent developments in fMRI and other functional imaging modalities. Each of the three introduces the terms that are used to describe music and explores how we perceive pitch, timbre, rhythm, tonalities, and most other topics that are typically covered in a music appreciation ...

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