Friday, September 30, 2011

Music and Grief

Music and Grief


Title: Music and Grief

Speaker: Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison
Series: Music and the Brain
Date: November 18, 2010


Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison is a clinical psychologist, author and the co-director of the Moods Disorders Clinic in the Department of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where she is a professor. Music and Grief appeared as part of a series of podcasts presented at and then published by the Library of Commerce, a project for Redfield Jamison was advisor. Her professional interests and publications center around mood disorders, suicide and creative temperament and here, she presents excerpts from her most recent publication, "Nothing Was the Same: A Memoir” which reflects on grief and loss in the context of her personal grieving process after the death of her husband, Dr. Richard Wyatt. Dr. Redfield Jamison is joined by Ara Guzelimian, Provost and Dean of the Juilliard School presenting perspectives of grief and depression through the life and music of composer Felix Mendelssohn and J. Raymond DePaulo, Jr., MD, Director, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, also from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who brings his perspective as a clinician and researcher. Finally, the Afiara String Quartet from Julliard, play the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F minor.

First, Dr. Redfield Jamison discusses the differences between chronic depression and grief. Having experienced and written about depression in the context of bipolar disorder and extraordinary grief over the loss of a partner, she describes reads an excerpt from her book, a portion of which I have transcribed below:

It has been said that grief is a kind of madness. I disagree. There is a sanity to grief and its just proportion of emotion to cause that madness does not have. Grief, given to all is a generative and human thing. It provides a path, albeit a broken one, by which those who grieve can find their way. Still it is grief’s fugitive nature that one does not know at the start that such a path exists. I knew madness well, but I understood little of grief and I was not always certain which was grief and which was madness. Grief as it transpires, has its own territory…”

Dr. Redfield Jamison goes on to define the differences between her depression experience as a sufferer of bipolar disorder and her grief as a widow. She identifies, for example, that though her grief was overwhelming she could look to the future and understand better days were to come, something depression doesn’t allow. She also makes note that though she had derived great pleasure from classical music prior to her husbands death, these works were now too painful to bare, seemingly bringing to the surface a depth of feeling beyond what she could manage. This experience was so acute she regrettably gave away her entire classical music collection during that time.

Ara Guzelimian then explores depression and grief by looking at the life of Felix Mendelssohn, specifically after the sudden death of his older sister Fanny. From his paintings and writings to the Quartet in F minor, which was his only large scale musical work written after Fanny’s death before passing away himself, Guzelimian explores Mendelssohn’s expression of grief. Though he was at the height of his career, Mendelssohn quit his creative activity cold and he sequestered himself from family and most friends, staying in the Swiss Alps looking for comfort in the landscape. Though Mendelssohn made an effort to return to work, he ultimately suffered several strokes, the same malady that took Fanny’s life, and passed away less than six months after her. The Quartet in F minor is a striking departure from Mendelssohn’s earlier works and uses a vocabulary of instability; rhythmically, harmonically, melodically and beyond. It is also notable that within the movements of this work there is no relief from the dark turmoil it seems to express.

To close the presentation, Dr. DePaulo brings his clinical expertise to the discussion of grief. Bereavement, though individual, is predictable and progressive which makes it easy to distinguish from depression. Grief presents with emotional numbness and is followed by deep sadness and disinterest in activities, though in most cases this comes and goes. These periods of sadness become increasingly intermittent with periods of welling emotion connected to memories of the loved one, but can go one for years or even decades. Depression or melancholia presents with a change in mood (vacant, hopeless, anxious), vitality both physically and mentally, there is a change in self attitude and these symptoms are pervasive and persistent. Depression can be triggered by the loss of a loved one and is strongly evidenced to be hereditary. Clinicians must differentiate between these two conditions (though this is sometimes difficult) and be prudent not to medical-ize a common human experience.


This past year my grandmother past away quite suddenly so I am familiar with the above mentioned patterns of grief. Though my grandma and I were close, the symptoms I experienced were mild compared to others in my family losing a wife or a mother. My family also has a history of depression and I have instinctively been aware that grief can lead to depression especially in those with a predisposition to melancholia. I appreciated learning the clinical distinctions between these two conditions and also exploring Mendelssohn’s seeming progression from grief into depression through his work and writings.

