Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Mozart Effect- Not learning from history

Article:  Jones, S.M. & Zigler, E.   The Mozart effect- Not learning from History.  Applied Developmental Psychology, Volume 23, Issue 3, 355-372. New Haven: 


The nature vs. nurture debate has been going on for centuries, but today it has shifted from the realm of philosophy to the realm of biology and neurophysiology.  A large focus of this debate occurs in finding to what extent early experiences affect the intelligence of humans.  There have been many studies which show that there is a wide gap of intelligence between children from the extreme income groups (ie. very high vs. very low).  Such studies can very tentatively be supported by early brain development research.

Early brain development research
Research shows that there are two pathways through which early experience influences the brain- i) by affecting the normal development growth process and ii) by affecting stress circuits in the brain because of too much exposure to glucocorticoid hormones (cortisol).
First pathway:
The early years of a brain’s development are characterized by a great increase of  synapse formation and in the creation of dendrites.  According to experiences, certain dendrites and synapses are then pruned off (no longer used).  In environment-expectant processes, synapses and dendrites are overproduced in expectation of certain stimulus which are to occur, and subsequently pruned off.  One such example is that infants babble in the phonemes of many different languages until 9 months, and after that their babbling is restricted to the phonemes of their language.  There is also research that in environment-expectant processes there is a critical period and if the development does not occur within this time, it never will (as the dendrites and synapses will have been already pruned off without there being development within the child).  
There is also research supporting experience-dependent processes for the development of infants.  Here the synapses and dendrites are formed as a result of individual experiences.  The research shows that when there is an environment which offers more experiences, then there is an increased mass of the cerebral cortex.
Second pathway:
Finally, there is research suggesting that in environments where there is too much stress, there is an overproduction of glucocorticoid hormone (cortisol).  At a young age, too much cortisol can lead to dendritic atrophy or to neuron death.  What this means for children, is that they are shown too have worse social and emotional behaviour.  

Reaction to early brain development research
The effect of this early brain development research among the population was great excitement. It was seen that with correct intervention at certain stages of development, intelligence could be increased.  However the results of these findings were taken too conclusively by politicians, and a “quick fix” to intelligence was proposed.  Throughout history there have been example of many such “quick fix” projects, where inconclusive studies of the brain resulted in big, expensive programs (often tax money).  One example of such a project responding to early brain development theory is the Mozart Effect.  Most of the brain studies were marked by results which were limited to the positive effects being limited to a short duration of time.  For example in the Mozart effect, the results were limited to two days and nothing beyond that. 
The Mozart Effect was a great example of a few inconclusive studies resulting in a big hubbub of excitement and spending of tax dollars.  In two studies (one with preschoolers and one with college students), a correlation was shown between listening to Mozart and to improvement in spatial-temporal reasoning.  This quickly resulted in events such as the government of Georgia, spending $105,000 in order to send every child in the state a disc of Mozart sonatas.  However, the experiments proved inconclusive as they could not be repeated, and what resulted was a loss of tax dollars which could have been used in a more substantive way.

Author’s criticism and suggestions
In his conclusions, the author stated that if results from early phases of brain development research are taken too conclusively, then what might result is a hopelessness where before there was extreme hope.  This has been seen in many experiments.  At first it is believed that the study group will be cured completely because of early phases of brain research.  When subsequent field work shows that this will not be so, the initial great hope is replaced by great despair, and the (often needy) demographic is abandoned.  
An example of this was seen in the creation of a 6 week pre-school program for economically underpriviledged preschool aged children called Head Start.  These children came from a environments which had negative effects on IQ.  The argument was that if physical, mental and social intervention occurred at a critical time, the children’s IQ could be changed in a “crash course”.  The findings showed an increase of 10 IQ points in children after the 6 weeks.  But yet again, the results did not last beyond a certain point.  As soon as Head Start was seen to be a failure, then despair resulted and this population group was given up on.  The same trend was seen with trying to cure “retarded” individuals, and after it failed, they were left to “rot” in the homes which had originally been constructed to help them.  
A further, specific criticism to the reaction of development of brain research, is that development has been encouraged in the IQ, forgetting that the brain also controls emotions and the motivational system, which could also improve children’s results at school.
The conclusions that can and should be drawn from brain development research is that children who grow up in a negative environment (poverty, hazards) do risk negative brain development.  Concrete projects that offer “quick fix” solutions are as yet premature.  Instead of looking for a “quick fix” solution which lasts a very short while and has short lived benefits, programs should have a longer duration, and should also not merely look to directly improve IQ, but to also improve family support and individual support (for example conflict management).   


