Wednesday, November 16, 2011

David Huron. The science of sad sound.

In this video, David Huron, professor at the School of Music and Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State University, discusses the results of a series of experiments about sad music. Their basic question was: since sadness is an emotion that people normally do not want to feel, why would anyone listen to sad music? One of the results of the experiments is that experience of sad music depends on personality. For example, a person who scores high on openness in a personality inventory is more likely to listen to sad music. Also neurotic people tend to listen to sad music. Another striking effect is the following. When a sad event occurs, the body releases prolactin, a hormone with consoling and warming effect. Huron and his colleagues found that the body releases prolactin also when people listen to sad music, though in those cases no sad event actually happenes.

A few questions and thoughts…

I am intrigued by this short video, as it makes me wonder whether hormone release is related only to sad music, or whether, and to what extent, it relates to other kinds of music as well. Moreover, do we need a minimum level of sadness to activate prolactin? In other words, is there a level under which the brain does not engage with sadness, and maybe with other emotional states as well? Another question. Assuming that the hormonal triggering is related to more than one kind of music, what happens when we listen to music that is not related to a clearly identifiable emotion? For example, if we listen to a waltz, can we generally say that we are happy? Or sad? Or? In that case, how would hormonal triggering work? On another note, I wonder whether it is possible to activate hormones by using specific music-related parameters such as frequencies, to obtain effects similar to the ones described above, for therapeutic purposes. It seems to me that the use of specific frequencies constitutes a clear and reliable way to trigger specific mechanisms. I hope that Prof. Huron and his collaborators will continue sharing with us their fascinating and enlightening work online!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Effect of different frequencies of music on blood pressure regulation in spontaneously hypertensive rats

Reference: Akiyama, Kayo and Den'etsu Sutoo. "Effect of different frequencies of music on blood pressure regulation in spontaneously hypertensive rats." Neuroscience Letters (January 2011), 487 (1), pg. 58-60. Web. 15 Nov 2011.

Mozart's music might not make you smarter, but perhaps it can lower your blood pressure. A study undertaken at the University of Tsukuba indicated that rats who were exposed to Mozart's Adagio from Divertimento No. 7 (K. 205) experienced a lowering of blood pressure for 1-8 hours.

All of the rats used in this study were twelve weeks old, male, and purchased from the same source. Before the study began, the rats were kept in a well-regulated environment for a week (room temperature, twelve hours light/twelve hours dark, plenty of food and water). At the start of the study, all of the rats who were to be exposed to music were exposed to an unfiltered recording of K. 205 which was repeated for ten hours. At the end of the ten hours, the blood pressure of the rats was observed to have been lowered.

Next, the rats were separated into three groups and exposed to music filtered by iTunes to play low frequencies (32-125 Hz), middle frequencies (250-2k Hz), and high frequencies (4k-16k Hz). Blood pressure levels stayed basically the same in the rats exposed to low frequencies, but dropped in the rats exposed to high frequencies (the same as in the unfiltered music) and middle frequencies (less than unfiltered and high frequency music). Akiyama and Sutoo believe that it may be the high frequency sounds prevalent in Mozart's music that have an effect on brain function in terms of blood pressure changes as well as alleviating symptoms of depression, epilepsy, and senile dementia.

There are two things one should keep in mind in interpreting the results of this study: first of all, music is only noise to animals; second, this study was funded in part by the Yamaha Music Foundation in Japan. This study is an interesting way to begin one's own exploration of the idea that blood pressure can be managed by listening to music.

As much as I appreciate what pharmaceutical drugs can do for us, I prefer not to use medication whenever possible. Many of us know people who take drugs to lower their blood pressure, and probably most of those people take other medications for other health issues as well. Some might need to add another type of pill to the cocktail to counteract the side effects of one or more of the drugs their doctors prescribe. This gets expensive and can be dangerous.

Could we treat high blood pressure with music instead of pills? I'm all for hearing a doctor say, "take two sonatas and call me in the morning."

