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Musicians and audiences ‘sync’ their brain activity during performances, study finds

The synchronization — or “inter-brain coherence” — is even stronger when the listener enjoys the music, the study found.

Past research has shown that audiences display increased brain activity in auditory- and reward-related regions of the brain while listening to musical performances.
Photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash

Musicians and their audience appear to temporarily sync their brain activity during performances, according to a small but intriguing study published recently in the journal NeuroImage.

The synchronization — or “inter-brain coherence” — is even stronger when the listener enjoys the music, the study also found.

“The findings suggest that neural synchronization between the audience and the performer might serve as an underlying mechanism for the positive reception of musical performance,” the study’s authors conclude.

This isn’t the first study to investigate what happens in our brains as we listen to music. Past research has shown that audiences display increased brain activity in auditory- and reward-related regions of the brain while listening to musical performances.

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But those studies demonstrated a neural connection between listeners and music. For the current study, researchers wanted to see if such connections also existed between listeners and performers.

How the study was done

For the study, a team of neuroscientists from the Institute of Brain and Education Innovation at East China Normal University in Shanghai video-recorded a classical violinist as he performed 12 short musical pieces. Each lasted less than two minutes. While the violinist played, the researchers tracked his brain activity with functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIS), a technology that directs light through the skull to measure blood oxygenation and volume (and thus neural activity) in the brain.

The violinist was instructed to look directly at the video camera while performing. He was also told to keep a neutral expression on his face to avoid providing any clues as to which of the pieces he enjoyed the most.

The researchers then recruited 16 volunteers — college undergraduates — to watch the video performances. Their brain activity was also tracked with fNIS.  All the volunteers were right-handed (like the violinist) and women. Only women were used because previous research has shown gender differences in both music preferences and inter-brain synchronization.

The volunteers rated their enjoyment of each piece of music on a seven-point scale.

Key findings

The fNIS data found consistent inter-brain synchronization between the violinist and the volunteer listeners for all 12 pieces of music. Similar heightened neural activity was found in three specific areas of the brain: the left temporal cortex (an area where sounds are processed and stored), the right inferior frontal cortex (an area where musical structure and the rhythmic patterns of music are processed) and the postcentral cortices. Along with the frontal cortex, the postcentral cortices are hubs for the brain’s mirror neuron system, a group of specialized neurons that let us “mirror” the actions and behaviors of others. Although somewhat controversial, it is believed that mirror neurons play a role in empathy, among other human processes.

“In the present study, the frontoparietal mirror neuron system allows audiences to experience or comprehend the mind of the performer as if they were to ‘walk in another’s shoes,’” the researchers explain.

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The researchers also found a strong correlation between intra-brain coherence and the popularity of the musical pieces played by the violinist. The more the volunteers liked a piece, the greater the synchronicity of brain activity between them and the musician.

Interestingly, the data revealed that the link between intra-brain coherence and popularity occurred only during the second half of each piece of music. That may be because listeners use the opening of a musical work to learn its rhythms and to predict its sounds. Once they understand those patterns, they are then freer to respond to it emotionally and to decide how much they like it.

“If the expectation matches the incoming information, the musical performance will be experienced as pleasant and will be more likely to be followed by the audience in later appreciation,” the researchers write.

Limitations and implications

This was a small study whose participants were all young healthy adults living in a single country. Furthermore, the study involved only a single musician and type of music (classical). The findings might not have been the same if larger, more diverse groups of people had participated — or if other music had been performed.

In addition, the infrared light from fNIS does not reach all regions of the brain. One of the unreachable areas is the limbic system, a set of structures that control emotions and memories (among other things). It’s not known, therefore, if activity in this system synchronizes between performer and listener.

Still, the findings are interesting, and seem to explain, at least in part, why musicians and their audiences feel so much “in tune” with each other during concerts.

“Music is everywhere in our lives, but little is known about the neural basis of well-received music,” the researchers write.

“This study expands our understanding of music appreciation,” they conclude.

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FMI:  You’ll find the study on NeuroImage’s website.