Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Voices beyond the sound or illusion? : Rosemary Brown

Voices beyond the sound or illusion? : Rosemary Brown

Robert Jourdain’s book, Music, the brain, and Ecstasy explains human brain’s musical perceptual and cognitive abilities by classifying subjects into ten categories.(From sound to tone, melody, harmony, rhythm, composition, performance, listening, understanding and ecstasy.) Jordain gives rich examples based on concrete evidences from scientific experiments to support his idea. It was fascinating to read a book which analyses music with a neuroscience perspective. However, in the chapter of composition, there is an odd example compare to others. The story of Rosemary Brown, believed as a medium who did many dictations of dead composers’ compositions. In this essay, I will explore the arguments regarding the musical inspiration and illusions.

Rosemary Brown was an English composer and medium who claimed to have communicated with some of the world’s greatest composers who passed away. (Hinson 2013, 186) Furthermore, she claimed that they dictated to her their new compositions on the piano. She stated that each composer had his own way of dictating music to her. Franz Liszt (1811-86) dictated to her by moving directly her hands and Franz Schubert (1797-1828) dictated to her by singing and so on. (Stollznow 2014, 112) Rosemary Brown published three books that explain her supernatural experience : Unfinished Symphonies: Voices from the Beyond , (William Morrow, 1971), Immortals at My Elbow (Bachman & Turner, 1974) and  Look Beyond Today (Bantam Press, 1986) She even made a recording, The Rosemary Brown Piano Album which consists of dead composers’ new composition and she appeared at the TV shows to demonstrate her compositions.

Surprisingly, there are many music experts put confidence in her supernatural experience. For instance, pianist Hephzibah Menuhin, sister of Yehudi Menuhin, said: "I look at these manuscripts with immense respect. Each piece is distinctly in the composer's style." (Stemman 1975, 123) and it is told that conductor and composer, Leonard Bernstein was impressed by listening to Chopin’s impromptu dictated to her. (Melrose 2005). Richard Rodney Bennett, a famous film music composer and jazz pianist, stated that it would not be possible to compose and play such complex music without having a strong musical background. (Fanthorpe 2000, 127) Some people even supported her financially in order that she could concentrate on transcribing music, writing books explaining her experiences, giving public performances and interviews. (Brown, 2012, 36)People who believe in the existence of the “Arkashic Records” are not surprised by this kind of story, but how can we explain this case with concrete evidences?

There are also musicians and psychologists against Rosemary Brown’s claim. (It is not surprising that there are more cons than pros for this case.) Some musicologists and psychologists criticize lack of musicality of her compositions, but musicologist Andrew Neher explains Rosemary Brown’s supernatural experience in a different perspective. In his book, Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination, Neher states that Rosemary Brown’s ability of communication with sprits might be a reflection of her unconsciousness. Jourdain says that she was educated in a non-musical family (Jourdain, 1997, 155-156) but paranormal investigator Harry Edwards says Brown stated later that she was born in a musical family and trained as a skilled pianist. Neher points out that Rosemary spent her childhood listening her mother’s piano playing and she also took piano lessons and it is possible that this experience enabled her to produce music in an altered states of conscious. (Neher, 1990, 208)

Rosemary Brown’s story was happened in 1970 and attracted public attention. Few music-related professionals were interested in this phenomenon, but musicologists’ researches were only able to analyze her works’ musical style and structure. Psychologists tried to explain her case with psychological perspectives, but there is no concrete evidence for both cons and pros since the cognitive neuroscience field – which can explain brain’s function with data- has blossomed since 1990’s. Nevertheless, the opinions about Rosemary Brown’s case can be categorized into two ways; possibility of contacting other spirits and possibility of discovering unconsciousness of herself.

             In conclusion, I believe researches in  neuroscience perspectives will enable us to discover the part of brain which might store discrete memories related to Rosemary Brown’s case. Jourdain just presents her anecdotes as an intro for the chapter 5.However, the book was written in 1997 and the development of science afterward might be able to decode such supernatural phenomenon. Especially, using the equipment such as electroencephalography” (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging”(fMRI) will enhance to find concrete evidences to decode the mysterious voices beyond the sound.




Brown, Matthew. Debussy redux: the impact of his music on popular culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.

Buckland, Raymond. Buckland's book of spirit communications. 2nd ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn, 2004.

Fanthorpe, R. Lionel, and P. A. Fanthorpe. Death the final mystery. Toronto: Dundurn Group, 2000.

Hinson, Maurice, and Wesley Roberts. Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire, Fourth Edition. 4th ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Jourdain, Robert. Music, the brain, and ecstasy: how music captures our imagination. New York: W. Morrow, 1997.

Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and transcendental experience: a psychological examination. 2nd ed. New York: Dover, 19901980.

Stemman, Roy. The supernatural. New York: Danbury Press, 19751976.

