Wednesday, October 22, 2008

CBC Broadcast: The Nerve: Music and the Brain

Review: Janet Spring
The Nerve:
Wired for Sound: Music and the Brain

After producing the award winning series: The How and Why of Music, the CBC Radio team followed with a new six part series called: The Nerve: Music & the Human Experience. In the first episode of The Nerve, the interviewer Jowi Taylor discusses the topic: Wired for Sound: Music and the Brain with several leading musicians, an audiologist, psychologist, musicologist and researchers. Through a series of interviews and discussions accompanied by popular and classical music, the participants discuss how we perceive and synthesize the sounds around us. Featured interviews include Daniel Levitin, Sandra Trehub, Marshall Chasin, Jimena Llopis, Suzanne Cusick, as well as performers: Bruce Cockburn, David Harrington, Larry Kirkegaard, etc. who enlighten the listener with their current research and opinions. Selections of music of composers such as Beethoven, Ravel, Rolling Stones, Beatles, The Guess Who, are used to demonstrate the certain aspects of music that are discussed such as timbre, vibration, melody, harmony, etc and how our brain receives, analyzes and processes these.

The first episode begins with an analysis of how we hear sounds and how these sounds are synthesized through the outer, middle and inner ear, and then transmitted through to the auditory nerve to the brain. Very interesting and informative examples are provided that demonstrate how our ears delineate sounds and how the brain, our amazing computer system, synthesizes all aspects of music and sound in different parts of the brain to produce the music we hear. Fascinating as well are the references made to how insects, amphibians and fish recognize the sounds and vibrations around them by detecting air currents and sound waves that encircle them. Concrete examples of these sound waves demonstrate to the listener how complex the world of music is to the brain and how amazing the brain actually is to make sense of vibration, pitch, timbre, phases, melody, rhythm; all aspects of ‘sound’. Interesting as well to me is the reference about our two ears and how they allow us to differentiate sound, where it is coming from and how they delineate phase relationships.

Daniel Levitin discusses how the different parts of the brain are analyzing and synthesizing the data that travels through the auditory nerve and how the brain can predict the certain progression of melody, pitch, rhythm and how it can be stimulated when an unpredicted event in sound occurs. He also demonstrates how the brain can analyze a particular timbre of voice, only a ½ millisecond in length by using the example of the beginning of the Beatle’s song: Eleanor Rigby. Here the brain is so exquisitely sensitive to timbre that it can recognize a certain voice after hearing the selection for a very short interval.

As Suzanne Cusick remarks, music makes the cells of our bodies vibrate: it surrounds us completely, giving us joy. Nevertheless, how we are wired for sound and how that sound is computed still remains a mystery in many instances. Music therefore plays a very significant role in determining how the sound signaling system functions, a study that continues to fascinate all.


I was very interested in this broadcast, for the music and sound examples provided concrete evidence as well as greater understanding of the auditory process and how the brain receives and processes musical signals. Different points of view presented by an audiologist, performer, music analyst, composer, researcher and musicologist also provided me with further understanding of this very intricate and fascinating subject.

Classical Music for all
Before you read further take the 20 minutes and watch this video.

Benjamin Zander is a conductor and described as a leading interpreter of Mahler and Beethoven, known for his charisma and unyielding energy -- and for his brilliant pre-concert talks.
He gives this talk at the T.E.D. conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) “is an invitation-only event where the world's leading thinkers and doers gather to find inspiration”. He asks the question is classical music dead and through an anecdote he reveals that is depends on your interpretation. He then begins an experiment, sort of an experiment.
I will let the video give the rest of the description.


This video is not really music and the brain stuff in the strictest sense. However, since we have been talking about health I thought it was appropriate. The reasons I find this so enjoyable is that Zander talks first about how a young musicians go from a rudimentary interpretation of a piece (his example being the Chopin Prelude) to a more sophisticated sound. “One buttock playing” is essentially a rhythmic concept. I wonder what Takako at Baycrest would say about the beta waves going on here. This concept is the difference between focusing on every note and focusing on a phrase, recognizing the line, and the direction of a melody. His involvement of the audience helps them recognize the musical journey that is inherently in them.
At one point he says that nobody is tone deaf, and that is almost true if you discount injury or amusia. This is open to much discussion and I won’t get into that in this blog entry.
The focus of this video is not just that everyone can love and enjoy classical music but rather how Zander relates classical music to experiences of emotional healing. He does this by not only showing the audience how to move through the music but then he tells them about experiences with kids in Ireland and finally relates it to an Auschwitz survivor. Essentially, music as emotional healing.
So what is the main point of this very entertaining video? I think Zander is saying that enjoying classical music is not about understanding the little tiny nuances like what Mozart shoe size is, but rather that following a melody is about a voyage that can bring healing, emotion and connect people.
I don’t want to get all “touchy feely”, I just like to see good communicators reveal their knowledge and be proud that a musician is doing it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Primal Teen

Review: Janet Spring
Strauch, Barbara. (2003). The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids, New York: Anchor Books.

