Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New Music: Our Brain on Atonal and Serialist Music

New Music: Our brain on Atonal and Serialist Music


Our Western Culture is engrained in the language of tonal music with an acquired, acculturated schema and expectations in their minds. Audiences automatically bring their anticipations to music and expect “the pleasures derived from a straight-forward resolution of harmonic tension.” (Jourdain, 1997) In opposition to these desires, Schoenberg stated in his “Theory of Harmony” that "tonality is no natural law of music, eternally valid" and in his music renounced the idea of a tonal centre “treating dissonances like consonances.” (Ribe, 1987) However, by employing the 12 tones of the chromatic scale in his twelve-tone music, Hindemath’s proposition was correct when saying, “listeners would bring tonality to music whether Schoenberg and his followers liked it or not.” (Jourdain, 1997), Ribe explains how the phenomenon of the octave is “the fundamental "unit" in terms of which our sense of hearing measures the quality-the degree of tension or dissonance-of all other intervals.” Because an octave is produced by vibrations of strings producing the simple ratio of 2.1, our mind constantly refers to this state of minimal tension thus creating what Ribe says to be the "natural measure” of consonance and dissonance. (Ribe, 1987) Throughout our lives, our auditory cortex has created a conception of certain frequencies of sound, some being categorized as dissonant, others (as we have seen with the octave) consonant. The concept of critical band dissonance explains how the excessive use of chromaticism in 12-tone music causes discomfort in the ear. Jourdain explains how “by falling so close together along the cochlea, the two sounds upset each other’s perception.

The 12 tone system relies on the relations of individual tones to one another rather than a larger parallel whole, of which Huron states that Schoenberg created tone rows with an aim to “avoid evoking a sense of key.” In tonal music, our mind is accustomed to the hierarchy of the diatonic scale in which Lerdahl (Hicks, 1991) states: “every note has not just an order based numerical relationship to the stating note (tonic) but also a specific tendency to move directly or indirectly in relation to that starting note; hence, unlike twelve-tone rows, diatonic scales are function-based rather than order-based.) So the listener hears the same notes, yet automatically will strive to find a tonic within to relate all the successive notes to.  He explains the without a "tree-like" structure, in which “every idea can be connected to a larger branch”, music cannot be processed and remembered by the listener. Lerdahl concludes that without the ability to comprehend the music, the value of the music is lost.(Hicks, 1991)  In relation to this, there is evidence that form is more difficult for the listener to comprehend with the absence of tonality. This is proven in Helen Daynes work, where participants listened to works by Clementi, Schoenberg and Berio while documenting in successive diaries their identification to the various parameters of the pieces. It was shown that the participants needed subsequent times to listen to the atonal pieces in order to decipher the form and even repetition. Perle confirms this by stating there is a “high degree of interdependence between the various dimensions of a tonal composition, such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, timbre and form. (Daynes, 2007)

This absence of a tonal background on which a hierarchical structure of consonance and dissonance can rely, prevents the concept of “tonal motion” which Ribe describes as, “the sense that the notes are in motion, that the music is "going somewhere...the variation of musical tension which arises from the intrinsic dissonances of the successive intervals.Tonal motion is therefore directed: it is always felt as motion toward or away from some state of tension or relaxation.” He further explains “Like musical motion, human action is inherently directed: it proceeds through alternations of desire and satisfaction, striving and fulfillment, tension and release. Music and human action thus have the same forms and are characterized by the same polarities. This, I would suggest, is what Aristotle meant when he said (in Book VIII of the Politics) that music "imitates" human character.” (Ribe, 1987) As a result, there is no true beginning and as a result, no goal of the music because the listener never starts from somewhere. Lévi-Strauss writes that serial music "is like a sailless ship, driven out to sea by its captain . . . who is privately convinced that by subjecting life aboard to the rules of an elaborate protocol, he will prevent the crew from thinking nostalgically either of their home port or of their ultimate destination." (Hicks, 1991)  Huron explains in his book Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation that musicians enjoy when they can use their learned schemas to predict what will happen next in a piece. He says this is comparable to the “psychological gratification of being right about the future” when someone exclaims “I told you so.” (Huron,2006)  Our mind remembers through memories the contrast and yearning between tension and release in life and music. When we do not hear a 12 tone piece resolve a dissonance from a consonant, this places a strain on our ears and our expectations are thwarted.

