Friday, October 23, 2009

Brain and improvisation

This website features a study carried out at. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and musician volunteers they discovered that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow.
Because fMRI uses powerful magnets, the researchers designed the unconventional keyboard with no iron-containing metal parts that the magnet could attract. They also used fMRI-compatible headphones that would allow musicians to hear the music they generate while they’re playing it.
Each musician first took part in four different exercises designed to separate out the brain activity involved in playing simple memorized piano pieces and activity while improvising their music. While lying in the fMRI machine with the special keyboard propped on their laps, the pianists all began by playing the C-major scale, a well-memorized order of notes that every beginner learns. With the sound of a metronome playing over the headphones, the musicians were instructed to play the scale, making sure that each volunteer played the same notes with the same timing.
In the second exercise, the pianists were asked to improvise in time with the metronome. They were asked to use quarter notes on the C-major scale, but could play any of these notes that they wanted.
Next, the musicians were asked to play an original blues melody that they all memorized in advance, while a recorded jazz quartet that complemented the tune played in the background. In the last exercise, the musicians were told to improvise their own tunes with the same recorded jazz quartet.
Since the brain areas activated during memorized playing are parts that tend to be active during any kind of piano playing, the researchers subtracted those images from ones taken during improvisation. Left only with brain activity unique to improvisation, the scientists saw strikingly similar patterns, regardless of whether the musicians were doing simple improvisation on the C-major scale or playing more complex tunes with the jazz quartet.
The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview.

The reason why I found this experiment relevant is because 5 days ago I did a first session of an improvisation workshop that I am leading. The workshop was directed to first year bachelor students who had no or little experience in improvisation; the objective of the sessions, the second being tomorrow, was and still is, start breaking into the musical faculties that allow for sensible music making on the stop. Before the first session, I was expecting that the action research would inform me on what level of complexity the exercises should be, and also, on the balance between drill and creativity.
To my surprise I noted something that this article on-line somehow clarifies. I noticed that the students are not used to, or have not developed the faculty to, think in different patterns, or rather without patterns. I noticed a few things:
1) a tendency to remain in the comfort zone even when this implies to do something different from the guideline of the exercise.
2) a great fear to do something “wrong” or “make mistakes”. As I see it, improvisation as a skill is quite simple, probably the challenge is to learn to deactivate the censorship system.
3) I somehow got the impression that in order to do the kind of exercises I was trying to do, the students would have needed some more liberating experiences in their musical upbringing. I also, felt that I got better musical results when I did this kind of activities with 10-12 year olds, probably because they were less inhibited.
This article has been of great value to me because I used to think that creativity in the liberating sense, did not necessarily have much to do with improvisation,; I still think that improvisation is more about sensibility that liberation; however, I am starting to think that in order to get the mined ready to allow for sensibility, a great deal of liberating and un-inhibiting experience may prepare the territory better.