During the question and answer period after this presentation it became evident that science has not yet discovered enough about brain function to conclusively explain our responses to music as a comfort or otherwise during periods of emotional turmoil such as grief. It is clear, however, that music commonly elicits a heightened response, be it emotional pain or pacification during the common human experience of bereavement.

A study of interest that I encountered in my research of the brain and grief, looked into the brain response in those identified as suffering from “complicated grief,” or grief that doesn’t have the normal dissipation over time. The study, conducted in 2008 at UCLA by researcher Mary-Frances O'Connor, centered on women that had lost mothers to breast cancer. Subjects were shown pictures of their deceased family members while hooked up to an fMRI machine. Normal grief is identifiable on an fMRI scan as areas of the brain that control emotional pain are activated when the bereaved subject is shown a picture of those they lost. The subjects with “complicated grief” (a term Dr. Redfield Jamison takes exception to because she argues all grief is complicated) display this same activity, but also show activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain associated with pleasure, rewards and addiction. The women in that group were unconsciously prolonging their grief, the study concluded, because memories of the person they missed gave them pleasure—as well as pain.

In listening to music, it is my experience that one can experience a variety of emotional responses ranging from something similar to pain or sadness to pleasure. I can’t help but wonder if the parts of the brain that are stimulated when listening to music include the centers of emotional pain and the nucleus accumbens. Could this explain in part why music commonly elicits heightened emotional responses during times of grief? In my research on this topic I have not yet found conclusive data to prove my theory, as both grief and music are complicated stimuli eliciting complicated brain activity. I plan to continue looking for connections between music and grief and their effects on the brain and appreciated the dynamic way this topic was explored in Dr. Redfield Jamison’s lecture.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Music, Memories, and the Brain


Title: Music, Memories, and the Brain

Speaker: Dr. Peter Janata

Host of podcast: Steve Mencher

Series: Music and the Brain

Interview Date: April 29, 2009



Dr. Peter Janata is an associate professor from the University of California, and member of the Center for Mind and Brain. In the interview, hosted by Steve Mencher, Dr.Janata shares some of his research on the creation of autobiographical memories in the brain through music as well as the connection between music and spirituality in the brain. Interestingly enough, the two studies display similar results.

When we hear a particular song on the radio that we have not heard for a long time, we are instantly reminded of a different time and place in our lives. Dr.Janata calls this experience, “music evoked autobiographical memory.”

The research study looks at how memory is structured and organized in our brains, as well as the experiential state we are in when we hear a particular piece of music. The actual process involves individuals presented with both familiar and unfamiliar songs, followed by a questionnaire. Responses to questions such as, “How much of the music triggered your memory?” or “How did you enjoy the music?” then helps Dr.Janata gather and analyze the data to see what brain regions are responding. His study also allows for a more in depth look into the brain structures by following the tonal structure of music (major/minor keys) and examining its impact on memory.

Dr.Janata also discusses his more recent research on how music and spirituality connect in the brain. An individual’s experience of singing in church with others, for example, triggers certain parts of the brain to recognize and relate these experiences for memory and emotion. Interestingly, according to Dr. Janata, the patterns that exist in the brain in music evoked spiritual experiences and music evoked autobiographical memories, are quite similar. He also brings to our attention the idea that there are two different brain networks involved in the process. In particular, he mentions the medial prefrontal areas in the brain which plays a significant role in the connection between our musical experiences and our memory. As we “watch the brain listen” (Mencher, 2009), we begin to see all the "web associations" (Janata, 2009) that begin to develop in the brain.


From a musical perspective, I appreciate knowing and learning more about how our musical experiences affect our memory and brain activity. I think back to my experiences in South Africa where I had the opportunity to be immersed in the culture and music (at school, during funerals and weddings, at home, or out in the community). The power of those experiences was so strong that hearing all those songs again, would just bring me right back to that place and time. The music evoked autobiographical memory in which Dr.Janata speaks of, rings so true.

From a pedagogical perspective, I think about the importance of providing meaningful, authentic contexts for the learners. Because once an experience becomes meaningful, it is more likely to be remembered. I am also thinking about the kind of brain activity that is happening when music is used as a tool to help learn languages (e.g., using music to teach French language concepts). If there are such strong associations with music and memory, music evoked experiences, then as music educators, it would be worthwhile to see the in-depth pedagogical and educational implications of having such experiences.

