Wednesday, October 14, 2009

“This is your brain on music.”


Fick, Steven and Elizabeth Shilts. “This is your brain on music.” Canadian Geographic. 126:1 (2006): 34-16.



This is a very basic article discussing how the brain responds to music. It suggests that since all people respond to music, our brains are predisposed to it. A comparison is drawn between the brain and an orchestra. In an orchestra each instrument has a unique function. When an instrument is isolated from the orchestra the sound it produces has less meaning because, it lacks the orchestral context. If you observe the full sound of the orchestra the role of each instrument can be difficult to decipher. The parts of the brain, like an orchestra, work together to create an overarching, coherent pattern.  In musicians the area of the brain that controls the fingers is enlarged. If a musician practices too much the brain can become confused and one is no longer able to move their fingers properly.  Brain mapping studies often use music because, music involves numerous parts of the brain.


I recently heard Liona Boyd speaking on Arts and Minds about focal distonia. I hadn’t heard of it before. It is surprising that one can practice to the point that the brain can no longer produce the proper signals to the fingers. I can’t imagine how intensely frustrating it must be to have fingers that, for no apparent reason, don’t move.

According to this article when we recall a tune without hearing it the auditory cortex is simulated, but to a lesser degree than actual listening. I find it interesting that we can “hear” noise very vividly in our minds, though no noise is actually produced and our ears are not  being used. Imagining noise also stimulates the inferior frontal gyrus which accesses memories. Interestingly, the auditory cortex has multiple levels. At the core of the auditory complex basic elements such as pitch and volume are analyzed. The outer areas of the auditory complex evaluate timbre, melody and rhythm. The article implies that pitch and volume are more basic than timbre, melody and rhythm. “In the core, basic musical elements, such as pitch and volume, are analyzed, while surrounding regions process more complex elements, such as timbre, melody and rhythm” (Flick 35).  However, from a musician’s point of view pitch fluctuations are very specific and can be difficult to detect. This article is obviously directed at the general public, not advanced musicians. It would be really interesting to analyze the auditory complex and  isolate the part of the brain responsible for pitch and rhythmic perception. Perhaps then we could better understand why some people have an innate sense of pitch or rhythm.  The article does not discuss whether these areas in the auditory cortex are more developed in musicians, this would be interesting to know. When we respond emotionally to music the same parts of our brain that respond to basic needs such as hunger and sexual desire are stimulated. The article proposes that listening to music can activate the same circuits in the brain as those in a drug addict when he/she takes a drug.  Is it possible that music is addictive? I think it is. I have often craved a song and don’t feel at ease until I hear it. The article also notes that few activities use as much of the brain as performing music. This article is only an introduction to how music is distributed within the brain. I found it beneficial to read as it refreshed what was touched upon earlier in class and provided some new analogies to help me understand this complex topic. 


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

HSS Speakers - A New Tool for our Arsenal?

This is not a review of an article, it is a summary of a white paper on a new technology called HyperSonic Sound developed by Elwood G. Norris. After the summary you will find my thoughts on how this technology might be useful to music+brain people like us. I'd like to hear your thoughts as well.

HSS speakers emit ultrasonic waves at frequencies around 200 kHz which is far beyond the range of human hearing (also beyond the range of dogs and cats). Unlike conventional speakers, these ultrasonic waves travel through the air as a highly focused beam of energy (i.e. a "column" of sound) over relatively long distances (over 200 meters!).

To create sound we can hear, HSS speakers use the principle of combination tones. Combination tones are the result of interference between two waves of different frequencies. These 'new' tones are equal to the sum and difference of the two orginial tones. For example, a 2000 Hz sine wave and a 1800 Hz sine wave played simultaneously will result in two combination tones: 200 Hz and 3800 Hz. In HSS technology, the two original waves are very high (e.g. 200,000 Hz and 200,100) but one of the combination tones is in the audible range (in this case, 100 Hz). Using this technique, HSS speakers are able to emit audible sound through ultrasonic carrier waves.

Some of the benefits of HSS:

1) Ultrasonic frequencies are of very high energy so sound can be transmitted over very long distances.

2) HSS speakers use piezoelectric transducers instead of magnets. They can be very small and cause no electromagnetic interference.

3) Sound is emitted from a single point source. There is no distortion in sound caused by the typical of multiple speaker setup.

