Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Training-induced Neuroplasticity in Young Children

Source: The Music and Neuroimaging Lab: “Training-induced Neuroplasticity in Young Children”
Retrieved from:

Summary: Learning to play a musical instrument involves complex cognitive and bimanual motor skill acquisition, as well as sensory stimulation and this experience provides an ideal activity with which to investigate changes in the brain as a function of learning.
It is known that in music making, we engage simultaneously both hemispheres of the brain. Professional musicians who began their music training before the age of 7 exhibit a larger anterior corpus callosum (CC) than non-musicians, which suggests that plasticity due to music training may occur in the CC during early childhood. It is unknown, though, whether this enlarged CC area in musicians is due to training or if it is a pre-existing difference.
This article outlines a study that was conducted over a period of 29 months, involving 31 children, age 5-7, testing the hypothesis that “instrumental music training would cause an increase in the size of particular subareas of the CC known to have fibres that connect motor-related areas of both hemispheres.” The 31 children were divided in 3 groups based on their total weekly practice time: high-practicing, low-practicing, and controls. 18 children attended weekly half-hour lessons (11 learned piano, 7 learned string instruments), while the remaining 13 children served as a non-instrumental control – received no musical training.
Through the use of high-resolution T1-weighted MR, brain scans were taken both at the start of the study and at its conclusion. Total CC size, as well as subareas were measured.
Beside weekly lesson and practicing, children also completed a 4-finger fine motor-skill sequencing task at both time points.
The results of the study show that difference in the anterior midbody of the CC emerged after 29 months of music training in the high-practicing group; their motor-sequencing task results also improved. Low-practice and controls did not differ in the extent of change. This proves the hypothesis that intense musical experience/practice, not pre-existing differences, is the reason for large anterior CC area found in professional musicians.

Response: Undoubtedly the most important function of corpus callosum is to facilitate the process of inter-hemispheric communication. While the right hemisphere is responsible for creativity and intuition, the left side is responsible for analytical and rational thinking; without the corpus callosum to connect them, there would be no communication between the two hemispheres. It is interesting, but not uncharacteristic, I think, that playing a musical instrument would develop this part of the brain. A musician taps both into his creative and intuitional side, as well as analytical and rational thinking, when practicing or performing, inevitably emphasising the bond between the two hemispheres of the brain. I have always been amazed at the brain’s capability to shape itself at an early age and thus the importance of early childhood exposure to as many different disciplines as to optimize the development of the brain. When an area of the brain is not used, it eventually becomes unresponsive.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Brain is "Wired for Music"

Source: Newsweek. “Music on the Mind” by Sharon Begley.

Psychologist Sandra Trehub has found that babies naturally detect changed in pitch, tempo, and melodic contours. She has also found that when the babies are played perfect fourths and perfect fifths,they smile, but express displeasure when played tritones. This had led Trehub to conclude that this is a biologically-based preference and "may explain the inclusion of perfect fifths and fourths in music across cultures and across centuries."

Evidence from PET scans and MRIs suggest the human brain is wired for music. It also seems music can enhance particular modalities of intelligence. Various experiments have shown higher test scores in math achieved by students in control groups who were given music lessons. This enhancement has been displayed only in math – other forms of intelligence were not enhanced.

The average person can remember and recognize large amounts of musical tunes, which is not usually true for memorizing and recognizing prose. This suggests the brain places preference over musical memory. When neurosurgeons stimulate the temporal lobes, patients have been known to hear music. Music can also trigger epileptic seizures which often begin in the temporal lobes. This is further explained by the following experiment:

"The brain's left and right hemispheres are connected by a big trunk line called the corpus callosum. When they compared the corpus callosum in 30 nonmusicians with the corpus callosum in 30 professional string and piano players, researchers. . . found striking differences. The front part of this thick cable of neurons is larger in musicians, especially if they began their training before the age of 7. The front of the corpus callosum connects the two sides of the prefrontal cortex. . . and the two sides of the premotor cortex…These connections are critical for coordinating fast, bi-manual movements such as those a pianist's hands execute in an allegro movement. The neural highway connecting the right and left brain may explain something else, too. The right brain is linked to emotion, the left to cognition. The greatest musicians, of course, are not only masters of technique but also adept at infusing their playing with emotion. Perhaps this is why."

Another experiment conducted comparison studies where non-musicians were taught a simple five-finger piano exercise which they practiced in the lab for 5 days, 2 hours per day. Another group mentally rehearsed this pattern for the same amount of time. In both these groups, the cortical map was changed, demonstrating the important of both mental and physical practice.


While some of the conclusions mentioned in this article have already been much discussed in the fields of music and science, it is encouraging to see that studies continue to be performed to uncover as much as is possible about the biological and neurological conditions for music in humans. The most striking experiment noted in this article is the one describing the importance of mental preparation. By merely rehearsing a musical pattern in one’s mind, non-musicians (who likely do not have much experience with such practice) were able to effect an equal mental change in their cortical maps, as did those who rehearsed physically on the piano. This emphasizes the importance of mental preparation for any musician. It is not enough to simply play a piece frequently – one must also have a thorough mental picture of the piece to ensure fluidity and precision during performances.

Wolfgang Makes a Bad Study Partner







 Source: Studying with music: helping or hurting?  article available at

This article comes from a student newspaper and addresses study habits related to music.  The reporter unpacks some common misconceptions about the Mozart Effect™ and why studying with classical music probably won't help you retain information. 

According to an interview the Gary Dell, who is a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, music interrupts the brain's ability to transfer memories from short-term storage to long-term storage.  The interruption is more pronounced when listening to music that one enjoys.  Where people misinterpret the Mozart Effect™ is assuming that since Mozart was a genius, some of that genius will rub off if you listen to his music while studying.  The reporter points out that the famous Rauscher study proved only a temporary improvement in spacial tasks and that any rousing music will probably have the same effect.

I picked this article for two reasons.  First, it's the end of term and it seemed like a pertinent topic.  Second, I've always been somewhat confused by people who say that classical music helps them study.  The article briefly ties together a couple of concepts that we have covered in class, namely the rehearsal process of transferring short-term memory to long-term memory and the Mozart Effect™. 