9 brains

I met drummer Kenwood Dennard in Argentina when he was on tour with Wayne Shorter; at the time his playing in the concert and drum clinic had a great impact on me. 14 years later i briefly met him again at Berklee College of Music; 8 years after that, I came from UK to Boston, USA to take some lessons with him. I was the presented with his 9 brain theory. Knewood’s website is totally inspiring, very intelligent and truly spiritual. I copy the concept of the 9 brains as he applies it to drumming. At the end, I add my own idea on the nose brain. Enjoy.
"The Multiple Brain" Concept
Apparently some scientists lean towards the following perspective, and I agree: we have "separate" brains corresponding with each of six senses plus our intuition plus our emotions plus our sense of "oneness" with the universe, sometimes called the "unitary" sense. I think these separate brains function sometimes in opposition, but we can harmonize them and we can use them to teach ourselves. Here is my synopsis of 9 basic brains used in drumming: It's the bare beginning diamond in the rough, I think. :-) just some preliminary notes: Multiple Brain Technique Bringing the vigorous energies of your various brains to bear on a particular immediate musical goal. The distinct brain functions can be organized as follows:
Eye brain: experience things through the eye. See into the past, present, and future. (occipital center)
Ear brain: experience things in terms of sound. Hear into the past, present, and future. (temporal lobe)
Nose brain: experience things in terms of smell. Utilize the sense of smell in the context of past, present, and future.
Language/mouth brain: experience language... Utilize the context of past, present, and future.
Body brain: experience motor functions (using the motor cortex) and touch sensibilities (using the parietal lobe) you can use the body brain in the past, present, and future. :-) This includes the "mouth brain" (distinct from the language brain. This involves more the motor cortex than the Wernicke's spot or the Broca's spot/ language center.) These are my original ideas I'm exploring. - all my ideas here are original, but I'm looking for corresponding documentary proof from outside sources to support my ideas and relate them to society and give them some measure of legitimacy in the eyes of society! :-) I'm noticing that others have come to many of the same conclusions I have come to. :-)
Thinking brain: experience intellectual functions (prefrontal cortex) utilize the intellect in past, present, and future contexts. "Thinking brain"
Intuitive brain: alternate state of consciousness (sleeping/dreaming/daydreaming/having a hunch
Universal Brain: metarhythms (coincidences) are created by this brain.
Eye brain: just by being exposed to things through the eye you can become conscious of them way before your conscious mind steps in. Great for drumming independence.
Ever hear voices? That's your ear brain. We don't always remember in pictures. We remember in sounds too. Listening is sooo crucial for drumming.
Nose brain. Not only does the nose trigger consciousness in a non-verbal or non-logical way, but some scientists say sex is the 6th sense with a special sensor for pheremones just above the roof of the mouth right under your nose. Fuels the emotional side of drumming.
Mouth brain. Ever heard of motor mouth? lol nuff said. The mouth has its own mind. lol (great for drumming rhythms)Of course it also has a Broca's spot or language center too. (It's great for lyrics and keeping the form of the drum parts.)
Body brain. Your body has its own brain. Ask Michael Jordan. Ask Elvin Jones :-)
Thinking brain. This is useful too. Quiet as it's kept you don't have to STOP THINKING in order to be an intuitive musician. :-)
Intuitive brain. There's the subconscious part- the telepathy- you need it to be a world class drummer.
The Artistic/religious Brain: A sense of morals is good for drumming, good for the audience too.
Universal Brain ...Did somebody say unitary experience? Make me one with every thing.
I had made an observation going through this 9 brain category. When Kenwood mentions the mouth brain, he refers to it in regards to the language rather than the sense of taste. Otherwise, when he refers to the nose brain, he does refer to it in regards to the sense in this case the smell. When performing, I find it somewhat forced to think of the nose brain as a means to trigger memory for instance through smell, although according to where one plays, let’s say a smoky jazz joint would certainly have an impact on the nose brain. Rather, and this is following the mouth brain as a means for language, I prefer to think of the nose brain as a means for breathing. Thought from that point of view, the nose brain can be much more useful for instance to create breathing patterns that support the playing, or that complement or contrast the density and taxation of the playing; for instance, if a passage if very demanding on the endurance of the player, a very longer breathing pattern can help the player keep in control of the situation.

A Pilot Study on Effectiveness of Music Therapy in Hospice in Japan.

Hisako Nakayama; Fumio Kikuta; Hidekatsu Takeda. "A Pilot Study on Effectiveness of Music Therapy in Hospice in Japan." Journal of Music Therapy. 2009: 46. 2 


Music Therapy was first introduced in Japan in 1967 and has been implemented in numerous facilities since. However, there has been a noticeable lack of music therapy programs in hospices/ palliative care facilities. This article attempts to fill some of the void in music therapy and palliative care research.

Researchers measure cortisol levels, a hormone associated with stress, as a quantitative measurement of the therapy’s effectivenes. A Mood Inventory was also used as a subjective measurement.