This resource is an informative text dealing with issues that parents and educators face each day when raising, teaching and interacting with the adolescent child. Although written for the layperson, the text offers insight for those interested in the brain of the teenager through interviews with neuroscientists, parents, educators and physicians. The author, Barbara Strauch is the health and science editor of the New York Times and begins her dialogue on the premise that the teenage brain has always been considered to be fully developed at adolescence. However, many studies completed in the last decade have pointed toward the adolescent brain still as a ‘work in progress’. Strauch therefore highlights these new findings in her discussions and interviews in an easy to follow and smooth flowing informative style.

In fourteen chapters, the author introduces the teenage brain as “Crazy by Design”, highlighting the new and recent discoveries of the brain, followed by information assessing the behaviour of children at this stage, their hormonal changes, mental health issues, developmental neurobiological theories as well as a chapter on “When things go wrong”. The author concludes with a section on new pathways that may lead the adolescent to a successful maturation into adulthood. Bibliographic references are included, listing the wide variety of sources cited.

In the beginning chapters, Strauch often refers to the teenage brain as being “under construction” (p. 15), where the brain’s grey matter, or outer layer, is changing in thickness. As a child approaches adolescence from the age of eight onward, his or her brain is experiencing a change in “the tiny branches of brain cells [that are] blooming madly, a process neuroscientists refer to as over-production, or exuberance” (p. 15). Strauch also refers to Giedd et al, (1999) who completed a longitudinal MRI study on the adolescent brain, finding that the adolescent brain once thought to be mature by this stage in life, is still in a state of growth. The frontal lobes seem to peak in volume at age eleven in girls, and twelve in boys then “does an about-face and starts a steep trek back down” (p. 16), then continues to grow or “specialize” (p. 16). Due to this reconfiguration, Giedd and others remark that “Adolescence …. may be one of the worst times to expose a brain to drugs and alcohol or even a steady dose of violent video games” (p. 21).

Strauch labels adolescence as the “age of impulse” as she discusses the development of the prefrontal cortex, which is the area that “controls working memory, inhibition, impulse control” and “over the course of evolutionary history has increased a whopping 29%” (p. 27). As a child reaches adolescence, Giedd comments that their prefrontal cortex is progressing, yet cannot assist them to make the right decisions due to lack of full development. It is therefore up to the parent, caregiver, and educator to act as the adolescent’s prefrontal cortex to warn the child of the dangers that exist when one is acting on impulse or who becomes withdrawn and distant. Guiding them through the consequences of a potential poor decision or action will remind the teenager of his or her growing responsibilities toward adulthood.

Plasticity or the brain’s “ability to adapt to change” is a topic that is discussed in the Chapter Altered States. The brain according to Greenough (1987) is an adaptable power that can expand with frequency of practice and experience. He discusses results of his study where violinists who are consistently devoted to their music studies as they practice technique have larger brain measurements in the cortex area than non violinists. Their brains have positively adapted to frequency of application of a particular skill. On the other hand, the study of Chugani (2001) which researched brain functions in deprived Romanian orphans, found that their brains suffered from metabolic inaction in “parts of the inner brain limbic area linked to recognition of faces and emotions, two crucial components of bonding and attachment” (p. 42). However, Nelson (2000) remarks that, “we know experience matters, but we just don’t know what nature of experience matters, what’s best for the brain” (p. 42). Therefore parents and educators must continue to influence teenagers with lectures, words of wisdom, love, nurturing and general everyday guidance.

Another area of the brain that continues to develop throughout adolescence is the cerebellum, which is “the last structure … to develop” (p. 43). This area of the brain acts as the social network according to Giedd who suggests that the teenager perhaps may need more time to ‘play’ instead of working night after night on endless homework assignments. As the brain is still in a state of growth, it is considered a very critical time where it may need a time to discover through play, and where the brain circuitry in many areas is also affected by hormone growth as well as simple expansion and fine tuning. No wonder the adolescent is considered being in a “muddle” (p. 47) with this continued growth, on top of being bombarded with hormones. Strauch quotes Giedd who remarks, “Hormones may be intricately involved not only in the sexy shenanigans we blame them for, but also in sculpting the basic architecture of a teenage brain” (p. 126). However, growth tends to be “an elaborate feedback loop, [where] hormones make behaviour, but behaviour also makes hormones” (p. 128).

