Research on the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying human production and experiece of music is one of most rapidly expanding subfields of contemporary neuroscience. You may recall that back in May I noted that both the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences and Cognition recently has published newly edited special issues on this topic.
A new book by Daniel Livitin, an investigator at the department of psychology at McGill University (and former music producer), presents parts of this exiting research to the general public: This is Your Brain on Music (Dutton 2006). As a teaser, you may first want to hear an interview with Livitin on NPR, which you can find here.
Canada is in many ways the current epicenter of neuromusicology research. Isabelle Peretz, at the University of Montréal, and Robert Zatorre, also at McGill, are perceived by most to be the leaders of the field. Recently, Peretz and Zatorre have established a brand new center for research into the biological foundations of music called BRAMS (Brain, Music and Sound), which is scheduled to host no less than “a core group of seven faculty together with two to three positions for junior investigators, as well as 10 postdoctoral fellows and 20 graduate students,” according to its website. But neuromusicology is also booming in Europe. Starting this year, a project called “Tuning the Brain for Music”, and funded by the EU, will draw together researchers at universities in Finland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and Canada (again!) in an attempt to “gain a deeper insight into the relationship between music, emotions and brain functions”.
Much of the interest in the neural underpinnings of music stems from a deep-seated interest in the evolutionary origins of music – as this recent article from The Boston Globe testifies. Many deeply speculative hypotheses have been advanced as to why homo sapiens has evolved this curious passion for music. However, in recent years more serious papers considering this question have also been appearing, integrating data from comparative studies in animal cognition, neuroscience, and genetics. Let me especially recommend these two papers:
- W. Tecumseh Fitch (2006): The biology and evolution of music. Cognition 100: 173-215.
- J. McDermott & M. Hauser (2006): The Origins of music. Music Perception 23(1): 29-59. [PDF from McDermott’s homepage.]