There is evidence also that our speech reinforces our concept of tonality in our brain in the nature of forming linear sequences. Both speech and music share syntactic commonalities “how basic lexical subunits are combined to form words, how words are combined to form phrasesand how phrases are combined to form sentences. In music…how tones combine to form chords, how chords combine to form chord progressions and how the resulting keys or tonal areas are regulated in terms of structured movement from one to another. “ (Patel,2008)  Lerdahl terms much of 20th century music to contain “cognitively opaque musical structures where there is a significant discrepancy between the compositional grammar ...and the cognitive grammar possessed by the listener.” (McAdams, 1987) These facts explain how this music was an entirely new language. Schoenberg's words perhaps help us understand his intentions behind his compositional methods stating, “I never was very capable of expressing my feelings or emotions in words. I don't know whether this is the cause why I did it in music and also why I did it in painting. Or vice versa: That I had this way as an outlet. I could renounce expressing something in words.” (ThinkExist.com)


How does one come to enjoy this seemingly incomprehensible language of music? Schoenberg stated that "composing with twelve tones [is]…a method demanding logical order and organization, of which comprehensibility should be the main result.” (Hicks, 1991) The concept of familiarity arises in Daynes studies stating by “increasing familiarity, ratings of pleasant emotions heard in the music by listeners increased, and ratings of negative emotions heard in the music decreased: listeners found some pieces less unsettling and disconcerting with familiarity. (Daynes, 2007)During this familiarization process, the brain creates new schemas and through subsequent hearings, the schemas are transferred to our long term memory which is then referred to when experiencing the same type of music in the future. The term schema can be defined as "A mental preconception of the habitual course of events."(Huron, 2006) Thus, only through exposure can one learn this new musical language. Through experimenting with musicians as well as non-musicians in her study, Daynes concludes that “If musical training increases listeners’ emotional responses to certain music, and emotional responses to music are a primary motivator for engagement in music, then this would appear to provide additional justification for music- education activities such as pre-concert talks or the provision of program notes.” (Daynes, 2007) Perhaps, thorough consistent exposure and cognitively creating new schemas while listening to this music we can expand our overall intelligence.




On Virtuosic Performance

Elizabeth Roach                                                                                                         
Prof. Lee Bartel
Mus. 2122H
Tuesday October 30th, 2012

On Virtuosic Performance
            One of the greatest joys in the life of a musician is a rewarding performance. Whether it’s based on a receptive audience, or a more personal out of body experience, pulling off a show that you can be particularly proud of is highly satisfying. By drawing on recent studies and literature, as well as my own personal experience, this paper will look at the science behind a great performance and what it takes for your brain to reach that level. How does a virtuoso become virtuosic?
            Can one person be born better equipped for the needs of a musician than another? As Robert Jourdain explains in his book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, an extraordinary musician, whom he refers to as a virtuoso, is often thought to possess better bones, muscles, nerves, and brains than those musicians who never quite reach the same level (Jourdain, 223). I believe it has a lot more to do with nurture, and less so with nature. During my undergraduate degree at Toronto’s Humber College I had a classmate who was often described as a prodigy. While I had started studying the saxophone seriously at the age of 17, he had already been in a structured 8 hour a day practice routine for ten years. His early exposure and dedication is what gave him his unmatched facility and musicianship. Studies show that the brain’s corpus callosum, which facilitates interhemispheric communication, is significantly larger in musicians with early and intensive training (Schlaug, 2001).  A 15% increase in size and number of fibers is an enormous difference in the amount of information being transferred. As far as nature vs. nurture is concerned there is evidence that both play important roles in virtuosity. 
            There is one phrase that has undoubtedly echoed in the ears of every musician since they first began their education: practice makes perfect. It is very rare to meet a musician with excellent technique and facility on their instrument that hasn’t reached that level without years of practice. Although a musical performance relies heavily on physicality – motion, breath, dexterity, endurance – all things that are perfected through continual practice, so much more has to do with mental hierarchies. While describing how the limits of an average musician’s motor system can sometimes expand, Jourdain writes:
            “Such experiences suggest that the better part of virtuosity may have little to do             with gross neurological advantage. Instead, virtuosity may depend on how the             musician’s mind is organized during performance – how the body is comported,             how attention is focused, and above all, how imagery is brought to bear. In this             view, virtuosity is mostly a matter of abstract planning, not raw muscular             control.” (Jourdain, 225)

