Saturday, December 19, 2009

This is Why Drums are Great

Source: Friedman, Robert Lawrence. The Healing Power of the Drum, White Cliffs Media, Reno, NV, U.S.A., 2000.

Synopsis: In this book, the author draws on his experiences as both a hand drum enthusiast and psychologist (with holistic leanings) to establish a definite link between total health and the activity of hand drumming. He begins with an overview of his own personal stpry, from his earliest experiences playing drums as a child to his many experiences in various drum circles (highlighted by a few run-ins with Bobby McFerrin), and his eventual decision to incorporate both of his interests in one method of healing. Then, the author gives a bit of a narrative history which traces the role of hand drummig through various cultures. He explores the personal drumming experience, delving into topics ranging from exploring one's inner child to brain entrainment to "The Unifying Quality of the Drum." Then, the author gives a large sum of anecdotes, both his own and from others, that serve to demonstrate the effects of hand drumming on various conditions, ranging from the physiciological (Alzheimer's, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's Syndrome) to the psychological (addictions, disabilities, stress) to the sociological (at-risk adolescents, coporate employees, prisoners) to children's conditions (Autism, Down Syndrome, William's Syndrome). Through it all, author maintains a bright outlook on life and the almost panaceaic relationship between hand drumming and total health.

Reflection: Don't tell the Percussive Arts Society I said so, but I think Mr. Friedman may be a hair too zealous in his claims. His is certainly a fascinating personal story, and much of what he says about hand drumming and health is either proven or at least plausible. To me, the error in his approach lies not in the results, but in the conditions of how to get there; quite simply, I don't believe that hand drums are the only viable musical means to achieve these results. I heartily agree that the striking, pounding nature of percussion lends itself quite well to therapy of all sorts, but I think it's a bit over-romantic to claim that hand drumming somehow metaphysically connects the performer to the instrument in a way that is somehow categorically superior to any other instrument, perussive or otherwise. Ask any string player how important their bow is to their connection with the instrument, and they'll look at you as though you just noticed the sky is blue; to string players, their implement of choice (the bow) is as much a part of their unique sound as the instrument itself. And of course, the same can be said for percussionists who play keyboard percussion instruments such as marimba, vibraphone, and xylophone; the specific mallets they choose, and how they hold and use those mallets, is an integral part in the sound produced, as well as the perfomers' mental sound concept.

That said, I don't think that Mr. Friedman is exaggerating the results at all; I just feel he's trying to give exclusive credit to hand drumming, when there are other viable forms of similar therapy. Of course, much of his philosoph stems from a perceived personal connection to the drums, so it makes sense that he is psychologically pre-conditioned to view hand drums as superior, and producing superior results. Perhaps this is why I'm finding it hard to wholly subscribe to the all-powerful properties of hand drums; I prefer the vibraphone!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Actual Mind Reading is Happening!

BCIs Using fMRI


Paper: 'Predicting human brain activity associated with the meanings of nouns.'

Professors Marcel Just and Tom Mitchell at Carnagie Mellon demonstrate what is perhaps the most advanced BCI to date. Using fMRI and artificial intelligence, they are able to predict thoughts.

In their study, they catalogued fMRI images of brain states while subjects were thinking about certain concrete nouns (such as "celery" and "airplane") and verbs (such as "run" and "eat"). Each subject had his/her own separate set of fMRI images stored. Later, when a subject was asked to look at two images of the concrete nouns they had catalogued, and focus on a single one, a computer using the catalogued fMRI data and the new fMRI image was able to predict what the subject was thinking about with stunning accuracy.

Even more amazing is the fact that when a subject was presented with two images that had NEVER been catalogued, the computer was STILL able to predict what the subject was thinking about! This is because an intelligent computer system had been created which made correlations between words (e.g. it found that "celery" and "eat" have similarities in their fMRI scans) and could predict new correlations (e.g. "carrot" will look similar to "celery").

They also combined the catalogues of all the subjects to create a sort of "average" fMRI image of each noun. Much to their surprise, they found that this new catalogue could be used with new subjects to predict which noun they were thinking of when presented with two images. This means that most of us tend to use the same areas in our brains for each specific word, idea or thought.

This is the 'bleeding edge' of BCIs. Emotiv (see my previous post), and many other EEG based BCI's are actually quite arbitrary when it comes to assigning variables to brainwaves. For instance, volume might be assigned to increase with an increase in alpha waves, but when a person actually thinks about something getting louder an increase in alpha waves has nothing to do with volume. With this new experiment, we are getting closer to actually seeing what really happens in the human brain when we think about musical variables.

From here, it may be possible to catalogue fMRI images as a subject think of pitches, durations, rhythms and timbres. Then, a system could be built that predicts a subject's thoughts of musical elements. I hunger for that first experiment where we hear a swelling Bb played on clarinet, using mind power alone.

Brace Yourselves, it is Coming...

2 New Examples of BCIs and their Possibilities with Music

Mix-It-Yourself with a Brain-Computer Music Interface

This is a project developed by E R Miranda and V Soucaret at the University of Plymouth, UK. In past, this pair of developers has created a generative music BCI (Brain Computer Interface) controlled by EEG. Although it was successful, they found it to be too expensive and too complicated to implement with current music software.

Their goal with 'mix it yourself' was to create a BCI that is relatively low in cost and easy to implement with available music software. They chose a simple 4 channel EEG amplifier and music software known as Reason. 3 tracks were created in Reason: a rhythm track, a piano solo track and a guitar solo track. Their software measured both alpha and beta brain waves and controlled Reason on the strength of these waves. If alpha was more prominent, the piano track volume was increased and the guitar track volume was decreased. If beta was more prominent, the reverse took place. Once this system was calibrated to an individual, the developers found that the subject was able to control the piano and guitar volumes at will.

In the same paper, the developers also describe a system of melodic creation through EEG analysis. By assigning a note to each electrode (14 electrodes in all) they were able to create melodies based on which electrode had the highest EEG power at any given time.

Both of these systems are arbitrary. Alpha and beta brain waves really have no known correlation with guitar and piano, and certain areas of increased activity on the scalp have no know correlation to any notes. As brain activity measurement increases in accuracy and associations between brain activity and actual thought becomes more known, these experiments will prove to be the predecessors to highly sophisticated BCIs.

Emotiv Systems

This video is amazing and will convince you that BCIs are the future. Tan Le discusses and demonstrates the technology her R&D team at Emotiv has developed. Emotiv is a company that builds consumer-based BCIs. It works on 3 principals: facial expression detection, emotional response detection and mind state capturing. Capturing one's mind states is perhaps the most advanced of the three technologies. Watch the video to see a man with the Emotive device control a cube on a computer screen. With his mind and some training with the software, he is quickly able to rotate a cube on screen counter-clockwise and make the cube disappear.

Their product is available to all RIGHT NOW, for only $299! Many developers are already using it to create video games that are controlled by mind alone. I can think of many ways it could be used to control music software and in fact, there are developers discussing how to use emotive with the popular program Max MSP. Check out this topic on the Emotiv discussion forums entitled Using Emotiv to control musical instruments....

Oh, and one last 'bonus' link: The first tweet sent by brain power alone!

The Fragmented Orchestra

The Fragmented Orchetra is a music composition conceived by Jane Grant, John Matthias and Nick Ryan, modeled after the human brain's neural network. In essence, it is a huge network of interactivity of sound. Here is a brief synopsis of this enormous brain-based installation:

'Soundboxes' were set up in 24 public locations across the UK. Stadiums, schools, music studios, a church, an observatory and others were included. These soundboxes were audio transceivers of sorts: they acted as both microphones and speakers. Participants (the general public) could go to each of these soundboxes, make a sound, and hear how the sound they contributed, as well as ambient sounds from the area, interacted with and changed the overall composition. For example, the soundbox at the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland may pick up sounds of wind, rain and stargazers whilst the sound box at Blueprint Studios in Manchester will pick up band performances as they happen at the studio.