Finally, from a health/medical perspective, I am intrigued to find out more about the effect and implications that music has in alzheimer patients, their memory, and what other brain activity happens in the process (e.g., what is really happening in the medial prefrontal areas of the brain).

I t

hink back to my visit with my uncle who has alzheimer's. His two daughters were with me at the time. The fact that he was unable to recognize his own daughters was disheartening to see, but their efforts to help him remember things of the past (e.g., playing music from his childhood) was really nice to see. Moments later, you can hear him singing hymns from his past. Just as Dr. Janata describes the autobiographical memory,

it really did seem as though my uncle was brought to a different time and place in his life.

Monday, September 26, 2011

From Mode to Emotion in Music Communication

Title: From Mode to Emotion in Music Communication
Speaker: Steven Brown
Series: Music and the Brain
Interview Date: March 27, 2009

Steven Brown is the Director of the NeuroArts Lab at McMaster University. As the name of the organization suggests, his lab’s work focuses on the arts and the brain. Brown’s interest in this area grew from his own experience as a pianist and a scientist. Much of what Brown and his students study involves the connections between music and language, music and dance, and music and ceremony.

Music and language are “abstract, conceptual systems for generating meaning” (Brown) which are shown through brain imaging to be separate processes, but speech and song are part of the same system. We speak with melodic and rhythmic properties without realizing it for the most part, although we are more aware of these patterns in tonal languages. Whether we are speaking or singing, we are creating sequences with our voices.

In many cultures, music and dance are almost inseparable. Dancers become percussion instruments by using their bodies (e.g. clapping) and by attaching various noise-makers to themselves. Often, the dancers will generate the same rhythms as the percussionists, and it is this generation of rhythm that Brown has identified as being important in cultures where music and dance are so interrelated.

Music can be much more than a generation of rhythm. It has its own inherent emotional qualities, but is mostly used as a way to push cultural messages. Consider television commercials – almost all include music in some way these days. The way music is used in restaurants, commercials, churches, etc. is closer to the way our ancestors used music.

Western classical music differs from most other types of music in that it is performed for its own sake or for the sake of personal expression rather than as an element of another ritual or ceremony.

Music can elicit many kinds of emotions. In Western classical music, we often perceive minor keys as “sad,” and major keys as “happy” or “less sad.” Contrastive scale types used around the world show that small differences in frequency can create vastly different emotional effects.

There is much to be learned about the connection between the brain and the arts. We do know that music can be used for a variety of purposes and to convey a variety of messages. Steven Brown and his students at the NeuroArts Lab will continue to search for the “why” and “how.”

Gaining some sort of understanding of music from an anthropological and scientific perspective only adds to the richness of our own musical experiences. I have studied these topics from several perspectives in music education and anthropology courses, and it was interesting to hear the information synthesized from the point of view of a music psychologist.

This past weekend, I took a break from the Western classical music world to celebrate my sister’s wedding at a resort campground with friends and family. Late into Friday night, a group of guitarists, hand drummers, banjo players, fiddlers, and more played folk tunes. Saturday afternoon, my sister walked down the aisle to a recording of one of her favourite songs. Saturday night, a D.J. blasted club music for anyone who felt the urge to dance. Sunday morning, a bridesmaid played fiddle tunes while we made plans for a hike to a swimming hole. Music was an integrated part of daily routine, or a part of a ceremony, instead of being a distinct event – music for its own sake.

Part of my training as a music educator (BMus from Ithaca College) included the importance of showing respect for music by never speaking over a recording or a live performance, by always listening actively and intently. Brown offers another perspective. Isn’t music almost always just a portion of a whole cultural experience in day-to-day life?

Those of us who are Western classical musicians or audience members are lucky to be able to have a different way of including music in our lives. It is pretty powerful stuff, as evidenced by its persuasive and emotional effect. The more ways we have of experiencing this cultural force, the fuller that experience can be.


The item I chose for my blog entry is an article by Michael Thaut, Ph.D., and Gerald McIntosh, M.D. The article is found in Cerebrum, an online journal published by The DANA Foundation.


