The cells, dedicated to understanding music, reveal the evolutionary importance of music on humans.

A new study has discovered that the human brain contains a collection of nerve cells that are dedicated to processing the sound of music. The discovery contradicts the widely accepted theory that musical appreciation is merely a byproduct of our human ability to hear and distinguish between different sounds.

The study, conducted by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published last week in the online journal Neuron, made its fascinating conclusions by analysing brain scans of participants as they listened to music, speech and other everyday sounds, such as footsteps or a ringing phone. The results showed that a specific area of the auditory cortex of the brain was only stimulated by music, while another area was dedicated to the understanding of speech. The implications of the findings are profound, suggesting that not only does musical aptitude and understanding have a specific seat within the brain, but that music may have played a crucial role in the evolution of the human nervous system.

Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Josh McDermott, said of the discovery, “In both [areas of the auditory cortex] the responses were strikingly selective – the neural response is strong when people listen to music, in one case, or speech, in another, and much less strong to every other type of sound that we tested.”

Further study is required to explore the MIT findings, as it still remains unclear if people are born with these musical neurons already developed, or whether this population of cells is cultivated over time. However this early research offers a tangible biological connection between a person’s experience of music and their brain function, offering the potential for more empirical study of the substantial psychological and scholastic advantages that have been attributed to both playing and listening to music.   

“Our research suggest the presence of a set of neurons in the adult human brain that respond selectively to music. It remains to be seen whether these neurons are present from birth,” Professor McDermott said. “It is possible that they emerge over time, developed in response to the massive exposure most of us have to music throughout our lives.”

None of the test subjects in this initial study were trained musicians, but MIT plans to conduct similar studies to understand if these new discoveries shares any connections with musical prowess. The team also intends to study the response in infants to explore how hardwired this are of the brain is. “One of the core debates surrounding music is to what extent it has dedicated mechanisms in the brain and to what extent it piggybacks off mechanisms that primarily serve other functions,” Professor McDermott said. “We don’t yet know whether the neuronal tuning is to any degree innate.”

The revelations that could arise from such studies may also offer a further insight into a great anthropological conundrum: did humans invent music or was music acquired by humans due to some evolutionary advantage? Discoveries of ancient musical instruments, some dating back as far as 70,000 years, hint at the social and ritual importance of music that continues to this day. Understanding the biological origins of the consistently vital part music has played in human life will offer a fresh perspective on how specific cultural influences have guided the development of musical expression across the ages.

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