How Your Brain Learns Music

Aug 27, 2019

Faculty members from Texas Tech’s music, psychology and engineering departments teamed up to investigate what happens in the brain when musicians and non-musicians learn a musical task. They used the university’s MRI machine to take images of participants’ brains.

Greg Brookes, an associate professor of voice, says joining with researchers in other fields was a little daunting at first. But he discovered it is invaluable and he learned a lot.

“Interdisciplinary research is extremely important because it allows us to ask questions that we would not be able to ask by ourselves. For me, as a singer and as a teacher of singing, I’m interested in the ways in which we learn to sing, the ways in which we learn to perform, and the ways in which we learn to memorize. Memory has been a very big thing for me because it’s something we all struggle with. It’s probably the part of singing that we all struggle with the most, because it feels like such work, to sit down and memorize a song.”
Brookes was joined by Carla Cash, associate professor of piano and piano pedagogy, Tyler Davis, an associate professor of psychology, and Changzhi Li, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who made a small keyboard.
“They took the keyboard apart, they figured out all of the action, and they took the keys of, I think an octave plus one note. They had to replace anything there that was metal with things that are not magnetic. You’ll see from the pictures, there’s a cardboard box that kind of encloses everything and that’s because cardboard is safe in an MRI machine.”
Brookes says the researchers recruited experts and novices for the both the piano and vocalist testing.
In the piano portion of the experiment, Cash taught research subjects to use the keyboard while laying inside the MRI machine. Over and over, the participants were asked to repeat five-key press sequences that are made up of five different notes on the keyboard, while researchers looked at how accurately and quickly they learned and performed.
“The pattern that they had to replicate, they had to practice it and try to get it faster and faster and faster, and to be as error free as possible. And what we found in the keyboard study, is that rest, which is the time when our brains consolidate learning was more helpful for the experts earlier on in the practice session than it was for the non-experts.”
The MRI allowed researchers to see blood flows increase in the area being activated as the keyboard subjects played, or deactivated through rest.
In the singing portion, Brookes had the subjects sing three songs he asked them to memorize. Thirty seconds of a song in English, 30 seconds of song using the seven syllables of the major scale, and 30 seconds of gibberish.
“What we saw is that the error detection centers of the brain light up when someone is learning an English song, but the error detection centers do not light up when someone is trying to learn gibberish. So, learning and remembering is very much about knowing the mistakes you are making. If you’re unaware of the mistakes, either because the task was too far outside your realm of capability or because you just can’t remember from the beginning, then the task becomes so big that you can’t handle it.”
Brookes, in the experiment’s singing portion, was surprised most by one thing.
“How difficult it is for us to memorize gibberish, how difficult it is for us to hold on to words that have no meaning.”
The researchers received their $150,000 seed grant from the university about four years ago. The MRI work was time-consuming as the group had to vie for time with the equipment with other faculty doing their studies.
The researchers continue to analyze data and plan to publish their results in a peer-review journal, which would be part of any application they make for further funding for continuing research.