The article explains how, in the past two decades, neuroscientists have used brain imaging and electrical recording techniques to discover that the areas of the brain activated by music are not unique to music, and that “the networks that process music also process other functions.” With these findings as a starting point, neuroscientists hypothesized that music can be used in rehabilitation, because of its ability to re-educate different modalities (cognitive, motor, speech, and language functions) thanks to the brain’s neuronal plasticity. In the past decades, studies about brain and music developed in two main directions: first, the research about “shared mechanisms between musical and non-musical functions in motor control,” in particular the study of the effects of rhythm and timing on brain; second, the study of how music can implement motor functions and rehabilitation of speech, language, and cognitive functions. The next frontier lies in the question of whether music is also able to help injured and depressive brains to overcome their emotional un-balanced states. Neurologic music therapy (NMT) has now become a reality with its “increasing number of standard clinical techniques supported by research evidence.”


In their article, Thaut and McIntosh convincingly present a close interaction between music and neuroscience, and confirm that “biomedical research in music has come a long way to open new and effective doors for music to help re-educate the injured brain.” This conclusion, which generates numerous questions about the role of music within the scientific and therapeutic domains, also creates philosophical issues about the purely ontological dimension of music. For example, in the article music is presented not only as a tool for brain damage therapy, but also as the therapy itself (“trying music as therapy in speech, language, and cognitive rehabilitation”). Besides the fascinating scientific and medical outcomes of the field, I find extremely interesting how Thaut and McIntosh seem to suggest a re-definition of music as something different from its generally accepted definition as a form of art, or as a therapeutic tool. Within the context of this article, music is also the object around which a whole theoretical framework is build to support the notion that music influences “changes in non-musical brain functions and behavior." As a last comment, I would like to express my appreciation for the authors’ ability to present and handle complex concepts and intricate factual information in an easy-to-follow fashion. Their writing style, together with the chronological organization of the material and the subdivision by topic makes the article easy to follow and pleasant to read.

Live Music Now - Quality of Life

Live Music Now is a national charity in Britain that was founded by Yehudi Menuhin
32 years ago. It has two main aims; one is to take live music into the community
and the other is to develop professional musicians at the start of their careers.

The Quality of Life project looks at new ways of using music as a way to improve the
lives of those with dementia.

LIVE Music Now South West won a European funding bid, bringing much-needed cash to the region and hit national priorities to help people with dementia. The charity, based in Wellington, Somerset, teamed up with Reminiscence Learning and Abbeyfield Nursing Home to deliver a groundbreaking new project to older people in and around the county. They hope to widen the scheme throughout the West country. LMN SW has been providing a series of musical workshops at The Abbeyfield, Bishops Hull, Taunton , Somerset, with a wide variety of leading musicians from around the world agreeing to perform, including, James Sherlock, winner of the 2007 BBC Fame Academy: The Next Generation and vocalist and bassist Miranda Sykes from Show of Hands. With the help of Reminiscence Learning’s ‘Angels’ the project looked at new ways to engage those suffering from the illness through a range of reminiscence activities and a variety of music. “This will trigger and stimulate our long term memory and enable us to record individual stories,” said Fiona Mahoney, Chief Executive Reminiscence Learning. “It is really important to older people in the community as it gives them the opportunity to access high quality music outside of the concert hall. It has been proven to have positive impacts on mental health and wellbeing within residential homes.”

Reflection on "Live Music Now - Quality of Life"

Over the past three years, I have been spending time in a senior's residence north of Toronto, a unique classroom environment, learning to be a supportive caregiver to a parent who is struggling with all aspects of "getting old!" Dementia is a chronic and persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning. My loved-one is living with the condition of dementia.

What struck me most about this short video was the reciprocal nature of benefits, for the elderly listening and humming along and for the live performer offering their gifts of song. It confirmed a lifelong belief that relationships are at the core of caring and in nurturing the health and wellbeing of the young and the older. Those working in the Arts have a role to play in the building and maintaining of healthy communities!

More specifically, my loved-one has often expressed a fear and anxiety about "getting old." With a sedentary lifestyle and a significant amount of time to contemplate while sitting alone in one's room, ample time for an elderly person's mind to turn inward can often lead to depression as one considers their plight of what lies ahead. Fear of falling, pain, dizziness and confusion cause the elderly to lose confidence in their abilities, to disengage from interactions with others, to stay put rather than to participate. Fear of dying tops the list! As my loved-one says, "We seem to lose someone every day."