The deep, flexible and well trained mental hierarchies of a professional musician allows their mind to be freed from the more specific and intricate details involved in tasks like sight-reading music and performing in an orchestra. Jourdain describes an amateur musician’s experience with this world as exhilarating and he is correct in saying so. I can recall sitting in my parent’s living room listening to a new jazz album my father had recently recorded; I was probably 15 or 16 years old at the time. We were listening to an improvised piano solo and I began humming the melody as soon as it came back in. My mother asked me how I knew that the solo was going to end and I realized that I had just “felt” it. At this point I wasn’t necessarily following the harmony or the relationships between the chords, but I wasn’t counting bars anymore either. I knew on an unconscious level that the form was ending on the last chorus of that particular solo, and I knew that due to my previous observations and experiences in similar situations. Jourdain maintains that in “miraculous” instances in performance when an amateur plays something considered above their skill level, the physical capability has probably long been there, it’s just the pathway that hasn’t been formed yet.
            In a 1993 study titled Cognition in Jazz Improvisation: An Exploratory Study, Mendonça and Wallace investigated the thinking processes of jazz improvisers in performance, with a particular focus on the cognitive processes related to perception and reasoning of time and to creativity. This study showed that a deep level of knowledge and comfort with the genre is integral for the musician to step back, look at the larger musical structure, and have a “conversation” with his partner.
            The analysis of the “I Got Rhythm” protocols for Group One provides additional             insight into how improvisers collaborate while simultaneously abiding by             constraints of an evolving musical structure and generating, evaluating and             executing new ideas.” (Mendonça and Wallace, 6)

Once you have the neural pathways and hierarchies in place to function automatically at a superficial level, the planning and anticipation skills necessary to perform music will be in place.
            A virtuosic performance depends on many things, please note that this paper doesn’t even attempt to address psychological aspects. Jourdain raises the question of why some musicians will achieve greatness while other musicians, who practice just as hard and for as long, will never reach the highest standard of musicality. It seems to be an ideal mélange of multiple factors, including early exposure, reinforced mental hierarchies, and pure physical advantages that lead to an easier road for a lucky few.


Deutsch, Diana. The Psychology of Music. New York: Academic, 1982. Print.
Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our             Imagination. New York (NY): Quill, 1997. Print.

Mendonça, David, and William A. Wallace. "Cognition in jazz improvisation: An             exploratory study." 26th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society,             Chicago, IL. 2004.

Schlaug, Gottfried. "The Brain of Musicians." Annals of the New York Academy of             Sciences 930.1 (2001): 281-99. Print.

Is Mental Imagery an Effective Tool in Music Practice?

In Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination (1997), Robert Jourdain briefly discusses how pianist Glenn Gould "practiced a good deal in his mind", so much so that by age twenty-seven Gould had "calculated that he had played the fifth Bach partita roughly five hundred times, mostly while driving or walking around town" (p. 229). If Gould, one of the world's legendary concert pianists, often made use of mental practice away from the piano, it is natural to assume that mental practice can be an effective tool in learning musical material. In this paper I will examine several studies done on mental practicing, investigating how effective it is in comparison to physical practice.

Let us begin by setting the conceptual bounds of this research. According to Clark (2011), mental practice (MP) is the "cognitive rehearsal of a task in the absence of overt physical movement" (p. 472). Cognitive rehearsal, in turn, is a skill that "involves imagery in several modalities: visual (pianists "see" their hands on the keyboard), motor/kinesthetic (they "feel" the keyboard and finger motions), as well as auditory" (Zatorre, 2005, p. 11). Based on these definitions, one could assume that when Gould was practicing in his head, he was probably imagining the following: the written music or his hands on the piano keys (visual); his fingers playing a piece and the feel of the keys (motor/kinesthetic); and the sound of the music, including the melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, dynamics and other particulars of the piece (auditory imagery).

Jourdain (1997) describes "musical imagery" as "a sort of 'perception' in the absence of sensation" (p. 164). He says that imagery "occurs" in the same areas of he brain that process stimuli, such as the visual cortex for visual imagery and the auditory cortex for auditory imagery (p. 163). In regard to auditory imagery, Zatorre (2005) discusses how "neural activity in auditory cortex can occur in the absence of sound ... and that this activity likely mediated the phenomenological experience of imagining music" (p. 9). In other words, many of the same areas of the brain that are active when Gould actually practiced the piano were also active when he imagined practicing in his mind.

If the same areas of the brain are active during mental practice (MP) as in physical practice (PP), does this mean that MP can be as effective as PP? One study by Miksza (2005) examined the effectiveness of MP on the performance skills of high-school trombonists. The results showed no significant improvement in the participant's overall performance abilities; however, they did confirm results from previous MP studies (Coffman 1990; Ross 1985), which found that MP and PP combined may be as effective as PP alone (Miksza, 2005 p. 9). This is an interesting finding which suggests that MP is a valuable mode of learning that would allow musicians to effectively practice away from their instruments, as well as prevent over-use injuries. While Miksza's study suggests the validity of mental practice, it did not result in any significant evidence to support the idea that MP improves overall performance skills. Miksza points out that his study did not examine the "long-term advantages" of MP. He proposes that musicians "who focus on developing detailed mental representations for an extended period of time may have more success using them in performance" (p. 10).