My personal experience with trying to study while listening to music is that I absolutely can't do it.  Judging by the comments in the article from Gary Dell I assume that those of you who study music students would agree with me.  If I have music on, I can't help but listen to it actively.  I listen for what instruments are playing, I notice when there is an interesting melody or harmonic shift, and I judge if the players are good or bad.  It's not possible for me to just ignore the music.  Likely the people who can listen to Mozart while studying are probably not the same people who are studying Mozart. 

If you still really want something to listen to while you study though, recent research by Jutras and Buffalo (2010) might have an answer for you.  They point out several studies have shown that rhythmic synchronization in gamma and theta frequencies can contribute to memory performance.   So, if you really want to ace your exams, listen to a binaural beats track that boosts gamma and theta waves.   Don't study with Wolfie.

Excessive Alcohol Can Influence Hearing Loss

Reference: Connors, Aoife. 2010. "Excessive Alcohol Can Influence Hearing Loss." Irish Medical Times, November 19. Accessed December 6, 2010.

Researchers from the University of Ulm in Germany tested both heavy and social drinkers’ Brainstem Auditory Evoked Potentials (BAEP) levels, by testing the level of damage in the part of the brain that enables one to hear. The results indicated that alcohol consumption affects the ability to hear. Alcohol could damage the central auditory cortex of the brain, therefore affecting the ability to hear: the ears might function fine, but the brain cannot process the sounds due to the damage to the auditory nerves. The quantity of alcohol and the length of time needed for the brain damage are unknown, which implies that even moderate drinkers may risk the hearing loss. The study also found that people with alcoholism may suffer damage within their ears, since high levels of alcohol in the bloodstream can create a toxic environment known as ototoxicity, which can damage the delicate hair cells in the cochlea.

Reflection: Excessive drinking is known to have bad influences in health, but it was the first time that I heard any connection made between drinking and hearing. Drunkenness is often accompanied with temporal numbness, and the past British study results of alcohol and noise causing temporary hearing loss is not that surprising. However, the fact that drinking could damange the auditory cortex, is quite serious (well, now I am glad that I don't drink). The article did not describe the study results with specific numbers, but the implication that even social drinkers might experience the brain damage, calls for immediate further investigation. I found the affect of alcoholism to the cochlea also to be very interesting; I would like to know how alcohol can create a toxic environment for the cochlea. In any means, excessive and regular alcohol consumption likely to lead to hearing loss, either through brain or cochlea damage.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Symphony of life: making music out of the human genome

Michael Zev Gordon
Retrieved from:

Genetics and music are not the most obvious bed-fellows, but we are living in a time of unlikely couplings! Looking for common ground between art and science is increasingly popular, so when, in early 2009, I was asked to write a piece of music that would be part of a Wellcome Trust research project into the genetics of musical ability, I jumped at the chance, because the patterns of the human genome – made of a series of chemical "bases" that can be symbolised as four letters, A (Adenine), T (Thymine), C (Cytosine) and G (Guanine) – looked like chains of notes. It was perfect raw material.
It took me time to get my head around the science involved. Things crystallised when I began to map a segment of common sequence leading up to my chosen polymorphism – A, C and A on to the same musical note-names; then T – "ti' in the doh-re-mi solfège system – on to B, and so on. Adding a supple rhythm, I arrived, to my surprise, at something that sounded quite like plainsong: it became the initial gesture of the piece...

This relatively long article is written by "Michael Zev Gordon" about his experience in translating a part of DNA of Choir singers into music which is performed by them.
It has been a decade that some scientists and musicians are trying to show that each gene has its own music.
Aurora Sánchez Sousa, a microbiologist who specializes in fungi at Madrid’s Ramón y Cajal Hospital is another scientist who translated DNA sequences into musical notation. Then her collaborator, French composer Richard Krull, set them to music.
There are some other links as well that you can hear the music of different genes. Here is for instance the link that you can download the music of Oxytocin's gene ( Oxytocin is a hormone that helps childbirth by inducing contraction in uterus muscle).
There are even some websites that you can order you own genome music! Take a look at this one:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Enhancing Music Performance Through Brain Rhythm Training

Source: Teacher Training Resource Bank: From the University of London seminar series: ‘Collaborative Frameworks for Neuroscience and Education’.

Retrieved from:

Summary: In 2002 and 2004, researchers Egner and Gruzellier looked at the effects of training Royal College of Music piano students to respond to bio-feedback. Bio-feedback was generated by placing sensors on the head that amplified the electrical activity within the brain. These sensors were then connected to a computer that amplified these brain currents and displayed chosen frequencies (between alpha, beta, theta and delta) on a screen. Then the students were able to monitor their own brain waves in real time by watching them go on the screens infront of them. As we recall from class at the beginning of semester, alpha waves are associated with relaxing with the eyes closed, beta rhythms with alertness, theta waves have been associated by neurologists and experimental psychologists with creativity, improved memory, anxiety reduction, self confidence and a sense of well-being, and delta waves with sleep. The students were trained to associate certain sounds with brain rhythms and they learned how to elevate the theta rhythms over the alpha rhythms. This led to the students being able to ‘call up’ theta brain wave rhythms at will. Before and after the training program, the students each gave piano performances under deliberately stressful conditions involving being recorded on video and played back to a panel of expert judges. According to the researchers, in terms of interpretation, musicality, emotional conviction and stylistic accuracy, the students who had learned to control their theta rhythms through neuro-feedback had “markedly improved performances by at least two class grades.” In the control group, researchers gave alternative support programs including Alexander Technique, physical fitness training, mental skills training and yoga, but only those who had the neuro-feedback recorded significant improvement in these areas. Similar studies have suggested that the improvements are long term. In addition, when brain wave training was tied together with meditation, the student subjects also showed enhancement in both positive mood and in neurological links with the sensory areas of the brain. Research is also currently using neuro-feedback to support drug addicts to produce feelings of well-being, even bliss, through consciously elevating their own theta rhythms

Reflection: Here is the answer to all music students’ problems! This was a really fascinating study to read about. It is exciting to see all the new possibilities that are being discovered while studying the brain and how it works through the advancement of technology. I don’t know how many times I have been told by my own private music teacher to “let it go; it’s all about changing your state of mind” in any given piece. Of course, it’s a lot easier said than done but if there is more research done on how we can use this type of neuro-feedback to enhance our practice sessions and performances, I can only begin to imagine the implications this would have for musicians, both as performers and teachers. These findings also may have an influence on the way children are taught at school. If it is known that theta waves are associated “with creativity, improved memory, anxiety reduction, self confidence and a sense of well-being”, then of course it makes sense to design a curriculum that would maximize creative activity.