Stollznow, Karen. Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Willin, Melvyn J.. Music, witchcraft and the paranormal. Ely: Melrose, 2005.


Is there such a thing as innate musical talent?

For Bach and Hayden musical talent was something that was gifted from above. Chosen by God, ordained miraculously with a virtuosic ability. This impression of musical genius has stayed with us through the centuries. Jourdain describes it as “the phenomenon of inspiration”; supporting the idea that creative geniuses have something innately special about them that sets them apart.

Malcolm Gladwell has a more basic answer about where genius comes from; 10,000 hours of practice. In his best-seller, Outliers, The Story of Success, he asks “Is there such a thing as innate talent?”  Gladwell examines “musical genius”, and uses a research study done in the early 1990’s by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson to support his theory that talent is a result of practice. Lots of practice.  The study looks at the musical success and virtuosity of violin players at Berlin’s Academy of Music.  Players are divided into three groups: the virtuosos/“world-class performers”; solid players who are considered to be very good, and musicians who were “never going to play professionally” but were planning on pursuing music pedagogy. Each student was then asked to reveal the amount of time they had committed, year by year, to instrumental practice. The findings were interesting. Most students began learning their instrument at a young age, and spent the same amount of time practicing until the age of eight. At the age of eight the amount of practice changed dramatically between groups. Those students in the first group increased their practice by enormous amounts; by nine years old – eight hours, at fourteen – sixteen hours, and by twenty they were practicing thirty hours a week.

All students in the first group had acquired at least 10,000 + hours of practice. In comparison the musicians in the two other groups had practiced about 2,000 hours.  What Ericsson discovered was that not only did the virtuosos work harder than everyone else – they actually worked much, much harder (Gladwell, 39).  And this brings Gladwell to his magic number. He quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert in anything.” Levitin explains that it takes the brain this much time to master any subject, and “true mastery” of the subject = 10,000 hours.

Gladwell applies his 10,000 hours theory to Mozart. Examining his works from the age of six, he theorizes that Mozart’s first original concerto, considered to be his earliest masterwork, (No.9, K271) was completed when he was 21. What makes Gladwell’s argument even more compelling is that in Ericsson’s study of the violin students, there were no “naturals that emerged”. No student magically achieved greatness effortlessly, by some innate gift or talent. All had the enormous amount of 10,000 hours of practice behind them. In addition, the study did not uncover any “grinds”; students who had put in that amount of time and had not been successful.

Jourdain’s explanation of musical talent is a little more complex.  Jourdain’s list includes: superb neurology for music, a high overall IQ, thorough training, limitless encouragement, the right kind of personality, drive, courage, rebelliousness, and, the luck of being born at the right time, in the right place (Jourdain, 186).  Jourdain admits that there is no evidence that the brains of musical geniuses are any different from the average brain (187). In fact, while Jourdain acknowledges that Einstein’s brain showed double the amount of neuron support cells, he also acknowledges that his genius may just have been as easily attributable to hard work.

Jourdain delves into many possibilities for musical genius, “robust parietal lobes”, a prevalence toward “auditory imagery”, deep musical intention, even androgyny. A ridiculous sort of paragraph that asserts that male musicians are more sensitive, female musicians more forceful, dressing in unisex clothing, medium-length hair, eschewing gender roles.

He touches on children’s first introduction to music, the feel, the experience, the “concept of instrumental playing that will stay with them for a lifetime and questions those first tender years dedicated to difficult notation and score reading and  a ”typist mentality” for attaining note perfection. Preventing many from perhaps entering that talent zone, when music is nothing but mental gymnastics.

In his examination of virtuosity Jourdain acknowledges the weaknesses in some of his assumptions about musical talent. He surmises that virtuosic performers must have superior kinesthetic and anatomical advantages; better bones, muscles, or nerves.  But while presenting these possibilities he comes very close to Gladwell’s conclusions, “practice reinforces the connections, neglect weakens them”. 225. He discusses a superego strength. Something that must be present just to get through long hours of day in and day out practice.

Both Jourdain and Gladwell recognize that practice, day in and day out, especially at a young age, does not happen without encouragement. Dedicated parental or guardian support, expensive music lessons, wealth to provide those lessons and opportunities where students will be mentored; perhaps placed in musical ensembles where that amount of practice is tantamount.  Gladwell attributes talent to a worker bee mentality. Jourdain returns to the mysticism of “talent”, some people just seem to have it, some people don’t.  In the end both scholars seem to concur - talent emerges from a little bit more than just clocking in practice at 10,000 hours.

