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.