Music to Memory: The IPod and Brain Project

Source: Bennington Banner: “Veterans Home Speaker Links Music to Memory” by Zeke Wright
Retrieved from:

Summary: Could music be a medicine in treating dementia patients? A new project entitled “IPod and Brain Project” was presented by geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Susan Wehry in honour of National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month (November 2010). Based on work by Dan Cohen and Ann Wyatt of the nonprofit organization Music and Memory, and research from Concetta M. Monaino, director of the Institute or Music and Neurologic Function, the project’s aim is to make music available to dementia patients, to help them reconnect with their loved ones and to enrich their lives. The goal is not to simply provide music to these patients, but rather to provide a personalized playlist of songs specifically tailored to a patient’s life. Whery’s claim is that recognition of a song attaches some bibliographical information to it. Neuroscience research, through brains scans, revealed that activity takes place throughout a person’s brain when they listen to a song they recognize. With this in mind, music could be a means to help unloosen the barriers imposed by the Alzheimer’s disease. In Alzheimer, the disease does not strike all areas of the brain at once; actually one of the last areas to be affected is the prefrontal cortex, which guides listening, language and movement. The goal of the “IPod and Brain Project” was to create a playlist of music for dementia patients in which every song they hear is one of their favourites. The result was that exposure to personalized music helped patients improve attention, aid recall, reduce agitation; overall decrease depression. Most evocative seems to be music from a person’s teen and early adult years. If the musical taste of a patient is unknown, Wehry said to begin with popular music from when the person was between 13 and 25 years of age and analyze their reaction to the music.

Response: This article touched me. One of my loved ones has suffered in her last years of life from Alzheimer’s disease. I know how tragic and difficult it is to reconnect with Alzheimer’s patients; nothing seems to work and it is heartbreaking to see them slowly dissipate. I wish we would have tried to help her with music. There has always been music in our house, but we have never tried to personalize it to her preferences. I think this “IPod and Brain Project” and the underlying research is valid. It may not work for everyone, but it may for some. The brain is a mechanism so complex which we have not yet been able to fully understand. It seems that trial and error is all we have in trying to master it; but because music has the ability to affect us on so many levels: cognitive, emotional, spiritual, as well as physical, I believe music may be able to help trigger memories and reconnect dementia patients with the world they live in; even if only for short periods of time, I think it is worthwhile.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book Review: Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Published by: Knopf Publishing Group in October 2007; revised and expanded in 2008

Summary: Already having written nine books focusing mainly on the brain and its amazing capacities, deficits and methods of coping, Sacks once again examines the many mysteries of this fascinating subject. Musicophilia consists of 29 essays, or tales of how music is perceived in our brains. He mainly focuses on people with different neurological conditions. Sacks describe his cases with little clinical detail, instead concentrating on the experience of the patient (which in one case was himself). Many of the cases are incurable but patients are able to adapt to their own situation in different ways. Sacks wonders such things as why do some people associate certain colors or tastes with specific notes? Why do larger proportions of people who speak Asian languages or who became blind at a young age have absolute pitch? Why do certain brain lesions leave some persons utterly indifferent to music? Yet for others, music temporarily frees them from their conditions’ constraints. The book is divided up into four sections: Part I – Haunted by Music, including tales of musical seizures, brainworms and musical hallucinations, Part II – A Range of Musicality, including tales of Amusia, Dysharmonia, Synesthesia and Absolute Pitch, Part III – Memory, Movement and Music, including tales of Aphasia, Tourettes Syndrome and Parkinsons Disease and Part IV – Emotion, Identity and Music, including tales of musical dreams, music and depression and Williams Syndrome.

Reflections: I enjoyed this book because he leaves readers in a sense of wonder and amazement about the endless and unexplainable possibilities of music and the power it has on humans. I believe that Musicophilia is important because it brings awareness to the significance of music for people, whether they are healthy, or are suffering from a neurological condition. Despite the fact that the author does not take a scientific approach, the tales that Sacks describes in this book will inevitably help the scientific world because of the light it sheds on the relationship between music and the brain, thus creating interest for neurologists and scientists to do further research in this area.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Redirecting Pain into Sound


Rose, Danny. “Turn Chronic Pain into the Colour Blue”. The Sydney Morning Herald. (15 November 2010). Retrieved from

Neely, G. Gregory, Andreas Hess, Michael Costigan, Alex C. Keene, Spyros Goulas, Michiel Langeslag, Robert S. Griffin, et al. 2010. A genome-wide drosophila screen for heat nociception identifies α2δ3 as an evolutionarily conserved pain gene. Cell 143 (4) (11/12): 628-38.

Summary: Dr. Neely and his research team from Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney identified a gene called ‘α2δ3’ which plays an important role in the brain’s pain perception and also closely related to synesthesia. They investigated the genome of fruit flies to locate the gene for pain perception, and α2δ3, the gene also exists in mice and humans, was found. The discovery of α2δ3 is significant in identifying the genetic cause for synesthesia, the phenomenon of misdirected sensory inputs to the brain. The team experimented with mice to see if α2δ3 can be used to redirect the pain signals. The result showed that the mutated α2δ3 has the effect of diverting pain signals into visual, aural, or olfactory perceptions. American collaborators at Harvard, Pittsburg, and North Carolina Universities studied variations of α2δ3 in people and discovered that people with certain variation of α2δ3 are less sensitive to the acute heat pain and chronic back pain. These findings suggest the possibility of pain treatment through turning it into colours, sounds, or smells using α2δ3.     

