Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Music Care Conference 2012

This blog is based the last installment of the Music Care Conference held at the Edward Johnson building, Toronto on the 11th November 2012. There will be a YouTube link to this conference available soon.

The conference began with an introduction by Professor Lee Bartel, who delineated the objectives of the Music Care Conference. He outlined several research spheres:

-          Therapy and medicine as it relates to sound

-          Body, brain and mind

-          Society and culture

-          Medicine and therapy

-          Sustaining peak performance

These topics, he said, will aid in the development of knowledge on topics such as long term approach to musicians health, the effects of long term musical training, music enjoyment and rehabilitation, music based sleep induction, and rhythmic sound stimulation on Alzheimer’s patients. 

He then posed the question; “If I had a million dollars, what research would I do in music medicine?”

Two researchers ventured to answer this question, Dr. J Loewy and Dr. Gottfried Schlaug.

Dr. Loewy dealt with Music and Medicine in ageing research. Firstly, she examined the public view of music therapy, stating that effective portrayal of music therapy in the media would incite thought in the general populace. She refers to the speech therapy portrayed in the movie ‘The King’s Speech’ as an example of music therapy. She also mentioned the cases of Gaby Giffords and Helen Keller. She then dealt with integrative medicine, focusing on the relationship between caregiver and patient. She mentioned the relevance of caregivers and underlined the need for greater emphasis of mind/body/spirit connections. This led into her discussion on caregiver burden and how difficult the experience of caregiving usually is. Finally, from the research perspective, she deals with the issue of evidence and methodological challenges. She states that multiple sources of evidence are preferable in research, and that the patient is the best source of evidence.

Dr. Schlaug dealt with Music and the brain – benefits of music-making and examples of music’s therapeutic effects. Schlaug described music as a ‘multisensory motor experience’ and an ‘alternative vehicle into dysfunctional parts of the brain’. He goes on to say that more brain activation occurs during singing than during speaking. He then deals with a particular part of the brain called the arcuate fasciculus which he claims is responsible for mapping sound into action. Schlaug also says that humans are normally born with this region of the brain equal on both sides, but generally the left side tends to develop more. However, in autism, this section of the brain develops differently. This having been said, Schlaug deals with the therapeutic potential of music therapy, saying that it improves initiation and gait in Parkinson’s patients (however, the effects are not long-lasting), that singing improves stuttering and that intonation based therapy may help in cases of aphasia. He also informed listeners that structural changes actually occurred in the brains of individuals receiving music therapy.


Personally, I find the concept of music therapy to be completely motivating and relevant, so I posed Professor Bartel’s question to myself, what would I do with a million dollars for music therapy research? I think I would use it to improve the quality of life of individuals with disabilities, leaning on the concepts of plasticity and entrainment, savantism, and development of physical neurological structure. Dr. Loewy’s research would apply directly to this, because making the public aware of the importance and effectiveness of music therapy is an important step. Caregiver health should also be taken into account, because this type of work can prove to be very challenging. The exploration of the mind/body/spirit connection is facilitated by the use of music, and disabled individuals would certainly benefit from this. Loewy’s concern with methodological challenges is also important, because it is difficult to quantify the experiences of human beings, but every piece of research adds to this body of knowledge. Dr. Schlaug’s insight into the anatomy of the brain in terms of development would also be helpful, especially concerning the exploration of the development of the arcuate fasciculus in disabled individuals. The continued exploration of how alternative neural pathways develop in damaged brains will certainly contribute positively to this area of research.

This conference reminded me of the power of music therapy and the important role of neurological research in this field. It is very important to keep this kind of research on stream, especially if we are to provide a higher standard of life for differently able individuals through the use of music.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dr.Tomaino's "Behind the Scenes"

Noon Series Talk in Walter Hall UofT featuring Dr. Concetta M. Tomaino, D.A., MT-BC, LCAT on          Thursday November 8, 2012

Lecture: “The Real Experience Behind Oliver Sacks’ Stories”

             This afternoon I was delighted to hear the keynote speaker, and one of our leading music therapists and researchers, Dr. Concetta Tomaino, speak of her experiences working with neurologist, Oliver Sacks at the formerly called Beth Abraham Family of Health Services, which is now named, CentreLight Health System.

Dr. Tomaino’s background educational experience is in biology with a pre-med goal and it quickly turned into musical inspiration to study the trumpet. This passion for music and her scientific mind married into the notable research and frontline work she has done with patients of various illnesses’ reaching palliative care units. Dr. Tomaino began her work at Beth Abraham in the 1980’s as a music therapist who worked alongside Dr. Sacks, bringing him patients, with whom she made music with singing and accordion. At the time, Dr. Tomaino states the words music and therapy were not said together.  She formed relationships with many patients created new research findings noting the transformation and stimulation that music brought to the otherwise catatonic patients. Dr. Sacks journalized these findings into his bestseller book “Awakenings”. This was the beginning of a new era when the great mystery of music was realized to transform, awaken, arouse, stimulate and restore vitality in humankind.