Estrogens and androgens increase in great amounts in both teenage boys and girls, where estrogen “increases anywhere from 650 to 4,900 % during a month, reaching its peak around ovulation” in girls and “testosterone fluctuates during the day as much as 150 %” (p. 128) in boys. The effect of these hormones on the brain has confused researchers today, for they have found “receptors for estrogens and androgens sprinkled all over the human brain, in the cortex and the cerebellum, two areas associated with movement and cognition; in the amygdale, linked to strong, gut emotions; and the hippocampus, an area important to memory” (p. 130). Further research must therefore be completed to probe the adolescent brain for more answers that will shed some light on the teenage brain, emotions, problems that they face, and how to deal with this young adult who is constantly in a state of emotional and physical flux!

Strauch concludes her discussion by warning parents, educators and teenagers themselves that the adolescent is experiencing “cerebral transformations [that] are crucial to the development of a normal, average teenager” (p. 204). She warns that research points to the fact that we must all be cognizant of these developmental changes and adjust our expectations. Strauch also quotes Oliver Sacks who remarks that, the teenage years that are full of turbulence is a worldwide stage of life, where “other cultures all recognize adolescence universally” (p. 218). It is a time of evolution where the brain is adjusting and growing and should not only be “endured, but indulged, even celebrated” (p. 218)!


The study of music is a pursuit that is demanding, taxing, stressful, yet rewarding, exciting and fulfilling. To be successful, a student must be dedicated, demonstrate perseverance, musical ability and must have obtainable goals and direction. How can the adolescent then pursue his or her studies in music with the greatest success and stay on task with the many trials and tribulations encountered during this stage of development? The adolescent brain is undergoing so many changes and continued growth while being bombarded with hormones, new adult expectations, peer pressure, romantic notions, without even thinking of other problems that might be encountered, such as alcohol consumption and drug abuse. It would seem that adolescence would then be a difficult stage to begin the study of music! Perhaps in all fairness, music studies should begin much earlier, so that the young musician is already on a pathway to success and has developed good study and practice habits before brain remodeling takes place at so many different levels!


Chugani, H. et al. (2001). Local brain functional activity following early deprivation: a study of post institutionalized Romanian orphans, Neuroimage, Academic Press.

Giedd, J.N., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: a longitudinal MRI study, Nature Neuroscience, 2 (10): 861 – 863.

Greenough, W., Black, J., Wallace, C. (1987). Experience and brain development, Child Development, 58 (3): 539 – 559.

Nelson, C. (2000). Neural plasticity and human development: the role of early experience in sculpting memory systems, Developmental Science 3 (2): 115- 136.

Strauch, Barbara. (2003). The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids, New York: Anchor Books.

Mathematics and Music

Mathematics and Music: A Search for Insight into Higher Brain Function By Wendy S. Boettcher, Sabrina S. Hahn and Gordon L. Shaw
From the Leonard Music Journal, Vol. 4, pp 53-58, 1994
Located on Jstor
Posted by Justine

This article discusses the very interesting topic of the relationship between music, mathematics and chess. The authors present the results of detailed interviews with 14 professors of mathematics concerning their research and possible relationships between mathematics and music. They conclude that the underlying basis for higher brain functions involving mathematics, music and chess is abstract (spatio-temporal) firing –pattern development by groups of neurons over large regions of the cortex for some tens of seconds. They propose some new experiments to be done in the future. The authors discuss some other research that has been done with Mozart’s music compared to relaxation tapes and silence. The results showed that listening to Mozart’s music enhances for a short time performance on the abstract/spatial-reasoning test of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale by some 8 to 9 points as compared to the other two listening conditions. Other studies have showed only low correlations between mathematical skills and musical skills in children. Results vary by age, gender and types of music and degree of mathematics studied.

This topic is one that has been discussed for centuries and one that has intrigued many minds. I too find this topic very fascinating mostly because I struggled to learn mathematics as a child but yet have a natural disposition for music. Ever since I heard that there is a relationship between math and music I have been wondering how it could be and why I never really understood math like I do music. It seems to me as though there is a relationship between music theory and math and again I am neither interested nor good at music theory. This tells me that there must be some relationship between the two skills. I have known many musicians who say they love math and who also really like theory. These musicians are mostly pianists and rarely have I met a singer who enjoys theory and or is good at it. This article doesn’t really suggest that studying math makes you a better musician or vice versa but it does suggest that perhaps listening to music can improve your math skills. I think listening to music can improve your mind as a whole, meaning it can be used to improve anything difficult that takes a lot of concentration and not just math. Another idea from the authors is that if you listen to music while doing math it may interfere with math because the same cognitive processes are used in both musical and mathematical cognition. I suppose this could be true but again listening to music can also interfere with anything we do that requires thinking such as reading and writing. Referring to the study of the music of Mozart versus the relaxation music and silence, I am interested to understand why Mozart’s music is so much more stimulating? Is it the light heartedness of his music or the complexity of it? Why is there not a Bach or Beethoven effect? As for chess and music I can see how they relate because of the pattern development they both require. Our brains find patterns in music without us even knowing it, which means music can definitely be used as a tool for helping our minds find patterns in games such as chess.