In today’s world, everything is very quick.  Even thoughts- if you have a thought, you can often “offload it” or share it, through twitter or email, and it ceases to be a private thought.  And then the thought is no longer dwelt upon, no longer developed in order to become something bigger.  It seems that many things today are not given time to develop.  But if we look at things of quality- their development often does take time.  A good bottle of wine needs to age.  A baseball player should not be put into the major leagues prematurely, just as an opera singer should not audition until technically ready.  Otherwise what results, is that what could have been a product of great quality, is seen to early and given up on.  The baseball player is not good enough for the majors, yet if he had had another year, he could have lasted there for many years.  The same holds true for the singer- if she had not been revealed to early, she would have had a great career.  This is what happens when great things are revealed to early.  Then people forget about them and give up on them.
This seems to be what Jones and Zigler are saying here- that too often brain research is prematurely revealed, and then the resulting field work has little positive results.  It seems like brain research is like that bottle of wine.  It seems to be very young, but seems to have an incredible amount of potential.  Personally, I would not be surprised if at some point there was a “quick fix” found for many problems through brain research.  I believe this for one, because the brain is so miraculous, and secondly, because human kind has to date achieved equal miracles be it in medicine or technology.  Yet, that day is not here and what Jones and Zigler say I see to be true- people will give up on the certain demographics, if inconclusive studies are used too early to field costly projects.  Brain research needs to be more conclusive.
On a side note, it was very interesting to read about the pathways of early brain development research.  

Making Music Changes Brains

Schlaug, G. (2010) Making Music Changes Brains, Gottfried Schlaug: Music and the Brain. [podcast] April 29, 2010. Link: http://www.loc.gov/podcasts/musicandthebrain/podcast_schlaug.html [Accessed: September 24, 2012].

Making Music Changes Brains

This podcast is an interview with Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, Director of the Music, Neuroimaging, and Stroke Recovery Laboratories at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre and Harvard Medical School. It explores notable differences between the brains of professional musicians and non-musicians as discovered by Dr. Schlaug and his team after the integration of MRI technology into the science of neurology.

He begins by discussing a hypothesis previously formed in the 80’s by Dr. Norman Geschwind and Dr. Albert Galaburda. It was thought that music processing might potentially be located in the right side of the brain. The human brain is asymmetrical and if there were deviations from typical patterns of brain laterality, meaning a person had either a symmetrical brain, or if they had a right-sided asymmetric brain, they may be particularly talented in music or music processing. A musician’s right hemisphere would be larger than that of a non-musician. This hypothesis was wrong.

In the early 90’s Dr. Schlaug and his team scanned the brains of a group of professional adult musicians and found no major differences between them and a group of non-musical adults. It was clear that there was no overwhelming correlation between music processing and the right side of the brain - their brains looked normal. However, many important and interesting discoveries were made during these tests.

They noticed that within a sub-group of those musicians, musicians with absolute pitch, their brains were lateralized toward the left side - their left hemisphere was larger than their right. Schlaug and his team could physically where absolute pitch was being processed in the brain and this was very encouraging.

They also came to learn that musicians exercise their auditory and motor systems like athletes exercise their muscles. They train their auditory systems to better discriminate against sounds, and they train their fine motor skills to be able to perform intricate and complex tasks with both hands. It was clear that there were similarities and a connection between the auditory and motor systems during music making, and that there was also a connection between the right and left sides of the brain in those musicians who actively practiced. The visual-auditory-motor domains in the brains of musicians were functioning at higher levels and had a much more sophisticated output than in the brains of non-musicians.

Potentially, when trained musicians perform non-musical tasks that use these visual-auditory-motor domains, like the inferior frontal gyrus (which sits in front of the motor system), the changes to these domains will have a positive influence on those tasks. That is to say, even non-music related processes would be functioning at a higher level in these “changed” areas in the brain.

As the interview comes to an end, Dr. Schlaug briefly touches on the importance of music education in the development of a child’s brain. He also mentions his work using song as a means of verbal development within children, as well as rehabilitation of the speech/language functions lost in stroke victims.