Fragments of sound from each soundbox, from 30 - 500 ms in length, were received at the central 'cortex' at the Foundation of Art and Creative Technology (FACT). At FACT, the 24 sources were input into a computer. Software developed by the creators of the project manipulated the many fragments in a way fashioned after the spiking neural network model of the brain's activity. In the computer, the 24 sources interacted, and caused each other to evolve resulting in 24 new streams of sound. The result was output to a room in FACT with 24 separate speakers (each correlating to one of the locations) and listened to as a whole. It was also possible visit the project's website and create your own composition using the 24 sound sources.

This project gives me so many ideas! I imagine that the software developed for this system is quite basic when it comes to actually modeling the brain. As our understanding of the human brain becomes more clear, the development of Artificial Intellegence systems such as the fragmented orchestra's cortex will become more complex. Imagine being able to sing a musical idea to a computer and have it develop that idea much like a human would. Perhaps a computer could be used to create a sort of sonata in this way; sing a couple of themes, let the computer work and develop these ideas, you edit them as needed, the computer develops them further, etc...

A Proposal for a New Study in Music Therapy and Depression

This article outlines a summary for an experiment on the effect of music therapy on patients suffering from depression. In particular, the authors intend to focus on improvisational music therapy techniques as these techniques have been studied very little in the past. In fact the article first points out that the study of the effect of music therapy on depression is its infancy, yet deserves much attention. In the few (5) trials outlined in the review "Music therapy for depression" (found here: the authors find that although music therapy seems to be highly effective in the treatment of depression, the trials are of low quality because of the small number of participants and poor methodology.

The authors of this proposed study believe it to be of good design and intend a high number of participants to be involved (85). In total, 35 patients between the ages of 18-50 will receive 20 one hour sessions improvisational music therapy plus standard care whilst the 50 remaining patients will receive standard care only.

The study aims to find if improvisational music therapy effects depressed patients in the following ways: reduce levels of depression, increase quality of life and reduce EEG asymmetry. If music therapy is found to be effective, the researchers intend to study the recordings of the music used (and improvised) to find if there is a correlation between specific musical features and their effect on depressed patients.

As this study is currently underway, it difficult to evaluate. The researchers intentions of a well designed study are supported with excellent methodology, a decent sample size and the potential for many threads of statistical analysis.

As a person who is indirectly effected by clinical depression (my wife suffers from severe depression) I will be waiting for the results of this study. Hopefully they will find what they expect to find: that improvisational music therapy has a positive effect on depressed patients. If they are able to provide enough details I may be able to play a role in the rehabilitation of someone I care deeply for.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mozart Was Messed Up!

Source: McConnel, James. "Mozart behaving badly," music,, Spetember 1, 2004

Synopsis: The author of the article, who is a composer with Tourette Syndrome, offers his insights into the possible neurological conditions of Mozart, based in part on his analysis of documented evidence and Mozart's music (in fact, a Scandinavian scientist many years earlier had put forth a theory that Mozart suffered fro Tourette's, based on his analysis of Mozart's many letters, which were frequently scatological in nature). Mozart is well-documented as haveing a number of obsessions, such as clocks, cats, shoe sizes, and even his wife's safety (he was terrified to let her out of the house). Furthermore, there are numerous reports of him twitching, grimacing, and otherwise behaving oddly in formal situations. As with many people with Tourette's, Mozart was known (in his letters and socially) to take jokes and disgusting subject matter FAR beyond the limits of good taste, no doubt affected by his inablity to distinguish the synthetic boundaries of "good taste" as dictated by society. Additionally, Mozart's music indicates a strong desire to adhere to the rigid structures of old. In many Tourette Syndrome cases, there are secondary disorders that frequently exist in conjunction (the most common being Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Had Mozart suffered from this "grab bag" of disorders, it would go a long way towards explaining his odd social behavior and, in part, his outdated and esoteric love for the supremely-structured organization of counterpoint and fugue writing (musical veins which, at the time, were fading from style).

Reflection: It's very difficult for me to consider this article and NOT try and relate it to my own experience with music, social situations, and Tourette Syndrome. However, it's especially interesting that this is Mozart we're talking about; usually, most people consider him to be the "child prodigy" of legend, but few people would consider him to be one of the "eccentrics" like Beethoven or Bruckner. I can testify from personal experience that besides the obvious symptoms of Tourette Syndrome, one of the chief debilitating effects of the disorder is the inability to understand the unspoken conversational and activity-related parameters of social situations. In modern parlance, we would usually refer to this as "crossing the line," either in taste or general appropriateness, but it's very difficult when an otherwise well-functioning, properly-eductaed person simply doesn't KNOW where this invisible "line" is.

However, this in itself is not enough evidence to prove Mozart had Tourette Syndrome (or ANY medical disorder; there are plenty of "odd characters" who don't need a syndrome to be socially abnormal). I was more interested in the author's assertion that there exist written accounts of Mozart twitching, fidgeting, grimacing, and tapping his feet at inappropriate times. THESE gesticulations, moreso than any improper sense of social awareness, indicate the possibilty that Mozart suffered from Tourette's. The foot-tapping could be especially-damning; again, considering that Tourette's frequently comes with many secondary disorders, this extra movement could be the result of Tourette Syndrome, but more likely it is the result of ADHD and Mozart's subsequent restlessness and excessive energy.

In my experience, most people with Tourette Syndrome or similar neurological diosorders seem to show a propensity for all the things the author discussed: social inappropriateness, physical symptoms, making scatalogical or other similarly-inappropriate references far more frequently than the average gentleman. Also, I've noticed (like Mozart's alleged case) that many people with such disorders tend to thrive when performing tasks that require creating and following rules and organizational guidelines (although, the same cannot be said for following pre-existing guidelines, particularly when set forth by well-meaning grade school teachers or parents). This article by no means PROVES that Mozart had Tourette Syndrome, but it certainly opens the floor to discussion.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Music, the brain and Ravel


Sergent, Justine. 1993. Music, the Brain and Ravel. Trends in Neurosciences. 16(5). 168-172.


Understanding the functional organization of the cerebral structures underlying receptive and expressive musical processes can be a difficult process. There are many difficulties inherent in the artistic and subjective nature of musical experience. In other words, since listening to music and producing it are human activities, they do not lend themselves easily to scientific inquiry since they require a direct response or one that can be generalized.

Yet clarifying the relationship between brain and music is a logical and legitimate goal of neuroscientific research. One approach to this goal is based on new developments of brain imaging techniques, and recent investigations indicate that complex musical activities such as sight-reading and piano performance relies on a distributed neural network comprising locally specialized cortical areas. The practise of music engages the visual modality for reading musical notations, the auditory modality for hearing and appreciating melodies, rhythms, harmonies and timbres, the combination of which define a musical piece. Further, the motor modality is required in performance, since it requires the coordination of many muscles; and of course, and cognitive and emotional processes in understanding and appreciating it.

Another approach to this type of research is concerned with the study of musicians, such as Gershwin and Ravel, who have been affected by brain damage. An analysis of their deficits helps to uncover some properties of music-brain relationships, to identify the essential questions raised by these deficits, and to clarify the neurofunctional anatomy of musical abilities.

