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Birdsong, Music, and Neuroscience

How are music and bird song related?
© Putneypics - FCC View Large

Brain imaging studies have shown that hearing enjoyable music “lights up” the mesolimbic reward pathway in the human brain. But how does a bird experience a song from its own species? Scientists at Emory University found a similar pattern in the sparrow’s brain. Female White-throated Sparrows, hormonally charged for breeding season, were played songs of male White-throated Sparrows. Just as in humans, the mesolimbic reward pathway was activated. But in male sparrows, hearing the song of another male triggered the part of the brain similar to the one that lights up when humans hear horror film music. 

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BirdNote®

Bird Song, Music, and Neuroscience

Written by Bob Sundstrom

This is BirdNote.

[Music ]

Scientists at Emory University have taken a novel approach to a question that's hung in the air for millennia: how are music and bird song related? The new approach puts the question this way: Looking at what happens in the brain, does a bird experience a song from its own species the way we experience man-made music? Brain imaging studies have shown that hearing enjoyable music lights up what's called the mesolimbic reward pathway in the human brain. The study reveals a very similar pattern in the sparrow’s brain. Female White-throated Sparrows, hormonally charged for breeding season, were played songs of male White-throated Sparrows. [White-throated Sparrow song, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/169021, 0.15-.18]

Just as in humans, the mesolimbic reward pathway lit up. You might say the sparrows were, at the neural level, turned on by the songs of a potential mate.  [White-throated Sparrow song, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/169021, 0.15-.18]

Not so with male sparrows, though. Hearing the song of another male triggered the part of the brain similar to the one that lights up when humans hear horror film music. [Music]

For a male sparrow, when he hears the song of a potential breeding rival, there's a lot at stake. For BirdNote, I'm Michael Stein. [Music]

###

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. White-throated Sparrow song [169021] recorded by Matthew D Medler.   
Music 'Le Merle Noir' by Olivier Messiaen performed by Matthew Schelhorn and the soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra.
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black
© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org    May 2015   Narrator: Michael Stein

ID#    song-13-2015-05-13            song-13       

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