Musical programs similar to Live Music Now offer the elderly an opportunity to face their fears or at least to put them away for a brief time. This video is evidence that Live Music Now brings people together, creating opportunities for the nurturing of relationships and in turn, improving the Quality of Life for each other. From the simplist of touch, the holding of hands, the beating of a drum, the singing of a standard, a turn and a look and a smile, a moment to be in the now - a safe place, a time for putting away one's fear of tomorrow. There is an old saying that rings true, "there is safety in numbers."

Classical Music as Crime Stopper


A PODCAST Interview with Jacqueline Helfgott: Music and the Brain
TItle: "Halt of I'll play Vivaldi! Classical Music as Crime stopper"
Date: April 16, 2009

About the Speaker*

Jacqueline (Jackie) Helfgott is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Seattle University, where she has taught since 1993. She received her B.A.from the University of Washington in Psychology/Society & Justice and Masters and Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University in Administration of Justice with a graduate minor in Psychology. Her work has been published in major journals including Criminal Justice and Behavior, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, The Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Federal Probation, The International Review of Victimology, and others. Her research has focused in two general directions – the intersection of psychology, criminology, and criminal justice and institutional and community corrections. Specific research foci and areas of expertise include: psychopathy - its role in the criminal justice system and the prediction of violent recidivism and dangerousness; criminal behavior and the use of crime typologies at different stages of the criminal justice process; offender reentry; correctional program evaluation; and restorative justice - balancing victim, offender, and citizen needs, rights, and interests.

*Profile taken from SAGE Publicatoins.


The podcast looks at how Classical music can be used as a tool to divert crimes from a specific environment.

The routine activity theory states that in order to combat crime, there must be a decrease in temptations and an increase in control. Helfgott argues that anyone and everyone has the possibility to commit crime, but there are aspects within each environment we can alter to change and prevent temptations. Some examples such as trimming the bushes shorter in a secluded area so it is more visible to the public, and fencing certain areas off would discourage criminal meetings (drug dealing in open space is not favourable).

In the same way, Music can be used as a territorial marker to deter criminals from going to specific regions. One study at the West Palm Beach supported this idea. After installing loud stereo speakers on the roof of drug-dealer infested bar, the police would blast Beethoven’s string quartet into the neighbourhood. After awhile, drug dealers in this particular neighbourhood stopped all activities because they “hated that kind of music”.

This brings up the problem of ethics. Some argue that Classical music should not be portrayed as the “bad” music that serves as a punishment to drive away individuals of wrong-doing. However, others (including Helfgott) believe that there are sub-groups within society that associate with specific music. For example, gang members are usually linked to heavy metal and rap music, so it is “not cool to hangout and listen to Vivaldi”. People react to music no matter what it sounds like, so it is not Classical music specifically , but rather everything else that is not associated with pop culture.

In the end, Helfgott revisits the idea of music as a territorial marker and posts a question for the future: “does one group have the right to move another group out of an area?”


In the interview, Helfgott repeatedly explains that playing Classical music can stop crime in a target area by employing different strategies to discourage criminals activities. I was very interested in this because the title of the interview suggests that Classical music can be a “cure” to “bad” activities. However, I soon realized the meaning of “stopping crime” Helfgott referred to was different than what I initially understood.

In the West Palm Beach Study, the activities only stopped because the drug dealers no long want to stay in the area that had Classical music blaring near their usual meeting spots. She explains that Classical Music is used as a territory marker to set boundary between different groups. Changing the music will alter the environment, and in this case, the gangs stopped meeting at the bar because the Classical music makes it a different territory. However, in my opinion this does not stop criminal activities, but rather, merely displacing them to another location that might be more discrete. Just because the problem is not visible does not mean the problem has resolved.

She goes on to talk about why this method works. There is a strong relationship between the genres of music and the sub-groups within society that correspond to each category. For example, certain types of music have been criminalized: specifically heavy metal and rap music. It is mainly associated with gang members as a form of identity. Helfgott suggests that the reason why criminals choose these genres of music to represent themselves is because “the cops don’t like it”. I agree with the idea that different groups of people want to embody different types of music. However, I disagree with the notion that an entire group of people are bounded in the same genre. It is a generalization to say that all criminals like rap and heavy metal, and none of the cops do.

