Saturday, December 3, 2011

Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters


Pereira, Carlos Silva, João Teixeira, Patrícia Figueiredo, João Xavier, São Luís Castro, and Elvira Brattico. "Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters." PLoS One 2011; 6(11): e27241.


The goal of this study was to understand which regions of the brain are involved in music appreciation. Using a listening test and a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment, the researchers wanted to know how familiarity in the brain correlates with music appreciation. The subjects that were chosen for this study had no formal musical education, but described themselves as ‘music lovers’, listening to music on a daily basis. First, the subjects participated in a listening test, in which they listened to pop/rock song extracts and decided if each song was familiar or unfamiliar and if they liked it or not. Based on this test, a unique set of stimuli was selected for each participant, containing music in four different conditions: familiar liked, familiar disliked, unfamiliar liked and unfamiliar disliked, and was presented during an fMRI session.

Brain activation data revealed that broad emotion-related limbic and paralimbic regions as well as the reward circuitry were significantly more active for familiar music compared to unfamiliar music. Smaller regions in the cingulate cortex and frontal lobe, including the motor cortex and Broca's area, were found to be more active in response to liked music when compared to disliked one. The study concluded that familiarity is a crucial factor in making the listeners emotionally engaged with music, as revealed by fMRI data.


Music is omnipresent in our society, and it represents a multi billion industry. One of the reasons behind this success is the ability of music to convey emotions. This study is very interesting because it proves how familiarity of a piece of music increases the emotional response in our brain. The more you hear a song, the more it increases the blood oxygen level in emotion related regions of the brain. This conclusion correlates the findings of a previous study by Blood and Zatorre that reported a correlation between increased intensity of felt chills when listening to favourite pieces of music.

In my personal experience, I have found that I have the deepest emotional response to songs that I know. One could think that by knowing a song very well, it becomes predictable, and consequently there is nothing new and exciting to hear anymore. On the contrary, I think that by knowing every part of a song, the brain does not have to focus on analysing new data, but it can focus on the enjoyment of the piece, which can sometimes lead to a more powerful emotional response that appears in the form of chills or goose bumps. Some studies have also shown that patients with severe brain conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s have strong brain activation responses when hearing familiar music.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Encounter with the Conscious Being of People in Persistent Vegetative State

Aldridge, D. (ed), Herkenrath, A. (2005). Music Therapy and Neurological Rehabilitation. Chapter 6, London:  Jessica Kingsley

In Aldridge’s book on Music Therapy and Neurological Rehabilitation, Ansgar Herkenrath, a German music therapist, contributes a chapter based on qualitative research she has conducted of music therapy with patients suffering from coma vigile or (persistent) vegetative state (PVS). In medical terms, this population is seen as unable to perceive and communicate with their environment.
The research was based on her work with PVS patients at a long-term nursing institution for adult residents with severe neurological handicaps in Haus Königsborn, in Unna Germany. Participants in her study were between 20 and 50 years of age and had been in the PVS state for between 18 months and seven years. The book chapter expands the themes and issues related to her study.


PVS is mostly caused by brain damage due to severe craniocerebral injury trauma, cerebral haemorrhage or hypoxia. All descriptions of the state assume a functional failure of the cerebral cortex and complete loss of cognitive potentials while brainstem functions are maintained.
Herkenrath is candid about her experiences in working with PVS patients and knows that they are in direct contrast to the consensus among physicians that PVS patients are unable to perceive and react. Further, she acknowledges the provocative nature of her chapter title, and is forthright in her assumption about consciousness of a patient in PVS and the possibility of an encounter with this consciousness. The medium of encounter she describes is through a therapeutic relationship using music.

Therapeutic relationship
In PVS, there are pathological movements that are reflexive, and the external appearance alone does not indicate the quality of these movements. Rather, assessment of these reflexes requires situative and temporal context.  In Herkenrath’s music therapy practice, she accesses situations that show changes in parameters of respiration, shifts in head and eyes towards the source of sounds and/or a variety of movements. She describes these situations as reactions, not reflexes.  She defines reaction as a response to action that has been perceived and that leads to an emotional experience.  Furthermore, a reaction must reveal a situative and a temporal reference in order to be distinguishable from reflex.

 According to Herkenrath, music provides both situative and temporal references for PVS patients. An orientation of the head and eyes towards the source of a sound which may change implies a situative connection. Temporal structure is inherent in musical perception including beat and melodic structure i.e. phrase, cadence.
Herkenrath uses the Nordoff Robbins approach which presupposes joint musical improvisation and participation between the therapist and the client. A key element of her work uses rhythmic improvisation with respiration or eyeblinks. She observes reactions in these movements based on appropriate and intentional action in response.

In this chapter, Herkenrath spends time dealing with the subject of brain and mind, perception and consciousness from a number of perspectives. In medicine, the general opinion is that brain functionality is essential for consciousness. Brain researchers call consciousness “the last big secret”. Neuroscientists believe that consciousness cannot be associated with any definite brain region. Philisophically and theologically from an historical perspective, consciousness has been an integral part of the mind and soul. Ethically, the definition of consciousness determines the direction of right to life discussions.

Herkenrath discusses the concept of human existence and from her point of view, persons in PVS are unique human beings with individual needs and potentials. Human life, for her, is defined by more than neuronal processes in the brain.

Admittedly, Herkenrath acknowledges the gaps in PVS prognoses. She calls for more research both immediately following a PVS diagnosis and most importantly during the longer term phase of PVS.

She challenges our society to address the legal and ethical implications around the rights of PVS patients. The implications around her findings around reactions to music in PVS patients may have significant implications. Reaction from music-making, as it is described in this chapter, implies recognition- that there is someone else making music, and the fact that there is reaction, illustrates the ability to differentiate between self and the other, a self-consciousness.