The 10 study participants all had terminal cancer and participated in several 40 minute group music therapy sessions. The music was selected according to the season and by the request of the patient. Interviews were conducted before and after the sessions to measure the patient’s cortisol levels and assess their overall mood. After the sessions patients showed decreased cortisol levels, increased alertness, excitement, and a slight decrease in depression and anxiety.


I have often wondered how effective music therapy is. Does it produce lasting results or only temporary relief? Is the relief psychosomatic or are conditions quantitatively improved? I thought this article would give me a good sense of the overall effectiveness of music therapy, though there are numerous forms of music therapy and it is a complex field.

I find it interesting that because of cultural differences, most music therapy sessions in Japan are group sessions. In Canada and America private sessions are common to protect the privacy of patients.

The article suggest that music can increase immunity because it increases levels of immunoglobulin A. Immunoglobulin A is responsible for the immunity of mucous membranes against bacteria and viruses. I think it is amazing that a sound, completely disconnected from the body, can cause the secretion of immunoglobulin thereby increasing our immunity. If this is true music has tremendous healing potential.

The article also includes a fairly detailed account of which hormones are secreted and where during a stressful situation. It also provides information on how palliative care is defined. All of this extra material was very useful when trying to understand the study.

I really appreciate that the researchers took great care to create a controlled experiment. Songs were carefully selected so there was an even number of minor, major, fast and slow tempi songs per session. The therapy room temperature was maintained at 26 degrees. The sessions took place at 2pm, because cortisol levels are most stable in the afternoon. Cotton swabs were used to obtain saliva samples rather than blood tests. The researchers were concerned that using blood samples would about increase the stress level of patients. Throughout the study there was an emphasis on quality on life, not just duration. The most dramatic improvement was by a 64 year old  woman with a brain tumor. She was a great music lover and researchers believe this positively impacted her results.  The second best improved was an 80 year old man who was very social, and thus experienced the positive effects of the social interaction at sessions. One woman did not show a lot of increase from the therapy, because she was bedridden and transporting her in the bed may have caused her pain.

While volunteering at a long term care facility I noticed that some of the patients were delighted to hear a concert, while others were clearly in pain after having been moved from their bedrooms. It goes to show that therapy is highly personal and each patient is unique, therapists must take an individualized approach. 


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Effects of individualized vs classical ‘relaxation’ music on the frequency of agitation in elderly persons with Alzheimer’s disease and related disord

Tautenschilager, Nicola T. “Top Cited Papers in International Psychogeriatrics: 4. Effects of individualized vs classical ‘relaxation’ music on the frequency of agitation in elderly persons with Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.” International Psychogeriatrics (2009), 21:4, 667-671.

 This article is largely based on research by L.A. Gerdner. While working in a long term care facility the writer observed frequent agitation in elderly people suffering from dementia. This problem is quite widespread and has negative effects on patients and caregivers. During the 1980’s most of the research on dementia involved drug treatments. After enrolling in graduate school the writer found that personalized music could be effectively used to treat agitation. This treatment is particularly favorable since it is relatively easy to implement in a facility and is inexpensive. Personalized music is based on the patient’s experience and taste, unlike classical “relaxation” music. Cognitive impairment, a symptom of dementia, is a “decreased ability to receive and process stimuli resulting in the progressive decline in a patient’s stress threshold” (Tautenschilager 667). Music can be used to communicate with patients who are unable to understand language and do not process stimuli. Personalized music can stimulate memories and can override excessive stimuli that patients are unable to interpret. Thus, the music creates a calming effect. A series of questions called an “Assessment of Personal Music Preference” is filled by either the patient or close relative so that care takers can select music for treatment. In trials personalized music has been played at regular intervals and before expected agitation. Patients have shown a significant improvement in mood and are more communicative. Tools like the Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory an are used to measure agitation. More concrete research needs to be gathered on individualized music treatment, however it is a field that is full promise.     