Another study by Cahn (2008) looked at undergraduate jazz students. They were split into MP, PP and combined MP/PP groups. They were given the task of transposing and performing a melodic pattern (3175) over a given chord progression. The aim of the study was to measure the effectiveness of MP when practiced for various proportions of time (p. 186). Like Miksza, Cahn also found that there was no significant difference between PP and combined MP/PP groups (p. 187). What is interesting about this study is that it involved the MP of a transposed pattern over a chord progression, not just in the MP of a written piece of music. Cahn states that "since the task may have been more related to the cognitive task of continuously 'figuring out' what notes to play rather than the motor action of how to execute them, and since MP has been found to be more effective on cognitive tasks than motor tasks (Feltz and Landers, 1983), the non-significant differences found between PP and MP may be partly attributed to this contrast between the cognitive and the motor elements of the task" (Cahn, 2008, p. 187). We can conclude from this study that MP may be a more effective tool for tasks that require transposition or analysis than for the practice of physical movements (this seems intuitive).

A third study by Highben and Palmer (2004) investigated the effects of auditory and motor imagery in the practice of unfamiliar pieces by adult professional and college-level pianists. Four groups were used in this study: 1) A Normal practice condition where pianists were told to practice and perform a given piece; 2) A Motor Only practice condition where pianists played the piano without any auditory feedback, imagining the sound of what they were playing; 3) An Auditory Only practice condition where pianists were instructed to hold their hands still while imagining their fingers moving to a recording of the test-piece; and 4) A Covert practice condition where pianists were tested on Motor-only and Auditory-only practice. The results of this study showed that the Normal practice condition (PP) group was the best at remembering the pieces they practiced, with the Covert practice condition (MP only) group faring the worst (p. 63-64). While PP carried out by the Normal practice condition proved to be most effective, this study did find that the Auditory-only practice group showed that MP had an impact on learning. Highben and Palmer (2004) state: "Whereas previous studies demonstrated the overall efficacy of mental practice in music performance (Coffman, 1990; Ross, 1985), these findings suggest specifically that auditory forms of mental practice aid performers' learning of unfamiliar music" (p. 64).

Of the studies I discussed in this essay, Miksza (2005) and Cahn (2008) concluded that MP in combination with PP is as effective as PP alone. Highben and Palmer (2004) add that it is specifically auditory mental practice that is the most effective form of mental practice in learning new material. While all these studies show that MP alone is not as effective as PP, they all seem to point to the idea that MP is still an important skill that should be nurtured in musical education. In my own training, MP was never discussed as a valid form of practice, although I have naturally found found myself practicing in my head when I'm away from the piano. Sometimes I use mental imagery to imagine a "performance" of a piece I am learning or composing, and at other times I recall a recording I have heard or work out improvisational patterns much like was described in Cahn's study. Although I engage in MP from time to time, I have never used it in a systematic way. I now wonder how much stronger my musical imagination could have become if MP was discussed and made use of in my musical education. I also wonder if MP was made use of more in mainstream education, if studies might find participants with stronger mental imagery abilities, and results that rate MP higher in efficacy.


Cahn, D. (2008). The effects of varying ratios of physical and mental practice, and task difficulty on performance of a tonal pattern. Psychology of Music, 36(2), 179–191.

Clark, T. (2012). Imagining the music: Methods for assessing musical imagery ability. Psychology of Music, 40(4), 471–493.

Coffman, D. (1990). Effects of Mental Practice, Physical Practice, and Knowledge of Results on Piano Performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 38(3), 187–196.

Highben, Z., & Palmer, C. (2004). Effects of Auditory and Motor Mental Practice in Memorized Piano Performance. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, (159), 58–65.

Hird, J.S., Landers, D.M., Thomas, J.R. and Horan, J.J. (1991). Physical Practice is Superior to Mental Practice in Enhancing Cognitive and Motor Task Performance. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 8, 281–93.

Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. HarperCollins.

Miksza, P. (2005). The Effect of Mental Practice on the Performance Achievement of High
School Trombonists. Contributions to Music Education, 32(1), 75-93.

Ross, S. L. (1985). The Effectiveness of Mental Practice in Improving the Performance of College Trombonists. Journal of Research in Music Education, 33(4), 221–230. doi:10.2307/3345249

Zatorre, R. J. (2005). Mental Concerts: Musical Imagery and Auditory Cortex. Neuron, 47(1), 9–12.

Whats Happenning to my Brain in African Drumming Class?

This essay examines the brain processes involved in and elicited by African Drumming class at the University of Toronto. Rhythm is normally considered as ‘of the body’, but according to Robert Jourdain (1997), it is very much of the brain. I started my African Drumming class at the university with this misconception, but was subsequently baffled by the processes involved in the difficulties and successes I was experiencing. I asked myself questions such as “Why is this so difficult?” and “How can I understand and execute this rhythm better?” These are the questions that led me to a bigger question: “What’s happening in my brain during drumming class?” With the help of Jourdain’s (1997) book, I have explored the issue of lateralization, the question of where in my brain the rhythm processing happens, my body’s response to these processes, how sensory and memory systems work together and how the learning of the rhythms takes place. These explorations lead to the inference that the understanding and performance of rhythm is not limited to one part of the body or one section of the brain.

