Saturday, October 4, 2008


How the Brain Connects Music to Colour and Pleasure
Dr. Steven Brown and Dr. Daphne Maurer – McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind
Central Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, Ontario
Friday, September 26, 2008
A Summary, Review and Response
By John Picone
For Dr. Lee Bartel – Music and the Brain, MUS 2122H
Dr. Steven Brown began the two-part lecture with his presentation which he called, “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” taking the title from a song by Irving Berlin, which was performed by tenor, David Holler. Brown pointed out that we are, through our senses, constantly assessing things aesthetically. Showing a picture of Steven Harper and asking the audience, through a show of hands, how many thought this to be a picture of a good looking man, he also noted that such aesthetic preferences are significantly influenced by outside factors and previous experiences, including ethnic background and social culture.
A wide variety of inputs find their way to that part of the brain called the Orbitofrontal Cortex. Here, there is a convergence of sensory input for aesthetic appraisal.
How does music figure into all this? Is music, as Pinker suggests, merely “auditory cheesecake”? Why is it that people have a strong appetite for music? How does music nourish us?
Brown offered two possibilities: music is aesthetically appealing for sexual and/or social reasons. Referring to Darwin, he pointed out the essential role of music in courtship: by and large, only male birds sing. It indicates their attractiveness, especially the fact that they must be healthy to produce such sounds. It is an aesthetic display which the female of the species finds appealing.
Another possibility is that the production of music in the animal world is a territorial display. Wolves, for example, will mark their territory acoustically. This establishes cohesion in the pack.
For humans, said Brown, the question is whether making music has to do with the aesthetic appraisal of mates, or the establishment and maintenance of social groups.
Brown observed three phenomena about music: first, traditionally, music was made only in groups; all were participants, and there was really no such concept as “audience.” Second, because music is beat-based, its production is coordinated and, as such, establishes coordination in social groups. Finally, there was a natural evolution into polyphonic blending: many voices.
Brown’s conclusion was that “music is about the pleasure of communion.”
The second part of the lecture was a presentation by Dr. Daphne Maurer called, “Violet Chords: Synaesthesia and the Linking of Colour to Music.” Before exploring how the brain functions synaesthetically, Maurer pointed out that roughly 4% - 5% of adults are synaesthetes, and that 10% - 20% of these see colour when they hear music. Synaesthesia is common in musicians and composers. She went on to note that this phenomenon in synaesthetes is, for them, automatic: they don’t have to think about it; that it has been present all their lives; and that the mappings of their synaesthetic response to music are consistent over time. Franz Liszt was a synaesthete who would suggest directions to his musicians such as, “A little bluer, please!” Other noteworthy synaesthetes include musicians such as Duke Ellington (who felt Harry Carney’s saxophone music was “dark blue”), Stevie Wonder, Bon Jovi and Farrell Williams who, appropriately, titled his recent album, “Seeing Sounds.”
Particularly interesting were two “tests” to demonstrate synaesthetic perception: the Stroop Effect and the Pop-Out. In the first case, words that designated colours were shown: purple, green, red, and so forth. However, the words were displayed in a colour other than that which they described. For instance, the word “purple” was in green. We were asked to say the colour of the word, not read the word. The collision of sensory perceptions made this tedious and difficult. When the same exercise was done with numbers, however, there was little difficulty: no Stroop Effect.
The pop-out activity demonstrated the fact that some synaesthetes see numbers in different colours. A triangular shape made up of 2’s amidst a scattering of 5’s was difficult for the non-synaesthete to find. For the synaesthete, however, who sees the 2’s as red and the 5’s as green, the shape popped out right away.
Dr. Maurer presented a clear explanation of how fMRI works to sense more highly oxygenated blood in certain parts of the brain under certain conditions. She explained that the human brain has a sensory cortex that specializes in each of the five senses. For the synaesthete, fMRI readings demonstrate that the sight cortex – the occipital lobe – is stimulated when hearing music.
Perhaps the most fascinating of the findings presented by Dr. Maurer was the response to certain sensory stimuli by infants as opposed to adults. It would seem that when the auditory cortex of the infant is stimulated, the visual cortex responds in an equal fashion. This is true even in infant monkeys. It would seem that the infant brain has extra functional connections between the sensory cortices. It is through continuous visual experience that the visual connections are reinforced and the others diminish. Each sensory cortex, therefore, becomes specialized, although it is important to note that experience does not prune away all the connections between sensory cortices. For the synaesthete, these extra connections, present at birth and in infancy, do not get pruned away. Dr. Maurer did not offer an explanation for this.
Dr. Maurer presented other interesting research dealing with the relationship between pitch and lightness. This connection is unconscious. Two balls, one light, one dark, are dropped simultaneously. Two sounds are made when each hits the ground: one of a high-pitched “ping;” the other, a low-pitched “pong.” Even two and a half year old participants consistently associated the higher pitched “ping” with the lighter ball.
A final experiment with the audience dealt with our preference over two shapes or colours. One of the shapes or colours was a synaesthete’s response to a sound; the other was an artificially altered one. For example, after hearing a sound, the colour the synaesthete saw was red; the “control” colour, if you will, was green. When asked which of the two colours or shapes they thought was most “like” the sound heard, the members of the audience invariably chose that of the synaesthete, the “correct” one. Studies have replicated this outcome.
Virtually every aspect of the presentation of this lecture was superb! The venue of Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton was perfectly suited to the topic and the performances: it was a delightful contrast between fMRI technology and animated PowerPoint presentations, and the high, vaulted ceilings, looming wooden pulpit (which housed a video camera!), and hard-backed pews of the church.
The lecture was choreographed with rehearsed precision, moving the audience’s focus from microphone to screen to grand piano and flute with remarkable fluidity. The pace of the evening was comfortable, and the content, though often of a technical nature, was accessible to anyone interested in the field of music and the mind, free of jargon and couched in clear examples. The performances were brilliant and the evening’s closing of Brett Kingsbury performing “Variations on a theme of Bach” by Franz Liszt was, in a word, exhilarating!
The presentation by Dr. Brown and Dr. Maurer was fascinating! As an English teacher, I was certainly aware of synaesthesia in poetry, most notably, as I recall, in the verse of Keats. Synaesthetic poetry offered a single image with a simultaneous multi-sensory appeal: “she has a sweet voice.” A single word could be synaesthetic: “snow.” The image appeals simultaneously to sight and touch.
That a person’s brain could respond to music in a visual way was quite new to me. “Synaesthete” was a new word in my vocabulary.
I was fascinated at the fact that we all appear to be synaesthetes at birth, that is, our sensory cortices are far more connected than they are as adults. I wondered, however, whether the specializing of sensory functions in the different sensory cortices of the brain was “learning,” or “unlearning.” It seems to me that I would rather like to be able to see colours and shapes as I hear music and am rather disappointed that my brain, through experience, “learned” not to!
Dr. Maurer noted that a significant number of synaesthetes are musicians and/or composers. Reference was made, quite naturally, to painters. It would seem quite common, to me, that a painter would have background music playing while she or he painted. But, making reference to Van Gogh and Tom Thompson, it would appear that such music is not at all background, but, in fact, importantly “creating” the “picture” in the mind that such artists are creating on the canvas.
At several points in the lecture, I found myself quite jealous of synaesthetes! I likened them to savants and clairvoyants, possessing a gift that allowed them a richer experience of life, a fuller participation, somehow. This envy was particularly heightened when Dr. Maurer offered some apparently verifiable directives by Liszt to his orchestra: “That is deep violet, please! Depend on it! Not so rose!” I immediately thought about the difference this might make with my high school band: I could encourage a particular interpretation of a score by talking about it in terms of colour.
I also wondered if there were synaesthetes for whom a visual stimulus caused them to hear music. I wondered to what extent composers depend on visual stimulation?
Like any good presentation inspired by cutting edge research, I was left with more questions than answers. Perhaps the most burning question for me is: “Does my awareness, now, of synaesthetic possibilities, encourage me to “hear” colour when I listen to music? Or to imagine colours or other visuals? Landscapes?”
Delightfully, the lecture didn’t really “end” that evening. The program gave details of a monthly reading group: the MIMM Journal Club which meets the third Friday of every month “to discuss recent research articles related to music and the brain.” Such articles are sent out ahead of time.
I can’t wait for my first meeting with MIMM!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Example of an entry