Later in the interview, she brings up the controversy (as I discussed in the last paragraph): some inmates actually prefer Classical music because they enjoy it. So if using Classical Music as a means of punishment for those who hate it, what happens when the criminals begin to accept and enjoy it instead? Then this strategy of shooing people away with Classical Music would no longer work.

Although this “crime invention through environmental design” (as quoted by Helfgott) has some issues, its development is very interesting and innovative. The use of music as a territorial marker may spark new ideas to criminal prevention. I believe there should be physiological researches on the effects of Classical music alongside this psychological design, and hopefully come up with a better solution to crime.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus


World Science Festival (2010) Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus


This video of a talk from the 2010 World Science Festival asks whether our experience of music is “hard-wired or culturally determined”. The discussion is led by neuroscientists Jamshed Barucha, Daniel Levitin and Lawrence Parsons and musician Bobby McFerrin.

The talk begins with a general look at the parts of the brain which are involved in interacting with music. Across cultures, humans respond to music using the same parts of their brains, but the way in which our brains categorize what we hear varies based upon what types of music they have been exposed to. The panellists also briefly discuss the basic building blocks of music: rhythm, pitch and timbre. These elements appear in the music of all cultures. Daniel Levitin points out that certain intervals in music are near universal. The octave and fifth are apparent in the music of almost every studied culture including ancient Greece and Indonesian gamelan music. These are followed by the fourth and the third. Scales are typically constructed when the octave is divided into further intervals, whether equally spaced or unequal. Different cultures fill in the octave using various intervals but these four basic are often present.

Jamshed Barucha describes the patterns of recognition our brains create (synapses) in response to repeated exposure to musical scales. After forming these connections, the brain causes us to expect that the music we hear will fit into one of these categories. Even if only a few pitches are played, our brains automatically fill in the gaps, assigning a scale to the music so that we can understand it. In Western music, these scale categories include the major, minor and blues scales. A listener in India might expect a scale (or raga) featured in Indian classical music, such as the Bhairavi scale. In his research , Barucha asked participants from Western backgrounds to first listen to musical phrases using Indian scales and then to sing what they felt might be a natural conclusion to the phrase they have heard. At first, the Western singers completed the Indian phrase excerpts using only notes from Western scales. However, by the end of the study, a few were able to learn and use more of the Indian scale tones in their own singing. While our initial reception of new music is culturally pre-determined, our brains are capable of recognizing new scales and learning to use them.

Next, Bobby McFerrin performs an interactive piece where he engages the audience in singing a pentatonic scale. By setting up certain expectations, he is able to “train” the audience and then essentially play them like he would an instrument. McFerrin claims that no matter where he is performing, every audience is able to easily pick up the scale and participate.

Finally, Lawrence Parsons conducts an experiment on McFerrin and two volunteers from the audience. He plays excerpts from four contrasting pieces of music: Delirious by Prince, Traumerei by Strauss, Threnody by Penderecki and finally a sample of Sichuan opera. As the participants listen, a computer collects their skin conductance level. Levels were higher when the participant recognized the song, as well as when the music caused negative emotion, particularly stress and annoyance. Parsons concluded that the immediate response to a piece of music is affected by cultural exposure and familiarity with the particular piece or genre. Unfamiliar music tends to have a negative effect.


Barucha’s study on the response of Western musicians to non-Western scales was interesting to me because it demonstrated the brain’s ability to make new connections. Despite limited exposure to the classical music of India, the Western singers were eventually able to adopt more of the Indian musical conventions. As a Western musician from a non-Western background, this is particularly relevant to me as the music I perform is not the music I grew up listening to. Yet while my brain created synapses in response to my culture’s music at a young age, it has also been able to recognize the conventions of dominant Western music over time and increased exposure.

I was also intrigued by the responses of neuroscientist Lawrence Parsons during the live study he conducted on stage. The three participants were Bobby McFerrin, a Caucasian male non-musician named Forest and a South East Asian female amateur pianist. Interestingly, after the participants listened to the excerpt from a Sichuan opera, he asked the woman whether the music meant to her, whether she recognized it, whether she knew what it meant. To me, these questions seemed tinged with his expectation of her as a listener from a certain culture. While I am only speculating, it appeared that as he was studying expectation in music, Parsons approached his research participants with some expectation as well.