Recently, research surfaced suggesting the strict lateralization of most brain functions. Jourdain (1997) disagrees with this theory wholeheartedly, saying that brain function is too complex to be limited to one section or hemisphere. This, he says, is especially true of rhythm. Generally speaking rhythm is considered to be a left brain affair, while harmony resides on the right. Michael H. Thaut (2005) is also an advocate of this theory, referencing a study that shows that pitch is processed separately from rhythm (Peretz and Kolinsky 1993) and suggesting that rhythm is bilateral. Jessica A. Grahn (2009) has also conducted research in favor of rhythm being less localized than pitch. Interestingly, patients who suffer left brain damage generally do not lose their rhythmic ability, but right brain damage can eliminate harmonic skills. This suggests that rhythm employs multiple types of cognition, and that its processes are far less localized than those of tonality.

Jourdain (1997) is generally less focused on rhythm in his book than he is on pitch, but he does outline areas of the brain where rhythm is involved. Newer research supports many of his findings, but some researchers are of the opinion that it is challenging to assign a particular function to a specific area of the brain (Grahn 2009).

Premotor Cortex – This is the part of the brain that becomes active just before the motor cortex. Thaut (2005) attributes this section to planning, voluntary control and movement execution. Grahn (2009), in her study, also mentions the involvement of the Supplementary Motor area in these functions.

Basal Ganglia – This primitive part of the brain manages lengthy sequences of adjustments of posture and is involved in action selection and learning.

Cerebellum – Balance is one of the main functions of this section of the brain but it also harmonizes the motions of the body. Thaut (2005) mentions that the cerebellum integrates sensory and motor information. This, and the fact that the cerebellum is a muscle coordinator suggests that this area of the brain may play an important role in proper instrumental technique.

Significantly, these three areas of the brain are closely connected. Research also shows that the arms and hands are controlled by two different parts of the brain. The cerebellum controls hand details while the basal ganglia controls the arms. It is fascinating to consider how these two systems are able to work together in the motions of African Drumming.

Parietal Cortex – “Assembles incoming sensations into maps of the body and its environment.” (Jourdain 1997 p. 217) The left parietal cortex sequences motions on both sides of the body. There are many neurons here that are specific to the arms and hands. This fact leads us into the investigation of how these neural processes manifest themselves in the body.

Generally, one thinks of rhythm as a bodily experience. For example, one might think of themselves as bodily (or culturally) predisposed to African Drumming, or not. Jourdain (1997) suggests that the coordination of limbs is not of the body, but of the brain, and that they are intermediated by the cerebral cortex. He illustrates this idea beautifully when he says “when people insist that rhythm comes from the body, they are really thinking about the pleasure they gain by representing rhythm in their motor systems.” (p. 149)

Although movement involves the entire brain, the motor cortex is lateralized. The volition of performance has been identified in previous sections, but what of the physical execution? The hands, one of the few parts of the body with very fine motor skills (another part is the face) have a disproportionately bigger chunk of motor cortex assigned to them. Additionally, Jourdain (1997) claims that there is no muscle that works alone, so beating a sogo rhythm in drumming class would include many more parts of the body than just the hands. Again, this supports the theory that rhythm and rhythm production cannot be confined to one section of the brain, or the body for that matter.

Then, finally, is the question of how learning takes place in the drumming class. There is no notation to follow and rhythms are expected to be memorized. How is this achieved in such a unique learning environment? From my own observation, I noticed different types of memory at work. I feel the drum under my fingers as I hit (tactile), I hear what the correct rhythm is supposed to sound like (auditory) and I watch the teacher’s hand movements carefully (visual). Jourdain (1997) describes performance as a never ending cycle of feedback and adjustment, and this is certainly true of African Drumming. My aim is truly to make the different beats into what Jourdain (1997) calls a property of the motor system. Thaut (2005) views this as a type of brain plasticity or entrainment. What he claims is that after repeated practice and experience, new synaptical networks emerge in the brain. Miell, Macdonald and Hargreaves (2005) claim that “Musical rhythm rapidly creates stable and precise internal templates for temporal organization of motor responses” (p. 184).

For me, being an auditory learner, the most helpful technique was the verbalization of rhythms. Thaut (2005) cites research that suggests that the motor system is sensitive to arousal by auditory cues and that this process happens without the individual being cognizant of the process. Perhaps this is why the internal sound of my drumming teacher saying jiki jiki jang jiki chaan jiki jang is a sure fire way for me to remember the particular drum beat associated with those syllables.