Reflection: Famous composers such as Liszt, Scriabin, and Rimsky-Korsakov were known to have visual synesthesia, the condition of seeing colours when hearing music. Although synesthesia has been an area of interest for music educators for its unique connection between the visual and aural perception, the focus was on teaching music to synesthetes or using synesthetic approach of associating music with images or words as an effective teaching method. However, this article addressed the possibility of applying neurological synesthetic effects of diverting sensory inputs to the general population. Imagine hearing music instead of migraine, smelling flower scents instead of back pain, or seeing the colour purple instead of toothache! While the idea of turning pain into other sensations has huge potential for medical treatments, it is also interesting to imagine its possible use in music education. Many music educators associate tactile sensations (ex. heavy, light, hot, cold, painful, or balanced) to sounds. What if we can really ‘feel’ the music or ‘hear’ our feelings? Wouldn't that be the total embodiment of music or the true expression of feeling through music? While it might sound unrealistic, it may not be so in the future.

Source: Inside NOVA. “Brain Music” by Ashleigh Constanza.

Retrieved from:

Summary: Vince Calhoun (University of New Mexico) and Dan Lloyd (Trinity College, Connecticut) have created new software through which they convert brain data obtained from fMRI scans into musical tones. They liken this method of examining neurological test results to a form of a “neural stethoscope”. The purpose of this new software is to hone in on data that can be found through neurological testing methods, such as an fMRI, but which may not be readily seen by the eye. They claim this methodology is important because the ear can hear a greater range of complexity than the eye can see. Lloyd explains that, “The eye can’t discriminate different frequencies of light that are coming from a single point. It blends them together. The ear is sensitive to thousands of different frequencies. When three different frequencies of energy combine in sound, we hear them separately. We hear them as a chord.” This software works by assigning a unique tone to each area of the brain. When, during neurological scans, a specific area of the brain is activated, its specific tone is sounded.

The example of musical tones provided contrasts the musical tones of a normal brain with that of a schizophrenic brain. The difference is striking. While the normal brain’s tones are sounded at a fairly moderate and even tempo, the schizophrenic brain’s tones are more chaotic and frenetic, oscillating with much greater rapidity. This difference can be likened to two people having a conversation. In a normal conversation, the dialogue tends to be more rational with responses given in turn and being relatively moderate and evenly-spaced. In a less rational conversation, the participants might constantly interrupt each other and questions and answers overlap with each other. In such an instance, the efficiency, health, and quality of communication is heavily impacted.

Lloyd and Calhoun hope that, in the future, this software will be used as a diagnostic tool, particularly for mental illness, such as schizophrenia – a neurological disease that is particularly difficult to diagnose, as it has no biological markers.

As opposed to my last post on brain music, which was purely for entertainment, we see here that a similar strategy could be used to diagnose mental illness. Being able to use the ears in addition to the eyes to examine neurological scan data is an excellent tool for diagnosticians to have. Of course, one could question if we can even call this music – it is organized sound, but its creation and function are far different from what we generally think of as music. I wonder if this software could be applied to other bodily systems which scientists have trouble seeing with detail, or even geological systems.

Performance Enhancing Music?


An Australian study on triathlon competitors shows that listening to music can improve endurance by as much as 15%.  The most profound effect is shown when the tempo of the music lines up with a runner's stride.  Energy consumption in the body was found to be 1-3% more efficient when the athlete listened a regular musical beat or synchronous music.  Additionally, music helps to lower the perception of effort, allowing athletes to ignore the pain of exercise more easily. Brain scans of subjects listening to loud, upbeat music show an increase of activity in the Reticular Activating System, an area responsible for behavioural motivation, breathing and heart rate.  The loud upbeat music effectively activates the brain and prepares it for physical activity.  Researchers suggest that using the right kind of music can not only prime professional athletes for better performance but also help casual athletes enjoy exercising more.  In this way, when used in combination with exercise, music could help contribute to overall public health.

This study is further evidence of what is easily observable at any gym.  It is not uncommon to see a line of cardio machines filled with people listening to their i-Pods.  As the study suggests, using music in conjunction with endurance based exercise is particularly effective.  Further evidence of the connection between music an exercise can be seen in the popularity of the new line of Nike shoes that contain a pedometer that wirelessly syncs to an i-Pod.  Users can set their own "power song" that helps gives them a boost of motivation when they need it.  The device also gives feedback about the progress of workouts and keeps track of progress over time.  It would be interesting to combine the findings of the Australian study with products like the Nike/i-Pod device.  Data about the rate of a runner's stride could be sent to an i-Pod, and the i-Pod could match the stride rate to the BPM of a song.  I would even be possible to alter the tempo of songs in an existing playlist to match with stride rate.  Perhaps such a device could even slowly increase or decrease the tempo of a song to adjust the intensity of a workout particularly if used in conjunction with a heart-rate monitor.  There are many possibilities for future products that combine music and exercise.  Perhaps governments like ours here in Canada should consider funding such projects to help lower healthcare costs.  If music can be used to motivate regular exercise perhaps it can also make people more healthy and save us all some money.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Does a minor key give everyone the blues?

Source: - Philip Ball - Published January 8 2010.
Retrieved from:

Summary: The author begins by asking: Why does Handel's Water Music and The Beatles' 'Here Comes The Sun' sound happy, while Albinoni's Adagio and 'Eleanor Rigby' sound sad?
Is it because the first two are in major keys while the last two are in minor keys?
Are the emotional associations of major and minor intrinsic to the notes themselves? Or are they culturally imposed?

Neuroscientist Daniel Bowling and his colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, compared the sound spectra (the profiles of different acoustic frequencies) of speech with those in Western classical music and Finnish folk songs. They found that the spectra in major-key music are close to those in excited speech, while the spectra of minor-key music are more similar to subdued speech. Across cultures, the definition of happy or sad speech is quite common; the former being relatively fast and loud, the latter is slower and quieter. The author mentions that while it is a simplistic approach in comparing happy vs. sad music, it does seem to work across cultural boundaries.

In 1959, musicologist Deryck Cooke states in his book, The Language of Music, that the idea that the minor key is intrinsically anguished while the major is joyful is so deeply ingrained in Western listeners that many have deemed this to be a natural principle of music. He also pointed out that musicians throughout the ages throughout the ages have used minor keys for vocal music with an explicitly sad content, and major keys for happy lyrics. But he failed to acknowledge that this might simply be a matter of cultural convention rather than an innate property of the music.

