Music and the Brain

Course No. 1181
Professor Aniruddh D. Patel, Ph.D.
Tufts University
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Course No. 1181
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Course Overview

“Patel is a pioneer in investigating music and the brain, and these clear and engaging lectures make the subject exciting and accessible.”
-Oliver Sacks

Music is an integral part of humanity. Every culture has music, from the largest society to the smallest tribe. Its marvelous range of melodies, themes, and rhythms taps into something universal. Babies are soothed by it. Young adults dance for hours to it. Older adults can relive their youth with the vivid memories it evokes. Music is part of our most important rituals, including those marking birth, weddings, and death. And it has been the medium of some of our greatest works of art.

Yet even though music is intimately woven into the fabric of our lives, it remains deeply puzzling, provoking questions such as:

  • How and why did musical behavior originate?
  • What gives mere tones such a powerful effect on our emotions?
  • Why does music with a beat give us the urge to move and dance?
  • Are we born with our sense of music, or do we acquire it by experience?

In the last 20 years, researchers have come closer to solving these riddles thanks to cognitive neuroscience, which integrates the study of human mental processes with the study of the brain. This exciting field has not only helped us address age-old questions about music; it also allows us to ask entirely new ones, like:

  • Do the brains of musicians differ from non-musicians?
  • Can musical training promote cognitive development in children?
  • Does making or listening to music help patients with brain damage?
  • Is there a deep connection between music and language?

In Music and the Brain, neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology Aniruddh Patel of Tufts University probes one of the mind’s most profound mysteries. Covering the latest research findings—from the origins of music’s emotional powers to the deficits involved in amusia, or the inability to hear music—these 18 enthralling half-hour lectures will make you think about music and your brain in a new way.

“Ani’s series of lectures hit all the right notes. A gifted and engaging guide, he delivers an extraordinarily comprehensive and accessible dive into the most fascinating topics in the neuroscience of music. Watch all of these and you’ll know what one of the greatest minds in the field has to say about the exciting world of music and the brain." -Daniel J. Levitin, Author of This Is Your Brain On Music and Professor of neuroscience and music, McGill University

Designed for music lovers and brain enthusiasts at all levels, Music and the Brain assumes no prior background in the subject. The course is truly interdisciplinary, covering fundamental ideas of music theory, neuroanatomy, and cognitive science, while spotlighting the diverse range of experiments, discoveries, and debates in this fast-changing field.

A Whole Brain Phenomenon

You will learn that music is not just about the auditory system; it’s about the links between sound processing and all the other things that brains do, such as moving, planning, remembering, imagining, and feeling. This means that music shows up in some surprising contexts. For instance, learning to play a musical instrument improves the brain’s processing of speech and helps children who are learning to read. Another example: patients with Parkinson’s disease can enhance their motor skills by participating in musical activities.

Indeed, music happens in so many different parts of the brain that it defies the left brain/right brain distinction. Music cognition is a whole brain phenomenon, as you will discover in numerous brain scans that document where the various aspects of music are centered.

To help you experience these concepts for yourself, Music and the Brain is also filled with dozens of original musical examples composed especially for the course. Having never heard these passages before, you will have no prior associations as you listen to different pitch sequences and rhythms, experiencing some of the many feelings that music can evoke. Among the musical sensations considered in the course are these:

  • Getting chills: Why do certain passages of music elicit what is essentially a fear response—chills and goosebumps—even though we take great pleasure in such moments? Researchers have proposed several theories to explain the reason for this strange reaction.
  • Melodic mastery: Among animals, humans appear to have a unique ability to recognize melodies as the same when transposed up or down in pitch. Professor Patel suggests an evolutionary connection to the difference in pitch register between male and female human voices.
  • Music and spoken rhythm: Why does the music of the French composer Claude Debussy sound so different from that of his English contemporary Sir Edward Elgar? Compare the rhythmic patterns of their music and respective languages for intriguing clues.
  • Sounds of nature: The mix of tones that makes a piano sound different from a violin or a trumpet is called timbre. One reason we find musical instruments with complex harmonic tones so attractive is that they are reminiscent of the timbre of the human voice.

