Music is universally cherished across humanity. Every culture has its songs and dances, everywhere in the world people listen to music; even small children clap their hands and move to the rhythm of the beat. Music moves us in every sense of the word. We just do not know why. The musical abilities of humankind have puzzled scientists for centuries, and Charles Darwin ranked them as “one of the most mysterious with which he is endowed”. Why do we make music, why do we like it, and how do we even perceive it?
The musical abilities of humankind have puzzled scientists for centuries, and Charles Darwin ranked them as “one of the most mysterious with which he is endowed”.
“Music is art in time”, said Peter Vuust, a neuroscientist and music theoretician at Aarhus University in Denmark. Perceiving music has much to do with our sense of time and anticipation. Music is never perceived instantly: We need a few notes or beats before we detect a rhythm, and with the last few notes in mind, we anticipate what will happen next. Mostly, these anticipations will be met, but sometimes not. “Music plays with predictions, and this is what makes it so interesting to science”, explained Vuust, because it helps to investigate the brain's predictive timing mechanisms.
“Predictive coding” is a conceptual framework of how the brain makes forecasts. It predicts incoming sensory information based on experience and context. This prediction is tightly coupled to the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of reward. In addition to predicting what will happen next, it is just as important to know exactly when it will happen, and an analogous system of “predictive timing” takes on this task. A school of fish or a flock of birds all turning at the same time, a dog …
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