Fascinating Rhythm

Source: Sacks, Oliver. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Revised and Expanded). Toronto: Vintage Canada.


Chapter 19 - Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement

Musicophilia is a compilation of stories that deal with various topics relating to music and the brain. It was put together by Oliver Sacks, a practicing physician and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Centre. The stories are told with a balance of intellect and emotion, and the book is as entertaining to read as it is interesting.

Chapter 19 is entitled Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement. The chapter begins with Mr. Sacks recounting a climbing accident he had on a mountain in Norway, in which he injured his leg so badly that he could not use it to make his way back down the mountain. He decided to ‘row’ himself down to safety, similar to the way paraplegics use a wheelchair. At first he found the motion difficult and exhausting, but eventually he got into a rhythm that he mentally accompanied with a song. Each rowing motion he made synchronized with the beat of the music in his mind. He felt this musical mental aid made it much easier for him to row down the mountain. Mr. Sacks also used music to help him rehabilitate his leg in the hospital afterwards, and soon after his recovery he began using music to help another patient rehabilitate her paralyzed left leg, with much success.

Several researchers have studied the relationship between the auditory and motor systems of the human brain, and there seems to be a strong link between the two systems. This suggests that music and rhythm can be used to help people coordinate body and brain functions. Examples include helping people regain motor control lost through injury or disease, helping people carry out complex chains of actions made difficult by brain damage or disease (like getting dressed), and assisting in the mental processing and storage of information. Athletes have often used music and rhythm to regulate and refine their movements and help them push their bodies to new heights of athletic achievement. For example, swimmers often coordinate their leg kicks in groups of three, in a pattern similar to a waltz rhythm (strong kick on one, weaker kicks on two and three).

It seems that humans also have a tendency to impose rhythmic groupings onto sounds (musical or otherwise) that are identical and occur at constant intervals. Mr. Sacks gives the example of a clock making the sound ‘tick-tick-tick-tick’. Humans might group these ticks into pairs, and the rhythm of the clock will then sound like ‘tick-tock-tick-tock’ to a human, when in actuality the ticking sounds are all equal. Interestingly, the way we group sounds varies greatly from culture to culture, which suggests that there may be a connection between musical rhythm and speech. There is a definite link between the two, with speech having its own sort of irregular rhythmic pattern. Researchers have often questioned which came first – music or speech? The question has been hotly debated and no one conclusion has been widely agreed upon.

The chapter closes with a discussion of the binding power of music and rhythm. For centuries, and across all cultures, music has functioned to bring people together, and rhythm plays a huge part in this process. One needs only to go to a rock concert and witness a crowd jumping (pulsating) up and down in time with the music to see how music can bind people together and form community. It may be that when a group of people hear a rhythm, each person internalizes it identically, creating a sort of shared experience and encouraging mimicry. In the brain, different perceptions are bound together and unified by the synchronized firing of nerve cells in different parts of the brain. Perhaps this is analogous to the use of music and rhythm to bind together communities of people.


One of the reasons that rhythmic cognition is very fascinating to me is because rhythm is present in so many musics of the world, and yet in some ways it differs so much from culture to culture. It seems that each culture’s music has its own distinct rhythmic flavour. As a classical musician, my coaches spent a lot of time teaching me about Viennese ‘schwung’, a type of rhythmic momentum that is characteristic of composers like Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. In the Second Viennese school of composition, it is not enough to simply play a ¾ meter in time, the pulse must have schwung. (if you asked me to put into words what this schwung is, I couldn’t do it!) I learned this type of rhythmic quality simply by listening to my mentors demonstrate it. It was only when I could imitate this particular momentum in my playing that people began to tell me I was playing in a true Second Viennese style.

