Music Is Visual Pattern Recognition and Language To the Brain

Well, not exactly, but I'll get to that in a minute. I read this paper last night, and afterwards, when I was looking around one of the author's pages, I came across a neuroimaging study designed to look for "pre-existing neural, cognitive, or motoric markers for musical ability" 1. Apparently there are neural differences between adult musicians and adult nonmusicians (duh), so the authors of the study wanted to see if these might be innate or the product of musical training. In the study, Norton et al. subjected 39 five to seven-year olds who were beginning piano or violin lessons, and 31 five to seven-year olds who weren't taking music lessons, to a battery of tests designed to measure handedness, visual and spatial IQ, phonemic awareness, motor skills, visual pattern recognition, and music audiation. On top of that, the kids got their brains scanned with an fMRI machine (where, I wonder, did they find 70 5-7 year olds who could make it through all of that?).

Norton et al. didn't find any neural, cognitive, or motoric differences between the students beginning music lessons and those who weren't, but they did find something else. The scores on the visual pattern recognition -- a Raven's Progressive Matrices test, which involves presenting the kids with pictures that have a piece missing, and then having them choose the piece that will complete the picture from a group of 6-8 pieces -- and the phonemic awareness test -- the Auditory Analysis test, in which the kids are presented with words, and asked to repeat them in full, and then to repeat them with parts (e.g., the first letter or syllable, or the last letter or syllable) missing -- were correlated with music audiation, or skill in perceiving music (this was measured by having children listen to a bunch of pairs of rhythms and tone sequences, and asking them to make same-different judgments).

Norton et al. argue that the correlation between visual pattern recognition and music audiation scores indicates a relationship between visual pattern recognition and auditory pattern recognition, and that the correlation between phonemic awareness and music audiation reflects a relationship between language and music (a connection supported by previous neuroimaging studies). Now, what do these relationships mean? I don't know, really. But I thought they were cool enough to write a quick post about anyway. Maybe you can speculate about what they might mean in the comments.

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Well, I often think of Angela Frederichi and colleagues' work (other groups, too) on the relationship between our processing of violations of musical and linguistic syntax. Some the overlap has been traced to frontal areas, including Broca's (if I recall). So is Broca's really a general purpose, heirarchical structure building device that works with a variety of stimulus types? Isn't that Patricia Greenfield's hypothesis from a long time ago...?

This result probably supports Vernon Mountcastle's premise that neural processing, in a basic sense, is modality-agnostic, and that distinct senses are an emergent illusion.

I think I would turn the title around and say that visual pattern recognition is music to the brain.

I say that because there seems to be good evidence that sensory processing is inherently temporal, even in vision. The visual cortices build up features spacially, from teeny-tiny to small/medium. These more complex features are like phonemes. Then the saccades of the eye produce a stream of these "visual phonemes": the signature song of some object. Thus word recognition and object recognition become, at the highest level, essentially the same problem.

That's my pet theory anyway (though I don't think I'm saying anything original---I just can't remember what books I may have gotten it from).

By Eric Wallace (not verified) on 03 Nov 2006 #permalink

Michael, I don't know, honestly. I only started reading this music cognition stuff this summer, almost as a hobby, and strangely, it's become a near obsession, such that I have to read anything I find. However, I still don't know much about the field. I'll have to check out Frederichi and Greenfield's stuff.

Gyan, that's an interesting hypothesis that I hadn't heard of. Now I'm going to have to check that out, too. Gheez, if you guys don't stop giving me stuff to read, I'll never get to read the stuff I need to read for my actual work.

Chris, with regards to Vernon Mountcastle's stuff, I'd suggest reading the recent book On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins. It's a popularization, but it trys to create a general theory of neocortical function based heavily on Mountcastle's ideas. It doesn't exactly succeed, and Hawkin's philosophy isn't very good, but its very interesting nonetheless. While he isn't an academic and so I was a bit skeptical at first, the list of commenters on the back (Kandel, Watson, McGovern, Sur) is just so impressive that I gave it a chance. Definitely worth a read .

Were the young students in Norton et al learning to read? It would be interesting to see the results of young learners following the Suzuki method as compared to traditional instruction. Visual pattern recognition abilities of young violin students may reflect their reading skills.

As Simon alludes to above, Ravens' matrices aren't strictly a test of visual pattern recognition. The task is also one of the most heavily g-loaded tasks identified to date. The claim that 5-7 year olds who are more intelligent in general are also better at music perception isn't as sexy (or informative) as the claim that there's a specific relationship with visual pattern recognition, but deserves to be ruled out first. I haven't read the paper though, so perhaps the authors address this.

I've reviewed a couple of articles for Sound and Mind recently that deal with different aspects of the study you cite:
'Shared networks for auditory and motor processing in professional pianists' (which found not only these shared neural networks, but found that part of that shared network is in an area previously found to be coactivated for audio and visual musical tasks)
'First evidence' for the effects of musical training on brain development (which observes differences in brain development between Suzuki-trained children in their first year of study and non-Suzuki children of the same age)

I also am not sure exactly what the correlation of audio-motor-visual networks or the correlation of musical and linguistic processing networks means just yet. But I will reiterate a point I made in my post on the Suzuki study: the first year or so of Suzuki training is barely musical. It primarily entails rote memorization and imitation by hearing. I think that the students' practicing at this stage is basically high-level memorization practice with instant error correction (when playing alone, the student typically plays along with a recording). This exercise seems to have benefits in childhood brain development, but I think this has little if anything to do with the musical nature of the task. Thus, I wouldn't read too much into the musical-visual connection in children taking music lessons, particularly if they are in a Suzuki or similar program. It may just be a general memory precision issue, for which music lessons happen to be a great developmental exercise.

My wife is a piano teacher and has spoken of the Suzuki method many times in our conversations. I couldn't help but notice the similarities between that method of teaching and how a digital CD player plays back music.

The Suzuki method; from what I can understand calls for a high degree of accuracy in timing, rhythm, and nearly all other aspects of musical playback.

Recently, I've been doing some experiments with a computer processing the sound of a music file. If the processor cannot keep pace with the music you will hear a click or jump in playback. It works a bit like the skip on a record player. And it doesn't sound very good.

To a smaller degree even inaudible 'jumps' are possible too. Although, we may not hear the software lose its grip on the file, the math is being skewed and the timing is skewed as well. These variances can be measured as the distortion called "jitter".

Jitter is nothing more than digital distortion or variations in timing from the recorded medium.

So I wondered... How important is timing and accuracy to our enjoyment of music? And does this also have an effect on our ability to learn -if using music to learn is possible. How much does accuracy play a role in these questions?

The other night I made an unsophisticated experiment. I played back a file by adding high levels of jitter into the stream. Then I played back the same file minimizing the jitter to the lowest level I could achieve (which still was not perfect).

It could have been the placebo affect; but the lower distortion model sure sounded better to me. It was easier to concentrate on the instruments that were playing too.

Not exactly proof of any thing, but it makes me question the validity of many tests that we make. If the manner in which the test is conducted is flawed, then how reliable could the results be?

If we are using music to learn, teach or whatever; could different results be achieved from a varying degree of accuracy in musical playback?

Where can I find the original paper? The attached link is not working for me. Thank you very much!