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.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Music Lessons Enhance IQ

Reference: Schellenberg, E. Glenn. (2004). Music Lessons Enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15(8), 511-514

Summary: A number of studies investigated the effect of music training on children’s intelligence. Typically two groups were used for such studies where one group had music lessons and the other had not. While most of the results showed that music lessons increase children’s intelligence, it was not clear in the studies if it was music that brought such results, or other factors, such as the well-planned extracurricular instruction, also had an influence. To eliminate the ambiguity, Schellenberg divided 144 six-year-olds children into two groups; the first groups received standard keyboard or Kodaly voice lessons while the second group received drama lessons or no lessons. Drama lessons were offered to one of the control groups to see the effect of non-music yet artistic activities. IQ was measured from both groups before and after the test, and  the result showed that the group with the music lesson showed greater increase of IQ than the control group, as seen in Figure 1.

Reflection: Schellenberg explored the question that I had about the other studies on the “Music makes you smarter” claim, which was whether the other arts can have the same impact. The ‘with music lessons versus no lesson’ model is biased towards the greater intelligence on the test group since having any kinds of well-structured instruction will be better than having none. Schellenberg’s design was effective that the control group was involved in similar artistic activities. Results from Schellenberg’s study make it more evident that learning music makes people smarter, especially the children. Although this side effect of increased intelligence cannot be the purpose of learning music, it suggests the possibility of using music to help academically at-risk children. It will be interesting if learning different instruments affects different areas of intelligence so that specific music instruction can be given to help the students struggling in a particular subject. There were some studies using ‘singing lessons versus keyboard lessons’ model, but the results were different in each study. It will be in my interest to investigate the relationship between particular instrument learning to the brain development through reviewing more related research.

Brain Damage and Creativity

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer. Written by Paul Jablow. Monday, 18 October 2010. Retrieved from:


Historically there have been many cases of artists producing their great works while their brains have been suffering heavy neurological damage. Ravel, for instance, composed Bolero, one of his best known works, while suffering from frontotemporal dementia. Artist Katherine Sherwood and famed jazz guitarist Pat Martino are two modern examples of people who continued to work in highly creative capacities after experiencing severe brain trauma. Martino suffered from a brain aneurysm that required a surgery which removed 60% of his left temporal lobe and, subsequently, destroyed his musical memory. Martino had to teach himself how to play again by listening to his old recordings. With the advent of new technologies, particularly that of fMRI, neurologists are attempting to get to the source of creativity. For neurologist Anjan Chaterjee creativity encompasses a wide spectrum: from creativity in the arts, to creativity in mathematics, to military tactical creativity which allows soldiers behind enemy lines to survive. Even when artists are able to recover from brain damage and continue in their career, their art undergoes changes as a result from the new or different ways in which their brains now deal with the creative and aesthetic experience. Sherwood’s art went from being esoteric and cerebral to being more abstract and less intricate. Martino similarly claims that when soloing, he now treats the notes differently and concentrates more on focusing “on the moment when you can't see a past and a future… The less control, the better." Neuroscientists Corballis theorizes that such brain trauma often allows creative elements of the mind to operate more freely, particularly when the injury harms linguistics ability. Although fMRIs remain an integral tool in such processes, one of their main drawbacks is that it does not allow the patient to move around, thereby limiting the situations in which the brain can be engaged and observed. Corballis notes that he has worked on patients who have undergone a rare form of surgery which virtually separates the two halves of the brain, allowing the left hemisphere to function almost independently of the right. An additional tool which has been brought into neurological research is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a method used for treatment of Parkinson's and other disorders.


Although still in their infancy, these methods of research and neurological observation are fascinating in their ability to look into the conscious and subconscious activities of the brain. Such links between creativity and brain functions are particularly interesting. By understanding the minutiae of the neurological responses to the aesthetic experience, the inherent human need for aesthetic creativity will be better understood. Furthermore, the firmer the grasp we have on how our brains respond to creative stimuli, the better our ability will be to heal the minds of those who are suffering from head trauma, degenerative brain disorders, and the like. In this way, society may come to enjoy music and the arts not only for their beauty and technical excellence, but also as an important healing tool.