I really enjoyed reading this article. My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s so I have witnessed the challenges this disease presents. I am very aware that it is not only the patient who suffers, but their caretakers as well. Agitation in seniors, particularly those suffering from dementia is difficult to deal with. Unfortunately elder abuse is very common. I am not surprised that personalized music can connect to distant memories and help ease agitation. I often listen to a favorite song to relax or elevate my mood when I’m feeling lethargic. The personalized music approach is unique, because it addresses the individuality of the patient. Some patients may like the rock n roll they heard during their youth while others prefer Barber’s Adagio. In her commentary on the article Lautenschlager notes, “Never lose sight of the essential questions: who is the person suffering from BPSD and what life has he or she lived?” Levels of agitation and overall mood are difficult to quantify, so I understand why people maybe skeptical about this treatment. However, I think the benefits of individualized music therapy outweigh the potential flaws of the treatment. From my own experience volunteering at long term care facilities I have observed that music improves patients’ overall mood. Also, the treatment is relatively inexpensive, it does not require a lot of additional training and can be administered by a trained nurse or a family member. 



Monday, October 19, 2009

A brief discussion of emotion in music

Graham, Gordon. “Music and Autism.”Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer, 2001): pp. 39-47.


In this article, Gordon Graham very briefly summarizes some of his beliefs and logical conclusions about music and music therapy. Chiefly this article addresses the issue of emotion in music. What is it? Can music itself actually have an inherent emotion or emotions? Can music successfully express and convey the emotion of one person (a performer, or a composer, perhaps) to an audience? And, if this is the case, then is the music produced by autistic persons, especially the severely handicapped, really a means of expressing deep-set emotions that have no other outlet? Does a musically talented autistic person use his or her music production as a way of communicating emotions that would otherwise go unexpressed?

Graham concludes that music itself does not have emotional properties in the way that most human beings do. A piece itself, for example, cannot literally feel melancholic, even though we may describe the music as melancholy. Thus, when we hear a “sad” piece of music, the sound itself is not literally sad. Yet people still assign emotional qualities to music; this is what Graham calls the “expressivist” view of music. And while this description of music is accepted, it is actually an example of “analogical extension,” where words are extended into new contexts, and thus retain only part of their original meaning. A “melancholy person” thus has a different meaning than a “melancholy song.”

By the end of the article, Graham has concluded that the music played by exceptionally talented autistic persons is not, in fact, anything more than a remarkable capability. It is not an emotional tool or a means of communication and window into the inner mind of the autistic person. Musical sounds themselves do not have emotional content, but are merely interpreted as having emotion.

Graham does state, though, that music can be used as a therapeutic and communicative tool, even when one removes the expressivist definition from the music.


I found this article very interesting because, as Graham says himself, the author is not a musician, a therapist, or a psychologist, and has “no special knowledge of or expertise in the understanding of autism.” (p. 41) So the article is a philosopher trying to use logic to understand music, and frankly I think it falls a little short.

Music itself cannot literally express its own emotions, but there is no question in my mind that music is a powerful way to elicit emotions in an audience. If I didn’t feel anything when I played or listened to music, then I would not aspire to have a career in music. Does this make me an expressivist? I don’t believe that the musical sounds themselves have emotions, but I do know that often composers will write music to reflect their emotional states, and this can be very audible in a composition. This is a strange phenomenon, indeed, where an external source (the music) can elicit similar emotions in different members of an audience. But this is the beauty of music! If we remove music from its emotional ties and definitions, then I think that we don’t have music anymore. We have sound. And any sound can be used as a tool for communication (take, for example, Morse code), but this doesn’t make the sound music.

Also, Graham falsely uses the music of Bach and more Baroque-era composers as examples of music that is less expressive and more analytical and form-based, but I disagree. At the moment I am studying Baroque bassoon, and learning all of the intricacies of the Baroque style. There may not be an excess of vibrato in my Baroque playing, but there is certainly an ample supply of other expressive tools to choose from, including “inégal” notes, and metric accenting. I find Graham somewhat ill-informed in this regard, and this makes me question his claims. And my point here would be that all of the music I have encountered to date can be performed expressively, and be heard as having some sort of emotional tie or description.