Like many articles on this subject, the article concludes by acknowledging that understanding of the neurocognitive bases of musical functions is still at an early stage. However, recent progress in cognitive and neurofunctional research opens the way to more systemic studies than were possible previously.


In this article, I was especially interested in reading about what had actually affected Ravel. I knew that he was unable to compose toward the end of his life, but only had a vague idea why. Ravel’s first symptoms of neurological dysfunction were in 1933 and noticed by one of his pupils. When spelling errors on one of his pieces were pointed out, Ravel did not realize his errors. We do not know just when Ravel became aware of a deficit directly related to his musical skill since he did not realize immediately that he had lost his ability to actually compose. However, it soon was evident that his illness consisted of the selected impairment of various functions related to the translation of musical representations from one modality to another, for example, from visual to a motor or an auditory representation.

In a way, I think it would have been very frightening for Ravel to recognize that in a way, he had become musically illiterate since he was no longer able to utilize his musical knowledge in an integrated fashion to translate musical representations from one mode to another. As a pianist, I can only imagine how I would feel should my fingers be injured or paralyzed and I be unable to play.

The article included graphs demonstrating cortical activation during sight-reading and other musical activities. These graphs were obtained by positron emission tomography and measured cerebral blood flow. Though some of the anatomical language used in describing them went beyond what I remembered from second-year anatomy, I found them to be useful nonetheless.

More than anything, what I learned from this article is just how vast this topic we call music and brain really is. I have read many articles written from a scientific standpoint, as well as those from a musician’s viewpoint and it is clear that both parties agree on one thing – though we may know something, there is so much more to discover!

Implications of Music and Brain Research: for the Common People

Hodges, Donald A. 2000. “Implications of Music and Brain Research.” Music Educators Journal. 87(2). 17-22.

This article actually serves as an introductory article to a series of articles, all of which discuss important aspects of neuromusical investigation currently under research. To music educators, the author acknowledges that current research in this field is difficult. This is due mainly to the fact that most recent discoveries involving music and brain is presented in one of two ways. Either information is presented in scientific journals and is too technical for a non-scientist to read and understand, or, it is “watered down” and the actual facts become obscured. In the remainder of the introduction, the author presents the titles and a brief summary of all the articles in the series.

Four articles are briefly mentioned. The first, by Donna Brink Fox, is titled “Music and the Baby’s Brain: Early Music Experiences” and it discusses literature on infant and early childhood music with respect to brain development. Many adult-like responses to music are already apparent in infants. “EEG Studies with Young Children”, the next article, examines brain activity in preschool and elementary school children. John Flohr, Dan Miller, and Roger deBeus explain electroencephalogram (EEG) technicques and how they have been applied to the study of musical behaviours in children. Steven Demorest and Steven Morrison discuss a current popular topic in their article “Does Music Make You Smarter?” Exposing children to music perhaps does increase their brain power; the authors present a balanced view to this controversial issue. The final article is “A Virtual Panel of Expert Researchers” in which four senior researches share important ideas for music educators.

The second part of the article gives an overview of some current trends in music and brain research. The first is based on the premise that the human brain has the ability to respond to and participate in music. For instance, there are those who think that being musical or a musician means to be like Mozart, for instance; rather, we all respond in our own way to music of the environment. To quote the author: “Music then, is one of the hallmarks of what it means to be a human being.”

The second premise is that the music brain, specifically, operates at birth and persists throughout life. In a way, this seems obvious. But the article gives scientific evidence that a baby responds to music while even in the womb. Research is also being carried out with aging nuns. So far, evidence is proving that the more education (especially in music or languages) that one has in childhood, the less likely they are to be debilitated by some form of cognitive dementia in their older age.

Thirdly, it has been proved through brain imaging data that the primary auditory cortex in the left hemisphere of musically trained subjects is larger than in those of untrained subjects. Further, for those with absolute pitch or who began lessons before age seven, the difference was even greater.

The musical brain consists of complex neural networks involving widely distributed, but locally specialized regions of the brain. These include cognitive components, affective components, and motor components; the author contends that the literature on amusia gives further evidence of modularity.

Lastly, the musical brain is highly resilient, persisting in individuals regardless of the degree of disability or illness. Any music therapist would testify to this. For example, individual with Williams Syndrome are cognitively impaired, with average IQs of 65 – 70, yet they often have remarkable musical abilities.

This article seemed less specialized and specific than many others I have read dealing with similar topics. The article discussed current research being hard to access for many musicians on account of its being “polarized”. I had to agree with the statement. I had previously accessed a few medical databases when researching for my essay and found them to be almost too specific and focused to be relevant. That is, if I was even able to understand what they were talking about!

I also enjoyed reading about Donna Brink’s article, regarding early music experiences. On a personal level, I entirely agree with it. My youngest sister has five older siblings (including myself) who have played/play the piano seriously. Three of us did undergrad degrees in performance. From the time she was one or two years old, I remember Radine sitting in her playpen bouncing up and down in time to music being played. She “played” the piano before she could walk, and began piano lessons when she was very young. By age three, she had performed in front of audiences from memory. My childhood musical education was different than Radine’s in this way. Radine has just turned 11, and still loves to sing and play both piano and violin.

With respect to the fact that early musical development perhaps enlarges the upper primary cortex more than in non-musically trained individuals, I do agree that much caution should be taken. The article points out that any individual who is highly specialized in a certain area will likely have an enlarged cortex corresponding to that area. It does not simply apply to musicians. The author gives the example of the difference between a high level mathematician, and one who can barely add or subtract. This would also apply to a highly trained athlete in a specific sport, for instance.

Surgery fine-tunes legendary banjo player's brain

White, Maureen, and Lee Ferran, “Surgery Fine-Tunes Legendary Banjo Player’s Brain.” ABC News (October 3, 2008). Accessed Tuesday, December 17, 2009. Available from:

This news article described the case of Eddie Adcock, a successful bluegrass banjo player who fairly late in life developed an essential tremor. Essential tremor is a progressive neurological disorder that causes the hands and arms to shake uncontrollably. It had an immense impact on his playing to the point where he could barely play. It was decided that deep brain stimulation (the surgical implantation into the thalamus of a device which sends electrical impulses to interrupt the tremor) was the best solution in this case. Deep brain stimulation has been very successful for controlling essential tremor, but the medical team had the additional challenge of making sure that Adcock regained his musical dexterity. The article includes video footage of Adcock playing the banjo during surgery, using his facility at the instrument to determine when they had reached the correct area in the brain.

Reading this article and watching the video was entirely fascinating. I must admit that I know little of banjo music, but I can’t even begin to imagine how devastating it would be to have devoted your life to music only to have your skills suddenly taken away from you. The seemingly almost daily advances in medical procedures and technology never cease to amaze me. It is interesting to note that it seems more and more often brain surgery is being done with the patient awake, to measure the results of what is being done. It must have been quite the challenge for Adcock to manage to play during brain surgery. That would be an incredibly difficult situation in which to perform.

The video included with the article showed footage of a follow-up appointment where Adcock was asked to first draw a spiral, sign his name, then play the banjo with the device turned off then on. It was absolutely astounding to see the difference, especially in his playing. With the device off, he stumbled and his fingers shook enough to create tapping noise on the instrument.

The way this article is written, it sounds as though this was the first time this procedure was attempted on a skilled musician. I wonder whether this has since become more commonplace. Would it be performed on young people also? In high school, I had a friend who suffered with an essential tremor of the hands. An interesting question would be whether this procedure could make it possible for those with an earlier onset of symptoms to contemplate careers that otherwise would have been entirely impossible. I am not only thinking of musical careers, but anything requiring precision in movement.