Take Care of it Son. This Was Your Grandfather's Flute.

Boston Globe Article:

    The recent discovery of a 40,000 year old bone-crafted flute on an archeological dig in Germany has begun to raise questions about music's place in the development of the modern human mind.  The oldest previously discovered instruments were no older than 30,000 years old.  The flute's discovery suggests that music was an important part of pre-historic human life.  There has been much debate surrounding the place of music in human evolutionary history.  While some believe that music is simply a byproduct of other cognitive functions like language, others believe that music is distinct and may have even pre-dated language.  The bone flute discovery has certainly advanced the position of the latter.  Nicholas Conard, a professor of early pre-history involved with the finding, claims that a culture rich in music may have an indirect survival advantage.  Such cultures likely shared better social ties and communication. Additionally, the flute itself is physical evidence of innovation.  Conard also notes that there may have been something like a "cultural arms race" between Neanderthals and modern humans.  "Neanderthals had perfectly good behavioural strategies, but tended to be culturally more conservative, and modern humans were more flexible and creative."  Music played on a replica of the flute can be found in the video and article listed above.

    The German bone flute is an exiting find for musicians and music educators who believe that music is an integral part of human life.  The fact that such an old flute exists suggests that the first vocal music probably dates back even further.  The age of the flute, combined with studies that show music and language are primarily housed in different parts of the brain, supports the theory that music is a distinct brain function and evolved independently of language.  Professor Conards observation that the modern human beat out Neanderthals in the "cultural arms race" supports the notion that innovation is more important to survival than brute strength. It stands to reason then that education in a creative artistic practice like music is extremely beneficial.  Those who make decisions about the importance (or irrelevance) of music programs in schools should take into account music's long history aiding human development before cutting programs to save money.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Music therapy in the assessment and treatment of autistic spectrum disorder: clinical application and research evidence.

Soure: Child Care Health Dev. 2006 Sep;32(5):535-42.

Children and adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) presenting with significant limitations in conventional forms of verbal and non-verbal communication are found to respond positively to music therapy intervention involving both active, improvizational methods and receptive music therapy approaches. Improvizational musical activity with therapeutic objectives and outcomes has been found to facilitate motivation, communication skills and social interaction, as well as sustaining and developing attention. The structure and predictability found in music assist in reciprocal interaction, from which tolerance, flexibility and social engagement to build relationships emerge, relying on a systematic approach to promote appropriate and meaningful interpersonal responses. RESULTS: Published reports of the value and effectiveness of music therapy as an intervention for children with ASD range from controlled studies to clinical case reports. Further documentation has emphasized the role music therapy plays in diagnostic and clinical assessment. Music therapy assessment can identify limitations and weaknesses in children, as well as strengths and potentials. Research evidence from a systematic review found two randomized controlled trials that examined short-term effects of structured music therapy intervention. Significant effects were found in these studies even with extremely small samples, and the findings are important because they demonstrate the potential of the medium of music for autistic children. Case series studies were identified that examined the effects of improvizational music therapy where communicative behaviour, language development, emotional responsiveness, attention span and behavioural control improved over the course of an intervention of improvizational music therapy.


Autism is the prototypic pervasive developmental disorder, pervasive because the disorder encompasses so many areas of development: language, social interaction, emotional reactivity...
The expression "living in his own world" captures this tragic disorder; the autistic cild fails to develop normal interaction with others and seems to be responsive to internal stimuli.
These children don't make eye contact. They don't care about the presence or absence of their mothers. As the get older language problem becomes more serious. Considering their difficulty in communicating and discussing their inner needs and thoughts, lots of therapies have been trying, and it's amazing how music can stimulate them and be one of the therapies that gets response from them. This link shows different therapies for autism and the degree of satisfaction the get from each therapy. Music is one of the most satisfying therapies among all.