Science & Technology

Human brains distinctively attuned to musical tones: Study

Certain brain regions in humans show stronger preference for sounds with pitch than macaque monkey brains

By DTE Staff
Last Updated: Wednesday 12 June 2019
Photo: Getty Images

Human brains can hear musical pitch much better than macaque monkeys — one of our closest living relatives, scientists have found.

This ability may have shaped the human brain’s hearing circuits and made us different from our ancestors, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a part of the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“This finding suggests that speech and music may have fundamentally changed the way our brain processes pitch,” said Bevil Conway, investigator in the NIH’s Intramural Research Programme.  

It also suggests “the macaque monkey may experience music and other sounds differently… It makes one wonder what kind of sounds our evolutionary ancestors experienced”, he added. The study is published in the Nature Neuroscience journal.

To test whether human brain selectively responds to sounds with pitch, the team monitored brain activity of healthy volunteers and monkeys that listened to harmonic sounds, or tones, as well as sounds of toneless noises that were designed to match the frequency levels of each tone played.

The maps of the auditory cortex of human and monkey brains showed similar activity, however, when the tones were added to the sounds, “some of these same regions of the human brain became more responsive”, Conway said.

“We found that a certain region of our brains has a stronger preference for sounds with pitch than macaque monkey brains,” Conway said.

“The results raise the possibility that these sounds, which are embedded in speech and music, may have shaped the basic organisation of the human brain,” Conway noted.

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