I also studied a piece by Astor Piazzolla, an Argentinean composer famous for developing a style called neuvo tango. It was a short quartet, around seven minutes long, and seemed relatively straightforward. However when my group tried to play it, it just didn't sound right. We couldn't put our finger on what was wrong, but we knew that something was off. We eventually came to the conclusion that it was our rhythm. Although we all have multiple degrees in music performance and have spent the majority of our lives working on our instruments, the highly stylized rhythms of nuevo tango were simply a foreign language to us. We could play in time and play all the correct rhythms perfectly well, but it was as if we had a musical 'accent' similar to a language accent. Our rhythmic style just didn't sound authentic. I wonder if this has to do with the possible connection between the different languages of cultures and the qualities of their musical rhythm. All the practice on Viennese schwung did me no good when I tried to feel the groove of a good Argentinean tango.

Effects of Music and White Noise on Working Memory Performance in Monkeys


Effects of Music and White Noise on Working Memory Performance in Monkeys
Synnove Carlson, Pia Rama, Denis Artchakov and Ilkka Linnankoski
NeuroReport 8, 2853-2856 (1997)


The study was done to evaluate the effects of Mozart's music, white noise, simple rhythm and silence on the delayed responses of monkeys. Mozart's music has been suggested to benefit cognitive functions, and it was later proved to only "improve spatial IQ". The working memory is processed in the prefrontal cortext, and a delayed response (DR) experiment will test the subject's ability to remember information for a short period of time. The monkeys used in the experiment were all trained to perform DR tasks, and the results of the experiment will further the researches on acoustic treatments on working memory performance. Two food bowls were shown at equal distance behind a transparent screen. A raisin is then put into one of the two bowls, and an opaque lid was then used to cover the bowls. The monkey's task was to choose the bowl with raisin in it over various delay lengths. Different monkeys had different treatments: 1) 15 minutes of the four choices (Mozart's music, white noise, simple rhythm or silence) OR 2) one choice played throughout the duration of the experiment.

The results showed a significant improvement in the white noise group. Whereas other groups of monkeys had more mistakes as the delay time increased, the white noise group did not show dramatic difference between the time-mistakes ratio. Mozart's music, on the other hand, increased the number of mistakes over all other delays except the shortest delay.


Many studies were done to prove or disprove the "Mozart Effect" and this experiment on monkeys really opened up the ambiguity of previous findings. Mozart's music was said to improve spatial IQ, however, this was not seen in the monkeys' experiment. One explanation would be that monkeys do not have the same auditory knowledge as the humans. People may not know Mozart, but they can follow the tune of a melody, notice patterns in a passage, and "feel" the emotions music express. The monkeys may hear Mozart's music as a complex auditory stimulus that disrupts attention. The white noise, on the other hand, acts like an auditory mask that blocks out distractions.

This is an interesting finding because the effects of music were supposedly "universal", but the results of human experiments were much more different than those of monkeys. Would this due to the fact that humans have a language system and music is also a language? Would that contribute to the effectiveness of music toward performance enhancement? White noises were also proven to improve sleep. It would be interesting to see if white noise can act as a "healing"property, like what people say about music therapy. One future project is to redo the experiment (maybe more complex) with human participants and see if similar results are found.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tinnitus Sound Therapy Using Customized Sound / Music (A Web-Based Neuro...

In life, there are very few health problems that one can resolve on-line!
If you want to avoid the flu, then you make an appointment with your
GP and have a flu shot. Need stitches? Can't do that on-line. Have an
infection? Can't receive antibiotics thru your computer's finger pad. It
almost seems silly to contemplate a resolution of any medical condition
via the Internet.

However, through music therapy, some help may be a click away!

"Tinnitus" a condition suffered by millions throughout the world may be
addressed while sitting at home in front of your computer. "Beyondtinnitus"
is a website designed to help those who suffer the "endless ringing in the ears"
or the constant "cacophony of chirping birds."

From, we read the following;

In the last 2 years, new discoveries have been made in tinnitus therapy. Researchers and physicians at University of California Irvine have discovered that certain unique sounds can make the ear ringing sound (tinnitus) to give significant relief for some periods of time. These sounds can be used to reduce tinnitus even when listened to for a short time. The problem that has been found is that finding these sounds was found to require significant time consuming sessions in physician or audiology testing. In addition, when listened to on their own, these sounds may not be very pleasant listening.