A Transformative Spark

Professor Patel has been lauded by scientists and musicians alike. In 2008, he garnered the prestigious Deems Taylor Award for outstanding coverage of music, presented by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. His work has also received acclaim from neurologist Oliver Sacks, best-selling author of Musicophilia. An exciting and inspiring thinker, Professor Patel draws fascinating connections that stay with you, such as when he compares the invention of music to the discovery of fire. He argues that neither is genetically predetermined, but once developed, both were so useful that they spread universally. Fire provided the physical benefits of cooking, warmth, and protection, while music’s advantages were almost entirely mental and social—as an emotional stimulant, aid to memory, and energizer for group bonding.

But music is even more remarkable than fire, because it can alter the structure of our brains. Learning to play a musical instrument improves speech perception, which in turn makes learning to read easier and aids in gauging emotions in others. Music also enhances the capacity to understand hierarchical structures, handle multiple tasks, and remember long sequences of information. And for patients with stroke, Alzheimer’s, and other brain disorders, it is a potential path to enhancing neural and motor functions. How does it do all of this and more? Music and the Brain is your unrivaled explanation of this marvelous gift.

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18 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Music: Culture, Biology, or Both?
    Explore the distinction between music and musicality. While musical styles change, musicality is the stable array of mental processes that underlie our ability to appreciate and produce music. Begin by looking at our capacity for relative pitch perception, asking why we excel over all other animals at this skill. x
  • 2
    Seeking an Evolutionary Theory of Music
    Darwin believed that musical behavior arose because it gave our early ancestors a biological advantage. But what advantage? Investigate Darwin's theory and other adaptationist explanations for the evolution of music. Then look at two alternatives: invention theories and gene-culture co-evolution theories. x
  • 3
    Testing Theories of Music's Origins
    Follow two lines of research that have put ideas about music's origins to the test. Start with studies of music perception in monkeys. Then turn to an ingenious experiment with young children, designed to evaluate the theory that musical behavior enhances social bonds between group members. x
  • 4
    Music, Language, and Emotional Expression
    What makes a piece of music sound sad? Or joyful? Or angry? Why does music have expressive power beyond words? Explore the different ways that music conveys emotion. Test your own responses to musical passages composed especially for the course. x
  • 5
    Brain Sources of Music's Emotional Power
    Delve deeper into the emotional reactions that people have to music. Feel the chills induced by certain musical passages and study the theories about where these powerful feelings come from. Then look at eight distinct psychological mechanisms by which music arouses emotions in listeners. x
  • 6
    Musical Building Blocks: Pitch and Timbre
    Focus on two processes that are fundamental to musicality: the perception of pitch and timbre. Pitch allows us to order sounds from low to high. Timbre lets us distinguish two sounds with the same pitch, loudness, and duration. Both pitch and timbre are constructed by the brain and have deep evolutionary roots. x
  • 7
    Consonance, Dissonance, and Musical Scales
    What brain processes lead people to hear certain intervals as more consonant and others as more dissonant? Evaluate the major theories, one of which traces the phenomenon to the acoustic quality of the human voice. Then examine the structure of musical scales. x
  • 8
    Arousing Expectations: Melody and Harmony
    Melodies and harmonies combine pitches according to rules that we have internalized through experience. Listen to musical examples that demonstrate unresolved and resolved expectations. Consider the analogy to grammar in language, and search for a connection between music and language in the brain. x
  • 9
    The Complexities of Musical Rhythm
    Begin your study of musical rhythm by distinguishing periodic from non-periodic rhythmic patterns. Periodicity can be thought of as beat; non-periodicity involves expressive techniques such as timing variations and phrasing. Close by asking whether composers write music in the rhythmic patterns of their native language. x
  • 10
    Perceiving and Moving to a Rhythmic Beat
    Look beneath the surface of a seemingly simple feature of music: beat. Discover that beat perception in humans is exceedingly complex and incorporates six distinct criteria. Then survey animal studies to see if other species share our talent for getting the beat. x
  • 11
    Nature, Nurture, and Musical Brains
    Use neuroimaging to investigate the ways that brains of musicians differ from those of non-musicians, asking whether the differences are due to nature or nurture - whether they are inborn or the result of experience. Pinpoint brain structures involved in such musical skills as absolute pitch. x
  • 12
    Cognitive Benefits of Musical Training
    Probe the ongoing research into the effects of musical training on the microstructure of the brain, which points to cognitive benefits in areas such as speech processing. Focus on how learning to play a musical instrument influences language acquisition and reading ability in children. x
  • 13
    The Development of Human Music Cognition
    Not all aspects of musicality mature in the brain at the same rate. Trace the developing music faculty in infants, who have already learned to recognize their mother's speech patterns and singing while in the womb. Examine research showing that singing is more effective than speech in calming infants. x
  • 14
    Disorders of Music Cognition
    Turn to cases where music cognition breaks down in disorders such as dystimbria and amusia. General Ulysses S. Grant and novelist Vladimir Nabokov appear to have been affected by amusia. Investigate what they and others with similar deficits miss when listening to music, and explore the underlying cause. x
  • 15
    Neurological Effects of Hearing Music
    Consider how the biological effects of listening to music might affect people with a wide range of medical conditions, from those undergoing surgery to premature infants, stroke victims, and Alzheimer's patients. Search for the biological mechanisms that make music a powerful balm for the mind and body. x
  • 16
    Neurological Effects of Making Music
    See how actively engaging in music can enhance communication and movement in patients with a variety of neurological disorders, including aphasia, Parkinson's disease, motor disorders, and autism. Music's connection to multiple brain systems appears to underlie its beneficial effect on these conditions. x
  • 17
    Are We the Only Musical Species?
    We may be the only animal that uses words, but we are not the only animal that sings. Survey music-making among other species, from fruit flies to gibbons, whales, parrots, and songbirds. Analyze the sound structure of their song to learn how it differs from ours. x
  • 18
    Music: A Neuroscientific Perspective
    Conclude the course by examining the biological significance of music though the lens of neuroscience. Look at five aspects of language that point to biological specialization in humans, and ask whether the same evidence also applies to music. How have we been shaped by nature to enjoy this very special type of sound? x

