Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Neural Basis of Dance: Lecture by Dr. Steven Brown

4th Annual Music and the Mind Workshop, McMaster University
November 29, 2008

The conference entitled “Musical Connections in the Brain: Language, Dance and the Visual Arts” was fascinating and stimulating. It was once again a treat to hear musicians, dancers, psychologists, and neuroscientists in one room discussing key musical issues, including neural correlates of artistic processes and their biological evolution.

Dr. Steven Brown, professor in the department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour at McMaster University gave a lecture entitled The Neural Basis of Dance. In his lecture, he described how he conducted the first neuroimaging study of dance. Dr. Brown chose a small sample of 10 people (I believe they were recruited from his salsa class) and he examined activity in their brains with an fMRI as they traced dance patterns with their feet.

Dance is a kinaesthetic art form. Dance steps are movements that involve complex sequencing, somewhat like language. Accordingly, it was shown that leg movement can activate Broca’s area, the brain center for language processing. In addition, meter, defined as regular equal-time pattern of movement, corresponds with activity in the basal ganglia. However, synchronized movement with a timekeeper, what Dr. Brown referred to as entrainment, is correlated with activity in the cerebellum (specifically the spinocerebellum). Entrainment to a beat is quite rare among species; it is limited to birds and humans. Dr. Brown proposes a “low road hypothesis” that dance movement is controlled primarily by the thalamus and cerebellum, possibly bypassing the cortex.

Dr. Brown also hypothesized the origins of dance. The first hypothesis maintains that it evolved at first from a form of body percussion or movement that created sound. In this method, dance and music co-evolved. The second hypothesis was that dance was used as a gesture language, a narrative device.

I found the talk very interesting, particularly the hypothesis that dance originated as a form of body percussion. After hearing about the intimate evolutionary relationship between movement and music, I can see why methods of musical education that involve movement and gesture are so effective. Dancing and gesturing to music help to internalize the tempo, rhythm, and motion, all the elements that make up the expressive character of the music. Not only do musical features mimic these expressive gestures, widely understood across cultures, but they seem to coincide with evolutionary roots in all of us.

Musical Structure and Physiological Measures of Emotion

Gomez, P. & Danuser, B. (2007). Relationships Between Musical Structure and Psychophysiological Measures of Emotion. Emotion, 7, 377-387.

By: Andrea Botticelli

In music research, emotional reactions to music are usually divided into a distinction between perceived emotions that reside in the music itself and felt emotions that are induced in the listeners (377). These two cases may involve different psychological mechanisms and be associated with different physiological correlates. This study is one of very few experiments that explores the relationship between musical structure and experienced emotions, as opposed to perceived emotions (377).

The study of emotion is usually measured in terms of valence and arousal. These can also be used as fundamental dimensions to study musical emotions. The current emotion/music literature shows that increased tempo is accompanied by increased breathing rate and heart rate; however, there have not been any studies that attempt to study the affects of specific musical elements on physiological arousal. This study examined emotional responses to music using 11 musical features. These features included sound intensity, tempo, rhythm, accentuation, rhythmic articulation, melodic direction, pitch level, pitch range, mode, complexity, and consonance. They were all found to be significant to the subjective emotional experience (381).

The results showed that melodic direction and pitch level are least associated with specific emotional responses. Valence was most strongly associated with mode, rhythmic articulation, and harmonic complexity. Finally, arousal was most strongly associated with accentuation, tempo, and rhythmic articulation.

Significantly, there were a large number of similarities between musical structure and experienced emotions and musical structure and perceived emotions (381). For instance, the major mode was associated with positive valence. Also, sound intensity was correlated with high arousal. Staccato articulation also induced high arousal while legato articulation led to low arousal (382).

In short, “the internal structure of the music played a primary role in the induction of the emotions in comparison with extramusical factors” (382-383). This may be more pronounced for the feeling of arousal than valence. Also, musical features such as fast tempo and high loudness correspond with events of high energy. Stern named these features “vitality affects” (383). Music that induced faster breathing and higher minute ventilation, skin conductance, and heart rate was fast, accentuated, and staccato. Finally, rhythmic aspects seem to be the major determinants of physiological responses to music.

One of the most fundamental questions in music theory is to try to discover where emotions reside. Eduard Hanslick and a century of post-Hanslickian theorists argued that emotion cannot reside in absolute music. Their purist stance declares that music cannot arouse or represent emotion. More contemporary music theory contends that intrinsic musical features can be meaningful. This theoretical standpoint is termed absolutism, whereby emotion and meaning can be extracted from the musical features themselves as opposed to their extramusical associations. Finally, Peter Kivy’s “enhanced formalism” marries the two stances of formalism and expressionism by arguing that emotional elements reside in the structural elements of music as perceptual properties, such as the redness of an apple or the sad facial expression of a St. Bernard’s face.

