Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Musical training, cultural familiarity and brain activity.

Musical training, cultural familiarity and brain activity.


This is a report on an interesting research study conducted by S. Morrison and S. Demorest of the University of Washington’s School of Music. The purpose of the study was to determine what role cultural familiarity plays and whether it affects brain activity when people are exposed to music of different culture. Additionally it sought to compare the results with the brain responses when it exposed to familiar and foreign language, Cantonese in this study. A group of six professionally trained American musicians who played the violin or viola participated in the study, while control subjects were six individuals with little musical training (less than one year of private music instruction, and little experience in participating in an instrumental or choral ensemble). For all participants English was the mother tongue and they had no Cantonese language skills. In this study, the researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Brain scans were made while each participant listened to six short musical excerpts (about thirty seconds each). Three excerpts were taken from sonata for recorder by Scarlatti, and three from a traditional Cantonese song. Then the participants listened to six speech examples, three in English and three in Cantonese. Afterward, the participants took a recognition test, which consisted of the listening to several 2-to3 second musical and speech selections, half of which they heard previously during the experiment, and another half that they did not heard. They were asked if they heard each excerpts earlier and how confident they were of their answers. The findings were interesting. All participants demonstrated significant brain activity while listening to the classical and traditional musical selections. However, the researchers found considerable differences based on musical training. The trained musicians showed much greater brain activity, and larger regions of their brains were involved when listening to both types of music. The author of the article observes that these findings demonstrate that formal musical training influences patterns of brain activity in response to culturally familiar and unfamiliar music. In response to English and Cantonese speech, brain activity was similar among all participants. Remarkably, while similar brain activity patterns were demonstrated by both groups when listening to different types of music, the participants from both groups were significantly more successful in identifying the classical music selections. Surprisingly, trained musicians were more confident of their responses to classical music than to the traditional music. And, predictably, all participants demonstrated much greater success in recognizing English speech excerpts, rather than Cantonese.


One of the authors of the study notices, “Music is not so much a universally understood language as it is a universally understandable language”. I think this observation is particularly important in the context of a contemporary music education. However, reading the report I could not help wondering how music education can benefit from this research study. Music educators need to deal with a huge variety of opinions and beliefs about music and music training and learning, brought about by people from different cultures. While music (and music learning) exists in every society, people interpret it differently, using the rules, they previously learned, and their interpretation may be culturally inappropriate in a different socio-cultural context. As the author observes, “Everyone might be dealing with the music in a different way, depending on their culture”. The study’s findings demonstrate clearly that formal musical training has an effect on brain activity when listening to a greater variety of music, rather than listening to only culturally familiar or well known. But, while music theorists and scholars are talking so much about multiculturalism in music education, it appears that many music educators tend to oversimplify and generalize when it comes to multicultural music. To illustrate this, I will give just one example from my own practice. Last year, one of the students in instrumental class, (where I am a TA), selected a Russian folk song for his band conducting session. He got a CD with a couple of Russian folk songs for the band to listen to before the rehearsal. However, something did not work out with the CD player, so eventually the guy gave up, saying “Alright, you guys all know what Russian music is about”. There is no doubt that due to his professional training in music, his brain would have demonstrated intensive activity while listening to the culturally unfamiliar music, however, does this make him more culturally responsive? It is important that we understand the ways our brain responds to a variety of music around us. Although Rauscher and Gruhn maintain, “Neuroscientific data cannot provide educators with concrete rules and prescriptions for learning” (Neurosciences in music pedagogy, 2007) these data should be taken into consideration when designing a more inclusive and culturally sensitive curriculum.


rnorman said...

I believe that listening to music is a learned skill. In order to successfully process music, one has to know what to listen for. In order to understand the music we listen to, our brains must be able to separate the music into “chunks” or sections of related material, so that the brain can continually compare one “chunk” of material (say, a theme or melody) to what was heard previously. This allows us to recognize previous material, and process new material in relation to the old. Trained musicians would be more likely to know what to listen for, especially in music from the culture in which the musicians were trained. Knowing certain patterns (for example, chord progressions) would give the trained musician a framework from which to start listening. Therefore, I think it makes sense that the musicians would show greater brain activity during the musical samples, as they would have a broader knowledge base to draw from in terms of comparisons and relations of musical pieces and fragments. The non-musicians, not having had this background in music, would not necessarily know what to listen for, and so would not make as many connections and comparisons.

