Friday, October 26, 2012

Imagined Practice: Studies Presented at the 2011 International Symposium on Performance Science on the theme of mental practice.

One of the studies presented at the 2011 International Symposium on Performance Science was conducted by the Department of Music at the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with the University of Oldenburg’s Department of Psychology, and used fMRI to investigate the ways mental imagery may improve performance. Study of elite musicians has demonstrated the efficacy of “mental practice”, and other research has established that many of the same neural regions are employed during both imagery of musical performance and actual performance.  Research has also shown that there are, however, a number of differences in the functionality of the brain during imagery and performance.  In this study, both advanced piano performance students and professional piano performers were asked to memorize a new portion of piano music for a single hand using both mental imagery and physical practice on a keyboard.  The musical excerpt used in the experiment was designed to be easy to memorize while still challenging the pianists’ motor coordination. 
            Subsequently, the pianists were scanned with an fMRI, during which they were asked to imagine the music and how it would feel to perform it. During the next scan, participants were asked to imagine the music while physically moving their fingers as if playing the selection on a real piano.  The two scans were then compared, revealing interesting similarities.  During both mental and simulated performance, similar motor regions and regions in the inferior parietal lobe were activated.  As expected, the primary motor cortex was only activated during simulated performance. Interestingly, during imagined performance the middle frontal gyrus (MFG) was activated bilaterally, whereas during simulated performance it was only activated on the left side.  This difference was interpreted as representing a shift in level of certain cognitive processes in mental practice versus performance.  This led to the hypothesis that the middle frontal gyrus is the location where the brain processes musical imagery, and could be monitored to measure the efficacy of mental practice. 
            The findings of this study were presented at the 2011 symposium at the University of Toronto in addition to the findings of various other studies under the theme of “Imagery and Performance”.  Another study, led by Philip Fine at the University of Buckingham’s Department of Psychology, endeavored to understand what musicians understand the terms “mental practice” and “score analysis” to mean.  The study surveyed sixty-five performing instrumentalists in Europe and explored professional musicians’ use of the score throughout the stages of learning and practicing. Responses were extremely varied, however several themes were present in the respondents’ answers. While respondents agreed that detailed score analysis was helpful in understanding the direction of and composer’s intentions for a given piece, they tended to agree that score analysis was less practical than mental practice. The majority of the respondents preferred mental practice away from the score using “inner hearing” and visualization of movements when preparing for a performance. 
            As a classical vocalist, I find the idea that mental practice could be as effective as physical practice particularly intriguing. The voice has a limited amount singing it can sustain each day without injury or deterioration, even with the best technique. Compared to instrumentalists who able to practice ceaselessly for hours on end, a singers’ capacity to physically practice is quite limited.  For this reason, if mental practice proves to be nearly as effective as physical practice, the practice time available to singers during each day will be greatly increased. Many vocal teachers and coaches are already proponents of using mental practice for text memorization and character preparation for performance. Perhaps the use of mental practice could be expanded to include practicing technical vocal skills as well.
As this fMRI study demonstrated, mental and physical practice causes the brain to react in a similar fashion. If, as the study’s conclusion posited, the middle frontal gyrus is a neural substrate for musical imagery, then future studies could monitor activity in that area to determine the most effective modes of mental practice.  In combination with the research conducted at the University of Buckingham’s psychology department, which seeks to define mental practice according to musicians, this could lead to new understandings of the most efficient and effective methods with which to prepare for performance. 
This research would be extremely useful in the field of vocal pedagogy, as instructors strive to teach their students the best use of their physical and mental practice time.  Perhaps future research will show that technical vocal skills can be improved through focused imaginary practice. This way, vocalists may be able to increase the number of times per day they are able to “sing” particular vocalises or pieces, and thus turn new skills into new habits in fewer days.
            Having reviewed these studies in light of their potential implications for the field of vocal pedagogy, I would like to know how other musicians see this research affecting their process of learning and practicing for performance. Are there techniques which instrumentalists could learn more efficiently using mental imagery? Could mentally “playing” a piece in a focused manner help musicians memorize their music more effectively?   