Are musicians born or made? Untangling whether music ability is the result of nature or nurture

Robert Jourdain’s Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy (1997) provides readers with a solid foundation and insight into the growing field of music cognition. This book delves into a variety of areas within the field in order to provide readers with a broad look at what music cognition is all about.  However, since it’s publication in 1997, there has been a mass of research conducted on music and it’s ability to affect our minds.  One glimpse at current topics within the field shows that Jourdain’s book on “up-to-date” research on music cognition is now no longer so.
Are musicians predisposed to music ability, or does it come from music education? Are superb musicians born with a certain amount of music talent? In this essay I will attempt to answer these questions with current research in the field of music cognition. This question arose after Jourdain’s comment regarding music composers. He states that to be an exceptional composer, one must have it all: “superb neurology for music, high overall IQ, thorough training, limitless encouragement and the right kind of personality” (Jourdain, 1997, p. 186). Research supports the notion that we are born with a certain personality (Tellegen, 1988) and a level of music hearing ability (Gordon, 1998). Essentially this implies that in order to compose music successfully, one must be born with the necessary talent.  To this I ask: What about performing musicians? Can anyone become a musician with the right amount of training, or must we be born with the right qualities in order to be successful at music?
Jourdain made his statement based on the most successful composers, specifically Mozart. Therefore it seems appropriate to question whether a similar level of expertise has to be predisposed to music ability. To start, we must first clarify what it means to be an expert musician.  There are many ways to conceptualize an expert musician, and definitions are not consistent. For the purpose of this essay, I will define an expert musician as someone who is capable of a high level of technical ability, able to embody the emotion in music with ease, and has substantial music training.
            A key part of being an expert musician is that they have had music training. But the question remains, were expert musicians able to reach that level by training alone, or were they born with an ability to understand music better than others? In order to understand this better, we must now turn to recent research in the field of music cognition on natural music talent. To be musically talented does not necessarily mean one must be a musician at all.  A “non-musician” does not imply an absence of any ability to understand music; therefore it is possible that there is also no such thing as a “non-musician”. Natural music ability, or talent, may be undiscovered, or circumstances may have prevented its development (Law & Zentner, 2012). In the field of music cognition, this natural music ability has been termed “music aptitude”, a term that encompasses natural music abilities, or the innate potential to succeed as a musician (Schellenberg, 2013).  Robert Jourdain does not discuss music aptitude in his book, however it is a topic that appears to be popular in the music cognition field.
            The first musical aptitude tests were created by Carl Seashore (1915) and Edwin Gordon (1967). The intention was to determine which children were likely to succeed through music education (Gordon, 1998). However, these tests were eventually used in music cognition research as a way to better understand how both musicians and non-musicians hear music. Music aptitude is important in understanding whether musicians are born or made, because researchers have determined that individuals are born with a certain amount of music aptitude (Gordon 1965). It is possible that being born with a high music aptitude sets someone up to enjoying music lessons more, and therefore staying in them longer and reaching a higher level than someone with low music aptitude. In line with this view, is that expert musicians consistently score with higher levels of music aptitude than amateurs (Schellenberg, 2013). The important take-away from this research is that music aptitude may explain why some people are better at hearing music than others. However, research has also shown that music training can increase scores on music aptitude tests, therefore music training clearly has an impact on music ability in addition to natural music talent.
Another way to determine whether musicians are born or made is to turn to the “10,000 Hour Rule”. This term was coined by writer Malcolm Gladwell after reading a study conducted by Ericsson and colleagues (1993) which implied that ten thousand hours of practice was the magic number needed in order to become an expert (Gladwell, 2008).  This rule supports how musicians are made because it implies that in order to be an expert in any field, you must have at least 10,000 hours of practice. It also implies that if you don’t have that many hours then you can’t be an expert, or that zero hours of practice means that you are not a musician. The problem with this is that research in music aptitude has shown that even non-musicians can have a very good ear for music.
When discussing qualities that make an exceptional composer, Jourdain uses Mozart as an example. Mozart was also considered an expert performer during his childhood, and there is no way that he could have had 10,000 hours of practice at such a young age. Therefore, the 10,000 Hour Rule may not be a good enough argument for musicians being made. More support against the idea that practice can make you an expert musician can be found in recent research. In a study conducted by Macnamara, Hambrick and Oswald (2014), they found that practicing only accounted for 21% of one’s music ability, which means that other things, such as natural music talent (or aptitude), better explains music ability.
            It is clear that there is a lot of contradicting evidence on both sides of this nature versus nurture debate, so an answer cannot be as clear cut as we would hope. Recent research in the field of music cognition has found that we are all born with some level of music aptitude, suggesting that anyone can become a musician, but some are born with a better potential. The 10,000 Hour Rule suggested that you need that many hours to become an expert, but recent research does not support this claim. What we can conclude is that to become an expert performer, a high level of music aptitude is necessary.  So are musicians born or made? It is likely not just nature (music aptitude) or nurture (music training) that creates an expert musician, but rather the two together that form a winning combination in leading us to achieving a mastery of our craft.

Anvari, S.H; Trainor, LT; Woodside, J; Levy, B.A. (2002). Relations among musical
skills, phonological processing, and early reading ability in preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 83 , 111-130.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Gordon, E. E. (1998). The Legacy of Carl E. Seashore. In Introduction to Research and the Psychology of Music. Chicago.