The following is what I consider and exemplary entry from previous blogs. Obviously length can vary.

Making non-fluent aphasics speak: sing along!
Catherine Robbins

Amelia Racette, Celine Bard and Isabelle Peretz. (2006). Making non-fluent aphasics speak: sing along! Guarantors of Brain, Oxford Journals Volume 129, Number 10. 2571-2584.

Singing if often used in the treatment of speech disorders. This treatment has spawned the development of Melodic Intonation Therapy or MIT. MIT is a rehab program “using high probability phrases and sentences which are intoned and tapped out in a syllable-by-syllable manner” in which rhythm is key. In an attempt to further assess the claim that aphasics can sing words they cannot speak, eight brain-damaged patients suffering from numerous speech disorders brought on by left-hemisphere lesions were studied. The authors justify the study by briefly explaining possible reasons that singing may improve speech in aphasics: it slows down word production by 50%, words that are learned through music are fixed or non-generative, melody may facilitate access to words because they are associated in memory. But, they add, supporting evidence is lacking. A number of studies with conflicting results have been conducted in the past. The concern is that classic reports that non-fluent aphasics may be able to sing “may reflect the disassociation between automatic speech (in singing) and propositional speech (in spontaneous speech).” Examining this issue in speech disorders was the goal of this current research. To this end, three experiments were part of the study.

Experiment One: Patients were tested in the repetition and recall of words and notes of familiar material, i.e. children’s songs and traditional songs of roughly 5 words and 9 notes long, two well-known prayers and one nursery rhyme. It was found that singing did not improve word production compared with speaking and notes were better produced than words.