It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that the specific traits and skills associated with the development of musical ability can be linked to positively affecting other aspects of our brain and neurological processing/development. We’ve all heard the statistics and studies over the years exclaiming the benefits of an education in the arts, especially one in music. Personally, I can certainly see links between many of my own characteristics and the many skills I have honed, intentionally or not, throughout my structured and focused musical training. In fact, many of the concepts and practices I value on a day-to-day basis, such as organization, beauty, personal growth and improvement, can all be easily related to an education in music.

I am curious to see if a musician has increased activity and development/change in the areas of the brain associated with concepts such as perfectionism (a good performance), punctuality (time), self-esteem (appreciation/recognition), or spontaneity (improvisation).  How much of the connection between musical training and increase in certain neurological outputs is related to functions of the brain, opposed to a more psychological approach?

Lastly, while listening to this interview I found myself thinking of Jourdain’s Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy. When Dr. Schlaug mentions the skills musicians develop in the auditory and motor cortexes, complex sound discrimination and fine motor skills, I was pleased to associate the discussion with something I had recently read in Jourdain’s book concerning reading music. We as musicians have developed the ability to read many lines and clefs at once, in a sense processing two or more “languages” simultaneously. Having the association and reinforcement of new concepts and knowledge shared in our readings and class discussions has really enabled me to open up my mind to asking questions and to critical thinking.

Unlocking Music with Neuroscience

Shorr, Ardon. Unlocking Music with Neuroscience. Published on April 19, 2012
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cswhOCKQZ7Q [Accessed: September 23, 2012]

The Chunking Method

In a TED talk, Ardon Shorr, a PhD student in biology, focuses in on how we increase our working memory for processing and absorbing sounds and information through a psychological phenomenon called, “chunking”.  Our working memory is limited to three to six items per moment and when there is an overwhelming amount of information to take in, our brain chunks together smaller pieces in order to memorize or understand the entire piece.
We organically seem to “free up room” when performing this learning task of chunking by organizing and processing smaller tasks within the entire task. Most music is organized this way; phrases of repetitive or contrasting material that make up the larger structure of the musical piece. The main musical idea is presented in a phrase of tension and release; it is either repeated or contrasted. Our brains follow this natural rhythm of tension and release in music.
Ardon Shorr begins by playing a barbershop quartet song that he analyses into small chunks. The song begins with a phrase, repeats it, and then contrasts it with another phrase and returns to the original phrase with some modifications. This is called binary form. Chunking the piece into comprehendible sections also aids in memorization and an overall understanding of the song.  This learning task not only increases our working memory for music and language, but helps us multitask, process the constructs music and even learn new languages.
I perform this learning task of chunking on a daily basis with my students when teaching songs by rote or teaching phrases of difficult musicality. Students are taught how to break up songs into small phrases at first in order to learn or memorize the entire song. Ardon Shorr chose rather simplistic songs to present his idea of chunking and I wonder if one were to chunk a song of more complexity, such as a twelve-tone Schoenberg piece, if it would present the same and would our brains have the capacity to chunk it. The more complex the ideas the smaller the chunks would have to be. I see this method being used not only in music class but in all curriculum areas to aid in comprehension.

Why Do Listeners Enjoy Music that Makes Them Weep? (podcast)

Huron, D. (2010) Why Do Listeners Enjoy Music that Makes Them Weep?, Music and the Brain. [podcast]. Available at: http://www.loc.gov/podcasts/musicandthebrain/podcast_huron.html
Summary of the content
Professor David Huron is the Head of the Ohio State University’s Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory, he is affiliated with the OSU’s Center for Cognitive Science and is the author of “sweet anticipations: music and the psychology of expectation.”
Cognitive and systematic musicology involves questions relating to music and emotion.  Some of the questions Professor Huron mentioned include “how is it that music evokes emotions?”,  “why do people willingly listen to music?”, “how do people learn music?” and “ in what ways do people differ, form culture to culture, in how they experience sound?” They try to understand the experiences people have from the perspective of evolutionary psychology and brain science.

