Neurobiology of Everyday Communication: What Have We Learned From Music?

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Abstract

Sound is an invisible but powerful force that is central to everyday life. Studies in the neurobiology of everyday communication seek to elucidate the neural mechanisms underlying sound processing, their stability, their plasticity, and their links to language abilities and disabilities. This sound processing lies at the nexus of cognitive, sensorimotor, and reward networks. Music provides a powerful experimental model to understand these biological foundations of communication, especially with regard to auditory learning. We review studies of music training that employ a biological approach to reveal the integrity of sound processing in the brain, the bearing these mechanisms have on everyday communication, and how these processes are shaped by experience. Together, these experiments illustrate that music works in synergistic partnerships with language skills and the ability to make sense of speech in complex, everyday listening environments. The active, repeated engagement with sound demanded by music making augments the neural processing of speech, eventually cascading to listening and language. This generalization from music to everyday communications illustrates both that these auditory brain mechanisms have a profound potential for plasticity and that sound processing is biologically intertwined with listening and language skills. A new wave of studies has pushed neuroscience beyond the traditional laboratory by revealing the effects of community music training in underserved populations. These community-based studies reinforce laboratory work highlight how the auditory system achieves a remarkable balance between stability and flexibility in processing speech. Moreover, these community studies have the potential to inform health care, education, and social policy by lending a neurobiological perspective to their efficacy.

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