Dr. Tomaino reminisced that most patients with dementia were placed in the back of the ward, tube-fed, overly medicated and had to wear mittens on their hands tied to the wheelchairs so that they didn’t hurt themselves. Her job was to offer music therapy to relax, comfort and engage her patients.  Three patients that represent her exemplary work during this time: Bessie, Charles and Gabe.

Bessie had suffered multiple strokes loosing her short-term memory leaving her with amnesia and dementia although she showed signs of being able to connect and converse with others.  During her therapy sessions, she spoke of memories working as a high-end seamstress and being a contemporary to Ella Fitzgerald and, in fact, she believed she was still working as she said, “I am determined to go into show business.” Dr. Tamaino saw Bessie once a week for two years and Bessie responded very positively to singing, remembering all of the words and singing in great tone and pitch. The power of music therapy stimulated Bessie’s pleasure arousal and activated her long-term memories.

The second patient, Charles suffered from dementia, severe arthritis and balance issues and as Dr. Tamaino played her accordion he swung out of his wheelchair, and shockingly danced as long as the music was playing.  During this time, he remembers dancing at the Savoy Club in NY. This patient suffered from frontal lobe damage hindering him from social interaction. As the music therapy continued Dr. Tamaino concludes that his procedural memory of habitual, daily actions were activated and through the auditory connections through the basal ganglia and cerebellum his motor function improved also improving social interaction.

The third patient, Gabe was a young man who was blind and after removing a tumor he lost memory, and forgot he was blind and he thought he could still see.  The music therapy animated Gabe, engaged him to think back to long-term memories of owning a collection of albums. Surprisingly, he could remember the track names, musicians and album names that he used to own.

Dr. Tomaino speaks of Dr. Sacks' compassion to understand, interact and help his patients beyond a prescribed level. She told a story of how began to dance with his patients and treat them with utmost respect and dignity. He holds a true integral humanitarian approach to this research and he possesses articulate skills for journalizing his findings. While reflecting on Dr. Sacks during her talk Dr. Tomaino states “life is more than the body we are in- we contain a soul and human spirit which can be tapped into through music.” This honors my truth as a musician and teacher of music.

Although Dr. Sacks felt discouraged after writing “Awakenings” for the field of music therapy was in beginning stages of development, his colleagues encouraged him to continue researching the neurological functions of music therapy.  Today, Dr. Sacks has written twelve books some being bestsellers such as Musicophilia, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and The Mind’s Eye.

The field of music therapy is at a peak of connecting neuroscience to music therapy and creating medicine, therapies and care for people that suffer from any sort of condition ranging from stroke, amnesia, and dementia to speech rehabilitation. Music therapy has gone through decades of ridicule and, as of recently over the past ten years, is surfacing as an effective way to re-unite patients who have lost their sense of self, personality or engagement. There is nothing more powerful than seeing an otherwise catatonic person reawaken to the sounds around them. The auditory connections through the basal ganglia and cerebellum offer scientist a gateway into the healing process of these patients. Neuroscience research is beginning to answer burning questions of why music is so important. Through music therapy the mystique of music, its power and spirit evident in humankind, will prosper to enliven but also heal the sufferers of so many ailments that plague people. As we move on, our health issues continue to diversify and our solutions become simpler. The power of sound is proving to be a spirit within all of us that we cannot deny. Our population of baby boomers grows older and the medicine evident in music research is available in a timely manner.  Music therapy and neuroscience can marry to inform and assist in our global awakening to show us what we always thought is true: music heals, transforms, awakens, transfixes and lives in all of us.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Creating Meaning in Unfamiliar Places: How we listen to Unfamiliar Music