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Your professor

Aniruddh D. Patel

About Your Professor

Aniruddh D. Patel, Ph.D.
Tufts University
Dr. Aniruddh D. Patel is a Professor of Psychology at Tufts University. He received his Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University, where he studied with Edward O. Wilson and Evan Balaban. His research focuses on the cognitive neuroscience of music. Prior to arriving at Tufts, Professor Patel was the Esther J. Burnham Senior Fellow at The Neurosciences Institute, a scientific research...
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Music and the Brain is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 73.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Inaccurate Course Title This course is called Music and the Brain, and I bought this course because I was interested in how the human brain functions when it is listening to music or performing music. But the course seldom discusses that question. Instead, the course primarily consists of scattershot discussions of a variety of other subjects: (1) whether primates, birds, and other species perceive specific features of music, (2) music's origins and whether and how our species' interest in music is a product of evolution, (3) whether and to what extent individuals from different cultures perceive features of music differently and use the same words to describe specific features of music, (4) the relationship between language and the music, (5) the way that the different languages spoken by particular composers (specifically, Debussey and Elgar) was reflected in differences in their music and (5) general music appreciation.. In the latter regard, the teacher frequently played excerpts of music and asked audience members to think about how they emotionally reacted to the music or pointed out specific features of the music. In this regard, the lecturer even had a contemporary composer write music that was played off and on during the course!!! What seemed to unite all these disparate subjects was the training and research interests of the professor:: e.g his Ph.D is not in neuroscience but in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and he said in the course that he was one of the authors of a paper that compared Debussy's and Elgar's music. In fact, the Professor discussed specific papers that he had authored or co-authored several times in the course, and the lectures seemed to be oriented around his research interests.. In any case, by my rough estimates, about 1/10th of the course discussed the brain's functioning when music is being heard or performed. The professor is obviously entitled to conduct research in the areas discussed in the course, and there may well be people interested in the subjects that this professor primarily chose to discuss. But the title of the course did not match these subjects and caused me to waste my time on subjects of no or little interest to me. Because this course did not deliver what it promised, I looked through the bibliography of Jeanette Norden's Teaching Company Course on Understanding the Brain and found an excellent book on music and the brain and learned the things that I had hoped to learn in this course by reading this book. So just as there are books that are focused on the subject of music and the brain, the Teaching Company could have a course that did so. Regrettably, this course did not. I have well over 100 teaching company courses, and this is only the third one that I have returned.
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course linking music and mental health Wow! Confirmed personal beliefs held for decades about how music impacts learning and mental development as well as impact on improving mental and physical health. Personal interest, feel this is one of the best courses taken.
Date published: 2020-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding Music and the Brain Better The course had great music examples to explain how I experience music. The brain even fills in what I actually didn't hear but thought I did. I understood better the music-language connections and when they didn't connect.
Date published: 2020-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great content! High level! Expert teacher. High-level content for both amateur and academic researchers. Quality videos, transcript and guide. I found it complete and satisfactory!
