Musicians get more out of music because their brain waves are better able to synchronize with musical rhythms, researchers have found.
Cortical oscillations - the rhythmic firing of neurons in the brain - are fundamental to our ability to hear and process sounds.
Aligning the frequency of these cortical oscillations with the frequency of the sounds we wish to focus on allows us to better tune into these sounds; for example, being able to listen to one person in a room full of people talking.
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New York University researchers have discovered the same kind of synchronization happens when we listen to music, and the better we are at synchronizing our brain waves with the music, the better we process the music.
"We've done a lot of research previously on speech perception and we've shown that these neural oscillations do track to speech, largely following the syllabic rate, which is about 4-5Hz," lead author and PhD candidate Keith Doelling said.
"There's a lot of debate that goes on as to how much how much of the relationship there is between music and speech, and do they follow the same sort of pathways."
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In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Mr Doelling and Professor David Poeppel mapped neuronal activity in the brains of 27 non-musicians and 12 musicians as they listened to three clips of classical music multiple times.
They found that the cortical oscillations of both musicians and non-musicians synchronized with the tempo of the different pieces of music, but musicians were better at tracking very slow beats; less than one beat per second.
"Maybe non-musicians are having a harder time grouping the notes, so if you hear a note that just once every two seconds you might not really make it into a melody, you might just see it as individual notes," Doelling said.
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While the musical clips were from music by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, the musicians who participated in the study came from a wide range of musical backgrounds.
"The more musicians had been training, the longer they had been training, the more they were able to synchronize," he said.
The study also showed that the degree of synchronization affected how well listeners processed the content of the music itself.
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The researchers tested this by including a slight pitch distortion at one point in the musical segment, and asking listeners firstly if they heard the distortion and secondly, if the pitch went up or down during the distortion.
They showed that participants whose cortical oscillations were better synchronized with the music were also better able to pick the pitch distortion.
Doelling's interest in the brain's ability to process music stems from his own experiences as a musician.
"There's a lot of organization and structure that comes from the rhythm, that brings musicians together and allows them to play all together," he said.
"I wanted to see if the musical rhythms actually relate to the rhythms in the brain."
The team is now hoping to look at whether repeatedly listening to the same piece over and over again can train the brain to better synchronize with musical rhythms.
"So we're looking to see if the non-musicians get up to the level of the musicians by the end of it," Doelling said.
This originally appeared on ABC Science Online.