The idea of surprise in music
The brain is sensitive so when there are surprises (deviations from what we expect) in the music, it is going to recognize those as violations.
“In the auditory world we are very tuned in. Large portions of the brain are oriented towards the role of prediction when you think about how that can enhance survival, any organism that can predict the future had an enormous advantage in preserving life..”– D. Huron

Modern Music
With regards to novelty in music, there are two kinds: One where people are aware that they are listening to something new and one where they are unaware.  Professor Huron mentions that “people only seem to prefer novelty when they are consciously aware of it ….” and “research suggests that novelty in music listening is not as important as people say it is”
Repetition of music
Professor Huron suggests that familiarity is important in music. In the 19th century the encore was usually a piece they had already performed.
Music and Sadness “What makes music sad and why do we enjoy it?”
“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own….” – Oscar Wilde
The system is similar to having a gas pedal and a brake pedal. Part of the brain is tricked into thinking that we are actually experiencing something sad or grieving but another part of the brain is assessing the situation. This latter “breaking” mechanism is linked to the hormone prolactin which has the consoling effect. Professor Huron says that “the body is taking care of itself in a certain way... it is preventing your physiological response from going overboard.” Prolactin released can be measured in tears.

Reflections on the material
If the brain detects deviations in music as violations, I wonder how long or how many repetitions it takes to make those deviations no longer a violation. How long would it take us to get accustomed to musical patterns we are not used to and learn to like them? I have often heard a new song on the radio that I first disliked and then got accustomed to after a month. Is this experience explained by "violations" or something else? What implications does this have for cultural exchanges? If we always play the mainstream music, what implications does it have on our perspectives on “world” music that deviate from what we are used to? Do prediction in music and literature use the same brain mechanisms?

The point made about novelty in music listening not being “as important as people say it is” requires further insight. What does he mean by important? What kind of hormones are involved when listening to novelty music and how are they different when people are aware of the manipulation? How do brain mechanisms differ for those who create, not just listen, to new music?

I would like to study the role of prolactin as it applies to people in depression. Is there another hormone related to reducing overexcitement or is it also prolactin? Do people in depression produce lower levels of prolactin and so are not able to get the consoling effect? Does the amount of prolactin released vary if the stimulus creating the grief was not music but something else? How can we ensure that people get to the consoling stage?

"Charles Limb: Your Brain on Improv"

"Charles Limb: Your Brain On Improv"
Ted Talk - TEDxMidAtlantic
Link: http://www.ted.com/talks/charles_limb_your_brain_on_improv.html
or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkRJG510CKo

Dr. Charles Limb is a surgeon specializing in cochlear implantations, a researcher of the brain, and a musician. In his Ted Talk (2010), Limb discusses his research on improvisation and creativity in the brains of jazz and hip-hip musicians. Beginning his talk with a video of an improvisation by master jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Limb then poses the following problem: How can the brain generate so much musical information spontaneously? His talk tries to begin to answer this question by reference to three fMRI studies that examine artistic creativity on a neurological level. He shows video footage of these experiments.

1) The first study Limb describes is called "Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: A Study of Jazz Improvisation". The question he aims to answer in this study is: "What happens in the brain during something that is memorized and over-learned, and what happens in the brain when something is spontaneously generated or improvised?". In order to answer this, Limb looks at the brain activity in professional jazz musicians doing two tasks: 1) playing a memorized, pre-determined example of music and 2) improvising on the same chord progression as the memorized piece. He does this using a 35-key midi keyboard designed to fit in the scanner, be magnetically safe, and fit on the laps of test-musicians while they are laying down in the fMRI machine.

The results of this study show that when the musicians improvise, the lateral prefrontal cortex (associated with self-monitoring, introspection and working memory) is "turning off", and that the medial prefrontal cortex (associated with self-expression) is "turning on". With these findings, Limb hypothesizes that in order to be creative, the brain has to shut off the part of the brain that is self-inhibiting. In other words, creating novel ideas requires that the musician not censor him/herself or be afraid to make mistakes.

2) In the second study, Limb examines what happens in the brain when two musicians interact and react to each other's improvisations. Limb puts a professional jazz pianist (Mike Pope) in the scanner and another musician (himself) in the control room. They then "trade fours" (a musical conversation where musicians trade off improvising every 4 bars and then repeat this over and over within the musical form of a piece).

The results of this study show that "trading fours" leads to activation of the left interior frontal gyrus - the Broca's area - which is thought to be involved in language and expressive communication. Limb hypothesizes that perhaps there is a neurological basis for the idea that music is a language, since his findings show activity in the language areas of the brain when two musicians are having a "musical conversation".

3) The third study that Limb describes repeats the first study. This time he looks at the brain activity of hip-hop artists instead of jazz artists by having the hip-hop artist perform two tasks: 1) a pre-written rap from memory and then 2) a freestyle (improvise a rap) based on a few select words from that same pre-written rap.