In Bowling and colleagues' study, although it is assumed that the ratios of frequencies sounded simultaneously in speech can be compared with the ratios of frequencies sounded sequentially in music, there are other pitfalls in the study that cannot be avoided (mentioned below) and thus their conclusions are left open to question.
1. Major-type frequency ratios dominate the spectra of both excited and subdued speech, but merely less so in the latter case
2. Some cultures (including Europe before the Renaissance and the Ancient Greeks) don't link minor keys to sadness.

Reflections: After our fascinating discussion in class several weeks ago regarding music and emotions in music, I began my quest to find out more on this subject. Although I started off with great appreciation for this article, by the time I had finished it my conclusions were the same as I had drawn at the end of our class: the majority of the kinds of emotions we draw from music are based on our own cultural conventions. One would be hard-pressed to find a method of determining what kind of music evokes specific emotions because the emotions that are experienced are specific to each individual. This may be an obvious point to make, but as a performer it is enlightening to be reminded that the emotions we evoke with our music are not necessarily ‘universal’; despite the characteristics that are shared across cultural boundaries, every performance should be and will be experienced in a different way depending on the individual’s own cultural associations, their musical background and any other factors that would change their emotional outlook on music.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Music-Memory Connection Found in Brain

Image: Brain areas showing music tonality-tracking behavior. Different colors represent the number of subjects who showed significant tracking behavior. Credit: Cerebral Cortex/Janata

Source: Health, Jeremy Hsu, 24 February 2009

Retrieved from:

People have long known that music can trigger powerful recollections, but now a brain-scan study has revealed where this happens in our noggins.The part of the brain known as the medial pre-frontal cortex sits just behind the forehead, acting like recent Oscar host Hugh Jackman singing and dancing down Hollywood's memory lane. Janata began suspecting the medial pre-frontal cortex as a music-processing and music-memories region when he saw that part of the brain actively tracking chord and key changes in music. He had also seen studies which showed the same region lighting up in response to self-reflection and recall of autobiographical details, and so he decided to examine the possible music-memory link by recruiting 13 UC-Davis students.Test subjects went under an fMRI brain scanner and listened to 30 different songs randomly chosen from the Billboard "Top 100" music charts from years when the subjects would have been 8 to 18 years old. They signaled researchers when a certain 30-second music sample triggered any autobiographical memory, as opposed to just being a familiar or unfamiliar song.Janata saw that tunes linked to the strongest self-reported memories triggered the most vivid and emotion-filled responses – findings corroborated by the brain scan showing spikes in mental activity within the medial prefrontal cortex. "What's striking is that the prefrontal cortex is among the last [brain regions] to atrophy," Janata noted. He pointed to behavioral observations of Alzheimer's patients singing along or brightening up when familiar songs came on.This latest research could explain why even Alzheimer's patients who endure increasing memory loss can still recall songs from their distant past.

This study seemed very interesting to me, not only because of its topic, but also in terms of its simplicity. The investigator chose some most popular songs, and asked participants to listen to 30 s of each of these songs while they were under fMRI, and signal when they find a song reminded them some memory. After the MRI participants wrote some details about the memory related to those songs. Janata found out that, when the soundtrack is related to a memory, the brain not only recognizes the key signature and timescale very quickly, but also with more powerful autobiographical memories, the brain music tacking activity was much stronger.

Music as Medicine for the Brain

Source: Health, Matthew Shulman, 17 July 2008


Rande Davis Gedaliah's 2003 diagnosis of Parkinson's was followed by leg spasms, balance problems, difficulty walking, and ultimately a serious fall in the shower. But something remarkable happened when she turned to an oldies station on her shower radio: She could move her leg with ease, her balance improved, and, she couldn't stop dancing. Now, she puts on her iPod and pumps in Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." when she wants to walk quickly; for a slower pace, Queen's "We Are the Champions" does the trick.
Parkinson's and stroke patients benefit, neurologists believe, because the human brain is innately attuned to respond to highly rhythmic music; in fact, says Sacks, our nervous system is unique among mammals in its automatic tendency to go into foot-tapping mode.
Indeed, research on the effects of music therapy in Parkinson's patients has found motor control to be better in those who participated in group music sessions—improvisation with pianos, drums, cymbals, and xylophones—than in people who underwent traditional physical therapy. But gains were no longer evident two months after the sessions ended, so the best results require continued therapy. To stay motivated, Tomaino recommends seeking out both therapeutic drumming groups like Bausman's and social dance classes. Patients can also create music libraries for CDs or MP3 players that can be used to facilitate walking.
Because the area of the brain that processes music overlaps with speech networks, neurologists have found that a technique called melodic intonation therapy is effective at retraining patients to speak by transferring existing neuronal pathways or creating new ones. "Even after a stroke that damages the left side of the brain—the center of speech—some patients can still sing complete lyrics to songs," says Tomaino. With repetition, the therapist can begin removing the music, allowing the patient to speak the song lyrics and eventually substitute regular phrases in their place. "As they try to recall words that have a similar contextual meaning to the lyrics, their word retrieval and speech improves," she says.

Music, as a treatment, has been always practice in neurological conditions such as Alzheimer, Parkinson, anxiety and depression. The question is that why, or hat the music works? What happens in the brain when a patient listens to the music?
"The human brain is innately attuned to respond to highly rhythmic music".It's thought that the music triggers networks of neurons to translate the cadence into organized movement. Music, specifically a rhythmic music, acts as a stimulator that motivates motor neurones in patients suffering Parkinson disease with bradykinesia ( a difficulty initiating movement), to make muscles move!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The RCM says "the greatest instrument is the brain"...