I have always adhered to the absolutist viewopoint and tried to find meaning within the interplay of musical elements as opposed to their programmatic associations. For music that includes a program, musicians must still understand how the musical elements convey the story to achieve an expressive performance. Ultimately, it is possible to be moved by the same music without knowing what it should be “about” and that is music’s intrinsic, immediate and fundamental expressive power.

I believe that musical elements can evoke and induce emotional experience, but what are these elements? It is very intriguing to read about how scientists are trying to dissect and study physiological responses to each musical element. One wrinkle in that method that I wonder about is the impossibility of separating the affects of specific musical elements. For instance, the physiological affect brought about by rhythm would be further enhanced by its accentuation and tempo, so which is the most dominant feature correlated with physiological arousal? Nevertheless, I applaud the topic and the effort to study musical emotions in a systematic and scientifically reliable way.

Friday, December 26, 2008

An Experience Sampling Study of Emotional Reactions to Music

Juslin, Patrik N. and Daniel Vastfjall (2008).
An Experience Sampling Study of Emotional Reactions to Music: Listener, Music, and Situation.
American Psychological Association: 2008, Vol. 8, No. 5, 668–683.

This experiment was conducted in Uppsala University, Sweden, and used the experience sampling method to gather information about daily activities, emotional states, and prevalence of musical and non-musical stimuli from 32 college students during a period of 14 days. The participants had to carry a palmtop computer for two weeks. When the palmtop emitted sound signals (seven times per day between 9am and 11pm), participants had to answer questions about their latest experience, thus permitting the researchers to observe their lives in the most natural and spontaneous condition possible. The questions could be divided into three categories: 1) the experienced emotion; 2) the situation; 3) the characteristics of musical-emotion episodes.
The purpose of the experiment was to investigate emotional reactions to music as they naturally occurred in daily life. The researchers wanted to study the prevalence of different musical emotions and how they were related to various factors in the listener, the music, and the emotion. They also compared the prevalence of musical emotions with that of non-musical emotions.
The findings of this study showed that the majority of participants have experienced musical emotions when music was present in their situations, which occurred frequently when they were alone at home. Calm-contentment was a commonly felt emotion in these episodes, where most participants have chosen the music themselves. Some common motives for participants to listen to music were: 1) to get some company; 2) to get energized; 3) to relax; 4) to pass time.
To a great degree, the prevalence of specific musical emotions depended on the situation and the listener. In company of friends and others, the musical emotions such as happiness-elation, pleasure-enjoyment, and anger-irritation occurred often, where as calm-contentment, nostalgia-longing, and sadness-melancholy occurred frequently in solitude.
The researchers acknowledged one main limitation of this study: it was based only on self-reports. Nevertheless, its findings showed that emotional responses to music depend on complex interactions between the listener, the music, and the situation. The usage of representative samples of musical events was strongly recommended for future attempts to estimate the prevalence of musical emotions in everyday life.

Review & Reflection
Throughout the course of human history, music has been acknowledged as a significant tool for regulating our emotional and spiritual state. It has physiological, psychological, and inside-out impacts on our body and the latest scientific, technological, and neurological discoveries have been applied in the attempts to explain this phenomenon.
This particular study observes the daily activities, emotional states, and the (side) effects of music in a person's everyday life. When reading this report, I cannot help being biased and thinking that this is not about music and its power to affect our emotions, but about a person's daily life and the small role that music may play in a social context. In this case, why can music not be substituted with sports, reading, resting, knitting, or eating in the same experiment? How is music differentiated from other daily activities in this setting? What is this study trying to prove to non-musicians, as well as to musicians? (For a musician like myself, the findings of this study are obvious and common sense.)
Certainly, this study provides one of many, many beginnings and can pave the way for limitless future developments. Personally, I would be interested to see: 1) the effects of different musical samples on different and the same participants; 2) differentiation between passive and active listening.
Our emotional reactions to music depends a great deal on our exposure to different styles of music (see Schellenberg's review of this report: "The role of exposure in emotional responses to music (2008)" in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31, 594-595 from and unfamiliarity, familiarity, and over-familiarity can all affect our response to a piece of music. On the other hand, in an environment where music is all pervasive (as background music in various locations, or dramatic elements in theatres, movies, and multi-media), it is possible to tune out of music that surrounds us and not listen to anything attentively. Is there a difference between the effects of attentive and absent-minded listening? How much does awareness and intent, or the lack of such, affect the outcome of a small act like switching on the radio/CD player/i-pod and listening to something? How much do we allow ourselves to probe into unfamiliar musical and emotional territories and be available to acknowledge musically evoked emotions? From that perspective, emotional responses to music can be both voluntary and involuntary, depending on individuals and their decisions.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Neural Roots of Music

Trainor, L. J. (2008).
Science & Music: The Neural Roots of Music.
Nature, 453, 598-599.