Creating Meaning in Unfamiliar Places: How we listen to Unfamiliar Music

In this paper I will be looking at the question of how an audience processes unfamiliar, foreign music. For example, how does a Western audience perceive unfamiliar non-Western music - or conversely? In particular, I will look at a study that compares Western and Balinese melodies as heard by both Western and Balinese audiences. More fundamentally, is it possible to hear sound as such or does the very act of listening already entail creating meaning?
At a basic level, all of the members of an audiences exposed to the same music would be hearing the same sounds. However, assuming that they are unfamiliar with the musical style and culture that they are being exposed to, their experience of this music, their listening, would be radically different.
In Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain defines hearing as a basic auditory processing that is "entirely unconscious at this level" (p. 245). Jourdain highlights the difference between hearing and listening through an example. In extreme cases, it is possible to "hear" something without having any awareness of it, as in the case of patients that can take sounds in through the brainstem but have no conscious awareness of the sound. This kind of auditory blind-sight is particularly interesting because it highlights the way in which the very act of listening is already active - allowing us to see the separation of perception and consciousness of perception.
Turning then to the question of listening, we see that the very act of listening is already inherently that of trying to attribute meaning. Jourdain talks of listening thus: while passive hearing happens in our brainstems, active listening, which uses the cerebral cortex, searches for "familiar devices and patterns in music" (246).
Indeed, Jourdain makes a very interesting epistemological point: assuming that we have a healthy adult with no brain damage, there is no being conscious of the phenomena of sound as such. The very act of being conscious of sound is already that of finding patterns, seeing relations, of creating meaning.
Jourdain argues that listening is done largely through anticipation. As a simple example, if a phrase is set up in a composition as an antecedent phrase, we might expect a related phrase that functions as an answer. We are very satisfied musically and intellectually when, in highly symmetric music, this is precisely that happens. Thus, anticipation and consequently inherently listening has to do with a familiarity of the rules of the music one is exposed to - with the "semantic memory" of its structures (p. 246).
What happens when we are exposed to music that is outside of these familiar structures, using different semantics? For example, if a Western audience were to be exposed to totally unfamiliar, non-Western music, how would their perception differ from that of an audience for whom this was their familiar music? One such study uses Western subjects and Balinese subjects, and compares their reactions to both Western and Balinese music, as discussed below.
In, Tonal Schemata in the Perception of Music in Bali and in the West, Kessler et al. look at cross-cultural music perception through how Western and Balinese subjects perceive both Western and Balinese melodies. The Western subjects were picked so as to not have any familiarity with Balinese music. The Balinese subjects were in two categories: one were from a conservatory where students were familiar with Western music as well as Balinese music, and the second category were from an extremely remote village where the subjects had no familiarity with Western music.
The method employed in this study is the Probe-Tone Method, first introduced by Krumhansl and Shepard in 1979. The Probe-Tone Method is a technique by which the listener's musical experience can be assessed. First, the listener is presented with a musical context: a short musical melody or several chords. Following this, a single tone is played and the listener is asked to judge if the tone 'fits' with the preceding musical context. The musical context is then repeated and a different 'probe-tone' is presented.
The question of the parameters of "fitting" is left open to the listener. Because of the vagueness of the question, there are multiple strategies that one can employ. For example, one could be presented with a melody that clearly establishes a particular tonality. A Western audience member with a musical background would score the tonic of that scale as the probe-tone that is most "fitting" and the dominant as the next closest "fitting" note. Another strategy is pitch height, a strategy employed frequently by Western listeners with less musical training, or the number of times the probe-tone appears in the preceding musical context.
In this study, Kessler et al. found that both Western and Balinese listeners "used similar response strategies, but tended to demonstrate an internalization of tonal schemata most often in response to music of their own culture" (p. 131). For example, for a Western listener, "a context based on the Western diatonic scale establishes a tonal schema for the corresponding musical key with a resulting conferral of unique tonal functions (called tonic, dominant, mediant, subdominant, leading tone, etc." (p. 132). In other words, the hierarchy of tonality is deeply imbedded in the Western audiences' perception of sound.
Not surprisingly, there was little variation within either group when presented with musical contexts based on music from their own culture. There were variations within both Western and Balinese groups corresponding to unfamiliar musical contexts, "indicating that cultural learning also has an appreciable effect" (p. 163) - as in the case of Western listeners with less musical training using pitch-height rather than tonal-center to determine whether a probe-tone fits.
As expected, when any group was presented with unfamiliar music, there was "increased variability in responses to less familiar contexts," which Kessler et al. attribute to a lack of familiarity with the musical scale "underlying the [musical] context and an absence of the internalized cognitive structures required to represent and process the music" (p. 149). In general, when presented with unfamiliar music, the pitch-height strategy increased, including for Balinese listeners with the least exposure to Western music (p. 163)
More surprisingly, they found that tonal hierarchy, "when it arose in response to Balinese as well as to Western contexts, exhibited essentially the same pattern for listeners from each of the cultures" (p. 163). Eleven of the Balinese village listeners gave answers that suggested an awareness of Western music's tonal hierarchies, suggesting that "such tonal hierarchies may reflect a human cognitive universal" (p. 163).

Thus we see that the very act of listening, even to sounds that are previously foreign, is never a passive process of listening to sounds as such. Listening is already an active process that is inseparable from trying to create meaning based on our own musical memories. And as the study of Balinese participants suggests, it opens the possibiltiy to deeper, universal cognitive roots of how we create such meaning.