Gordon, E. (1967). The Musical Aptitude Profile. Music Educators Journal, 53, 52-54.

Ericsson, K., Krampe, R. & Tesch-Romer. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Law L.N.C, Zentner, M. (2012). Assessing Musical Abilities Objectively: Construction and Validation of the Profile of Music Perception Skills. Department of Psychology, University of York, York, United Kingdom.

Macnamara, B., Hambrick, D. & Osawald, F. (2014). Deliberate Practice and Performance in
Music, Games, Sports, Education and Professions: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Science, 25(8), 1608-1618.

Schellenberg, G. (2013). Music and Cognitive Abilities. In D. Deutsch, The Psychology of Music, 3rd Edition (pp. 499-505).

Seashore, C. (1915). The Measurement of Musical Talent. New York: G. Schirmer.

Tellegen, Auke; Lykken, David T; Bouchard, Thomas J.; Wilcox, Kimberly J.; Segal, Nancy L.; Rich, Stephen(1988). Personality similarity in twins reared apart and together. Journal of Personality and Psychology , 54(6), 1031-1039.

What new research findings have developed in using music to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease patients?

          In his book, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, Robert Jourdain describes the malady of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) as a malfunction of the substantia nigra in the basal ganglia, leading to impaired movement and motor functions. The book explains Dr. Oliver Sacks’ discovery that many PD patients responded to music through listening and were able to temporarily move again. However, the stipulation is that the patient must be in the right mood with their preferred type of music. In some PD patients, the mere thought of music, by mentally “playing” through compositions, generated normal EEG (Jourdain, 1997). However, as the music comes to a halt, so too does the freedom from impaired movements. It is clear that music creates a sense of flow in the brain, permitting for a higher degree of integration, thereby allowing patients to move with more fluidity. Although these findings have been significant, newer scholarly literature has been produced since Jourdain’s book was published in 1997. This essay aims to update Jourdain’s research on music and PD patients by investigating the effects of vibroacoustic therapy (VAT) and singing. 
          VAT is a useful approach that uses audible to create mechanical vibrations applied directly to the body by a vibrating surface such as a mattress, chair, or table. Vibrations have been used for many years across several cultures to restore mental, physical and emotional balance. Within the medical field, it has been used in ultrasound technology, to treat tissue contractures, and to break kidney stones (Boyd-Brewer, 2004). There are many benefits to VAT such as alleviating pain, reducing anxiety, inducing relaxation, and stimulating blood flow. 
          In PD patients, VAT has been shown to reduce motor symptoms, as it resets abnormal neural rhythms, initially caused by a loss of dopamine. King, Almeida, & Ahonen (2009) found improvements in all motor symptoms listed on the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS). In particular, there was a significant decrease in tremor and rigidity and a significant increase in step length and speed in the upper limbs. Although PD is usually treated with drugs, the effects usually wear off over time and patients develop a range of physiological and psychiatric problems. VAT, therefore, proves to be a noninvasive, nonpharmacologic method that holds promising results. Furthermore, no negative effects have been reported with VAT. 
          When VAT is combined with music, it can produce powerful results as it allows the patient to experience VAT physiologically (through the applied vibrations) and psychologically (through music listening). Music that has been composed for VAT uses particular timbres, textures, and frequencies, resulting in a range of instrumentation and sound. Tactile sensations which are interspersed and felt throughout the surface are created through strategic use of dynamic accents, volume levels, and pitch changes. When music VAT is combined with a low frequency of 40 Hz, improvements can be seen in motor abilities and daily living tasks such as chopping food or making the bed (Vincente, Manchola, & Serna, 1997).
          Approximately 80% of PD patients are diagnosed with voice and speech problems, greatly affecting their quality of life. These include difficulty initiating speech, loss of volume, range, pitch and intonation of the voice, difficulty conveying emotions in speech, breathiness, uncontrolled rates of speech, slurred speech, and stuttering (Wan, Ruber, Hohmann, & Schlaug, 2010). Although traditional speech therapy and pharmacological techniques are often pursued, they have produced inconsistent results (Wan et al., 2010). It is clear that other alternatives are needed to alleviate the symptoms of PD. 
          It has been known that music listening can have remarkable effects on emotional and cognitive functioning, especially on individuals with neurological conditions. Active music making can have an even more profound effect, as it requires more of the nervous system at work, and involves perception and action, linked to motor, sensory and multimodal integrative areas throughout the brain. These networks overlap with mirror neurons which play an essential role in the observation and execution of actions (Wan et al., 2010). Singing is a useful medium because it involves an auditory-motor feedback loop in the brain more intensely than other music making activities such as instrumental playing (Wan et al., 2010, p. 287). 
          Given that speaking and singing share behavioral and physiological similarities, singing has proved to be an effective way of treating many of the speech abnormalities that PD patients experience, as it directly stimulates the musculature associated with respiration, articulation, phonation, and resonance (Wan et al., 2010). Since singing requires regulated breathing, inspirations, and expirations, it calls for much more vocal control and intensity than speaking. As a result, PD patients may increase respiratory muscle strength which can lead to positive, long term results in the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems. In fact, Bonilha, Onofre, Vieira, Prado & Martinex (2009) found that patients experienced improvements in dyspnea after only two minutes of vocal exercises and overall had increased inspiratory and decreased expiratory volumes compared to a control group. 
          Singing can also decrease the frequency of stuttering by an astounding 90%. This is due to the fact that music simply cannot exist without rhythm. In the same way that a metronome produces external timing cues, the act of singing involves an internal representation of rhythm which administers internal timing cues for the initiation of each syllable (Alm, 2004, p. 330). According to Stager, Jeffries, & Braun (2003) who compared the activation of speech with singing through PET brain imaging, speech was activated in the left hemisphere while singing was activated in the right hemisphere. Although there was activity in the left dorsal putamen during speech, neither the left or right putamen was activated during singing. These findings support the idea that while speech requires timing cues from the left basal ganglia system, singing uses a different procedure for the timing of syllables, resulting in its success to help those who stutter.
          PD is a progressive disorder that can be physiologically, physically, and psychologically damaging. Although the use of pharmaceutical drugs such as Levodopa have been wide spread as it improves motor functions of PD, many patients eventually develop movement complications within five to ten years. Despite that 80% of PD patients develop speech and voice abnormalities, only 3-20% have consulted a speech and language therapist (Di Benedetto, Cavazzon, Mondolo, Fugiu, & Peratoner, 2009). As a result, many PD patients are left feeling defeated and hopeless about the future. There is much room then, for music as a means to alleviate motor and speech symptoms of PD. Although Jourdain has explained some of the ways that music can help, much literature has been published since then that offers new ways of using music, such as VAT and through singing. It is clear that these are excellent alternatives for PD patients as these methods are noninvasive, nonpharmacologic, cost effective and therapeutic.