The results he finds in this study are that the language and visual areas of the brain light up when free-styling, in contrast to the performance of the memorized rap. He also finds activation in the cerebellum, which is associated with motor coordination.

Limb concludes his talk by asking some questions he hopes will be answered in the future, now that we have the technology to scientifically study the brain during creative activities.

What is the creative genius?
Why does the brain seek creativity?
How do we acquire creativity?
What factors disrupt creativity?
Can creative behaviour be learned?


Coming from a performance background in jazz, I find this Ted Talk extremely fascinating. I think it is very interesting that in Limb's first study, the part of our brain involved with self-monitoring (lateral prefrontal cortex) was "turning off" during improvisation. I am curious to know if this "turning off" can show up on the fMRI scans in various degrees depending on how engaged the performer is in the improvisation. I wonder if this is the case because in past improvisatory situations, I have felt varying degrees of inhibition - from very self-conscious to completely free and in the moment. I always felt that the latter state always allowed me to improvise better or achieve what some call "flow". Could the "turning off" of the lateral prefrontal cortex be the neurological explanation of "flow", the state where we are so absorbed in the moment that we lose track of or feel outside of ourselves?

Limb's second study, which found that the language areas of the brain light up when musicians interact, appears to suggest that the idea of music as a language has a neurological basis. This comparison makes sense since jazz improvisors often learn musical vocabulary and phrases in order to be able to create a coherent musical statement or respond to someone else's statement; this is similar to how we learn spoken language and the art of conversation too.

Although Limb's third study seems to mirror that of the first, he doesn't discuss whether or not the lateral prefrontal cortex's of the hip-hop musicians were also "turning off" during their free-styling. Does this occur during any type of improvisation, from spoken word, to dance etc? Or just in instrumental improvisation?

One final thought I have is that if improvisation can "turn off" the self-monitoring parts of the brain, allowing us to be more creative, then perhaps improvisation really should be part of our musical education system. I imagine that training the brain to be in this state of un-inhibition and creation through improvisation, would translate positively in other areas of learning and life. Could using improvisational exercises in the school curriculum help foster more creative people and thinkers in general? 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Music Therapy, Alzheimer's and Post-Traumatic Stress

Alicia Clair.  “Music Therapy, Alzheimer’s and Post-Traumatic Stress.” Music and the Brain. Library of Congress, February 15, 2011. Podcast.

In this podcast, Alicia Clair, Head of Music Education and Music Therapy at the University of Kansas, discusses with host Steven Mencher the use of music in treating patients suffering from various types of brain injury. Professor Clair focuses largely on patients suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Alzheimer’s, and dementia.

Clair begins by describing how music therapy was given a “boost” of sorts in the 1940’s when veterans from WWII were returning, suffering from all manner of injuries. In her particular experience in Topeka, Kansas, there were soldiers who had shellshock, brain injury, and what we now would classify as PTSD.  In the hospital, there were band and orchestral instruments available, as well as several choirs, and both residents and patients took part in the musical activities available.

Clair then explains how music is able to assist in dampening the autonomic nervous system, which causes breathing and heart rate to slow, and generally allows for feelings of anxiety to be let go much easier. For those with brain injury where some facilities require remapping, such as certain motor functions, rhythm gives the therapy exercises more form and works as an excellent facilitator for getting those motor functions to connect again.

When asked what kind of music is preferred in therapeutic context, Clair’s answer is that it is a somewhat individualized process and the same music will not work for everyone. Associations with music that people may already have in their background might be disruptive, so a music therapist might compose something to use for a specific purpose, like something with a strong backbeat for rhythm/motor function work. She also notes that the most successful music tends to be music that patients associate with their young adult years – whether that is Western art music or rock and roll. When the host points out that this is rather contradictory, Clair explains that the process must be very tailored to the individual patient – while you may need to use the music of young adulthood to connect with one person, you might need to get away from it entirely with another.

Clair then goes on to discuss what she has observed in patients with Alzheimer’s. She admits that as of yet, there is no way to tell if it might be able to prolong some of the stages of Alzheimer’s, or keep it from progressing as fast. She talks about people as primarily social beings and our needs to interact with one another, and using music primarily as a way to engage those with people who are losing their ability to engage with others in the same way. She describes it as an issue of quality of life, especially in patients with dementia, when people lose contact with their loved ones and can feel cut off from either side of the situation.