Experiment Two: The patients repeated and recalled lyrics from novel (popular) songs. They did not produce more words in singing than in speaking. In fact, patients made the same types of errors whether singing or speaking. This suggests that the speech output is controlled by the same mechanisms.

Experiment Three: In this experiment an alternative strategy was explored - singing with the therapist before trying to sing alone. The patients listened to the songs through a headset that was equipped with a microphone. Presented lines fed through one channel and were time locked to the patient’s production that was recorded on the other channel of a DAT recorder. The patients could hear themselves but the authors admit “the headphones might have altered the auditory-feedback to some extent.” This time, more words were correctly articulated when singing along (M=63.2%) than when speaking along (M=50.5%). Six out of eight patients showed this result. Recall, pitch accuracy was better when shadowing than when producing tone alone. However, when recalling four lines without shadowing, speech was more advantageous. Therefore the conclusion may be drawn that singing “along” benefits word recall, while singing “alone” does not.

To reiterate:
“The main finding from the present study is that singing “per se” does not help aphasics to improve their speech.” The conclusion was reached regardless of whether the songs were familiar or unfamiliar. This suggests that there is a unique code for words regardless of whether they are sung or spoken. In this respect, this study confirms what earlier studies have already told us. However the researchers tell us, in experiment three a more interesting conclusion presents itself: singing in a group is better that speaking in a group. The authors note that the “singing along” advantage probably arises from the opportunity to synchronize one’s performance with a stable model....What seems to be critical is to be able to imitate in synchrony with an auditory model.”

The important conclusion was “the present findings point to choral singing as an effective therapy for various speech disorders. Choral singing may even account for the efficacy of the MIT in its initial stages.” The recommendation is that “future longitudinal studies should compare training with choral singing to explore if the advantage of choral singing has more long-lasting effects on speech recovery.”

As a choral conductor, when I read the results of this study I was thrilled. Choral singing is an musical therapy! I had read the opening line and then flipped excitedly to the “discussion” section you find in many brain research study articles. The last two quotes really got me going. I immediately began thinking about implications of the conclusions and possible cross-overs: Does this have implications with beginning readers? Can this be used in true interdisciplinary studies? Can we finally shout from the rooftops that choral singing is beneficial to the brain? Then I flipped back to thoroughly read the study. To my dismay, the researchers do not define “choral music”. As far as I can gather, their idea of the “choral singing” that the patients were engaged in was with the speech therapist in unison and through a lone female singer on headset that was played while they sang. So singing in synchrony with an auditory model seems to be the researchers definition of choral singing. This section of the experiment was poorly worded and the exact procedure was a bit fuzzy. However, this method of experimentation in no way fits the general definition of choral singing and is, in my opinion quite misleading. The heading of experiment three “production in unison” is a better fit, although it still lacks clarity. What this study really seems to be about is the benefits of audio-vocal feedback on speech disorders. Singers in any situation seem to respond well to singing with others. I often use it in private vocal lessons for all ages. Those who have tortured themselves with the first few weeks of American or Canadian Idol can surmise that many of these hopefuls sing along with the radio or a recording before entering the competition and being asked to suddenly sing acappella. We all know the disaster that results from this. Could this not be along the same lines as positive results and the assertion that the “opportunity to synchronize oneself with a stable model” is an auditory phenomena? Researchers have studied how auditory feedback helps people speak. A study at MIT in 1998 (Houde, 1998) spoke of the facilitation of helping persons with speech disorders through what they labeled their “internal model” of how speech should sound. It spoke of how we automatically begin to correct the way we say vowels when different model is presented. This could explain why the subjects of this study had more success with vowel sounds in experiment three that with consonants. Another study “A Neural Basis for Auditory Feedback Control of Vocal Pitch” (Smotherman, Zhang, Metzner, 2003) points to an explanation as to why the subjects’ pitch control was noticeably improved with the “choral singing”. Again, this is an auditory-vocal phenomena.I began to question the atmosphere of the study and the other factors that may arise from unison singing with the therapist. During experiment three, did subjects watch the speech therapist they were working with? Was there an uncredited visual component to the results that was not addressed? Were the subjects lip reading or reacting to any facial expressions? Was there a subtle gesture component?Singing to a CD recording is not choral singing, and the researchers claim of “choral singing appears to be an effective means of speech therapy” is invalid and misleading. It shows how important it is to define all terms one uses in a study as clearly as possible. Choral singing then, is not an effective means of speech therapy. Rather, unison singing with one other individual or a single individual’s voice fed through a headset is. With this conclusion, browsers on the internet reading abstracts will not be so quick to jump to broad conclusions and make leaps to great implications as I first did.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Welcome to the Music & Brain Blog

Hi everyone.

This blog is designed to share reviews of and reflections on material (print, video, audio, live presentations, whatever) related to neuroscience and music. Invited contributors are graduate students at the University of Toronto who are members of the Music and Brain class in the Faculty of Music. I hope there will also be discussion interchanges among class members. I look forward to your contributions.