Date published: 2020-03-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Presenter While this program was well presented, I was hoping for more information on the association of cognitive enhancement, mood modulation and the prevention of age-related dementia and its association with music therapy. It was, certainly, touched upon, but only in a very cursory manner. I realize that this was just an introductory course on Music and the Brain and that The Great Courses could devote an entire program devoted to music therapy. I hope that such a course would be considered in the future.
Date published: 2019-12-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Which Came First The Turtle Or The Egg Great course by Professor A.D.Patel. Neatly packaged into thought provoking Titles. Just started the course, already the questioning bells are ringing.You don’t have to be a musician to experience another gem from the GC. Which came first, the Turtle or the egg?The point being, in early Humans did language develop first or Music? You may have seen video footage of persons playing piano to wild elephants in Safari Parks. Canines playing piano to humans. Could this be the rise of the species,or just our love for animals getting the better of our Rorschachian psychological projections? Your excitement may be kindled when Prof Patel details the research into humans writing “Animal Music “ (for animals) based on the sounds they communicate with, and their reactions to it. Was eye opening. Ahah! Dr Doolittle was right. Music, language and Art, may have been a simultaneous development of early Genius. In Fawlty Towers ( BBC Comedy) Basil making excuses of his inability to speak Spanish and also his ineptitude, uses Manuel the waiter as a foil. “ oh, he’ from Barcelona!” Could it be-when a School of Dolphins surface next to a sailboat all chattering away with the clicks of dolphin speech. Could the Dolphin tour guide be saying,”Here are our cousins, you may also see them in the water,”-then in hushed tones but they’re from the land.”Speculating, could this research reveal that the booming eerie vocalizations of whales through hundreds of miles of ocean be an “ I Love You to a Whalerian Maiden? Or the bone chilling vocalizations said to be heard by hunters , just be warm up vocals in the forest by a Bigfoot equivalent of Pavorroti?These researchers may be on to something. The subjects discussed in this course may bring us closer to our musical past than Rolf Harris and his didgeridoo did, with his hit record “Sun Arise” This Course will ignite your imagination and fuel your speculative interest. Happy speculations everyone.
Date published: 2019-09-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting content The content is not what I was expecting. It covers some theories on the evolution of music, music theory, a little bit of neurology (where the professor does make reference to specific parts of the brain), links between linguistics and music, and discussion of many, but small studies on music and our brains. Even though it wasn't what I was expecting, I have never taken any class on music theory or something similar, so I learned quite a bit. The professor is a good presenter and easy to follow. I took the audio class, and found only 1 or 2 situations where he referenced a graph that might have been easier to follow visually. I walk away from the class with interesting information about what might make music engaging to most people, how it varies across cultures and what researchers are investigating. However, I think the studies are pretty small and quite a bit more needs to be done before just about any conclusions can be drawn.
Date published: 2019-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding, if fairly heavy sledding This is a very high-level, fairly technical course on two overlapping areas--the evolution of music perception and ability, and what cognitive neuroscience can tell us about those things. I think it would be pretty heavy sledding for someone with no background in music theory or appreciation, exposure to research methodology and interpretation, and basic brain anatomy and function. That said, Patel is a wonderful presenter and clearly a (the?) leading investigator and exponent of this topic area--and he explains things clearly and objectively. I learned a lot. The final lecture, “Music: A Neuroscientific Perspective”, would be a great place to start for anyone potentially interested in delving into this subject.
Date published: 2018-12-22
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