Finally, I leave you with a video clip from the panel discussion. The universality of music was debated in this talk and will continue to be debated as we seek to study the music outside our Western walls. While our cultural experience affects much of how our brains respond to music, Bobby McFerrin’s interactive performance is certainly convincing as to the universality of music.

Brain Compatible Music Teaching by Susan Kenney

General Music Today

23(1) 24 –26 © 2009 MENC: The National Association for Music Education


Kenney begins her article with an example of a primary music classroom. The teacher is demonstrating the new song by rote and students are echoing each line as she sings it. Afterwards she introduces a game based on the song and explains the rules. The students play the game while she reminds them to use their light singing voice.

The author cites the book Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, which believes that fragmenting content is the biggest mistake schools make. When we teach bits and pieces of a song the meaningful connections in the brain are interrupted. The brain is able to process parts and wholes simultaneously and in our attempts to simplify the learning process we are not allowing the brain to extract patterns on its own.

Towards the end of the article we revisit the primary music classroom. This time the teacher simply starts into the game with no explanation of the new song. The children watch her actions as they join in the game, correcting their own mistakes while making an attempt to understand. Through repetition, the children gain enough confidence to sing along. They become conscious of their own voice as well as the voices of others and the collective quality and accuracy improves.

Even though each child grasps the game, song, and social challenges at different times, it provides an opportunity for every child to find all of the patterns. This method of teaching allows the brain to problem solve as well as learn through bodily movement. The brain needs a great deal of input to detect patterns as well as time to interpret them, so the repetition of the game is key for understanding. If an understanding is not reached, then the emotional excitement from the experience will prepare the brain for further learning next time. During this process clear singing from students is not immediate and the teacher must be willing to wait and trust that the children will self-correct.


In my own classroom I teach new primary songs by rote. I follow the “one phrase at a time” method where the students echo what I sing or play. This is usually the quickest way to achieve results and move on to the next learning expectation in the lesson. This was also how I was taught and what I thought was the easiest way to absorb information.

I think as teachers we identify “success” with product rather then process, and reading this article has caused me to re-evaluate my methods of rote instruction. Do I correct students too early rather then letting them figure it out on their own? Am I too concerned with teaching the “correct” way of singing instead of letting them explore different pathways? And ultimately, am I breaking down the song into phrases because I don’t think their brains handle the whole thing?

After this reading I started to incorporate whole song instruction into my pedagogy. At first students were confused, but it was interesting to see their faces as their brains tried to make sense of the patterns. They were no longer passive participants because now there was a puzzle for their brains to solve. I think this article is valuable for music educators because it asks us to think about how we teach music beyond reaching curriculum expectations. It asks us to incorporate brain development into our practice, which could benefit the student in a non-musical way.

The Role Of Music In Human Evolution


Podcast of an interview with Daniel Levitin:

Dr. Daniel Levitin is a scientist, musician, author, producer, sound designer, and recording engineer. He holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Oregon, and he completed post-doctoral studies at Stanford University Medical School in Neuroimaging, and at UC Berkeley in Cognitive Psychology. He is currently an Associate Professor of Psychology, Behavioural Neuroscience, and Music at McGill University. He is also the author of the best seller This Is Your Brain On Music (2006), and The World In Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (2008).

Summary: Daniel Levitin on his book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature

Levitin’s book The World in six Songs explores how music has helped to define who we are as humans and how it can be classified within six categories: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion/ritual, and love. After an analysis of thousands of recordings and texts of music going back as far as six thousand years, what emerged were these six categories of music. It is not a book about the six most important songs of all time, but six kinds of music that our ancestors used to form social bounds, to comfort one another, to encapsulate knowledge, and to eventually create societies.

In this book, Levitin wanted to incorporate more science than in his previous one This Is Your Brain On Music. He believes that you cannot research an interesting issue from one academic perspective. This is the reason why he chose a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses neurochemistry, anthropology, musicology, and evolutionary biology. He is not promoting any new ideas, but he wants to synthesize hundreds of articles related to his subject in a framework that is easy to understand. The choice of six songs is basically a device to connect the different fields of study and lay out the information.