Enter the innovation of the physicians and researchers at Our physician researchers have developed a patent-pending technology, our clinical researchers found that customized tinnitus therapy can be delivered to any patient around the world. The technology allows the research-based harmonic masking therapy to be delivered to the patient using innovative sound mixing technologies and the power of the web. The patients can mix the therapy sound with their own music on their own computer. This is downloaded onto an MP3 player for a customized tinnitus therapy. This way you can listen to your own music while getting relief from your tinnitus. This is unlike the Neuromonics approach of using the same 4 musical pieces every single day! This revolutionary technology is available to anybody at less than 1/10th the cost of Neuromonics!


When I was about 6 years of age, I can remember the first time I went outside to enjoy our new backyard. In the distance, about a kilometre away, Highway 401 thundered along. It was almost unbearable! However, to my surprise, and about a week later, my brain removed that dominant sound from my consciousness, and for the rest of my days living in that area, I never really noticed the highway sounds again. In a way, my brain, while hearing a specific sound from my environment, somehow had turned it off. I no longer perceived the sound as real!

"Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the absence of sound." Like the Phantom of the opera, it seems more appropriate to describe it as "a figment of the imagination." For years, tinnitus was thought to be the result of ear damage, specifically located in the cochlea region. Instead, research now suggests that it "affects the areas directly around the damaged zones in the brain. Is it possible to turn off certain frequencies, sounds that appear to be of the imagination? suggests that, through music therapy, it is possible and consultation in the privacy of your own home is a reality. This is the new wave of tinnitus treatment, however, results are only now beginning to prove its effectiveness!

Music, The Brain and Education – Warren Duffer James, Montessori Life 17 no3 Summ 2005


Music is no longer bound by the limits of it source. The increase in recording technology has increased the amount of music a person can hear but has de-emphasized the needs for people to actively make music together. Making music together was an important activity in the past because your only option for listening was to play yourself or go to a concert, which was not always available. By making music as an activity, the line between performer and audience is blurred.

When performers play together, their brains process the same information at the same time. So essentially they are functioning as one brain while they are working together. Playing music by oneself is also beneficial as it activates different parts of the brain at the same time. Performing causes the brain to coordinate analysis of patterns with physical movement.

Fewer people are participating in acoustical performances but with the increased portability of electronic music players they are actually listening more. Because our society has changed the value of music from performance to electronic, should we re-evaluate how we teach music in schools?

First we need to identify music as organize sound. Then we need to accept that no one type of music is intrinsically better than another. Music is influenced on a cultural level and based on familiarity within a given style. Children however, are not predisposed to be able to understand one style of music over another. They can distinguish between many variances within our Western 12-tone scale, but it is only through exposure are that they are entrained to listen within our parameters. This repetition is of sounds is how the child’s brain learns to process music.

Music is brought into the classroom for a number of reasons. The more traditional reason is to train young people to become proficient performers, which is usually done by a specialist teacher in the music classroom. Another reason is the use of music to assist the brain in acquiring new information. In this case music is piped into the non-music classes in the hopes of increasing brain development. Finally, music can be brought into the classroom as a diversion or for entertainment factor.

Music engages the brain on multiple levels, especially training the brain to process information spatially. In order to support the statement that music can “make you smarter” we need to acknowledge that for any type of brain development it needs to be the “right” music for the “right” person. So what causes one child’s brain to light up will have no effect on another. We traditionally reference Mozart in affecting intelligence but in reality that is the implementation of our Western cannon.

When using music in the classroom there needs to be an emphasis on listening over hearing in context. Music played in the background just becomes noise that the brain will eventually filter out. However music illicits movement so active listening could also include a movement component. It is important to encourage movement and singing outside of the music class to create an active listening experience in which all can participate.