Davidson-Kelly, Kirsteen, Sujin Hong, Janani Dhinakaran, Joseph M. Sanders, and Calcum Gray. "An fMRI study of expert musical imagery: To what extent do imagined and executed performance share the same neural substrate." Proceedings of the International Symposium on Performance Science 2011. Ed. Aaron Williamson, Darryl Edwards, and Lee Bartel. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Academi, 2011. Print.

Fine, Philip and Anabela Bravo.  “Rehearsal away from the instrument: What expert musicians understand by the terms ‘mental practice’ and “score analysis’.” Proceedings of the International Symposium on Performance Science 2011. Ed. Aaron Williamson, Darryl Edwards, and Lee Bartel. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Academi, 2011. Print.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Music and Language Processing

Article: Patel, A. (2003, June 25). Language, music, syntax and the brain. Nature Neuroscience 6,
p. 674 - 681. Retrieved from


Patel’s article proposes a similarity between syntactic processing in language and music.  He proposes that there is a significant overlap in syntax processing regions for language and music in the frontal area of the brain.  This hypothesis offers an explanation for the apparent contradiction in music and language syntax research.  While neuroimaging data shows an overlap in the processing of syntactic relations in language and music, neuropsychology shows that linguistic and musical syntax can be dissociated.  For example, in cases of Broca’s aphasia, people with a deficit in language production may still have the ability to communicate through music. Similarily, individuals showing no signs of aphasia may have an impaired perception of harmonic relations in music. 

                In contradiction to the claim by Peretz and Coltheart that the cognitive and neural relationship between music and language syntax is largely separate, Patel proposes a distinction between syntactic representation and syntactic processing.  This is on the basis that at least some of the processes involved in syntactic comprehension occur in different areas of the brain than where the syntactic representations reside.  He proposes that the mental representations of musical and language syntax are quite different from each other, but the syntactic processing of music and language is similar.
                To support his claim, he uses two theories: Gibson’s Dependency Locality Theory for language and Lerdahl’s Tonal Pitch Space Theory for music.  Gibson’s Dependency Locality Theory states that linguistic sentence comprehension involves two distinct components: structural storage for keeping track of grammatical predictions and structural integration for connecting each incoming word to a prior word on which it depends in the structure.  The neural resources required for integration increase with the distance between the new word and the beginning of the sentence.  Music syntactic processing in the Lerdahl’s Tonal Pitch Space Theory is slightly more complex since it is hierarchical, not sequential.  For example, octave frequencies related by a 2/1 ratio are perceived as the same letter name in pitch. Also, within the scale, there is a hierarchy of importance with the root, 3rd, and 5th degrees perceived as more stable and entire musical keys are perceived in terms of distance from one another with relative majors and minors being more stable.  Therefore, it is possible to quantify the tonal distance between any two musical chords in a sequence so the idea that mentally connecting distant elements requires more resources applies to both language and music syntax processing.
                 Patel’s Shared Syntactic Integration Resource Hypothesis (SSIRH) suggests an overlap in syntax processing regions for music and language.  He hypothesizes that these processing regions provide resources for syntactic integration, and the syntactic integration occurs in a separate region, the representation region.  Therefore, Patel proposes that the dissociations between musical and linguistic syntactic abilities in people with acquired amusia are due to damage to the representation region where long-term knowledge of harmonic relations is stored, and the processing region remains functional for speech.  Similarily, congenital amusia is described as the developmental failure to form cognitive representations of musical pitch.


It is interesting what Patel hypothesizes about music processing in people with aphasia. There seem to be very little tests done so far in this specific area.  He proposes that syntactic comprehension deficits in language are related to harmonic processing deficits in music.  Therefore, SSIRH proposes that while a person with aphasia may be able to sing a melody with clear words, their ability to process harmonic changes in music is still to some extent impaired.  There does not seem to be a lot of research in this area, but if this could be proven with testing, it could be strong evidence for a relationship between music and language.  I suppose it is a sensitive area to test people with aphasia on their musical and linguistic abilities, but it seems like the results from harmonic priming, a test in music cognition that Patel suggests, could help us to further understand the relationship between music and language processing in the brain.  In my opinion, Gabby Gifford’s ability to sing with clear words despite struggling with speech after her injury, does indeed suggest a relationship between music and language processing.  If one skill can bring back another skill then it would appear that they are somehow linked. Since music is the more complex of the two, it would make sense that it would have the ability to bring back abilities in speaking.