The Musical Brain
Every one of us has had that annoying experience of having a song "stuck" in our head. It happens so quickly-and so often-that it seems to suggest that music has a special place in our brain; we seem to absorb it automatically. In fact, just like language, music is something that we all develop early in life, even without explicit tutoring. But does this mean that music is a part of our biology-that humans are naturally musical-or is music just a strong part of our culture, something that is learned like anything else?
As Canada Research Chair in the Neurocognition of Music, Dr. Isabelle Peretz is working to understand that question as a part of 20-year quest to piece together the complex ways our brains respond to music. Aside from helping us understand why some people are completely tone-deaf, her research will solve some tricky questions about the nature of musical genius, and about the nature of the mind itself.
Her work includes many novel experiments. In one, Peretz will try to teach children who completely lack musical ability to identify correct tone and timing. By comparing these results with children who have normal musical ability, she'll get a better sense of how much of a person's music ability is predetermined by genetics, and how much of it can be learned.
In another experiment, Peretz will use brain-imaging technology to see if music and language use similar neural "circuitry." This will address a major scientific oversight: most research has treated music and language as separate entities, even though we don't really know if music is an offshoot of our ability to speak, or something else entirely. By understanding this, Peretz will dramatically increase our overall understanding of the human brain.
Music has been common-indeed, so far as we know, universal-in every human culture since prehistoric times, but we still know very little about why humans are musical, and how musicality changes through life. Far from only being useful to record executives hunting for the next diva, Peretz's research will help psychologists studying emotion and memory, therapists designing new mood-disorder treatments, and, of course, every parent who wants to ensure their children enjoy the life-long gift of music.