Developing the Complete Pianist

Developing the complete pianist: a study of the importance of a whole-brain approach to piano teaching
, by Sally Chappell
Chappell, Sally. 1999. “Developing the Complete Pianist: A Study of the Importance of a Whole-Brain Approach to Piano Teaching.” British Journal of Music Education 16(3). 253-262.

The article begins with a short survey of current research into instrumental lessons. Going through relevant literature on the subject, Chappell notes that much emphasis is placed on technical work during these lessons. Especially for beginners, a huge emphasis is placed on notation, allowing for little development of musicianship. As well, physical tension can result from verbally orientated and teacher-led lessons; this can result in the lack of a clear mental image of what is being played.

Chappell looks at how the brain functions of why this type of teaching is not as beneficial. Each hemisphere of the brain is responsible for different functions. Briefly, the left is responsible for rational thinking and logical behaviour (notation, analysis, technique in musical terms) while the right is responsible for non-verbal activities, the intuitive and holistic (processing patterns, creativity, and formal outlines in music). But instead of emphasizing the split brain aspect of music, research emphasizes the development of both hemispheres to carry out a single task. The need for this is especially emphasized when looking at the development of the brain in young children; they need to be provided with opportunities and stimulation in order to develop a full range of mental ability. Thus musical training should incorporate not only technical work but stimulate creativity.

In the remainder of the article, Chappell considers how to develop this whole brained approach in teaching. Three approaches, internalising, improvising, and memorising are three “neglected” right-hemisphere skills. There are three major benefits of internalising music. It reduces physical tension for the pianist, gives increased focus to the ear in music-making, and leads to greater depth of expression. All these result in an increase in the role of the right-hemisphere. The benefits of improvisation include an increased awareness and clearer understanding of what was actually on printed music, and the development of a problem-solving approach to playing. Researchers also have found that students who improvised developed a more independent and discovery-led method of learning, often finding their own solutions to technical problems in performance. As well, linking back to internalism, improvisation places the ear in a central position and allows students to use intuition to develop a sense of freedom in their playing. Memorization also is a key right-brain process. There are several types, namely, visual, kinaesthetic, aural, and analytical; all of these should be combined in the learning and memorizing process.

The implications of such a teaching approach often would most likely involve a redefinition of teacher’s learning strategies. Many lessons currently are teacher-orientated, relieving students of the sense of responsibility and making them reliant on the teacher. In student-centered lessons, there is likely to be less verbal instruction on the part of the teacher, and a greater emphasis on practical demonstration and focused listening. As well, teachers need to develop curriculum with a broader base and better balance between technical and musical sides; lessons should use a variety of approaches to develop a student’s musical skills. With respect to the pupil, the new appraoach places the development of listening skills at its center and so links brain, body, and emotions. Positive benefits for the pupils in the studies demonstrated increased self-motivation, more interest and enjoyment in the instrument, and even helped in decreasing anxiety levels.

The author concludes by noting that this approach has enormous potential, but still requires further research into the specific content of lessons and teaching styles employed.

For me, this article made very relevant points. I remember when I first took piano lessons, my teacher had the “standard” approach the article warned against – much technique and note-reading work combined with very little creative aspects. As a result, I was uncomfortable improvising, or even considering the thought. When I realized this, and the reason why, I began to force myself to play by ear. I found that even though it was extremely difficult at first, I was able to improve my ability in this regard.

The article states that a child’s brain develops very quickly when they are young. With respect to teaching young children, I find that they have very little inhibition. I like to give my young students, especially, simple improvisation exercises depending on their pianistic level. For example, I ask them to pick three different notes on the piano and play them in various combinations, at different octaves and at different dynamic levels. Within this exercise, there are boundaries, but still much room to be creative. I find that all too often, older pianists are nervous at being asked to improvise, or they say they cannot. This is not the case with younger children.

I found the memorization section of the article useful and interesting as well. Memorizing music as a child was a tactile process for me. However, as I grew older, and my repertoire became longer and more difficult, I was forced to discover other methods of memorizing. I increasingly became reliant on mental memory and metal practise. Also, I was conscious of being somewhat analytical in my approach more so than ever before. Memorization is a key aspect of performance on many instruments, and the importance of developing strategies to successfully accomplish it should not be underestimated.

One last thought – for me, Walter Gieseking’s statement summed up many aspects of the article. He said: “by unceasingly listening with the ‘inner ear’... to a composition, [a pianist’s] capability of comprehending it will develop to so great an extent that he finally will grasp it in all its detail and will be in a position to interpret this masterwork in all its greatest perfection.” This is so true!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Performance and memorization

McLaughlin, Carrol. “When You Think You Know It…” in Dr. Carrol’s Power Performance, 73-91. Tucson: IntegrityInk.US, 2008.

This chapter is from a book written by Dr. Carrol McLaughlin. She is a well known performing harpist and professor of a large harp department at the University of Arizona. She also works as a life coach and gives presentations based on her techniques. The book is intended for the use of musicians and business people, essentially anyone who must perform in front of others. She suggests that her techniques of ‘Power Performance’ can be used to reprogram the brain. She uses examples from her own experiences as a performing harpist to illustrate her points. This particular chapter deals with memorization and some methods of proper practise to learn music/information so that you can perform at a higher level than before and with less stress. In this particular chapter she covers several things like the ‘ten times rule’ and the importance of dividing material into small chunks rather than trying to learn a whole page at once. She also explains the necessity of actually practising performing without stopping and the benefits of well marked repair points.

I very much enjoyed reading this chapter, and not only because it was written by a harpist. It is definitely written with a broad audience in mind, the language used is accessible and any terms are well defined. The chapter (indeed the entire book) is written in small subsections and has a full table of contents for easy reference. There are checklists placed at the end of each chapter. A few of the concepts are ideas that most musicians at a high level would have previously encountered, but she does introduce some new concepts and explains well some of the others. She doesn’t go into depth on some of the topics that I might have wished to read more about, but I think that was done with the target audience in mind. This chapter would be of great use to young musicians or those starting out and attempting to train excellent practise techniques from the beginning.

The ‘ten times rule’ (the idea that you can’t truly know something until you’ve played it – or spoken it – ten times through with no errors) is a concept that several of my instrumental teachers have considered very important. It is a fact that the more often you repeat something and especially the shorter the time between repetitions, the more strongly something will be memorized. My current teacher has her students go a level deeper from that rule of ten. To memorize properly she instructs that one must take tiny sections (4 bars or even less) and play them once looking at the music, once without, once again with the music, then without – all in large groups of 10. It is a somewhat frustrating technique of memorization (especially for those around while you are practising), but I can attest to the fact that it is extremely successful. As McLaughlin mentions, the technique requires much patience. Patience in accomplishing the original practise, then also patience in the realization that the next day you take out the material it may seem as if you had done nothing. Eventually the repetitions become faster and the material becomes much more secure.

It is true that often we get stuck in our old routines of practise to the point where we aren’t using our time efficiently. Using techniques like those discussed in this chapter are all ways of ensuring our level of performance is constantly improving.

Practising the Perfect Way

A Way to Practise Passage-Work, by George Kochevitsky
from Clavier magazine 13 (8): 19-20 Available in the library: ML1.C53 MUSI 1974

Very little is written specifically about practising piano and the best way of approaching a particular piece of music. So even though it was written in 1974, I found this article to be extremely relevant and interesting. Kochevitsky discusses a procedure for practicing the piano targeting overcoming technical difficulties in specific pieces of music.