Active music making must be a part of our daily lives if it is to have any long-term effects. It needs to be inclusive of all students, genres, and other subjects. Students should be exposed to live performances as often as possible and encouraged to participate in music regardless of ability or performance anxiety. Music as background noise is not as effective as when students engage in singing and moving with the music. Teachers do not need to be leaders of music making, as the children should be interacting with the music on their own. Music in schools is not meant for a select group of people nor is it meant to “make children smarter”. It is meant to be enjoyed as a social activity and promote cohesion in the classroom.


I see the influence of electronic music in my own classroom. When I ask my students how they listen to music their top answers are through personal music players and headphones. There is a disconnect from the social aspect of music making and as a result music becomes something which is only personal. When they get the opportunity to play as a group in an ensemble, a lot of them enjoy the group aspect of music making over the actual music they are playing. In this case we are not training elite musicians, rather we are creating a space where musical experience can occur.

I think an engaging teacher changes their learning goals based on the students readiness for the lesson. Sometimes I push my students to become proficient performers, but other times our goal is to have fun while playing an instrument. I do not think it is as segmented as the article makes it out to be. I do agree however, that students must be actively engaged in music and that we need to model this behaviour for them. If their brains are used to music being a constant background noise, we need to re-train them in a sense to actively listen and analyze music in the classroom.

I like how the article made the connection between music making and movement for brain development. I’ve noticed with my own students that when we clap, sing, and dance to the beat, they have a greater understanding of more complex rhythms. When they “feel” the groove we become better players collectively. I find the connection between movement, music, and brain activity interesting, and am going to try and incorporate it on a more social level in my classroom.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Seeing Music?

Source: Schutz, Michael and Scott Lipscomb. "Hearing gestures, seeing music: Vision influences perceived tone duration." Perception 36 (2007): 888-897.

Michael Schutz and Scott Lipscomb created this study to settle the debate among percussionists: does the length of the striking gesture have any direct impact on the length of the resulting tone? They found that the stroke height used in playing a note on the marimba had no effect on the acoustic length of the note. However, gesture and visual information played a large role in the perceived length of notes, even when the acoustic properties between so-called "long" and "short" notes were indistinguishable. They concluded that "music is only music within the mind of the listener" and observed that effective musical performances must rely on both auditory and visual information. Performances heard in contexts such as recorded radio broadcasts and blind auditions rob "both the performer and audience of a significant dimension of musical communication."

I was frequently reminded of this topic after hearing Michael Schutz speak at the Colloquy for Music Psychology and Neuroscience. As performers of any instrument, we need to consider every aspect of the musical performance from the audience perspective. While many pianists will protest at the notion that the piano is a percussion instrument, it is undeniable that the basic operation mechanisms of the the instrument are similar to those of some percussion instruments. Many issues of performance are based on the fact that piano tones decay immediately. For example, in passages where composers write a crescendo under a long held note, my students often have trouble imagining that the note is growing louder.

The solution to this is partly further development of the inner ear, but this type of phrasing could also be understood through the use of a physical gesture. I can remember the first time I encountered this problem as a student. My teacher asked me to sing the phrase, noticing how my physical gestures mirrored the character of the long note. This demonstration was very helpful when I returned to the piano; the way I used my breath and arms to conduct the note made it much easier to shape the long note at the piano.

Beyond the basic level of duration of notes, gesture can also enhance other musical events. While preparing for a concerto competition in which I performed the same concerto as three other pianists, I was advised to use physical gestures to set myself apart from the others. Rather than simply playing a quick passage note-perfectly, she guided me in using an arm motion that would assist in communicating the effect of soaring, both musically and visually. Of course, my performance had to be technically sound and expressive in order for these visual "extras" to have any effect.

There are those who would dismiss this approach as purely virtuosic and lacking in artistic depth. Indeed, without a solid performance, visual displays merely distract the audience. Yet the findings of this study clearly show that visual cues act as an aid to audiences, influencing the way in which we respond to auditory information. Perhaps what is needed is a fine balance of both audio and visual cues. "Virtuosos are masters at shaping the musical experience, which in this case means using visual information to accomplish that which is impossible 'in reality'."