NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Our Brains Appear Uniquely Tuned for Musical Pitch

A smiling woman listens to music through headphones.
Scientists found that our brains are more sensitive to pitch, the harmonic sounds we hear when listening to music.

In the endless search for understanding what makes us human, scientists found that our brains are more sensitive to pitch, the harmonic sounds we hear when listening to music, than our evolutionary relative the macaque monkey. The study, funded in part by NIH, highlights the promise of Sound Health—a joint project between NIH and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts—that aims to understand the role of music in health.

“We found that a certain region of our brains has a stronger preference for sounds with pitch than macaque monkey brains,” said Dr. Bevil Conway, investigator in NIH’s Intramural Research Program and a senior author of the study published June 10 in Nature Neuroscience. “The results raise the possibility that these sounds, which are embedded in speech and music, may have shaped the basic organization of the human brain.”

The study started with a friendly bet between Conway and Dr. Sam Norman-Haignere, postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute for Mind, Brain, and Behavior and the first author of the paper.

At the time, both were working at MIT. Conway’s team had been searching for differences between how human and monkey brains control vision, only to discover that there are very few. Their brain mapping studies suggested that humans and monkeys see the world in very similar ways. But then Conway heard about some studies on hearing being done by Norman-Haignere, who, at the time, was a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Josh McDermott at MIT.

“I told Bevil that we had a method for reliably identifying a region in the human brain that selectively responds to sounds with pitch,” said Norman-Haignere. That is when they got the idea to compare humans with monkeys. Based on his studies, Conway bet that they would see no differences.

A brain imaging study has found that the human brain strongly favors harmonic sounds over noise, compared to the macaque monkey brain. The results suggest that speech and music may have shaped our brain’s hearing circuits. The two species appear to have evolved differences in the functional organization of brain regions involved in pitch perception.

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