Alm, A. A. (2004). Stuttering and the basal ganglia circuits: a critical review of possible relations.       Journal of Communication Disorders, 37(4), 325-369. http:// simplelink.library.utoronto.ca/url.cfm/450679

Bonilha, A.G., Onofre, F., Vieira, M.L., Prado, M.Y. A., & Martinex, J. A. B. (2009). Effects of singing classes on pulmonary function and quality of life of COPD patients. International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, 4, 1-8. http://www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/pmc/articles/ PMC2672787/pdf/copd-4-001.pdf

Boyd-Brewer, C. (2004). Vibroacoustic therapy: Sound vibrations in medicine. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 9(5), 257-263. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1089/107628003322490706

Di Benedetto, P., Cavazzon, M., Mondolo, M., Rugiu, G., & Peratoner, A. (2009). Voice and choral singing treatment: a new approach for speech and voice disorders in Parkinson’s disease. European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine, 45(1), 13-19. http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http:// search.proquest.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/docview/67423449? accountid=14771

Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the brain, and ecstasy: How music captures our imagination. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

King, L. K., Almeida, Q. J., & Ahonen, H. (2009) Short-term effects of vibration therapy on motor impairments in Parkinson’s disease. NeuroRehailitation, 25(4), 297-306. http://simplelink.library.utoronto.ca/url.cfm/450495

Stager, S. V., Jeffries, K. J., & Braun, A. R. (2003) Common features of fluency-evoking conditions studied in stuttering subjects and controls: an H215O PET study. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 28(4), 319-336. http:// resolver.scholarsportal.info.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/resolve/0094730x/     v28i0004/319_cfofcsacahps.xml

Vincente, P. C., Manchola, I. F., & Serna, E. T. (1997). The use of vibroacoustics in idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. In T. Wigram, B. Saperston, R. West (Eds.), Science therapy: A handbook (125-131). Newark, New Jersey: Harwood Academic Press. 

Wan., C. Y., Ruber, T., Hohmann, A., & Schlaug, G. (2010). The therapeutic effects of singing in neurological disorders. Music Perception, 27(4), 287-295. http:// search.proquest.com/docview/89184449?accountid=14771

Musical skills in individuals with autism, who are not savants

In the chapter 7 of Robert Jourdains´s book entitled “Music, the brain and ecstasy”, the author relates the story of Blind Tom, a musical savant, who had a phenomenal music memory for about five thousand pieces, despite his low level of general cognitive ability [1]. As a child psychiatrist, my curiosity about neurodevelopmental disorders leads me to investigate about musical skills in individuals with autism who are not savants. Nowadays research in music cognition in autism is a familiar topic, however, back in 1997 when Jourdain had his book released, this topic was not pursued by researchers.