Source: Wired Magazine. By Scott Thill. Retrieved from:


Robert Schneider, a member of the band Apples in Stereo, has made a new sort of ‘instrument’, dubbed a Teletron, which allows him to make music with his mind. By modding a Mattel Mindflex (a game employing EEG sensors which allow users to move a ball through a maze using only their brains) and attaching it to a synthesizer, Schneider is able to make music using his brainwaves. The way this device works is by strapping on EEG sensors which are attached to two Mindflex units. The participant then reads from a score, which, in the case of Schneider, is comprised of texts and images. The units’ signals are then manipulated through two synthesizers, with each one serving as “separate musical interpolators of [the participant’s] brain waves.” While each synthesizer’s curve of pitch is essentially the same, that which intercepts the left-brain waves is “more logical and dry”, while that of the right-brain is “more dreamy and surreal”. In order to create the Teletron, Schneider took the wire from the Mindflex’s fan and plugged it into the pitch input of a vintage Moog synthesizer. So-called “brain music” is nothing new; Musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henry also employed EEG sensors in his compositions, as did Alvin Lucier who is “arguably the first to transmit alpha waves through percussion in his 1965 composition “Music for Solo Performer””. On his new toy, Schneider commented that, “the Teletron is really cool to play . . . You have to be very conscious of your thoughts, and alter the music by agitating your mind.””


Although Schneider’s Teletron is by no means a revolutionary breakthrough in the field of music technology, it is an indication of one possibility for music’s future. With an increase in understanding of neuromusicology, can come an increase in the modes in which we compose and listen to music. As we uncover these deeper connection between cognitive perceptions of organized auditory stimulus, the methods by which we organize and perceive such stimulus might change accordingly. As noted, such changes in the field of music are not new – they have been happening for decades. Nonetheless, this is an interesting field to pay close attention to. As our control over technology and neurology becomes more defined, we will become more adept at consciously manipulating these realities, thereby creating alternate possibilities of reality and creativity.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Does It Have To Be Mozart's Sonata K.448?

Suda, M., Morimoto, K., Obata, A., Koizumi, H., & Maki, A. (2008). Cortical responses to Mozart's Sonata Enhance Spatial-Reasoning Ability. Neurological Research, 30(9), 885-888.

Summary: In this study, they examined the effects of Mozart’s music on spatial-reasoning ability by near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). All participants were university graduates or postgraduates in the age of 25 to 35. The Japanese version of seven original core subtests of the Tanaka B-type intelligence test was used to test the spatial-reasoning ability, as well as the optional topography to show the brain activation. The participants took the 30-minutes test under three different music sessions of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K.448), Beethoven’s Fur Elise, and a silent condition. The result showed that the test scores were higher after the exposure to Mozart’s music than the exposure to Beethoven’s music or silent. Also, the topography of the Mozart group showed dramatic activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and occipital cortex, which is known to be closely related to spatial-reasoning function.

Reflection: The ‘Mozart Makes You Smarter’ has been studied and debated among researchers, but it has not been made clear why Mozart’s music has the specific effect. In the previous studies that used Mozart’s music versus silence showed similar result of higher score in Mozart’s group. My assumption then was that the stabilizing effect of listening to the predictable harmonic patterns of the classical music affected the score. Also, seating in silence for certain amount of time before the test could increase anxiety, which would not help the test result. However, this study was particularly interesting that they used Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which could be more familiar to the participants. The result was rather shocking to me that Beethoven’s music had almost the same result with the silence. Both Beethoven’s and Mozart’s music were from the same period and used same instrumentation. If it is not the familiarity or the predictable pattern, it makes me curious what could be the other factor behind this Mozart’s effect. I will be interested in reading more about the studies that used different music, especially if there is one that used Mozart’s Sonata K.448 versus his other compositions.

A Sonata a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University: “A Sonata a Day Keeps the Doctor Away”
Retrieved from:

Summary: Research on premature babies exposed to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart shows remarkable effects on their weight gain and growth. Dr. Dror Mandel and Dr. Ronit Lubetzky of the Tel Aviv Medical Centre affiliated with the Tel Aviv University’s “Sackler School of Medicine” played 30 minutes of Mozart’s music to pre-term infants, once a day, and found that the babies expended less energy – grew faster – when they listened to Mozart than when they were not listening to anything. The researchers measured energy expenditure in the newborns right after listening, and compared it to the measurements of energy expended while the babies were at rest. The babies expended less energy while hearing the music.
Although nothing was proven scientifically, this initial research on the effects of music on preemies is of outmost importance. Doctors’ main goal is to bring the premature babies to a healthy weight before allowing them to go home (a healthy weight denotes a stronger immune system, less risk of illness; also sooner dismissal means less exposure to infections and illnesses found in hospitals). Since music is shown to help the preemies grow faster, shouldn’t music become a standard practice in hospitals to optimize the health and well-being of babies?
It is unknown why the music of Mozart is soothing to the newborns, but Dr. Mandel’s hypothesis is that “the repetitive melodies in Mozart’s music may be affecting the organizational centres of the brain’s cortex.”

Response: Similar to the controversial research labelled as the “Mozart Effect”, this study on premature babies exposed to the music of Mozart show promising effects of classical music on the human brain. If the music of Mozart, which may be melodically repetitive as suggested by Dr. Mandel, but which is also much more complex than meditation music, or the repetitive “pop” music, has a calming effect over babies, nourishing their bodies in miraculous ways, we can conclude that exposure to music, or more so the study of music, will benefit everyone. Whether or not “music makes you smarter”, we can at least undoubtedly conclude that music, classical music that is, has a therapeutic effect. It would be interesting to see what kind of effect other genres of music have on the premature babies and if classical music (and not only the music of Mozart, which is joyful and underlined by a childish innocence and energy) is the genre most beneficial to our brain, why won’t it become a standard subject in schools, for everyone’s benefit? Alongside sports which nourish the body, why won’t we invest in music to nourish our brain?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Albatross to Zebra Finch - Alphabet of the Birds

Penn State zebra finch study 

Review: A study out of Penn State University has observed how the zebra finch's brain strings together sets of syllables in its song.  Researchers were able to determine a specific group of neurons that fire in sequence and determine the order and timing of different syllables that make up the syntax of its distinctive song.  Specific neurons were observed firing at the precise moment that a syllable was sung setting off a cascading effect in other neurons.  One researcher likened the sets of neurons to sections of a musical score. When this group of neurons is absent the birds were unable to sing.  Dezhe Jin, an assistant professor at Penn State and one of the study's authors believes findings may provide insight into how the human brain learns language.  Unlike many other animals songbirds learn though cultural transmission in much the same way as humans do.   Since the zebra finch only perfects one song during it's lifetime, it was a simple model to start with.  Future study will focus on studying other songbirds that have a larger repertoire of songs. 

