Tuesday, December 15, 2009

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.


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