4) The beam of sound from HSS speakers can be highly focused. This means that a person standing 200 yards away can hear the music you are transmitting as clearly as if they were wearing headphones. Not only that, their friend standing 2 ft away from them hears nothing!

5) HSS have an incredible frequency response - from below 10 Hz to 30 kHz at up to 120 dB!

I can immediately think of a few ways that HSS could be useful to neuroscientists and music+brain people:

1) They could be used at the lab at Baycrest since HSS speakers use no magnets.

2) HSS provides a compact way to deliver very low frequency sounds at high SPL. You may not need a chair with transducers, or a giant speaker system with big subwoofers, only tiny speakers with a BIG punch. I imagine an HSS speaker moving its focused beam of low frequency sound over your body would have a similar effect as Lee's chair.

3) Studies could be done using only 'pure' sound. With normal speakers, the room itself has an effect on the sound (reverb and delay). Since HSS can be so tightly focused, the effects of the room on sound would be minimal (very little reverb or delay). Headphones also present a problem since they distort the ear. With HSS, headphones are unnecessary.

I would like to get my hands on some HSS speakers, to fully explore their possibilities. They are just becoming available on the market starting at over $1000.

Anyone have any other ideas for how we could use these speakers?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On Performance

One of the things that came to mind in regards to the chapter on performance from the Music, The Brain and Ecstasy book, and that was mentioned in class in regards to the brain’s production of the beta wave in performance, is the Inner Game of Music. This is a book that was recommended to me by my vibes teacher at Berklee College of Music when I was doing Bachelor’s at a time when I couldn’t when I guess my brain must have been producing beta like there was no tomorrow.
The class, as well as book, have dealt with the subject of performance from the chemical point of view in regards to the brain; on the other hand, the Inner Game of Music, focuses on the same issues as anxiety in performance rather from a psychological point of view.
W. Timothy Gallwey, co-author of the book says: "It seems to me that the very essence of music is the expression of the self It needs a milieu that is conducive to reaching into one's source of creative, and that allows for freedom of expression. Just as the end product of the study of music is enjoyment, virtuosity, and inspiration the actual process of learning and teaching can yield the same quality of experience. it is my hope that readers of THE INNER GAME OF MUSIC will use this wealth of material to help them experience the joy of music to the fullest."
Another aspect that comes to mind in regards to the issue of performance anxiety is the fact, not mentioned in Jourdain’s book though, that performance anxiety is a western classical music issue exclusively. Not that this is relevant to the relationship between music and brain, but just an observation to keep in mind.

The Inner Game of Music is a book that deals with the issues of performance anxiety very effectively.
The performance equation The basic truth is that our performance of any task depends as much on the extent to which we interfere with our abilities as it does on those abilities themselves. This can be expressed as a formula: P = p - iIn this equation P refers to Performance, which we define as the result you achieve - what you actually wind up feeling, achieving and learning, Similarly, p stands for potential, defined as your innate ability -- what you are naturally capable of. And i means interference - you capacity to get in you own way. Most people try to improve their performance (P) by increasing their potential (p) through practicing and learning new skills. The Inner Game approach, on the other hand, is to reduce interference (i) at the same time that potential (p) is being trained -- and the result is that our actual performance comes closer to our true potential. (Page 23 and 24)
Self 1 and Self 2 If you think about it, the presence of that voice in your head implies that someone or something is talking (it calls itself 'I'), and someone or something else is doing the listening. Gallwey refers to the voice that's doing the talking as Self 1, and the person spoken to as Self 2. Self1 is our interference. It contains our concept about how things should be, our judgements and associations. It is particularly fond of the words 'should' and 'shouldn't', and often sees things in terms of what "could have been". Self 2 is the vast reservoir of potential within each one of us. It contains our natural talents and abilities, and is a virtually unlimited resource that we cab tap and develop. Left to its own devices, it performs with gracefulness and ease. (Page 28)
Relaxed concentration Inner Game techniques can reduce the effects of self-interference and guide us toward an ideal state of being. This state makes it easier for us to perform at our potential by rousing our interest, increasing our awareness and teaching us to discover and trust our built-in resources and abilities. It is a state in which we are alert, relaxed, responsive and focused. Gallwey refers to it as a state of 'relaxed concentration', and calls it the 'master skill' of the Inner Game. (Page 35)