This brief investigation has led me to the conclusion that my brain is extremely active during drumming class. Not only is my brain processing what I hear and see, but it is eliciting appropriate responses from my body in a performance environment. This experience involves all parts of the body, but it seems that likewise, this rhythmic experience cannot be limited to one part of the brain.



Grahn, J. A. (2009). Neuroscientific Investigations of Musical Rhythm: Recent Advances and Future Challenges. Contemporary Music Review, 28 (3), 251-277

Jourdain, R (1997). Music, the Brain and Ecstasy. How Music Captures our Imagination. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Miell, D., Macdonald, R., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2005). Musical Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thaut, M. H. (2005). Rhythm, Music and the Brain. Scientifc Foundations and Clinical Applications. New York, NY: Routledge

How do we experience ecstasy through music?

By Amy Zampiero
Music and the Brain
October 22 2012

How is it that music can produce feelings of ecstasy in people?  Music has the ability to tap into the most primal instincts and create a heightened sense of feeling and identity.  Recently, I came across a taped recording of myself as a three year old being interviewed by my older sister. I felt inspired to sing each and every answer instead of speaking them as questions were being asked. I was always fortunate to be surrounded by music, which facilitated my experiencing many personal epiphanies and experiences of transcendence.

In the book “Music, the Brain and Ecstasy”, Jourdain references many supporting perspectives about the euphoria feeling.  He says, “special neurons produce substances called endorphins which resemble opiates and which act on neurons in the brains pain pathways…if endorphins are released when there is no pain to be counterbalanced, a euphoria results that is much like that produces by drugs like morphine”. (Jourdain, 317) Leading researchers such as Robert Zatorre and Godfried Schlaug have studied this peak emotional response to music as well Valorie Salimpoor has done studies.

Zatorre and Salimpoor measured this pleasurable response to music in terms of the brain and physiological responses.  In one study, participants experienced an increase of dopamine levels from 6%-9% and as much as 21%.  Other physical effects indicating emotional arousal included increase in respiration rates, heart rate, body temperature, and electrodermal activity.  Peak pleasurable responses like involuntary chills down the spine were also noted. (Salimpoor, 4) The research shows that the participants were listening to what was going to occur in the music and when that build-up of anticipation happened they noted a positive peak arousal. This cognitive function in the brain occurs through memory and anticipation, also noted in Jourdain’s book, is at the basis of understanding pleasure arousal in music.

Listening repeatedly to a song also aids in deepening the listening experience. A memory shaped by repeated experiences slowly unravels the complexities of melodic contour, rhythm, phrasing and the underlying meanings of a song become clearer.  The listener is able to decipher the phrasing more deeply after listening each time and the long term memory recall occurs more deeply within the elements of music. This memory response to music listening is noted in Godfried Schlaug’s research with timed emotional responses. He noted that participants responded more quickly to music that was of their favorite genre, which in turn shows familiarity as a significant factor in emotional response. Interestingly noted is that self-selected music usually has a faster response time for emotional arousal. (Bachorik et al., 6) The conclusion of this study states that “Music is a temporal art; by using this method we can begin to understand, at a behavioral level, how and when such temporal features lead to the development of musical emotion.” (Bachorik et al., 6)

In the book Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks, music therapy aids in the improvement of Alzheimer and dementia patients’ memory and overall well-being.  He states “Listening to music is not a passive process but intensely active, involving a stream of inferences, hypothesis, expectations and anticipations”. (Sacks, 211) Referring to music as the quickening art, Sacks shows how the structure of musical phrasing, contouring and patterning reveals a complex momentum in the brain. This happens whether we are actively or passively listening to music, a series of anticipations occur, and when they are resolved by the music, the listener becomes satisfied resulting in pleasure.

In the film “Alive Inside” Alzheimer patient Henry, is shown to be completely unresponsive, depressed and unable to respond to simple yes or no questions. He was reported to sit motionless most of his day with his head down and his hands crossed.  He doesn’t recognize his own daughter when she greets him.  He was said in the film to be a music lover all his life. When the Ipod was introduced, containing his favorite music, he immediately lights up and is brought to life, opens his eyes wide, and his face assumes expression, and he begins to rock and moves his arms.  This becomes his consistent reaction.  When the Ipod is removed momentarily after a listening session, he is asked, “What does music do to you?”  He responds emphatically, “It gives me the feeling of love, romance.  I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing.  You’ve got beautiful music here, beautiful, lovely.  I feel the band of love, of dreams.  The lord came to me and made me holy, I’m a holy man! So he gave me these sounds”. (Cohen) These triggered pleasure responses enliven patients, enabling them to engage with others and often regain lost memory.