In this article, Dr. Trainor traces the brain map of our auditory perception and processing to explain the reasons for certain inclinations in our responses to different characteristics in music.
The rhythmic and pitch structures in music play a fundamental role in infants' sensory development. Due to a combination of external stimuli, the auditory and motor areas in infants' brain develop simultaneously. As a foetus, an infant first experiences movement and its mother's heartbeat in the womb. After birth, an infant is often rocked and bounced by caretakers while they sing infant-directed songs. This multi-sensory connection in infants' brain development continues to influence adults' auditory perception of rhythm. How we interprete and understand rhythmic pulse depends on how we move to the pulse. The basic rhythmic groups of two and three pulses can be felt in the movements of walking and dancing a waltz, perspectively.
Pitches are perceived as vibration of basilar membrane in the cochlea of the inner ear, which activates auditory nerve fibres to fire neuron patterns to the brain. What we perceive as consonance and dissonance have their distinct firing patterns in auditory nerves and induce feelings of release and tension in the listeners.
How we perceive music in its components of rhythm and pitch is also affected by our experience and exposure to a variety of traditions. What sounds good to one culture may have a very different reception from another. Similarly, a piece that outraged audience 100 years ago may find welcoming ears, now.

Review & Reflection
Dr. Trainor's research provides a clear explanation for the way we understand and respond to music. It also helps music educators understand what we are teaching, how to enhance the quality of our teaching, and why.
Instead of listening to music in a strictly musical sense, feeling music in a wider context - multi-sensory, intellectual, and emotional - provides a richer and more rewarding experience. As musicians, we have often heard sayings like: "you have to clap and conduct this passage to feel time;" and "you need to play like you are singing it." Experiencing music through physical movement and actual singing (note by note, from one interval to another) deepens the impression and impact that music makes on our system.
It is possible to say that our musical experiences (listening, performing, creating) become increasingly enjoyable as they change from passive to active processes. The more we link music to other aspects of our life, the more meaningful music can become. It is not only a source of stimuli for our brain development, but it also helps us regulate our emotional state and create social links with our fellow human beings. Scientific knowledge in the field of education helps us promote what we teach, but more importantly, it shows a wider spectrum of possibilities for us to explore and improve the quality of our life.

Music listening to facilitate relaxation and promote wellness: Integrated aspects of our neurophysiological responses to music

Sharon Dutton

Krout, Robert E. (2006) “Music listening to facilitate relaxation and promote wellness: Integrated aspects of our neurophysiological responses to music” The Arts in Psychotherapy 34: 134-141, November 2006

Dr. Krout examines the neurological bases for therapeutic roles that listening to music appears to facilitate. He cites many authors who have explored the use of music therapy to “positively affect physiological functioning” (p 135), in particular stress management and relaxation. These effects can be derived from passive listening, or from active engagement or participation in music performance. Krout presents an overview of research studies which explore and describe possible roles of the limbic system, the autonomic nervous system and release of hormones, and the interrelated roles of neurotransmitters, hormones, and the endocrine system, as he examines evidence of neural responses to music intended for relaxation.

Dr. Krout’s connections are sometimes vague, but based on the research cited in the article, he posits that the limbic system is affected by both external stimuli (music) and by cognitive activity (imagery), and can respond to positive stimuli by eliciting pleasurable sensations in the brain. Music affects the thalamus, which affects the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which in turn affects physiological movements within the body, resulting in a form of entrainment. Relaxation may be facilitated by the release of certain types of hormones in the brain while listening to music, namely endogenous opioids and morphines. Music may stimulate the production of natural endorphins, and the release of neurotransmitters which govern our moods. By calming neural activity music may promote and enable healthy functioning of the immune system.

Based on the many references he cites in this article, Dr. Krout proposes that 1) “the more the listener is exposed to specific music, the greater their relaxation response” (p 138), 2) musical preference plays an important role in the degree of relaxation that can be facilitated by listening to music, and 3) matching music’s tempo and complexity to the degree of stress, and then introducing calmer music is effective.


Many studies have documented music’s calming affect, and this research is helpful for teachers or other therapists who can use calming strategies in their professions. Various biological responses can be observed and measured, and identified chemicals are released in response to listening and / or partaking in musical performance activities, but the means whereby these responses are activated appears to elude neuroscientists.