This is your brain on music-Canadian Geographic, January 2006

A la Carte
This is your brain on music
Mapping mental activity reveals that music stimulates the brain the same way that food sex and drugs do.
Canadian Geographic, January 2006

This article found in Canadian Geographic, January 2006 is a good quick look at music and brain activity. Robert Zatoren neuroscientist at McGill notes that since everyone seems to react to music that must mean that we are “predisposed” to it. Various devices have been used to study the brain, like MRI, PET, etc...Listening to music revealing that the brain is not a series of sections working independently but rather an interconnected unit. More importantly music seems to happen in many areas of the brain. Some of the research is revealing musical dysfunction and the brains ability to adapt such as the example of the violinist and dystonia. Further, music is being used to study the brain in the hope of a greater understanding to how the brain works because music affects most of the brain. In addition the article provides diagrams briefly explaining IMAGING MUSIC, the fact that even though you sing a tune only in your head it still registers with the auditory cortex. Basic information on HEARING MUSIC and the brain processing elements of pitch volume and timbre and the Fact the PLAYING MUSIC uses more brain than many other activities are also in this article. Lastly the emotional reaction to music also registers in the brain, and in fact stimulates some of the same areas when one is hungry, sexual arousal, and drug addiction.


Although this article is basic, short, and lacking in great detail I think it is important. It touches on the some points that every person can relate to. The idea (and the research) that music and its effects on the brain could lead to advances in the treatment of such debilitating deceases such as Alzheimer’s. It alerts the general public to the possibility of additional hope in this kind of research. Further it is research that could lead to non-invasive treatments and possibly drug free treatment. In the word of Daniel Levitan during his lecture at U of T “ I don’t think your doctor will be telling you to take two Joni Mitchell’s and call him in the morning” but we could see the day when we could make use of certain frequencies to treat illness rather than surgery or intense drug therapy chock-full of side-effects . Also as a music educator I am elated that this kind of research could lead to solid information that indicates that the study of music may be considered preventative when looking at the likely hood of contacting certain diseases. In addition the fact that listening to music requires many areas of the brain is unique to music and that playing music uses more brain than many other activity are two key area music educator need to understand. It is widely accepted that if “you don’t use it you lose it” when it come to brain power make music a necessity in brain development.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Trust the guy in the white coat?????

Go to this you tube site and view the video. Before reading my comments.

Brain Waves controlling piano????


In this video the researcher and I can only assume that he is a researcher claims to be using the subject’s brain waves to produce the music being played on the piano. He states that the information is read by the EEG it is transformed into digital information and then fed in to a computer that composes the music based on the EEG information. You then see the piano just behind the subject playing the music that has apparently been composed based on the impulses of the subject’s brain. The music is classical in nature and seems to remind me of Debussy. At one point the researcher asks the subject to think of “Beethoven like music and make it fast and loud”, you will hear a change in the music. The person hooked up to the EEG even looks like he is working mentally to make this happen.


In my opinion either this video is a complete hoax or the “man in the white coat” is stretching the truth to its fullest extent. Remember EEG measures electrical activity produced by the brain or by any organ. What seems to be happening in this case is that the computer program interpreting the electrical impulses from the EEG through some kind of complex algorithmic program is acting like a so called composer. Put another way the guy who programmed the software that is in the computer reading EEG information is in fact the composer of the music you’re hearing. We can also recognize that the repeated patterns are taken from pre- programmed material revealing the programmers algorithms are probably based on thousands of classical compositions. This video is deceiving claiming that this kind of technology t exists when it does not.

What really irritates me about this is that the study of music and the brain has graduated from this kind of circus like show with the need to make outrageous claims to support that music is important. This “sham” takes away from the real research that is being done that will benefit humankind.

What if this were true, and a computer could convert your brain waves into music? What would the value be? If the computer were simply converting random electrical impulses then this information is useless, because your heart also emits electrical activity and therefore could also compose music. The only way this research would be significant is it there were a device that actually converted music being thought of in your brain to actually live performance. This would allow those with disability to perform, those who has been performers but were injured to perform, as well as anyone who wanted to compose or perform. Would it then eliminate practicing? What then?