The core of Levitin’s research is directed towards the role of music in human evolution, from creating civilizations to particular changes in the brain of Homo sapiens, the lather giving rise to the desire to communicate, to represent things artistically, and to convey them emotionally rather than factually. In his opinion the role of music has been under appreciated when it comes to evolutionary biology.

One example of this comes from Darwin, where music served a kind of sexual signalling function, indicating the mental, emotional, and sexual fitness of a singer. For more than 10,000 years, music was almost always accompanied by dance. If you could sing and dance for hours, you were not neurologically impaired, therefore indicating a degree of physical and sexual fitness. Those of our ancestors that could convey this would be the best at attracting mates and reproducing themselves.

The other example that he cites talks about the oxytocin hormone. This hormone has been known to cause a feeling of trust among people and it is usually released when having an orgasm. From a natural selection point of view, it is ideal to release it during copulation because the male feels bounded to the woman, therefore he does not flee and he stays to help raise the child. The only other time that the oxytocin hormone is released is when people sing together. Levitin suggests that singing must have been important in the evolutionary process to form social bounds and creating societies. When you look at other primate living groups, they seldom have more than eighteen or twenty male members, because rivalry and competition is too fierce. Yet humans have had living groups in the ten thousands for the longest time. He agrees with Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, that vocal grooming or singing together, has helped humans to ease these kinds of social tensions.

In the end, he talks openly about certain flaws of his book. When reading the book, one can feel overwhelmed by the amount of scientific data from all the different fields of study. A couple of reviewers that were musicians did not understand the evolutionary arguments, and found these arguments to be incomprehensive or dissatisfying. By contrast, the scientists who read the book liked the evolutionary explanations, but disliked the musical part. In the end, Levitin says that what really matters is the feeling that you learned something after reading it.

Reflections on the interview:

The choice of subject for Levitin’s book, The World In Six Songs, is quite interesting since there has not been that many research done on the role of music in evolution. In my opinion, it is explained by the act of music making, which relies on precise brain activity. The brain is a ‘newer’ and a more complex area of study, which is why it is harder to link music to the evolution process.

In the interview, he does not really explain how the six categories of music are useful or complementary to his research on the role of music in human evolution. The connection between the two seems unclear. On one hand, we understand how the multidisciplinary approach helps us view the ideas through different perspectives. On the other hand, because the book encompasses so many fields of study, the ideas and the author’s intentions can sometimes be hard to understand in this flux of diverse information.

Levitin comes across as a credible and well-spoken scientist and musician. He obviously possesses an extensive knowledge of his field and his ideas are rational and well researched. It certainly gives the listener the impulse of reading the book.

Reflections on the subject: the role of music in human evolution

Reference: The Musical Mind (2000) by Daniel J. Levitin

In his article The Musical Mind (2000), Levitin also talks about the purpose of music in evolution. He raises the questions: Is it an evolutionary accident ‘piggy-backing’ on language, as stated by Steven Pinker from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? Or does it promote social bonding among members of a culture, as stated by himself in his book? In my opinion, I cannot see how music would be an accident of evolution. If so, why would it not have disappeared through thousands of years? Why would it be so present in human societies at all periods?

In one of his collaborations with Ursula Bellugi, Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, Levitin has found that people with Williams syndrome are unusually social, and in spite of many cognitive deficiencies, they have relatively normal musical skills. By contrast, people with Asperger autism are generally unsocial and unmusical. David Huron, the Head of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory in the School of Music at Ohio State University, argues that this proves to be evidence for a genetic component that influences both musicality and sociability.

Even if the evidence is not yet strong enough to support music as an evolutionary adaptation, Huron believes that the idea is plausible. He enumerates three specific aspects of music. First, complex evolutionary adaptations occur over many millennia, and music making is one of the oldest human activity. Second, evolution expresses itself through genes, and musical experience influences and is modified by natural biochemical substances in the body. Third, specialized behaviors that evolved are typically associated with neuroanatomical sites, which music is, as seen in Bellugi and Levitin’s study.

I believe that with the fast development of neurological science and the mapping of the human genome, it will become much easier to pin point the precise genes involved in music making. I think that the solution to the role of music in human evolution lies in science. Once we unlock the mysteries of the brain by identifying all the genes and proteins involved in musical experience, we will find strong evidence of the essential role of music within human evolution. However, it is easier said than done!