In his opinion, it is very helpful to construct the symmetrical inversion of a complicated passage in one hand for the other hand (as in mirror reflection) and to practice both hands together. There is a physiological explanation of this. What is thought to be the development of piano technique is in actuality, the development of the nervous system. Owing to the connections between the identical points in both hemispheres of the brain, the nervous processes taking place in one hemisphere are reproduced in the analogous points of the other. The proprioceptive sensations (those sensations from the movements of the pianist's playing apparatus) have a decisive influence on the development of the piano technique, and are intensified in this way.

Playing softly is important because this minimizes arm activity and allows the finger activity to be perceived more clearly in the cortex cells. Further the right hand, usually better developed, helps to overcome the difficulties encountered in the left hand part. The process is reversed with left-handed people.

The author also discusses a Chopin etude (op. 10 no. 12) in detail and demonstrates with specific musical examples where and how this technique can be applied as an ideal practise method.

A few years ago, I performed one of Chopin’s etudes (op. 10 no. 4) for a piano competition, and I remember having a relatively short time to learn and polish it. This particular etude had much difficult and extremely technical passagework; in retrospect, it was composed in the same parallel, mirror-reflection style as in the etude Kochevitsky discusses. At the time, I remember asking my teacher the best way to practise in order to make the most of the little time I had. She emphasized the importance of practising the parallel passages with both hands, and slowly. I discovered that this method was extremely successful.

My teacher did not actually tell me the reason why this approach worked as well as it did. Perhaps she did not actually know. For her, it may have been simply an intuitive instruction, based on years of experience practising and performing the piano from a very early age. And at the time, I never thought to wonder why; I was just happy that it worked. Following that experience, in learning other repertoire, I found frequent occasion to utilize this practising strategy but still never thought much of the reason it worked until I recently, when I discovered Kochevitsky’s article.

One other thing that my teacher stressed was that in addition to practising softly in such passages, it was important to play slowly and accurately as well. Accuracy is important for the same reason as playing softly – in essence, the fingers are being trained, and not just the brain. Playing something incorrectly not only affects the fingers, but how it is learned in the brain. From this perspective, I entirely agree with Vince Lombardis in his statement that “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

Albert Einstein on Music

Albert Einstein on Music

Article from, a website featuring internationally acclaimed letures written by Professor Brian Foster.

Written by: Brian Foster, Experimental Particle Physicist at the Department of Physics, Oxford Univeristy, United Kingdom.

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”-Einstein

In an article entitled “Einstein and his love of music”, Professor Brian Foster of Oxford University discusses a lesser known side of Einstein- his life as a violinist. At the age of six, Einstein began to learn the violin. He took lessons until the age of thirteen, then continued on to devote a lot of time to music when living in Switzerland. Not only was he an exceptional violinist, he was a pianist and a hearty improviser. Throughout his life, Einstein befriended many great artists, including pianist Artur Rubinstein, cellist Gregor Piatigorski, and violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who also founded the Israel Philharmonic, of which Einstein was a huge supporter. Many people have commented on the passion and sincerity of his playing, including his friend Janos Plesch, who wtote, “There are many musicians with much better technique, but none, I believe, who ever played with more sincerity or deeper feeling”.

The focal points of Einstein’s taste in music were Bach and Mozart. He tolerated but did not adore Beethoven, and was not a huge lover of Schubert, Schumman and Brahms. Einstein stopped playing towards the end of his life, but never lost his love of the violin or of music. He once said, “I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin”.

Reflection: The part of this article that interested me with regards to this course was the quote from his second wife Elsa, who said that music helped him when he was thinking about theories. According to Elsa, Einstein would retreat to his study, return to the piano and play a few chords, then return to his study eager to write more ideas down. I found this intriguing because when we think of Einstein, a brilliant physicist is usually the first thing that comes to mind for most people. It is intriguing to contemplate what tools Einstein used to encourage his own thinking and creativity. It seems that music was one of these tools. Therefore, I wonder- did music inspire Einstein? Did it relax and soothe him, particularly when he was tense and anxious in the midst of his work? Was music helpful to him because it offered such a different means of expression as compared to his career’s work? Perhaps there is something inherent within music that helped him think more clearly. This makes me question what exactly it is about music that provides inspiration for so many. I have heard (but have not confirmed) about recent studies that show nicotine to improve concentration and fluidity of thought processes. Perhaps music works in a similar way for people consumed by work in other areas. Some writers listen to music for inspiration and to aid in concentration. Perhaps what artists (writers, painters, etc.) do and the thought processes they need to do it are not all that different from what scientists too. It is highly likely that the great thinkers of our time have suffered from a “writer’s block” effect, or have sought out various ways to jump-start or perpetuate creativity.

Music has many connections to physics, in that harmonic motion of a string is a physics-based law, and sound exists on a physical level. The two fields are tightly interwoven, but one does not depend on knowledge of the other. For example, you do not need to understand the laws of physics in order to be a great musician. On the flip side, you do not need to be a proficient, emotionally expressive and/or creative musician to be an innovative physicist. Still, it may make either experience all the richer to have a basic understanding of both sides, because of how intimately related they are to each other.

Going under the knife? Make sure your iPod is charged!

Cooke, Marie, Wendy Chaboyer, Philip Schluter, and Maryanne Hiratos. “The Effect of Music on Preoperative Anxiety in Day Surgery.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 52 (2005): 47-55

This study was designed to determine whether day surgery patients who listen to music while waiting before surgery have lower levels of anxiety than those who do not. This was accomplished by assessing levels of anxiety before the patients listened to music and then again after listening. Their participants were randomly divided into three groups of 60 people each, the intervention, placebo, and control groups. The intervention group were allowed to choose the type of music they would listen to, the placebo group wore earphones without music being played, and the control group received only routine care. Results showed that those in the intervention group (who listened to music) showed considerably lower levels of anxiety than those from the other groups. The authors suggest that with the improvements in surgical techniques and anaesthetics there will be an increasing number of day surgeries, and that nursing staff will need faster options of helping patients with preoperative anxiety. Listening to music can be entirely self-driven by the patient.

I found this study to be particularly interesting and relevant as just last year I had to undergo a minor operative procedure under local anaesthetic. I had been quite nervous during the consultation when the surgery date was booked and was thus extremely nervous on the day of the actual surgery. I remember being in the waiting room beforehand with other patients waiting in various stages of anxiety, experiencing the tense atmosphere, and reaching into my bag for my iPod. I put on the headphones and some favourite music and managed to calm myself until it was time for the surgery. I am quite sure that the act of listening to music minimized my anxiety levels while waiting. My own experience agrees with the hypothesis of this particular study.

I would be curious to know if any of the research regarding anxiety and day surgery looks into the effect of listening to music during the surgery itself. During my surgery, the surgical staff in the operating room were playing some type of medieval chant. I have very clear memories of listening to the music and being very grateful for the opportunity to focus on music rather than what was occurring. I would imagine that the music was played more for the benefit of the surgeon, but it had the added result of helping me.

It is notable that the participants in this study were allowed to select their own type of music rather than the researchers using one type of music for everyone. I imagine that music’s anxiety reducing effects would be greatly affected if you strongly disliked the music being played. It was interesting that the authors of this article decided to use three groups in their research. The article pointed out that other studies of this subject area have only used two groups: the intervention group and the control group. This could potentially have some effect on the way that the nursing staff treat the patients and could affect the results. Having a placebo group obviously wearing earphones but without hearing any music was an intelligent way of removing this problem.