Not only does the build up of anticipation produce ecstasy, the effect is intensified by way of deeply embedded memories that are stored in the limbic system.  Sacks’ patients were also found to have improved memory after exposure to music. He furthers this point by saying “the aim of music therapy in people with dementia is far broader than this; it seeks to address the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts and memories, the surviving self of the patient, to stimulate these and bring them to the fore.  It aims to enrich and enlarge existence, to give freedom, stability, organization and focus.” (Sacks, 336)

The positive effects of music through dopamine release, memory recall and resolved anticipation shows that music reveals a complex series of events physiologically and neurologically. Our pleasure arousal peaks when the momentum of these events snowball therefore inducing euphoric states in the brain. Jourdain concludes “As our brains are thrown into overdrive, we feel our very existence expand and realize that we can be more than we normally are, and that the world is more than it seems. That is cause enough for ecstasy.”(Jourdain, 318) This intensely pleasurable response to music correlates to activity in the brain regions associated with good food or drugs. Whereas addictive behavior, using food, sex, alcohol and drugs, can be used to alter mood and achieve good feelings, often at a cost to good health, the research would suggest that activities such as music therapy could be used to elicit a person’s positive pleasure response.

Bachorik, J. P., Bangert, M., Loui, P., Larke, K., Berger, J., Rowe, R., & Schlaug, G. (04/2009).                        Emotion in motion: Investigating the time-course of emotional judgments of musical stimuli. Music Perception, Volume 26(Issue 4), p. 355.

Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., & Dagher, A. (02/2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, Volume 14(Issue 2), p 257-262.

Blood, A. J., & Zatorre, R. (09/2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Volume 98(Issue 20), p. 11818 - 11823.

Cohen, D. (2011). Man in nursing home reacts to hearing music from his era. Retrieved 12/08, 2012, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyZQf0p73QM
Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the brain and ecstasy: How music captures our imagination. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Ritter, M. (01/2011,). Music gives pleasure in more ways than one, study finds. The Charleston Gazette, pp. p. B.8.

Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York, NY: Afred A. Knopf.

Salimpoor, Valorie N and Nenovoy, Mitchel and Longo, Gregory and Cooperstock, Jeremy R and Zatorre, Robert J. (2009). The rewarding aspects of music listening are related to degree of emotional arousal. PloS One, Volume 4(Issue 10), p. e7487.

Zatorre, R. (09/1997). Soundwork. Volume 277(Issue 3,2), 08/2012.

How do varying background music conditions impact the performance of attention, recall and comprehension tasks?

 “How many of you studied with music in the background during your undergraduate studies? And how many of you studied in silence?” asked one of the graduate school orientation organizers. The question was proposed in order to make the point that we all made it to the same place despite having a variety of studying and music listening routines. During my undergraduate studies, I enjoyed upbeat background music during tasks that used up less of my “brain power” and needed silence to comprehend complex concepts. Songs I liked tempted me to sing along and soft music lowered my energy level and led me to sleep. My interest in how well our brain copes with dual processes, music and learning tasks, led me to complete this short essay on how the performance of three types of tasks usually involved in studying (attention, recall, comprehension) correlate with varying background music conditions. The sources chosen to be reviewed were limited to those published after Robert Jourdain’s book “Music, the Brain and Ecstasy”, not relating to learning tasks other than the ones mentioned above,  and whose participants were between 19-30 years old.

Attention tasks

Attention task performance was shown to vary based on the presence or absence of lyrics and the music preferences of the participants. In Shi, Huang and Chiang (2012) and Huang and Shih (2011), identification of the number of asterisks in a series of scrambled codes was used as the test for attention.

Shi, Huang and Chiang (2012) based their research on three conditions – quiet, music with lyrics, and music without lyrics. There was a significant negative impact on the attention performance in the music with lyrics environment compared to the quiet environment. There was no significant difference between quiet and music without lyrics or between music with lyrics and music without lyrics.  The music with lyrics and music without lyrics did not differ in volume or tune. Details were not available as to which instrument would carry the tune instead of the voice. The findings of this research, that the presence of words diverts one’s attention from the task, supports Jourdain’s (1997) idea of the importance of words to melody listening.

Huang and Shih (2011) found that participants with no background music scored higher on an attention test than participants exposed to popular songs, classical light music or traditional Chinese music. Although popular songs, the only category that may have contained lyrics, did not significantly differ from the classical light (instrumental) and the traditional Chinese (instrumental), I noticed that the mean score was slightly lower than the instrumental categories.

 It seems that a quiet environment produced better attention scores than music with lyrics in both papers, although not quite significantly better in the Huang and Shih (2011) paper. A quiet environment produced similar attention scores to instrumental in the Shi, Huang and Chiang (2012) paper and better than instrumental in the Huang and Shih (2011) paper. Also, participants whose preference for the background music was ‘dislike very much’ or ‘like very much’ scored lower on the attention test (Huang & Shih, 2011).

