Music and the Pregnant Pause

Research shows a moment of silence enhances the listening experience.

ByABC News
August 7, 2007, 5:51 PM

Aug. 8, 2007 — -- 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.