Finally, Graham talks about music therapy as a means of opening up communication with people (especially autistic people) who are normally hard to reach. In this I agree wholeheartedly. I am currently volunteering with a music teacher who works with a special needs class, and I have seen how many of the autistic and mentally handicapped children delight in participating in the singing and clapping we do. The simple act of music-making seems to elicit positive emotions in these children, and it is amazing to see how they participate in the music-making process.

So, on the whole, I disagree with Graham’s claim that music, and music therapy, should be “depersonalized” with regards to emotional content. The whole point of using music as therapy is to elicit emotion, and communication. And I don’t believe that music can ever be separated from its emotional content. Even if the music being played by someone who is autistic is not necessarily an expression of that person’s inner world, I still feel moved when I hear it; to me, it still has emotion.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

... to questions about performance ...

Jourdain, Robert. “... to Performance.” In Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, 198-235. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997.
In this chapter of Robert Jourdain’s book, which I’m sure most of the bloggers here have already read, Jourdain goes over the physiological and psychological aspects of the performance of music. A large part of the chapter is devoted to discussing how it is that muscles, especially those in the hands, move, and which parts of the brain are responsible (or thought to be responsible) for this movement. Jourdain also discusses aspects of musical performance such as eye movements in relation to reading music, and sight-reading music. As well, there is some discussion of such issues as “muscle memory” in performing music, and the imagery involved in performing music, especially kinaesthetic imagery and kinaesthetic memory. Finally, there is some information on what constitutes musical “talent,” and the types of people and personalities that possess such a thing.

I wanted to read this chapter of the book critically, and reflect upon it, because I am a Music Performance student. Personally, I often have trouble in performances, and I was hoping that this chapter would address some of those. For example, when I get nervous, I often shake. Some people sweat, or get cold hands, but I find that my arms physically shake. This is often a problem, as it can throw my technique off balance. From a very brief section of Jourdain’s chapter I learned, or at least was encouraged to recall, that during performance, when a musician is under stress, he or she often has to deal with the “fight or flight” response, whereupon, as Jourdain puts it, “Primitive parts of the brain gorge the bloodstream with chemical messengers that prepare the body for action. As heartbeat and respiration rise, muscles tense and automatic reflexes quicken, unsettling the delicate balance between action and perception.” (p. 203) In short, when any musician performs, he or she must overcome the age-old “animal” impulses that were once key to survival.

My question, though, is how does a performer do this? Jourdain states that the brain “must fight its own elemental impulses” (p. 203) during a musical performance. But how? How can I train myself to do this more effectively? Is it even possible? Or would it be more productive to work with the “fight or flight” responses, in such a way that I can use all of that excess adrenaline to make my performance more exciting? And, if I were to explore this, how and where would I start? Nerves are such a key part of a musical performance. I’m surprised that Jourdain did not pay a little more attention to this issue in his chapter.

Jourdain’s article also raised some other questions, albeit ones that are specific to me and my own performance issues. As I stated in my summary, much of Jourdain’s chapter was devoted to describing how the brain is able to make our muscles and body parts move in a musical performance, and which parts of the brain are active during this. I have problems with extraneous movements, though. I often tap my foot, or raise my shoulder, unconsciously, often in time with a beat, but more often than not in no specific meter or time at all. So which part of my brain is responsible for this unconscious movement? Is it inhibitive to the success of my musical performance, i.e. would I be better off without all of this extra movement, and would it help my performance? Is it “distracting” to my unconscious mind, in a way? What I mean is, is the extra motion detracting from the energy I should be spending on useful movements?

Finally, Jourdain’s chapter raised some questions in my mind about my conscious awareness during a performance. I have heard some people say that, in a truly effective and beautiful musical performance, the performer hardly “thinks” about the music he or she is playing at all, and the inner commentary that usually accompanies a musician’s playing just disappears. So, how does one achieve this? And what is the significance of our conscious thoughts during performance? I know that often I can undermine myself when playing for an audience, berating myself as I play. I also know that my conscious thoughts can cause unconscious reactions and anticipations, such as when I see a difficult passage coming up in the music. I will cringe internally, and then end up tensing my shoulders and my arms. So, how can I avoid this? I know that, often, positive thoughts help me, and sometimes positive imagery. For example, I love the colour yellow, so if I think of yellow during a difficult piece, sometimes I can induce positive feelings and emotions, even while I’m nervous or scared. Is there a more effective way to overcome these anxieties, though? And is there a way to “shut off” my internal monologue when I play?