Recall tasks

Recall tasks were not only correlated with music preference but also with the personality of the listener. In Perham and Vizard’s (2011) research, participants were exposed to 5 different music states – quiet, steady-state, changing-state, liked music and disliked music ‒ as they tried to recall 25 different sets of 8 consonants. The steady-state was a man’s voice repeating the same number and the changing-state was the same voice saying a sequence of random digits (1-9). The liked music was the participants’ choice, all by contemporary artists like Lady Gaga. The disliked music was thrash metal, which participants agreed that they disliked in advance. They also filled out a ratings questionnaire about the likeability, distractibility, offensiveness and pleasantness of the sounds.

             When participants heard quiet or steady-state speech, they had more successful recall than when they heard changing-state speech, liked or disliked music. They were less successful with music they found likeable and pleasant, even offensive. Combining these results with the findings of Huang and Shih (2011) show that both attention and recall tasks scored less during liked and disliked music compared to a quiet environment.

The distractibility property data collected by Perham and Vizard (2011) produced interesting results. The musical conditions that participants found most distracting (steady-state) and least distracting (quiet) produced similar results. Participants were more successful with quiet and steady-state than with music they liked, disliked or changing-state.

The trend in the research discussed so far implies better success in quiet environments but the following paper complicates matters as it associates the success in quiet conditions with introverts, not extroverts.  The research by Furnham and Allass (1999) was based on Eysenck’s theory of personality which claimed that arousal levels depended on personality such that introverts experienced arousal at lower-level intensity stimulation than extroverts. Both simple and complex music used in this study contained lyrics. Overall, extroverts performed better than introverts in immediate recall tests. Extroverts performed their best during complex background music but introverts performed their best during silence. To the extroverts, there seemed no significant difference between hearing complex or simple music in terms of distraction. To the introverts, however, complex music was more distracting than simple music. 

Comprehension tasks

With regard to reading comprehension, Furnham and Allass (1999) found that although the trends were similar to the idea that extroverts perform better during complex music and introverts during silence, the results were not significantly different.

On another language test, musicians and non-musicians were compared after they marked grammatically incorrect sentences while they listened to silence, piano music with no errors or piano music with errors (Patston & Tippett, 2011). Musicians scored better than non-musicians overall in all categories. The musicians scored less when there was piano music (compared to silence) and even worse when there were errors in the music. Non-musicians were not impacted significantly by the three different conditions. In visuospatial testing, musicians did better than non-musicians overall but the difference within one group over the three different conditions did not vary. In other words, the musicians were quite impacted during the language tests by the change in conditions but not during the visuospatial test. The authors suggest that the trend implies that the musical and language processes overlap in a musicians brain so errors in one category (music) cause the brain to make errors in the other category (language) and vice versa. Jourdain (1997) suggests that expert listening would require more effort than passive listening. Assuming that the musicians were familiar with the piano music, information lacking in the paper, their brains would perhaps tend to analyse deeper relations in the music and expend more energy in listening than non-musicians especially when the anticipated relations were faulty.

As evident in the research reviewed in this essay, it is quite difficult to make a generalisation or recommendation with regard to listening to music as one is studying. Not only is the type of task a determinant but also various qualities of the music, our personality and our educational background. I also found that many research papers discussed their results in terms of arousal, whereas Jourdain (1997) maintained the importance of distinguishing between arousal and attention. For example, no questions were asked to examine the attention given to the music itself after the task tests other than likeability properties. A thorough examination of the music used in addition to further insight by music experts would be valuable to our understanding of the brain as it relates to music and studying.


Furnham, A., & Allass, K. (1999). The influence of musical distraction of varying complexity on the cognitive performance of extroverts and introverts. European Journal of Personality, 13(1), 27-38. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-0984(199901/02)13:1<27::AID-PER318>3.0.CO;2-R

Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the brain, and ecstasy : How music captures our imagination (1st ed. ed.). New York: W. Morrow.

Patston, L. L. M., & Tippett, L. J. (2011). The effect of background music on cognitive performance in musicians and nonmusicians. Music Perception, 29(2), 173-183.

Perham, N., & Vizard, J. (2011). Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(4), 625-631. doi: 10.1002/acp.1731

Huang, R.H. & Shih, Y. (2011). Effects of background music on concentration of workers. Work, 38(4), 383-387. doi: 10.3233/WOR-2011-1141

Shih, Y. N., Huang, R. H., & Chiang, H. Y. (2012). Background music: Effects on attention performance. Work (Reading, Mass.), 42(4), 573-578. doi: 10.3233/WOR-2012-1410