I am moved by the work of Ansgar Herkenrath. The integrity of her world view, that every form of life in its specific way is valuable, even PVS patients, is commendable. She has taken the time to grapple with the most basic of questions, namely, what is human existence? Her understanding is thoughtfully informed and comes from personal practice and experience.

The science Herkenrath suggests at the end of her chapter is happening here in Ontario. Dr. Adrian Owen is at the forefront of PVS and consciousness research and is the Canada Research in Excellence Chair of Neuroscience and Imaging at the University of Western Ontario. He has discovered through fMRI that brain centers concerned with mental imagining are activated when PVS patients are asked questions which may very well be the science to prove Herkenrath’s provocative 2005 suppositions. Here are some videos of Dr. Owen talking about his recent discoveries:
What I would love to see in the future is an fMRI picture of brain activity during a music therapy session with Dr. Herkenrath and one of her PVS clients.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Good Vibrations: The Science of Sound


World Science Festival – Good Vibrations: The Science of Sound

“We look around us—constantly. But how often do we listen around us? Sound is critically important to our bodies and brains, and to the wider natural world. In the womb, we hear before we see. John Schaefer, Jamshed Bharucha, Christopher Shera, the Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard, and multi-instrumentalists Polygraph Lounge embark on a fascinating journey through the nature of sound. How we perceive it, how it acts upon us, and how it profoundly affects our well-being—including a demonstration of sounds produced by sources as varied as the human inner ear and the creation of the universe itself.”


The sound is the key to communication. Even before we can write, we communicated by sound. Sound is the glue that keeps everything together. The video explored various aspects of sound including the mechanics of our inner ears transmitting sound waves to our brains, the sound of the universe, as well as what kinds of sounds are perceived as music.

Each guest had his own expertise on the topic of “sound”:
Jamshed Bharucha – Cognitive Neuroscientist
Jacob Kirkegaard – Sound Artist
Christopher Shera – Auditory Physiologist
Mark Whittle – Astronomer
Polygraph Lounge – Musician / Performer

Sound and Physics
The basic fundamentals of sound are: pitch, loudness and quality. Pitch is the frequency in which the sound waves hit our ear drums. The higher number of wave, the higher the frequency, the higher the sound. Loudness refers to the amplitude of the waves (height measured from the highest and lowest points). The higher the amplitude means louder sound. A billionth difference in height equates to 15 decibels in sound, which is about a quiet conversation between two people side by side. The quality (timbre) of the sound depends on its fundamental and harmonics combined. Different instruments produce various configurations of harmonics, which is why two instruments playing the same note can sound different in quality. The second harmonic (2nd note after the fundamental) is made when the sound wave is directly cut in two halves, resulting twice the speed of vibration. This process makes an octave – which is an interval used in music of all cultures due to its natural quality. And because of the mathematical calculations of the harmonics, some ratios were used to tune instruments. This was also used to explain why consonances that follow those favourable integer ratios sound “nicer” than dissonances.

Sound and Speech
In a study where pitches were coded, the emotion of “sadness” had a descending minor 3rd speech pattern while “anger” had an ascending minor 2nd or an augmented 4th. On the other hand, the positive emotions such as “happiness” and “excitement” did not have any pitch codes at all. This was theorized that pitches in speeches were vital evolutionarily because negative emotions had to be communicated accurately. There were consequences for “anger” and “sadness”, and specific pitch patterns were formed to emphasize the specific emotions. This was seen in other languages as well. The auditory neurologist explained that when people are said to have accents, it is really just different musical patterns in their speech.

Sound and the Universe
The sound of the Universe are studied and made into music that we can understand today. Sound waves can be captured and analyzed, and mapped out according to the frequencies. The deeper and lower frequencies reflected denser atoms in the galaxy, and as time went on and on (and as the Universe expanded), the sound waves of the stars were stretched wider and wider. Hence the recording of the “history of the Universe” started with a high-pitched wail and slower descended into the lower registers. When all the frequencies were matched to that of a piano, the “chord” that represented the Universe was said to have a major/minor 3rd quality.

What makes it Music?
Some sounds we call music, and others we ignore as noise. We find some intervals favourable – such as the octave, as mentioned above – due to the nature of how they are made. We often say that music is a universal language, and the neurologist argued otherwise. A lot of what we prefer as “good music” are culturally learned and influenced. Wolves howl in packs as a form of social cohesion. They vary in pitch and duration, and could very well be music. There are sounds of nature all around us and it is how we perceive those surroundings that make them music.


This is a video that I really enjoyed. It explored a lot of different ideas of sound, music and science. Things such as the sound of the Universe and the division of music versus noise are fascinating. The physics behind the fundamentals and harmonics gave insights to why certain instruments are tuned the way they are. Since music and math are so closely related, it is easy to see how things that fit in the math equation (such as the octave being the 2nd harmonic) sound more natural in music.

The findings regarding pitch patterns in speech was the most interesting. It’s remarkable how intervals of certain qualities (tritone – augmented 4th) are associated with certain emotions in speech. The research was done in different languages, so there must be an innate relationship between speech and music, and how our brains use these “sounds” to express language.

The sound of the Universe has never crossed my mind. It’s always easy to forget that music is just sound, and sound can be analyzed by each wavelength. It is then modified and made into music that we can understand today. Polygraph Lounge did a wonderful job and illustrating how anything can be made into music. Sometimes we are so caught up with music performance, teaching and learning that we forget that we are constantly surrounded by it. As the sound artist said, even our own ears make music. I think it’s important for music teachers – especially private instrumental ones – to explore the creative side of music-making. We can play on our instruments and learn about Beethoven and Opera, but we should also submerge ourselves into the sounds that surround us.