Some people claim that music can relax them, and others claim that music makes them feel better. Some people claim that music has healing powers, while others claim that they can evoke the physical power of music after a period of chanting, and can perform super-human feats. We, in the west, have learned to ignore, to discount, and finally, to distrust our intuitive knowledge, our embodied wisdom, and our spiritual gifts. No doubt because North America – (not its proper name) – is so predominantly re-populated and governed by newcomers, we, the newcomers have carelessly disassociated from our ancestors. I am third generation Canadian, and I don’t know my great-grandparents’ first names. The fact that I have no clue how they lived, where they are buried, and was never encouraged to give them a second’s thought is typical. Yet, I am connected to their lives – I am beholden to their lives, in the most obvious of ways. North Americans – “modern science” – has forgotten the wisdom of its ancestors, denies its very existence, and believes instead in its own de-constructed knowledge as wisdom. The ancient civilizations who depended on the power of music knew that “it facilitates relaxation and promotes wellness”, knew that through music, they could develop their capacity to communicate with eachother, knew that through music, they could experience deeper spiritual meanings, and knew that they loved and needed music’s awesome power to sustain their personal health and the health of their communities. Hopefully, these facts will not always elude scientific understanding.

One of the fascinations of studying Music and the Brain is that it presents as yet, unchartered territory for exploration. Given that we are still only exploring and attempting to understand neural responses to music, our knowledge of this field is puerile, specifically where music is concerned. But then, music will always preserve its mystery, because it lives where our spirits live, in our hearts.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

There’s more to auditory cortex than meets the ear

Zatorre, Robert J. (2007) “There’s more to auditory cortex than meets the ear” Hearing Research 229 (2007) 24-30

Sharon Dutton

Dr. Zatorre’s paper challenges us to think outside of traditional definitions, particularly of the auditory cortex, which, he states, are based “either on anatomical criteria, as the cortex which receives input from the medial geniculate, or physiologically as the cortex containing neurons responsive to acoustic stimulation” (p 1). Such definitions were previously useful, but a more currently apt description needs to incorporate a sense of complex relational interactions.

Dr. Zatorre identifies three influences or variables that affect the patterns of activity in the auditory cortex. The first is memory, or prior learning and experiences, which may assign or associate meaning to the auditory stimulus, and which consequently affects the manner in which physical sounds are processed. The second factor is attention, which, Zatorre claims, has been known to affect responses, specifically; “evoked responses are larger to attended than to unattended stimuli” (p 3). Of particular note (to music teachers), “One of the more consistently reported interactions involving auditory cortex is that it often shows decreases in activity (relative to a no-stimulus baseline) in the presence of a visual stimulus”.1 However, he notes that the opposite can also be true, that “presentation of an auditory signal recruits some visual cortical areas, rather than inhibiting them” .2

The third influencing factor is imagery, or the ability of the brain to imagine sounds when they don’t actually exist. The auditory cortex becomes engaged while there is no actual auditory stimulus. Clearly, this occurs because of activity in other regions of the brain, and Dr. Zatorre cites lip-reading, as an example. Dr. Zatorre cites several research studies that support the relational aspect of the auditory cortex, and likely of the rest of the brain, (and the organism, and the planet). The traditional approach to understanding the brain in terms of anatomy and function does not accommodate these three capacities; memory, attention, and imagery. Considering the auditory cortex “in terms of its position in a distributed system, rather than in isolation” (p 2) is crucial to advancing our understanding of its role.


In his discussion, Dr. Zatorre concludes that “one cannot consider sensory systems as isolated processors; instead, they exert mutual, reciprocal influences” (p 4). This suggestion is becoming rather common among scientists. Whereas modern scientific truths are based on objectifying, deconstructing, rationalizing and verifying the nature of the world, Eastern, artistic, and ancient views of reality emphasize understanding relationships between earthly beings, between our own bodies, minds, and spirits, and between our past, the present and the future. Rather than objectifying the auditory cortex, as traditional Western science and philosophy would have us do, he is suggesting that we approach it with a consideration for its relationship with other stimuli.

Science is entering the realm of qualitative research, of understanding a thing in its entirety, not only its function and physical presence, but its relationship to everything else, including its past and future existence. We can ever entirely know anything; we can only know what we think we know; therefore, what we think we know needs to be questioned. Such is the craft of the bricoleur, to always question our assumptions, remaking them anew as our knowledge and understanding grows. By approaching a subject from yet another point of view, we advance our understanding of it, specifically as it exists in relation to our other constructs. In a healthy brain, nothing is isolated. Every thought, every impulse, every perception exists in tandem with everything else, and all activity seems to be known simultaneously – even, in some cases, anticipated – by every other activity.

1 Laurienti, P., Burdette, J., Wallace, M, Yen, Y.-F., Field, A., Stein, B. (2002)"Deactivation of sensory-specific cortex by cross-modal stimuli". Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 14, 420-429
Zatorre, R.J., Mondor, R.A., Evans, A.C. (1999) "Functional activation of right parietal and frontal cortex during auditory attention to space and frequency" Neuroimage 10, 544-554
2 Zatorre, R.J., Evans, A.C., Meyer, E., (1994) "Neural mechanisms underlying melodic perception and memory for pitch" Journal of Neuroscience 14 (4), 1908-1919