These are the questions that I ask myself as a performer, and unfortunately Jourdain’s chapter, “... to Performance,” simply raised more questions in my mind. I appreciate knowing how the brain works in its feedback loops, and the biological make-up of my musculature and what this means to performance, but I would have liked more of a discussion of the psychological aspects of playing, and how our conscious minds can either aid or undermine our musical efforts.

If anyone has some literature suggestions for me, so that I may answer my questions, please respond to my post! I would love to read up more on these aspects of performance.

Woman with half a brain and neuroplasticity

Woman With Half a Brain and neuroplasticity

This is an astonishing story that provides strong evidence of the extraordinary plasticity of our brain, which Professor Bartel discussed in class a week ago. It is about a woman who was born with only half a brain. While her parents knew right after Michelle’s birth, that something was wrong, remarkably they did not turn to the doctors until she was about 27 years old. Her mother explains that since Michelle did not have cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome, they practically had no place to turn. As a result, her childhood and young adult years were incredibly hard. However, she was able to graduate from high school (!), she can speak normally, and she can write and read. Moreover, as the author observes she has an “uncanny knack for dates”. In other words, she can figure out any date in the past or in the future. She demonstrates her ability in the video. Today, she is 37. She works, pay rent and can perform most household tasks.
About ten years ago, the family finally referred to Dr. Grafman, at the Cognitive Neuroscience Section of the National Institutes of Health. He conducted an MRI scan, which determined that Michelle was missing almost all the left side of her brain. The doctors explain that it was most likely lost during a pre-birth stroke. They provide the scan and it looks horrifying! There is virtually nothing there, just a massive black spot on the left. The doctor observes that, while some of the deep structures remain, the cortex is 95 percent gone and the important structures that control movement, behaviour, cognition are missing.
In the video, it is evident that she has some troubles. However, amazingly, she can understand people; she is able to find right words, while speaking; she can construct correct sentences; in short, she is capable of fully expressing herself. The doctor explains that her brain has rewired itself. The right half of her brain took over some of the vital functions that are normally done by the left, such as speaking or reading. However, while the right hemisphere took part t in the development of the language abilities, some of the other skills, for the normal functioning of which the right side is responsible, were lost. For example, Michelle struggles with abstract concepts and might get lost in new surroundings. She has difficulty controlling her emotions. In the video, she herself explicates quite correctly and logically the reasons why she tends to throw fits, temper tantrums. She says the doctor helped her to understand that it happened “because I was missing half my brain”. Obviously, Dr. Grafman keeps on seeing Michelle quite often. He observes that even during these 10 years since her first diagnosis some of her intellectual functions have improved! She will need assistance for the rest of her life, but she is not completely helpless.
Interestingly, although the author observes that Michelle’s story “has turned medical thinking upside down”, the idea that the brain activity associated with a certain function can move to a different location is not new. Actually, it was first proposed as early as in 1892 by a Spanish neuroscientist and physician Santiago Cajal, who once said “Every man if he so desires can become the sculptor of his own brain”. While some scientists believe that his theory of neuronal plasticity is rather ambiguous (F. Stahnisch and R. Nitsch, Trends in Neuroscience, 2002, 25/11), the majority maintains that Cajal’s pioneering work has laid a solid foundation for a modern concept of neuroplasticity.
I think this is an extraordinary story, anyway, and in this regard, it would be interesting to discuss the potential of brain fitness. If the right half of this woman’s brain was able to rewire, reorganize itself and the neurons were able to form new connections, allowing her to regain her ability to speak and read, who knows what a “normal” brain is capable of?