Scanning a brain that’s out of tune

From Orlando, Fla., at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience

Consider a man who was such a bad piano student as a child that his teacher returned the lesson fees. By scanning this man’s neural activity, researchers have now shown that his brain doesn’t react normally to music.

A small but uncertain percentage of people have trouble recognizing melodies or playing music, a condition some researchers call dysmusia or amusia and liken to the reading disability dyslexia (SN: 11/25/00, p. 344).

To ascertain whether the brains of people with dysmusia differ from those of people with normal musical aptitude, Catherine L. Reed of the University of Denver and her colleagues studied a healthy 63-year-old man. Despite growing up with intensive musical training–he can read music, for example–the man “cannot perceive music at all,” says Reed. Tellingly, he refers to music as “structured noise,” she adds.

After documenting his unmelodic bent, the researchers used a magnetic resonance imaging machine to scan the man’s brain while he took various tests of language and music perception. His brain responded normally to noise, speech, and various aspects of language. When exposed to music, however, he had low-level neural activity throughout the brain, rather than higher activity focused in brain regions traditionally associated with music perception, says Reed. This suggests that the man’s brain doesn’t process music correctly.


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