Reflection: This is an interesting starting point for researchers to embark on language study.  Since the zebra finch's song is so simple they were actually able to pinpoint the precise location of each syllable of the song.  It will be interesting in the future to see if other songbirds' brains work similarly when using bits and pieces of different syllables in more complex songs.  Relating this to human speech at this point seems to be a big stretch.   It is possible that there is a specific collection of neurons responsible for each individual syllable that we use in language, however the process in the human brain of ordering how those groups of neurons fire is likely a much more complex and undefinable process than in songbirds.  The words that we choose to use, and the meanings that those words take on are very complicated and likely slightly different for each individual person.  It would be interesting though to see this research lead to the discovery of a precise area of the human brain, perhaps somewhere in the primary motor cortex, that corresponds to individual syllables in speech. 

Threads of Music in the Tapestry of Memory

Source: Musica. “Threads of Music in the Tapestry of Memory”
Retrieved from:

Summary: Studies on “context-dependent-memory” (CDM) show that recall of learned information is more accurate when the subjects experience recall in the original context of learning, than when recall is experienced in a different context. In a study on CDM, a large group of scuba divers, subdivided in half, were shown the same list of words. One group rested on the beach, the other disappeared beneath the ocean surface. 30 minutes later, half of each group exchanged places and all scuba divers were tested to recall as many words as possible. The results showed that those who learned and recalled in the same context were able to remember more words than those who learned and recalled in different places.
Studies done with music as a contextual element prove that “background music can enter into memory and aid recall, when it is simply present and not necessarily consciously attended”. Similar to the scuba divers experiment, Steven M. Smith of Texas A&M University lead a study in which subjects viewed a list of words, one at a time and asked 2 days later to recall as many of the learned words as possible, in the same or a different context. The context in this study was musical and there were three conditions during learning for different groups: a Mozart piano concerto (K.491), a jazz piece ("People Make the World Go Around" by Milt Jackson), or a quiet background. The last had made no impact on memory. Similar to the scuba divers experiment the subjects performed best when the same music was played during learning and recalling, than when the pieces were changed.
Others have questioned the ability of the mood, genre, tempo and timber of the music to assist the brain in memory. These subsequent studies show that the mood, the genre and the tempo of the music are all “threads in the tapestry of the memory.” All these tests gave music-dependent results: recall was aided when the music was the same as in learning, but one particular study showed that tempo plays an immensely important aspect in CDM. Changing tempo impaired recall, changing genre or timber did not. Changing tempo, not timber, could affect mood.
In conclusion, all these studies show that memories are complex, multi-layered structures that depend not only on the consciously learned material, but also on the background, contextual frame. Background music can enter into memory and aid recall when it is simply present. “Learning cannot guarantee recall, but music correctly integrated into the learning experience may well assist it.”

Response: In our society, we seem to be followed by music everywhere, whether we are in a store, waiting in a line, in a station, in a car, music seems to constantly fill our ears. If we are not involuntarily exposed to it, than we consciously plug ourselves to earphones and iPods. I agree and disagree with this article at the same time. I agree that music can aid in “context-dependent-memory”. We always seem to associate music to events in our lives. We all have specific music that reminds us of specific people, events or places; music triggers memories. In this respect I believe that music can be beneficial in learning and helping recall, but probably more beneficial to the general public, non-musicians. As musicians, we are very aware of music around us and most of the music that acts as “background” to others, to us is very much foreground. Instead of simply enjoying it, we are aware of it, we involuntarily analyse it: we analyse performance, we analyse pitches, we analyse harmonies, we analyse tone, and so on. Thus, I think, to musicians, background music in a learning context might become more of a distraction than an aid, as our minds would be too busy focusing on the music and not on storing to memory the learning material.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Classical Music an Effective Antidepressant

Source: Miller-McCune magazine. August 2, 2010. Classical Music an Effective Antidepressant. By: Tom Jacob
Retrieved from:
A newly published study from Mexico reports repeated listening to certain classical works — including one by Mozart — helps ease the debilitating symptoms of clinical depression.

“Music offers a simple and elegant way to treat anhedonia, the loss of pleasures in daily activities,” the research team, led by Miguel-Angel Mayoral-Chavez of the University of Oaxaca, reports in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy.
Following up on a small number of recent studies, the Mexican team conducted an experiment on 79 patients of an Oaxaca clinic. The 14 men and 65 women, ranging in age from 25 to 60, were diagnosed as suffering from low to medium levels of depression. They were not taking any medications for their condition.
All participated in an eight-week program. Half the group took part in a 30-minute weekly counseling session with a psychologist; the other half listened to a 50-minute program of classical music each day. Their recorded concert featured two baroque works (Bach’s Italian Concerto and a Concerto Grosso by his contemporary, Archangelo Corelli) and Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos. Each week, participants reported their levels of depression-related symptoms using a standard scale.
“We found positive changes at the fourth session in the music therapy group, with the participants showing improvement in their symptoms,” the researchers report. “Between the seventh and eighth weekly sessions, we observed improvement in 29 participants, with a lack of improvement in four. Eight abandoned the group.”
In contrast, among those who had experienced talk therapy, only 12 subjects showed improvement by Week Eight, compared to 16 who showed no improvement. Ten abandoned the study.
“Our results show a statistically significant effect for music,” the researchers conclude. “(They) strongly suggest that some baroque music, and the music of Mozart, can have conclusive beneficial effects on depressed patients.”
The researchers point to several possible reasons for the participants’ improved mental states, including the fact music “can activate several processes which facilitate brain development and/or plasticity.” They note that depression is often associated with low levels of dopamine in the brain, and/or a low number of dopamine receptors. Previous research has found listening to music can increase dopamine levels.
Given the overhyping of the Mozart Effect, it’s important to note these results do not mean (a) that talk therapy is unimportant, or (b) that people should throw out their Prozac and put on some Prokofiev. But as Mayoral-Chavez puts it, they do suggest people suffering from low- and medium-grade depression “can use music to enhance the effects of psychological support.”
The researchers aren’t claiming that Mozart’s music is uniquely magical; they note that different types of music “may have different effects on different people.” But the music they chose — complex, upbeat, stimulating — was clearly effective. And the patients even enjoyed it … after a while.
“At the beginning of the study, many of the chosen patients did not show a good disposition to listen to the music,” they report. “But later on, they not only proved to be interested parties, but also asked for more music of this type.”