So how does this translate to the issue of cultural familiarity and unfamiliarity in music, in the group of musicians? According to the study, the musicians showed greater brain activity for both samples (the culturally familiar and the culturally unfamiliar). I find this very interesting. Does this show that a musical background in one type of cultural music can help a musician understand, or at least listen to and process, music of another culture? And could he/she do so better than a listener who is not musically trained? Also, what would have happened had the musical excerpts been longer? Would the brain activity have waned during the culturally unfamiliar piece, as the musician’s expectations of the music were continually unmet?

This study brings up another question in my mind. Does musical training make a difference to brain development? Obviously the musicians were able to better listen to and recognize the musical samples (especially those from their own culture), but this study showed that both groups’ brain activities were similar during the language recognition test. So the musicians had no great advantage. If another, more challenging language recognition test was developed, would the musicians do better on average? And what could that mean to music, music education, and its roles in the public school system?

Myrtle D. Millares said...

This study’s attempt at looking at cultural influences on music and language was quite interesting to me, as I’ve been curious about the idea of music as a “language”. In particular, I wonder how it is that we begin to differentiate sounds into language and music as separate concepts.

One of the researchers commented, “’Our recall task indicates that when it comes to the ability to remember, music is not so much a universally understood language as it is a universally understandable language. With language you can be right or wrong in determining the meaning. But with music people may try to interpret it using the rules of music they learned whether they are culturally appropriate or not.’” I found this statement a bit strange as I’m not sure what connection they are making between memory, the application of cultural rules, and understanding, since how the music was understood did not seem to be part of the study. Nonetheless, I take it to mean that when we understand (in whatever way we do that), we remember better, which is why the subjects were more confident in their responses with regard to Western music and English.

What I find interesting is that we may be applying cultural rules inappropriately. Why do we try to apply what we know to various kinds of music, but stop trying to understand a foreign language, not bothering to apply what we know of our language?

This brings to mind a curious experience I had in my Balinese gamelan class a few years ago. A number of students in the class were Indonesian and when I first heard them speak to each other, my ears did a double-take as I was trying to understand them based on my knowledge of Tagalog (one of the official languages of the Philippines). I realized that I tried to do this because many of the Balinese language’s inflections sounded like Tagalog inflections. The vowels sounded incredibly similar and the rhythm of the vowels and consonants was also startlingly familiar.

What I wonder then is whether the application of musical “rules” to foreign music is the result of what we perceive as common or familiar; whereas if a language is so foreign, we stop trying to process. We realize that we can't understand a language without knowing it, so we don't even bother to interpret it (unless we have to, as I did in Taiwan when desperately trying to understand directions to the bathroom). With music, however, it seems that we don't seem to recognize such a rigid boundary. Taking that into the music classroom... though one risks ethnocentricity in trying to interpret foreign music, that interpretation can nonetheless tell us so much about where individual students are coming from, which may prove a useful starting point for further learning.

Vasana said...

Perhaps I have not read this summary thoroughly enough, but I am having a hard time understanding the purpose of this study. It seems logical that trained musicians would be more successful at recognizing culturally unfamiliar music than non-trained individuals. Due to their training musicians would show more brain activity. Whether listening to western music or Cantonese music participants are still listening for pitch relations and patterns, even if the pitches and intervals are unfamiliar it makes sense that a musician would be able to recognize the patterns with greater ease than a non musician.
I can’t help but wonder if the trained musicians in this study had any exposure to Cantonese music. I took a World Music course in undergrad where we briefly studied a wide range of World Music, ex traditional Indian, Traditional Chinese, Gamelan, various African musics ect. Courses like this are commonly offered in university. I think the exposure of the trained musicians would impact the study.
I definitely agree that we tend to oversimplify multicultural music, however Western classical music is such a vast topic within itself, when preparing a curriculum it is difficult to cover Western music let alone World music. It is very difficult to say whether formal training makes an individual more culturally responsive. Just because we have listened to a culture’s music and can recognize it, does not mean that we have any insight into that culture. To truly comprehend a foreign culture one would have to immerse themselves in it and conduct a lot of research and interviews. Perhaps listening to world music creates a passive connection to a foreign culture without actively understanding the intricacies of the culture and it’s people.