To begin with, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social functioning, communication, and repetitive behaviors and restricted interests [2]. It has an estimated prevalence of 1 in 88 children aged 8 years [3]. Individuals with ASD also exhibit sensory disturbances and can therefore display atypical reactions to the sensory environment [4].

The history of ASD has shown that the individuals with this disorder give increased attention to music. Leo Kanner, the doctor who first described the term “infantile autism” in 1943, reported several instances of “extraordinary music memory” in his clinical group. In fact 6 out of 11 individuals described exhibited music-related behaviors, which were considered extraordinary given their developmental levels. An outstanding example was case number 9, who showed an unusual enjoyment and appreciation for music and was able to discriminate between 18 symphonies and identify their composers by 18 months of age [5].

Despite these interesting reports, the first study to assess musical skills in non-savant children with autism only took place 36 years after, in 1979.  Applebaum and his colleagues observed that children with autism had a superior performance on reproducing atonal melodies than children with typical development and who had higher levels of musical experience [6]. The following study in this field was performed by Heaton et al. in 1998. They examined absolute pitch (AP) ability (the ability to produce or identify specific pitches without reference to an external standard) in musically naive children with autism. Results showed superior recall for the tone/animal pairings in the autism group relative to IQ matched neurotypical controls [7]. Subsequent studies in pitch perception have also been consistent indicating that short and long term pitch memory and labelling are superior in autism [8, 9, 10, 11]. According to Brown [12], the incidence of AP among individuals with autism is estimated to be 1 in 20. It is of interest to note that enhanced pitch perception in this population exists especially in those individuals with a history of delayed speech onset. Nevertheless, the causal relationship between language impairment and superior pitch perception is yet unclear [13].

With respect to the perception of other low-order music features such as loudness, my clinical experience within this population supports my idea that individuals with ASD are hypersensitive to loud sounds, causing them great distress and aversive responses. In fact, few studies have investigated loudness processing in ASD, but typically, results indicated enhanced loudness sensitivity which declines with age and also normal performance on intensity discrimination tasks [14].

Regarding the processing of music´s higher order characteristics, such as emotion, despite the fact that the individuals with autism are impaired in social domains (as in face processing recognition), research has shown that they can recognize emotion in music in childhood and adulthood. In 1999, Heaton et al. were the first to report that children with autism could understand music´s emotional connotation, by examining perception of music mode. In their study, children with autism were as likely to pair fragments of major mode music with happy faces and fragments of minor mode music with sad faces as controls were [15]. More recently, Molnar-Szakacs and his colleagues also showed that children with autism identified the emotional musical excerpts as well as the typical developing control participants [16].

Nevertheless, Temple Grandin, a well-known high-functioning woman with autism, self-reported insensitivity to the affective aspects of music [17]. In my opinion this difference can be due to a disorder named type II alexithymia which is characterized by difficulties in identifying and describing one’s own feelings. This disorder has recently been observed in adults with high functioning autism, and may explain some empathy deficits associated with ASD [18].

Then a question is posed: why do individuals with autism like listening to music? As Kanner initially reported in 1943, music seems to elicit special attention for children with autism. This evidence also occurs when comparing to other auditory stimuli such as speech and environmental noise [18]. But which aspect of music is more attractive? Is it timbre, pitch, loudness, rhythm, mode, harmony, etc.?

One study investigated about motivation for music listening in ASD population, and results did not differ from those of people with typical development. Some of the motivational reasons outlined were “feeling of belonging, satisfying emotional needs”, which generally suggest that the individuals with autism are able to appreciate music [17].

In conclusion, individuals with autism who are not savants also possess some enhanced musical skills. Over the last decade the field of music cognition in autism has been growing. The increased attention and self-motivation to listen to music presented by these individuals can be used for educational purposes or in clinical care (e.g. music therapy or music medicine).

In my opinion, some studies will be rather difficult to design, especially those related to testing hypothesis on emotional processing of music in autism. Furthermore, the heterogeneity of the disorder can be a limitation, and participants should be clinically subgrouped according to characteristics such as history of language impairment, level of intellectual ability, the presence of other comorbidities and type of functioning autism.