We all have experienced the effect of music on our mood in both negative and positive ways. I am amazied by the way that a piece of music can affect the amount or reuptake of "serotonin", a nourotransmitter in brain which it's deficinecy can lead to depression symptoms, such as sadness, anhedonia, loss of concentration, anxiety,sleeping and appetite disorders, and in severe cases suicidal thought and attempts. Does music directly modulates the amount or reuptake of this neurotransmitter, or does it affect the mood indirectly by the way it makes us feel?
Surprisingly, not many psychiatrist sna dpsycologist introduce this option to their patients. Since depression is a very common chronic and " not easy to cure" psychiatric disorder, more commercialization about the therapeutic effect of music on depression and other mood disorders should be done.

Related links:

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sight-Reading Music: A Unique Window on the Mind

Source: Musica. “Sight-Reading Music: A Unique Window on the Mind”
Retrieved from:

Summary: This articles looks at the way research in music cognition and behaviour could bring forth new discoveries of the mind, instead of merely paralleling them to instances of other, better known subjects. Two studies show opposing points of view in regards to the mental processes and behaviours that occur when comparing sight-reading in music to language reading. In the first study, T. W. Goolsby demonstrates that the mind behaves differently when reading music than when reading language, thus dismissing the previous belief that the two activities evoke the same neurological response. He compared the vocalization of sight-reading (humming) to the reading of language, finding major differences: opposite pattern of eye movement (a good sight-reader makes more regressive eye movements than a poor sight-reader as they relate preceding patterns to succeeding ones; regressive eye movement in a language reader denotes hesitations), perceptual span: horizontal/vertical dimensions (wider in music reading than in language reading, as demanded by attention to the staves of music), attention to details (less attention to details in reading music, reading being based on expectations drawn from knowledge e.g, harmony in Western tonal music; reading of language is more detailed as its goal is extracting meaning, having nothing to do with expectations). In another study, Rayner and Pollatsek drew the commonalties between sight-reading, reading language and also typing. They found that all three activities require the eyes to be ahead of the motor action, because the information needs to be understood before translated in action. In the case of sight-reading, an extra step of decoding the music language take place in the brain. Their conclusion was that what limits the brain in all these activities is the limitation on the capacity of short term memory – if the eyes get too far ahead, an overflow of information may result, which can be detrimental to performance.

Response: From my own experiences, I believe reading music and reading language must have different neurological responses. For most of my life, I have been struggling with sight-reading, while I cannot claim the same about reading language, which always came natural to me. I believe one can practice being a better sight-reader, I also believe one can exercise their reading skills, but each of these activities, in turn, makes different demands on our brain. Sight-reading is a much more brain intensive activity because it involves visual encoding, interpretation, pattern recognition and then muscle activation (actually playing the right notes), whereas reading only involves the first two processes. Since one activity is more intensive than the other, it would be expected that the neurological response would be different. The two opposing studies show that the brain has its limitations, and a talent in one department (reading music) is not necessarily a reflection of a talent in another (reading language).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Perfect Pitch: An unexplainable phenomenon or a musical gene?

Source: (June 25, 2008)

Follow-up Source:
The American Journal of Human Genetics: Genome-wide Study of Families with Absolute Pitch Reveals Linkage to 8q24.21 and Locus Heterogeneity


At the University of California in San Francisco, Dr. Jane Gitschier is investigating the genetics of perfect pitch. The statistics state that one in ten-thousand people have perfect pitch. Roy Bogas, a child-prodigy classical pianist in San Francisco featured in this video, uses colour analogy to describe this instantaneous recognition of pitches without a reference tone. When identifying colors, there is no thought process behind it, it “just is.” People like Roy who are born with perfect pitch don’t necessarily retain it. Research indicates that childhood environment is crucial. Dr. Gitschier’s hypothesis is that the perfect pitch ability is not solely dependent on genes. She believes that this ability is in part dictated by genetics and her goal is to find the genes responsible for this trait. For her study, in order to do genetic mapping, Dr. Gitschier used participants with perfect pitch who also had a relative with this ability. So far her results indicate that if a person has perfect pitch, had early musical training, and also had a sibling who had early musical training there is a 50 percent chance the sibling will also have perfect pitch because they have the same genetic make-up. It’s presumably going to be a gene that has a simple DNA variant that gives rise to this ability. However, it may also be more than one gene. Dr. Gitschier’s goal is to use the results to figure out what this gene(s) is – how it leads to this ability, then use this information to see what other organisms may have this gene; Perhaps, she wonders, there is an association between this gene and other traits?

Upon a follow-up of Dr. Gitschier’s perfect pitch study, I found the latest results she has published in the American Journal of Human Genetics 2009. The results indicate that absolute pitch is genetically heterogeneous. These findings were based on a study with 73 multiplex absolute pitch families.


There have been endless studies on the question of whether perfect pitch is innate or if it is learned in early musical training. The title of the video is what drew me in because I am very curious to know if in fact research has discovered whether this trait is genetic or not. However, I was slightly disappointed to discover that even after 3 years of the on-going study with perfect pitch families, no conclusive results had been obtained. This may be a moot point because all researchers inevitably seem to come to the same conclusions when conducting studies on the basis of perfect pitch. This then makes me wonder if we will ever be able to find a decisive answer for what and why perfect pitch occurs in only “one-in ten-thousand people”? As a music educator, I am hoping that further studies in the area will indicate that a majority (if not all) of the perfect pitch ability stems from the type of early musical training received. If future research indicates this is the case, this will have an impact on the ways that music is taught at an early age, whether it is through the use of more ear-training or singing exercises.