Clair makes a very clear assertion that there are many ways to use music to engage, even if you’re not a music therapist or a musician, and encourages people to try; or, as she says, “Don’t not try!” When asked what steps someone might take in incorporating music into their care-giving, she emphasizes the ability of music, used appropriately, to help decrease stress reactions in many situations. She particularly notes its use in helping to ease “transition” situations, such as needing to ready a family member to go out.  By playing music the person has good associations with thirty minutes ahead of whenever the transition situation is coming, it can again help to dampen the autonomic nervous system and allow them to feel relaxed as they prepare to do what they need to do. In using the music and the slower time, Clair describes, we get away from giving off nonverbal cues that indicate our frustration at our loved one for not understanding or getting ready fast enough that cause them to feel anxiety and confusion. Using the music allows them enough time to process, start to move, get into things at a more relaxed pace.

Clair also mentions singing as a caregiver to be a particularly useful tool – she describes singing instructions to people and how she felt that made very special connections between caregiver and patient. She also notes that “not being able to sing” is not a valid excuse as we all can sing, and all care-givers should give it a try regardless of their own self-conscious feelings.

In the end, Clair makes herself clear in saying that although there may be situations in which consultation with a music therapist/professional might be advisable, music is an important part of everyone’s lives and it’s not enough to say that you aren’t a musician – “just try it.”

I had never really heard anything about treating those suffering from PTSD with music before, but now that I have heard it, it makes completely perfect sense. I thought having the orchestra/choir in the hospital was especially interesting, and I would imagine that even the act of having to commit to learning an instrument, let alone a part in an orchestra, would be a great source of stress relief for the soldiers. When I think of how much brain power I’ve used in trying to pick up new instruments, I could see how having something to focus on that doesn’t really allow you to think about anything else simultaneously would be of great help.

What I think I found most interesting was Clair’s assertion that you don’t need to be a music therapist to start using music as an aid in care-giving situations. I think coming from a very academic world where I have a tendency to lump people into their specialties a little too readily, I was ready for her to say that the use of music therapy should be left to music therapists, or at least requires extensive knowledge of music therapy practices and repertoire before it should ever be attempted. It was really refreshing to hear someone say that, yes, it’s okay if you’re not a musician or you “don’t have a good voice,” because you can still use this. I find this to be something very positive and affirming of the importance of music in all our lives, not just as musicians, but as people. Personally, this leads me to feel hopeful in these methods being more widely employed, if people are made to feel that they can participate regardless of their perceived musical skill level.

The World in Six Songs

Director of McGill University's Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise and best-selling author of "This is Your Brain on Music," Daniel Levitin

Title: The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.


In this video segment, Daniel Levitin deals with the physical reactions that human beings experience while listening to music, and traces the development of music over time. He does this while examining the development of language, refuting the claim that language developed before music.

Levitin says that the primary means of communication among Neanderthals was most likely communication through musical gestures. He supports this claim by pointing out that music is processed in more primitive parts of the human brain (he mentions the cerebellum and brain stem), and therefore music must be philogenetically older than language.

He also mentions that music and dance go hand in hand, and that sitting motionless while listening to music is ‘evolutionarily foreign’. The motor cortex, he says, becomes very active while listening to music, even though no movement is involved.

Finally, he makes an interesting point that human beings are the only species with the ability to synchronise movement to music. He links this to ‘large scale cooperative human undertakings’ (architecture, rowing a boat) which go back a long way in history.


The most salient point that Levitin makes here is that music is stimulated in the most primitive parts of the brain. I observed, however, that language is stimulated in Broca’s area (production of spoken and written language) and Wernicke’s area (language comprehension). These areas are included in the cortex of the brain which is believed to have evolved much later on.

The Basal Ganglia (yet another primitive part of the brain) is also directly related to coordinated movement, which, according to Levitin, goes hand in hand with music. The urge to sit still while listening to music, he says, goes against everything the evolution of music has taught humans. The fact that the motor cortex lights up even when one is listening to music is also substantial evidence here. The activity in this part of the brain may also be related to his claim that humans are the only species capable of synchronised movement.

Soon after watching this video, I listened to one of my favourite pieces of music - ‘Poet and Peasant Overture’ by Franz Von Suppe. I was unable to control my desire to bob along with the rhythm of the piece and at the end of the performance my eyes were filled with tears. How interesting that many of these reactions are connected to the most primitive parts of the brain!

Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus

Schaefer, John, Lawrence Parsons, Daniel J. Levetin, Bobby McFerrin and Janshed Bharucha, narr. Notes & Neurons. 2009. World Science Festival 2009. Web. 21 Sept. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzOfHzaGZZE>.

In this session of the World Science Festival 2009, host John Schaefer joined neuroscience researchers Dr. Lawrence Parsons, Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, Dr. Jansched Bharucha and musician Bobby McFerrin to discuss how music affects the human brain and why people are drawn to music.  Dr. Daniel Levetin, head of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University began the dialogue by discussing the reason neuroscientists are interested in music.  He explained that the field of neuroscience studies all human behavior, and he argued that there is nothing more human than music, as music was present since the beginning of known human history.  Sound, from a neuroscientist’s point of view, is not just a series of vibrations.  It is a “construction of the brain” at the end of a long chain of neuro-processing events.  Dr. Lawrence Parsons, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom expanded upon Dr. Levetin’s point by suggesting that music is unique as it requires almost every area of the brain during its processing, creating a “whole nervous system experience”.  
Musician Bobby McFerrin then asked the panel an interesting question. “Do we experience music differently when we are planning to experience it than when the experience is unplanned?”  In other words, if a person goes to a concert, will that music be processed differently than if it was unexpectedly heard while the person was walking down the street?  Dr. Parsons explained that although the brain forms expectations of what will occur musically, it functions so quickly that the experiences are processed in virtually the same manner.  Varied types of expectations do, nevertheless have a great deal of effect on how music is processed, as demonstrated in an experiment performed by Dr. Jansched Bharucha, Provost and Senior Vice President of Tufts University.
Dr. Bharucha and Dr. Levetin described how the universal function is to form social cohesion by aligning the brain states of communities.  There are aspects of music, however, that are very culturally specific.  While listening to music, the brain is continuously forming micro-predictions about pitch and timing.  When a person hears a fragment of music, the rest is “filled in” based on cultural expectations.  This urge can be so strong that a person may “misremember” a melody they heard, mentally “fixing” it to fit within their cultural expectations.
Dr. Bharucha demonstrated this by having singers in India listen to an incomplete piece of music based on an Indian raga, or scale, and by having them improvise whatever they thought the rest of the melody should be.  The Indian singers consistently sang tunes using the notes found within the raga.  The same experiment was then conducted in the United States with American singers.  Instead of singing notes that would fit within the raga of the song they were listening to, the American singers sang melodies that used notes from traditional Western scales.  After the American singers had participated in the experiment for a number of times, however, a notable change began to occur.  Some of the singers’ brains began to adapt their expectations to that of the Indian ragas, and they began to invent melodies within the Indian scales.   This experiment demonstrated the brain’s plasticity, or its ability to adapt and change.  Dr. Bharucha displayed a diagram that showed how the brain forms neuro-pathways over time as it experiences certain sequences of pitches repeatedly.  The brain then “expects” certain combinations of pitches because of its past experiences. 
            An additional experiment conducted by Dr. Bharucha demonstrated how western culture has developed emotional associations with certain intervals.  Researchers recorded actors reading phrases with varied emotions.  They found that a prevalence of the interval of a minor third was associated with sadness, while the interval of a line of ascending semitones was associated with anger.  Dr. Levatin added to the discussion of emotions and music by explaining that timbre is also an important part of emotional signaling that individual cultural groups share.  Somehow, cultural groups are able to recognize subtle changes in timbre, and have developed communal expectations as to what they communicate. 
At the end of the discussion, a group of both Western classical and Indian classical musicians joined Bobby McFerrin and the researchers in a musical improvisation. 

            This video was an excellent introduction into the world of music and neuroscience for someone who is new to the field.  Not only did it explain the basic components of music and how they related to the brain, it also demonstrated how so much of music’s effect on the brain is still a mystery.  I find the idea that our brains are musically “trained” by cultural experiences fascinating.  If our musical experiences are so influenced by our cultural exposure, this leads me to wonder if our individual tastes are also programmed by our experiences.  Why, for example, do some people love country music, while others can’t stand the sound and will only listen to rap?  What is it that draws a person to the music of a particular artist or genre?  Is it their exposure to that style that teaches them to expect certain patterns associated with that style?  Or is it something else hidden within the recesses of the brain that dictates individual tastes? This is definitely a question that warrants further exploration on my part.