[1] R. Jourdain, “Music, The Brain, And Ecstacy: How Music Captures Our Imagination”, Harper Perennial, New York, NY, (1997), p. 196-201
[2] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders, 5th edition: DSM-5 American Psychiatric Association, Washington D.C., (2013).
[3] Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network Surveillance Year 2008 Principal investigators; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (2012) “Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders – Autism and Development Disabilities Monitoring Network, 14 sites, United States , 2008”, MMWR Surveill Summ, 61: 1-19
[4] R.A. Stevenson, J. Siemann, et al., “Multisensory temporal Integration in Autism Spectrum Disorders” The Journal of Neuroscience, 34 (2014), 691-697.
[5] L. Kanner, “Autistic disturbances of affective contact”, Nervous Child, 2 (1943), 217-250.
[6] E. Applebaum et al. “Measuring musical abilities of autistic children”, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9 (1979). 279-285.
[7] P. Heaton, B. Hermelin, L. Pring, “Autism and pitch processing. A percursor for savant musical ability?”,Music Perception, 15 (1998), 291-305.
[8] Bonnel et al, “Enhanced pitch sensitivity in individuals with autism. A signal detection analysis” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15 (2003), 226-235.
[9] P. Heaton, “Pitch memory, labelling and disembedding in autism”, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44 (2003), 543-551.
[10] P. Heaton, “Assessing musical skills in autistic children who are not savants”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 364 (2009), 1443-1447.
[11] S. Stanutz, J. Wapnick, J.A. Burack, “Pitch discrimination and melodic memory in children with autism spectrum disorders”, Autism, 18 (2014), 137-147.
[12] W. Brown, K. Cammuso, H. Sacks et al. “Autism – related language, personality and cognition in people with absolute pitch: results of a preliminary study”, Journal of Autism and developmental Disorders, 33 (2003), 163-167
[13] A. Bonnel, S. McAdams, B. Smith, C. Berthiaume, A. Bertone, V. Ciocca, J.A. Burack, L. Mottron, “Enhanced pure-tone pitch discrimination among persons with autism but not Asperger syndrome”,Neuropsychologia, 48 (2010), 2465-2475.
[14] K. O’Connor, “Auditory processing in autism spectrum disorder: a review”, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 36 (2012), 836-854.
[15] P. Heaton, B. Hermelin, L. Pring, “Can children with autistic spectrum disorders perceive affect in music? An experimental investigation”, Psychological Medicine, 29 (1999), 1405-1410.
[16] I. Molnar- Szakacs, et al. “The neural correlates of emotional music perception: an fMRI study of the shared affective motion experience (SAME) model of musical experience”, presented at The Neurosciences and Music IV: learning and Memory, Edinburg, Scotland, UK, 2011.
[17] P. Heaton, R. Allen, “With concord of sweet sounds…:new perspective on the discovery of musical experience in autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions”, The Neuroscience and Music III-Disorders and Plasticity: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169 (2009), 318-325
[18] I Molnar-Szakacs, P. Heaton, “Music: a unique window into the world of autism”, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252 (2012), 318-324.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Tone deaf: Physical deafness, Dyslexia, or is it simply a term used flippantly to describe someone who struggles to distinguish pitch variants?

tone-deaf [tōn-def]
adj. Unable to distinguish differences of musical pitch

Robert Jourdain, author of Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy writes, “for reasons not yet understood, their (monotones, or the tone deaf) measurements across pitch and space are imprecise and unstable.”[1] Well the good news is that since 1997, more research has gone into this topic with a great number of publications on the subject. It is pleasing to know that tone deafness (congenital amusia) has been explored, and classified as a pitch perception and production impairment. As I have come across a great number of people who believed themselves to be tone deaf, only to discover they weren’t (thanks to a little attention being paid to listening particular notes and singing them back), it was great to find that this is a real condition that affects individuals, “estimated to comprise about 4% of the population.”[2] Therefore, it is a term that is used frequently by the public rather flippantly, but it does in fact affect a number of people.

With this in mind, the following essay will examine:
1.     How sound is perceived.
2.     The structural differences in the brain for amusics.
3.     Recognition of tones and sentences.
4.     Its relationship to Dyslexia.

What will become evident is that this is not a physical deafness at all, but a lack of ability to perceive pitch. It will also highlight the common thread with dyslexia, showing a correlation between an impairment in phonemic awareness, and the processing of speech intonation. In his book, Jourdain was accurate in his assumptions/predictions of amusia, but it was still hypothetical at that time. Science has progressed further, and the research has become more concise.

Firstly, when vibrating air molecules enter the ear, the sound energy is transmitted to the auditory cortex, where sound information is processed. The auditory cortex is located in the temporal lobe, just forward of the occipital lobe. The point to make here is that congenital amusical individuals process and recognize speech, including speech prosody, common environmental sounds and human voices, they are just impaired when it comes to perception and production. One of the reasons for this is because neural substrates of sound perception and production are connected by the arcuate fasciculus (a fiber tract connecting temporal and frontal brain regions), and in tone-deaf individuals, they “have reduced arcuate fasciculus (AF) connectivity.”[3] Psyche Loui, David Alsop and Gottfried Schlaug used structural MRI with diffusion tensor imaging to reconstruct white matter tracts. What they found was that both the superior and inferior AF were reliably identifiable in normal subjects (those who are not tone-deaf), whereas “only the inferior AF was identifiable bilaterally in all tone-deaf individuals.”[4] Meaning, the white matter (connecting nerve fibers) between the frontal lobe and the temporal lobes in amusics was thinner, which suggests this weaker connection.

