Music and the Pregnant Pause

Scientists have tapped into the universal language of music to open the secrets of the brain, and they have discovered something ancient composers knew instinctively hundreds of years ago -- the value of silence.

The latest research from the Stanford University School of Medicine shows that a few seconds of silence during a musical piece trigger responses in the brain that allow listeners to break the piece into digestible chunks so they can remember it. A brief pause also triggers a listener's ability to pay close attention and anticipate what will come next.

"That's really the surprising aspect of our study," said Vinod Menon, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and senior author of the study, published in the current issue of the journal Neuron.

Brain scans were conducted on 18 people as they listened to a symphony by an obscure 18th-century composer, William Boyce. The scans revealed that it's really the pauses in the music, not the music itself, that fire up the parts of the brain that allow people to record and anticipate the experience. So the most important cognitive activity occurred when seemingly nothing was going on. The rest of the time the brain was free to wander, as it so often does while listening to music.

The researchers would not have had the same result if they had picked familiar tunes, or pieces that were well known by the participants in the study, because they would already know what comes next and the pauses would have had little effect.

Music, in this research, is the vehicle, not the target. Every tribe has had its music, probably from very early in human history, so it is truly a universal experience. Thus, many researchers have turned to music to see what they can learn about the human brain, and they have learned much. The most common tool is functional magnetic resonance imaging, a noninvasive procedure that allows researchers to monitor the flow of blood in the brain, thus revealing which areas of the brain respond to various kinds of stimuli.

Menon's team, which has been studying music and the brain for several years, previously demonstrated that music increases the connectivity between areas of the brain that are involved in the brain's reward system. Other researchers have found that music enhances the ability to learn, and to remember, and it can even tune up the auditory system.

It's interesting that science is finally catching up with composers and writers and other creative persons who have known all along that timing, and an unanticipated sound, can be extremely important. No one knows that better than a comedian. The master of good timing was Bob Hope, who knew that a brief pause before the punch line could trigger anticipation, and robust laughter.

Why? Menon said his team's research shows "there's a system in place that detects significant events and sets up expectation of what's going to happen next. It primes the rest of the brain for action."

That can be a tear, following a moving piece, or a laugh, following an unanticipated punch line.

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