The authors of this article suggest that day surgery units should encourage patients to listen to their own music while waiting for surgery. Day surgery units send out informational materials to patients when the date of surgery is booked, it seems that a helpful idea would be to include information about the benefits of listening to music while waiting and suggest that patients bring something that they enjoy listening to.

Hard Rock Therapy for Young Rebels


Lehtonen, Kimmo. (2008). Hard Rock Therapy for Young Rebels. Soundeffects, 5 (1), 10-14. Retrieved December 5, 2009 from


This article is written by a music therapist in Finland and describes his music therapy work with teenagers. Dr. Kimmo Lehtonen works at the Family Rehab Centre and Special School in Turku, Finland, where he works with high-risk teenagers. These teenagers usually have difficult backgrounds including problems with family, school, and drugs and alcohol, and often demonstrate anti-social and aggressive behaviours. At the institution, these teenagers work with family therapists, music therapists, music teachers, and music-club leaders.

Dr. Lehtonen leads music therapy sessions using improvised hard rock music. He employs psychodynamic theory of music and compares his work to play therapy in the way it creates opportunities to work through psychic conflicts. He sees his work as providing experiences of achievement and of ego mastery; experiences that can then be applied to other situations. Dr. Lehtonen views musical improvisation as an activity based heavily in bodily communication and rhythmic experience that hearkens back to the life of the infant.

The process Dr. Lehtonen uses in his music therapy sessions is simple and straightforward. He typically begins by improvising with the client, usually featuring himself on the electric guitar and the client on the drums. In order to provide an experience of togetherness, Dr. Lehtonen allows the client to lead and follows wherever they go, constantly working to make the client sound as great as possible and empower them. In working with the teenagers, Dr. Lehtonen uses aggression and encourages the clients to express emotions of hatred and frustration. He tries to show music’s capacity for catharsis and allows raw and extreme emotions to be expressed.

Dr. Lehtonen’s work with high-risk teenagers has been compared to the highly respected El Sistema, a music program in Venezuela that provides street children with free classical music training. While many classical music lovers are quick to point out that it is classical music that is used with El Sistema, Dr. Lehtonen argues that any type of music can be used to achieve similar results. What is most important is the manner in which the music is introduced.

Dr. Lehtonen also relates the role of music in his life. In the sixties, he was drawn to the electric guitar, and though he studied classical music for years, he always felt out of place with it and eventually returned to jazz and rock. This is the music that speaks to him, and he shares this passion with his clients.

Outside of Dr. Lehtonen’s music therapy sessions, the teenagers at the institution are given opportunities to build their own instruments and are encouraged to join the bands formed at the school. In addition to describing some of the amazing resources available to the students, Dr. Lehtonen relates some inspiring stories from his work with these teenagers.


When I saw the title of this article, I was immediately interested by the idea of using “hard rock therapy” with teenagers. While I have never been particularly enthusiastic about hard rock, I can see that it could create great opportunities when used with teenagers. When I was a teenager, classical music was not the common musical passion among my age group, and I doubt that the situation has changed much since then. I feel that as a teenager, the idea of “needing therapy” does not necessarily help one’s peers to view one in a more favourable light. Classical music therapy on top of it all might be a tough sell.

In contrast, I feel that by using hard rock, the music therapist can potentially meet the client closer to their comfort level. While I am not at all familiar with popular culture among the youth of Finland, at least here in Canada, I suspect that the average teenager is more familiar with hard rock than with classical music. Even if many are not familiar with hard rock exactly, they are likely more comfortable in the presence of electric guitars, bases, and drums than say violins, French horns, and bassoons. Most teenagers can probably name a band, or even just a few songs, that they like that use electric guitar and drums. Dr. Lehtonen also allows his clients to choose the style of music they wish to play and follows their lead. Ultimately then, this approach creates an opportunity for the teenagers to be in a layout they are familiar with, creating music that they enjoy.

This choice of instruments and music genre also provides an opportunity for expressing intense negative emotions and simply expelling energy. I was interested by Dr. Lehtonen’s writing about encouraging emotional expression, even when working with extreme emotions of aggression, anger, and frustration. Dr. Lehtonen refers to the fact that we rarely are given the opportunity to express negative emotions but rather are encouraged to keep them quiet and work around them. I feel that I am more familiar and consequently more comfortable with this approach, but while this technique works well for some, I can imagine it does not appeal to everyone. Dr. Lehtonen specifically refers to encouraging his clients to “beat the drums as though they are the cause of your problems.” I find it compelling that he so actively encourages a physical expression of negative emotion and can imagine that many of his clients feel a tremendous sense of release afterward as a result.

In reading this article, I was struck by the tremendous human and material resources made available to the participating teenagers. Music education is taught in conjunction with music therapy, and the students can have almost ten hours of music instruction and therapy a week. The institution has two well-equipped music studios, and the students have access to a teacher qualified in instrument making to guide them in constructing their very own instrument, should they choose. The students also have opportunities to play in bands. Dr. Lehtonen talks about some of the benefits of playing in a band, including learning from peers, learning about responsibility, and learning to trust and respect your colleagues while collaborating and compromising. I feel that playing in a musical ensemble offers a tremendous opportunity for learning and personal growth, and am quite impressed by this description of the program made available to these youth. All in all, this article almost makes me wish I was a teenager living in Finland.

Listening in Music Therapy


Arnason, Carolyn L.R. (2002). Musical Listening: Giving Audience to the Music and Our Clients. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved November 29, 2009, from


This article explores the concept of listening in music therapy by looking at research the author conducted with music therapists on the topic, as well as by examining the author’s own clinical work. Dr. Carolyn Arnason wrote this article while conducting a research study on how music therapists listen to improvised music. The research consists of interviews (in person or by e-mail) with music therapists from various countries who are active clinical improvisers using a music-centred psychotherapy approach and who also listen to recordings of their improvisations.

The underlying research question of the study is “What is musical listening?’ Dr. Arnason structures the interviews around six topic areas, addressing the listening that occurs both in and after improvisations, ideas of analyzing and interpreting improvisations, and the context or background from which these improvisations come. From this research and her own clinical work, Dr. Arnason identifies a number of levels of listening, including the client and his/her music, the music therapist and his/her music, the interpersonal relationship between the two and their co-created music, verbal dialogue, silence and space, and the intangible or spiritual.

In addition to relating ideas from her research, Dr. Arnason draws heavily on her experiences working with Sarah (pseudonym), a 51-year-old woman with severe cerebral palsy with whom Dr. Arnason had worked for three years when writing this article. Sarah’s movement and speech are quite limited and thus instead of engaging in active instrumental playing or verbal dialogue, Sarah engages in intent listening. Dr. Arnason explores what it is that she is listening for in her work with Sarah, and what factors affect this listening.


I really appreciate how Dr. Arnason addresses the issues of listening and of silence in music therapy. Not being a music therapist myself, I often have an inaccurate vision of a music therapist walking into a room and initiating a musical of sorts, in which everything from “real life” is incorporated into music. I was interested by what Dr. Arnason wrote about primarily playing for and not with Sarah. Even though I know that in many instances active participation in the traditional sense by the client is not possible, I suppose I had not given due consideration or respect for other ways in which clients can be actively participating. Dr. Arnason refers to Sarah as being “remarkably available through her listening presence.”

The manner in which Dr. Arnason refers to Sarah’s active, intent listening inspired me to reconsider my view on what constitutes active participation. I have worked as a camp counsellor leading small discussion (or “counselling”) groups and usually strive to get all campers contributing to the discussion with their ideas. I often feel as though I have not succeeded in creating a comfortable environment for all campers when some hold back and remain silent. Even though I can at times see that the silent campers are quite engaged in the discussion, it is hard not to wish that they would speak up. This article stimulated in me a reassessment of this situation.

