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.