Works Cited

Kessler, E, Hansen, C and Shepard, R. Tonal Schemata in the Perception of Music in Bali and in the West. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, Winter, 1984, pp. 131-165

Krumhansl, C. L., & Shepard, R. N. Quantification of the hierarchy of tonal functions within a diatonic context. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 1979, 579-594. 

Jurdain, Robert. Music, the brain, and ecstasy : How music captures our imagination, 1st ed. New York: W. Morrow, 1997.


The Mind of the Artist [podcast]

Kubovy, M. and Shatin, J. (2009) The Mind of the Artist, Music and the Brain. [podcast]. Available at:
Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the brain, and ecstasy : How music captures our imagination(1st ed. ed.). New York: W. Morrow.
Michael Kubovy, professor of psychology, and Judith Shatin, professor of music, taught a course together called ‘the mind of the artist’ at the University of Virginia. It was initiated due to a need to have interdisciplinary courses at the university. The course addressed the stereotype that artists just dump emotions or rebel. Michael Kubovy states that “artists do have minds, it’s not just emotion.” For example, they addressed how society perceives genius. In the past, each person was considered to have been born with a genius that developed their character. In the post-Renaissance era, we associate genius with great talent. According to Kubovy, genius is not a personal property but it involves talent, the gatekeepers and the audience. The professors also examined what art means in different parts of the world. 

Music resembling language
Researchers set up an experiment using a method called priming which Kubovy describes as “the use of less brain power when processing the meaning of a word if you are expecting to hear that word.” For example, participants were told to expect to hear the word ‘wide’ and instead they heard music that sounds wide. On another try they told them to expect the word ‘wide’ and the participants heard the word ‘wide.’ To obtain the results, researchers averaged many traces of EEG. In both cases, the brain activity was the same.

Something sounds like something feels
In ‘Peter and the wolf’ by Sergei Prokofiev, a flute was used to represent the sound of a bird. Kubovy explains that if you set a room with speakers which the participant cannot see and you play him music by a flutist. The participant will likely respond to a question about the position of the speakers as being up high. This shows that there is a relationship between the “quality of the instrument and where they think the sound is coming from.” The bird and the flute correspond because both seem to be high up.
The interviewer asks if we can take a loud drum and say it represents pain. Shatin explains that a really loud drum (more than 120 decibels) can be painful but we cannot necessarily say that a loud drum sounds painful. She illustrates that a fanfare is associated with the notion of a King because we have experienced that many times. She provides many factors that impact whether a sound corresponds to a feeling including the context, the speed, the sound and whether we have experienced that sound before. Researchers have been examining the cross-modal influences (how audio information impacts visual information or bodily feelings and vice versa). Kubovy is interested in how “music [is] embodied in one way or another.”

Shatin dislikes the term extra-musical as it implies that something is added in. Shatin is a composer and she shares her experiences with composing and its narrative shapes. She has come to realize that all music is program music (as opposed to absolute music) and “[embodies] aspects of our experience as bodies as experiencers of the world.”
Kubovy is “studying the cognitive foundations, that is, what mental apparatus do we need in order to perceive music, to understand it.” The brain analyzes musical patterns in certain ways. His particular interest is the issue of ambiguity in the analysis of music. He presents a musical pattern repeated several times and asks participants where the beginning of the pattern is and tries to study what mechanism of the brain is determining what the beginning of the bar is. His results show a “similarity between finding a contour in the visual world and a contour in the temporal flow of music.” They have been able to construct a theory that predicts where the bar will begin and predicts ambiguities. His interest extends to analogies of vision and audition.
His PhD percussion student tried to resolve a debate whether the duration of the sound of a percussion instrument is impacted by the gesture the musician makes with the mallet. So his student recorded musicians who thought they could impact the duration of the sound with their gesture. He let the participants listen to the recordings in two settings: audio and (audio & visual). Participants found a big difference in the duration of the sound when visuals were present and none when it was just audio.

                I find the analogy between vision and audition in the case of the percussion instrument to re-iterate how interconnected and complex mechanisms are in our brain. In a way, the results imply that we not only hear music but see it as well (I do not mean just seeing the physical instruments and the musician, but the music itself). The participants in the experiment did not just perceive that the sound seemed longer but they actually heard it longer. This supports the idea that we can have a very different experience listening to an ipod on our own instead of actually going out to see a live performance or watch a youtube video. In Jourdain’s book ‘music, the brain and ecstasy’ we looked at how reverberations can impact the experience, the findings of this experiment add another dimension to our musical experience, the visual.
                The similarity of brain activity when hearing a word and hearing music that sounds like the word takes us into further exploration of how language and music brain mechanisms can overlap and how the two resemble each other.  I am wondering whether this is a learned behaviour such as how we learn the difference between a major and a minor chord. I would have also liked to know whether the same results would be obtained in different parts of the world and I would be interested in finding out what kind of music they woud use to represent specific words in different cultures.