I can see in myself a certain degree of discomfort with silence, and feel that this is fairly common in our society. When someone is silent we are quick to ask what is wrong, and frequently refer to the “awkward silence” that sometimes occurs in our conversations. I find it quite interesting having conversations with people who incorporate silence in their speech. My first response is to attempt to fill in words for them if they are mid-sentence or make a statement myself if they are between sentences. With some people I know, it has taken me a long time to feel entirely comfortable with these moments of silence without trying to fill them. When I finally stop trying to fill in the silences, I find it remarkable how easy the conversation becomes and how natural a flow it takes on.

I wonder what this tendency away from silence means for our music making. In observing masterclasses, I’m sure we have all seen the ever-common scenario of the coach trying to encourage the student to “take more time” at a certain point of the piece, or allow for a break in sound that is longer than a few milliseconds. As performers we seem to have trouble getting an accurate sense of how long a break we are making and feel uncomfortable in this momentary pause.

I once took an improvisation course in which our professor frequently reminded us of the option of silence in an improvisation, particularly when playing with others. We can easily get caught up in what we are doing or in trying to respond to what others are doing. We may forget that we are still participating in an improvisation if we put down our instruments for a while and let other voices speak more freely. In music, are not the silences between sounds as important as the sounds themselves?

In her research, Dr. Arnason explored the idea of what music therapists listen for both during a session and also after when reviewing the session tapes. As I read, I began to wonder about what could be gained by recording a lesson. As performers we often record ourselves performing to get a more objective view of what is coming across to the audience. We may also ask to record a lesson or masterclass performance to remind ourselves of what we were coached on and again, to get a more objective view of the results of this coaching. I feel it is less common for teachers to ask to record a lesson that they are teaching. Though perhaps it is not as useful as for the music therapist, I suspect that we would still be able to see much about our interaction with our students, giving us a better perspective on how we come across and how our students respond to our comments and actions.

I find it remarkable that Dr. Arnason refers to listening for “Sarah’s intense listening to the music” in their improvisations. I also find particularly poignant the way that Dr. Arnason phrases one of her clinical aims with Sarah as giving her “an aesthetic and relational experience in music that would otherwise be denied her because of her disability and isolation.” Though I’m sure most of the desired implications of this article for music therapy were entirely lost on me, I found the article to be both thought provoking and somehow beautifully reassuring.

Exploring the Musical Brain


Leutwyler, Kristin. (January 22, 2001). Exploring the Musical Brain. Scientific American. Retrieved December 1, 1009 from


The title of this article, “Exploring the Musical Brain,” is wonderfully appropriate as the article explores research investigating where music occurs in the brain and looks to the brain to help identify the origins and purpose of music. In this article, Leutwyler cites research attesting to the amazing power and universality of music, and also its tremendous capacity to baffle scientists with some of the most fundamental questions surrounding its very existence.

The study of music and function is explored, and Leutwyler presents the idea that music, like language, activates various areas of the brain in conjunction with the concept that there is no one part of the brain dedicated exclusively to music. This information is stated through referencing a few examples of scientists’ work in the area and shows that even the very general finding that the right hemisphere is more dominant in musical activities is contentious when considering all the various functions involved in perceiving music.

To further compound matters, Leutwyler cites studies showing that even the visual cortex is activated during the act of perceiving music. Findings suggest that areas of the brain previously understood in terms of our “imagination’s canvas” are involved, perhaps suggesting that the brain creates a symbolic image from which it can better decipher changes in pitch.

Having described how certain brain structures are involved in certain higher-level processing tasks associated with music, Leutwyler shifts the attention to the most basic level of processing. The limbic system, seat of our emotions, is also affected by music. Leutwyler explains that emotions produced in the limbic system generate a series of well-documented physiological responses (for instance, the tendency for heart rate to increase as a result of fear.) A number of scientists have determined that listening to music can evoke physiological changes known to be associated with certain emotions, consequently indicating that music can directly elicit a range of emotions.

The limbic system is evolutionarily an ancient part of the brain, present in many other members of the animal kingdom. Research showing that this ancient system is strongly influenced by music suggests to some scientists that music may have come into existence before humans. This proposal leads to the final section of this article, which explores the use of music by other species and the potential evolutionary advantage of music.

The first member of the animal kingdom whose music is analysed is the humpback whale. In citing Gray and colleagues’ work, the article mentions a variety of musical qualities that are characteristic of both human and humpback whale music. These qualities include rhythms, phrase lengths, use of themes, length of music, range, tone qualities, and even form. Humpback whale music apparently even makes use of rhyme.

The other natural choice of animal in discussion about music is the bird. The same scientists who analysed the music of the whales also identified the presence of Western classical scales in the calls of certain species of bird. The canyon wren is said to sing in the chromatic scale (as well as perform a trill cascade down the musical scale that resembles the opening of Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary’ Étude), while the hermit thrush sings in the pentatonic scale. The existence of these musical universals across species has led some scientists to postulate that there may in fact be some kind of musical universal, as of yet undiscovered.

The final topic of the article is the evolutionary purpose of music. Leutwyler quotes Daniel Levitin’s account of the two oppositional views relating to the evolutionary purpose of music: that music is “an evolutionary accident piggy-backing on language,” compared to the idea that music “must have some ancient and important function.” Possible ancient and important functions that are suggested by Levitin include music as a demonstration of fitness to a potential mate, music as communication, music as a means to stimulate our primitive timing mechanisms, and finally music as a means to stimulate our drive to find patterns in the environment. Leutwyler concludes the article stating, “to be certain, researchers won’t agree on the purpose of music anytime soon which fortunately shouldn’t stop any of us from enjoying it.”


This article, though brief, covers an impressive number of topics and issues relating to the origin and purpose of music, along with its relationship to the brain. Leutwyler explores research from a variety of related fields to get various perspectives on the mysteries of music. I found this article quite interesting, even if the broad number of topics meant that not many of them were explored in tremendous depth. Concepts that were explored, however, proved to be quite intriguing.

I was admittedly rather dumbfounded while reading the passages referencing the work of Gray and her colleagues. I was unaware of the fact that the music of humpback whales had been studied from a Western classical music perspective, and certainly did not realize that these analyses had yielded such strong parallels between the techniques used by “humpback composers” and “human songwriters.” The assertion of the existence of ABA form in whale music was interesting and the claim that “humpback whale songs include repeating refrains that rhyme” was even more entertaining, though my favourite line was likely the one that stated, “as a recent study showed, whale songs are often rather catchy.” It is admittedly tempting to disregard these claims as an example of overzealous anthropomorphizing, but these statements appear to indeed be well supported.

The proposition that music may have originated before humans came as a bit of a surprise to me. Since I first studied music from more of a psychological perspective, I have viewed music, like language, as a uniquely human creation. In the same way as I came to believe that the complexity and variety of our languages are unique to humans, I quickly accepted a similar view of music. This article has made me question my views of music and language, and even my views of humans. I wonder where one draws the line between holding a human-centric view of the world or having a perceived sense of human superiority, and stretching the definition of activities or qualities that many consider human creations such that they become interspecific universals.

Music and the Brain: The Mind of an Artist


Music and the Brain: The Mind of an Artist


This pre-concert lecture, arranged through the Library of Congress, was given jointly by Dr. Michael Kubovy and Dr. Judith Shatin. Dr. Kubovy is a cognitive psychologist and Dr. Shatin is a composer, both of whom teach at the University of Virginia. The lecture is divided between the two speakers, with Dr. Kubovy giving some examples of research on music and the brain, followed by illustrations of some of the ideas presented, led by Dr. Shatin.