However, do the perception deficits in musical tones cross over, or share similar problems with language? Recent studies would seem to suggest they do. There are two types of sentences one will hear - either a statement, or a question. In both, the intonation contour differs at the end of a phrase with a rising or falling pitch glide. A question has a slight raise in pitch at the end while a statement will dip down. It has been stated that amusics have difficulty in discriminating tone sequence analogs of statements and questions.[5] This is because in general, small interval changes are unrecognizable to tone-deaf patients. Only when intervals are large enough may the information be processed.

Knowing the correlation between music and language, perhaps it is for this reason that researchers have explored the relationship between amusia and dyslexia? Tone-deafness is a pitch related impairment, and dyslexia is a lack of phonemic awareness. Recent studies have “demonstrated significant relationships between phonemic awareness and musical sound processing in children as well as adults,”[6] based on the fact that different consonants and vowels are characterized by different frequencies. This is an interesting concept, which I have had to think about. I knew someone who was dyslexic, but was a fantastic singer who represented her country with the National Youth Choir of New Zealand. From what I could see, her dyslexia had no bearing on her ability to process, and then produce pleasing music. However, on the other side of the scale, my sister, who is also dyslexic, did have issues in matching pitch. She worked hard at it, but it was not easy for her. I would suggest that perhaps my colleague from New Zealand, while dyslexic, had full AF connectivity, represented in non-tone-deaf persons, whereas in my sister, her nerve fibers between the frontal lobe and the temporal lobes would be thinner, reducing this AF connectivity. Being made aware that there is possibly a connection between the two makes complete sense. However, we still have to notice that the research of Loui, Kroog, Zuk, Winner and Schlaug reveal only a partial correlation. Further research would need to be done.

Therefore, the results presented show a further development in understanding amusia. It is now known that those who suffer from amusia have “demonstrated a deficit in the perception in music.”[7] Where music can provide a pleasurable experience, some tone-deaf patients describe music as unpleasant. Because the structure of the musical sentence (pitch-pattern analysis) cannot be distinguished, it can be heard a just a big onslaught of noise. Knowing that tone-deafness is not an issue of ‘hearing’ (amusics are not physically deaf), but of a neurological deficit, we can see that this is a real disorder for some. While the term is often misused, it is simply not a term used flippantly to describe someone who struggles to distinguish pitch variants.

[1] Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. p.113
[2] Patel, Aniruddh D; Wong, Meredith; Foxton, Jessica; Lochy, Aliette; Peretz, Isabelle. “Speech Intonation Perception Deficits in Musical Tone Deafness (Congenital Amusia)” p.357
[3] Loui, Psyche; Alsop, David; Schlaug, Gottfried. “Tone Deafness: A New Disconnection Syndrome?” p.10215
[4] Loui, Psyche; Alsop, David; Schlaug, Gottfried. “Tone Deafness: A New Disconnection Syndrome?” p.10216
[5] Patel, Aniruddh D; Wong, Meredith; Foxton, Jessica; Lochy, Aliette; Peretz, Isabelle. “Speech Intonation Perception Deficits in Musical Tone Deafness (Congenital Amusia)” p.358
[6] Loui, Psyche; Kroog, Kenneth; Zuk, Jennifer; Winner, Ellen; Schlaug, Gottfried. “Relating pitch awareness to phonemic awareness in children: implications for tone-deafness and dyslexia.” p.1
[7] Griffiths, Timothy D. “Tone deafness: a model complex cortical phenotype.” p.592


Foxton, Jessica M; Dean, Jennifer L; Gee, Rosemary; Peretz, Isabelle and Griffiths, Timothy D. “Characterization of deficits in pitch perception underlying `tone deafness'.” Brain, Volume 127, Number 4 (February 2004): pp.801-810

Griffiths, Timothy D. “Tone deafness: a model complex cortical phenotype.” Clinical Medicine Volume 8, Number 6 (Dec 2008): pp.592-595.

Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997

Loui, Psyche; Alsop, David; Schlaug, Gottfried. “Tone Deafness: A New Disconnection Syndrome?” The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(33) (August 2009 ): pp.10215–10220

Loui, Psyche; Kroog, Kenneth; Zuk, Jennifer; Winner, Ellen; Schlaug, Gottfried. “Relating pitch awareness to phonemic awareness in children: implications for tone-deafness and dyslexia.” Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 2, Article 111 (May 2011): pp.1-5.

Loui, Psyche; Schlaug, Gottfried. “Impaired learning of event frequencies in tone deafness.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252 (April 2012): pp.354-360.

Patel, Aniruddh DWong, MeredithFoxton, JessicaLochy, AliettePeretz, Isabelle. “Speech Intonation Perception Deficits in Musical Tone Deafness (Congenital Amusia)” Music Perception, Volume 25, Issue 4 (April 2008): pp.357-368.