Dr. Kubovy begins his portion of the lecture with a discussion of the rich and long-standing topic of meaning in music. Historically music with extramusical connotations has been debased or considered less than pure. Dr. Kubovy and Dr. Shatin oppose this view and claim that music that does not provoke associations of one kind or another is extremely unlikely to work. This view is supported throughout the lecture with findings from a number of studies, many of which showing the relationship between music and language

We have mechanisms in our brain which we have no control over, some of which play a role in music. Dr. Kubovy illustrates this with the classic exercise of asking the audience to state the colour of the font of the words presented. The words are of course names of colours which, after the first two lines, do not correspond with the colour of their font. Dr. Kubovy explains that there are two processes occurring in our brains in this activity, one of which (identifying the colour of the words) is voluntary, while the other (reading the content of the words) is not.

This example illustrates the idea that the mind consists of at least two systems. The first system consists of implicit knowledge and is not under our control. It evolved in order to trigger responses to danger and consequently responds quickly, automatically, is not amenable to our control, and learns slowly. The second system consists of explicit knowledge which is designed to evaluate signals from the implicit system, and learns quite quickly.

Dr. Kubovy introduces the idea of priming by referencing two studies of varying complexity that demonstrate the effect of priming. The first experiment involves generating a list of words and asking the participant to read off works as quickly as possible. It is found that the participant will read a word more quickly if the word immediately preceding it is somehow related, ie. couch followed by sofa. The explanation behind this phenomenon is that when we see one word, our associative network is immediately activated, priming things which are associated with that word, and consequently making it possible for us to access this information more quickly (and say the word faster).

In addition to timing how long it takes a participant to say a primed vs. non-primed word, scientists can study the effects of priming with the use of EEGs. When studying EEGs, one can look at the Event Related Potential (ERP) at a point that occurs about 400milliseconds after an event (called N400) to identify how the brain is responding to that event. The more unexpected an event is, the greater the N400. Dr. Kubovy’s example? The phrase “I like my coffee with cream and dog” will give a greater N400 than “I like my coffee with cream and sugar.” It logically follows that a word preceded by a related word will give a smaller N400.

To relate this all to music, Dr. Kubovy references an experiment by Koelsch in which the word “wide” or “wideness” was primed to see its effect on the way either music or text was perceived. The results related to text were as expected, in that a phrase that incorporated the idea of wideness yielded a smaller N400 than a phrase that did not. This trend, however, was also apparent with music, where the response to a clip of music by Strauss which suggested “wideness” yielded a smaller N400 than a clip of some foreign sounding music which did not suggest “wideness.” Dr. Kubovy’s conclusion is that there was the same magnitude of effect with music as with language on the amount of processing you need to do of a word, and consequently that music and language are far more closely related than one might have expected.

Some musical meaning works by imitation while other meaning works by association. The fact that the brain areas activated by music and language overlap quite a bit, and hence are using similar resources, further seems to justify the strong connection between these two disciplines.

Dr. Kubovy ends his portion of the lecture with one final audience participation exercise in which he shows two shapes, one rounded and one more geometric, and asks whether the top shape (a squiggle which resembles two slightly deformed ovals) is called takété or mallooma (spelling is approximate). This exercise acts as an indication of the strong interconnectedness of sound and visual shapes.

In Dr. Shatin’s section of the lecture, she explores ideas mentioned by Dr. Kobovy using some of her compositions. Through five examples, including purely instrumental as well as vocal works, Dr. Shatin looks at ways in which she has attempted to create certain images or convey an idea to her audience through musical means. In her vocal works, she illustrates specific examples of direct word painting, as well as more general mood ideas. She concludes the lecture with the assertion that there are infinite ways in which composers can speak to us about our experiences through music, even when we are not aware of what exactly is being accessed.


When I first saw the title of this lecture, The Mind of the Artist, and that it was given jointly by a cognitive psychologist and a composer, I was intrigued. My expectations regarding the topic of the lecture, however, were inaccurate and the topic chosen, by my interpretation, would be best described as investigations into how an audience perceives extramusical elements of a musical work.

One of the elements of the lecture I found quite interesting was the idea of dealing specifically with priming in relation to music. Though I have considered the role of expectation in music, I had not thought in terms of priming, per se, and its potential implications. I thought the examples given, however, were somewhat weak.

Wideness is perhaps an awkward word to try to represent musically, as it could be thought of in many ways, for instance the round, hefty sound of a tuba in its lower register could be described as wide. In contrast, a slowly moving, broad line with a sense of forward direction or a line slowly unfolding over time could give the impression of wideness, while the most literal interpretation might be a texture in which instruments are widely spaced across registers, or even a single instrument covering a wide range.

Another element of the study I had difficulty with was the choice of musical examples. The first example, by Strauss, sounded to me like a classic example of what one might think of when one thinks of Western classical music. The sound was familiar in that the instruments (and their arrangement in an orchestra) are well known to me and I am familiar with the harmonies employed. In contrast, the second example came as much more of a surprise to me. I did not immediately identify the instrument or the scale in which it was playing, and the harmonies were not what I was expecting. All in all, it was an unfamiliar and foreign sound to me.

I cannot but think that my unfamiliarity with the second example would greatly affect my N400 upon hearing the example. I suspect that the fact that the music does not express wideness in some way has a significantly smaller impact on my N400 than the fact that I am unfamiliar with and surprised by the music. Depending on who the participants were for this study, I can imagine that they too could have experienced a similar, stronger response, to the second example than to the first.

Finally, I do not feel as though this study truly indicates that music and language are closely related. I do not doubt that music and language are connected, however, I feel that similar results could have been obtained using other modalities, though perhaps to a lesser extent. I suspect that had the study explored smell or taste instead of music, the researchers may have had fewer relevant words to choose from as primers, but likely would have found a smaller N400 to smells that were primed by related words. I believe that when we understand an experience, we are able to express it, or relate it to, experiences in a different modality from that in which we originally encountered it.

I feel that we can, however, learn much from this study, particularly in the field of music education. This study serves as a reminder of the power of cross-modal teaching. When teaching music, we are often dealing with concepts that can seem quite foreign to our students. By using too much technical language that is unfamiliar and overwhelming, we may at times put up barriers for our students. By contrast, we can connect with them by incorporating ideas that they encounter in their non-musical life (for instance, by using visual imagery or other physical activities that use similar motions to those we are trying to encourage on their instrument.) I feel that this approach can help better integrate music into their life and also encourage them to bring experiences from their lives into their music.

One final point I found very interesting was raised in the question and answer period at the end of the lecture. An audience member inquired about the connection between visual content and music, citing the fact that both speakers had spoken extensively of shapes. Dr. Kubovy answered the question referencing a study in which participants were shown that behind a screen, there were a variety of loudspeakers reaching from the floor to the ceiling. The screen was then replaced and a pitch was played by the speakers (all the notes came from the middle speakers). Each participant was then asked which speaker the sound came from. The results clearly showed that participants who heard higher pitches pointed higher than those who heard lower pitches. Dr. Kubovy used this as an example of the power of cross-modal influences.

I would take this one step further and argue that this also demonstrates the power of labels we apply to music. While most of us taught according to the Western classical tradition are quite familiar with the concepts of high and low sounds, these descriptions are essentially arbitrary labels which we apply to help us describe different sounds. Sounds are not inherently “high” or “low,” and consequently these descriptors are not found consistently across cultures. I feel that this example further attests to the power of associative language in music education.