Friday, December 14, 2012

The Acquired Savant

Topical Reference:
"Ingenious Minds: Derek Amato" by Discovery Communications
(Full Episode shared on YouTube)

This video documents the case of Derek Amato, who had a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) on the left side due to diving into the shallow end of a pool. He self-reports seeing small floating black and white blocks move from the left to the right side in his mind. He describes this experience as an incessant and uncontrolled internal representation that is calmed and relieved by piano performance. The blocks represent musical sounds that he can translate onto the piano. He and his family claim that he had absolutely no experience with piano playing before his injury. However, after his injury, he gained the ability to improvise entire pieces of music with seemingly well-practiced technique. Thus, he is described as an "Acquired Savant," since his ability was not innate through birth, had no incipient stage and appeared later in life.

Later in the episode, a brain scan reveals that he seems to have some damage in his cortex tissues. The neuroscientist describes his internal perception of moving blocks and their association to sound as synesthesia. Derek then reports that the blocks and the compulsive need to translate their information to piano is inhibited when he has strong headaches, which have afflicted him since before his TBI.


Synesthesia has been shown to exist in the general population to a small degree, as demonstrated by experiments such as those on the "Bouba-Kiki" paradigm (Ramachandran, 2001). "Bouba" and "Kiki" were described to participants as the names of 2 separate letters in an alien alphabet. One letter was a curvy-rounded shape, while the other was a pointy-spiked object (see Figure 1). Researchers simply asked the participants to label one of the symbols "Bouba" and one of the symbols "Kiki." Ninety-five percent of participants named the curvy object, "Bouba" and the pointy object, "Kiki." This is evidence that most people seem to have a slight associative synesthesia between visual shapes and speech sounds.

Figure 1. Experiments show people tend to name the object on the left "Kiki" and the object on the right "Bouba," when asked to guess which of the two labels is associated with each shape.

One of the key things to remember about the "Bouba-Kiki" paradigm is that this kind of synesthesia does not necessarily invasively change the standard orientation of cross-modal sensory systems. Thus, despite associative pathways existing between shapes and sounds, 'normal' brains do not automatically process specific words when these shapes are seen, and vice versa. Put simply, the association between visual shapes and syllabic sounds is hardwired and softwired into the brain in a common way at the level of perception or abstraction but not necessarily sensation. Derek claims that his mind automatically and involuntarily associates imagined black and white shapes to specific pitches and rhythms. Further, he claims to be able to predictably and consistently decode these associations into musical sounds through the piano. This should be tested because the types of skills that Derek displays are not conventionally those associated to musical savants or professional musicians.

Measurability here becomes critical. While Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) showed evidence of neural trauma, there was no real evidence that his brain has an innate organizing capability for conventional harmonic systems or a powerful memory for even his own music. He did not seem to be able to rapidly encode new musical materials and learn pieces by ear instantly. Arguably, these critiques of his abilities have to do with the question of whether Derek qualifies as a 'Savant'. That being said, it is not known whether Derek even has synesthesia. So what does the scientific literature have to say about this case? Firstly, a variety of musical synesthedes are known to exist (Beeli et al., 2005). They do not necessarily qualify as musical savants. The term savant derives from "Idiot-Savant," which is defined as "a person who is considered to be mentally handicapped but displays brilliance in a specific area, esp. one involving memory" by Apple's dictionary. As far as definitions go, it seems this case would not apply.

Clearly, as a professionally trained musician I am skeptical of Derek's claims. While his skills appear to have been acquired without previous experience on the piano, for which he has witnesses to attest to, they do not necessarily represent the extremely organized memory for hierarchical pitch structures that are demonstrated by savants who have autism and blindness, or mental retardation (Heaton, 2003; Miller, 1989). He displays the ability to do some fairly complicated motor skills related to technique, such as arpeggio and open-spaced harmonies. However, the harmonies he uses are 'modern' in approach and do not necessarily fall into conventional harmonic structures, by which to say that tonality is not adhered to in a form that demands an obviously strong intentionality. After an improvisation, Derek stated that it was "just like I heard it in my head," yet there is no real way for him to prove that this is true. This begs the question, is he lying about his ability? Had he been practicing his piano arpeggios in secret? Let's assume he is being truthful about these black and white blocks being able to internally represent known pitch and rhythmic values. Let's also assume that he can predictably translate this internal representation into a piano performance and had no piano experience before his TBI. Does this skill qualify as a case of an acquired musical savant? Certainly, it would be synesthesia but of course, his acquisition of the piano skills is still to be answered. These motor-skills are the most convincing of his abilities.

Derek does not seem like a savant in the conventional sense but if he is in fact telling the truth, it implies that there maybe musical capabilities deep within all people that are inhibited, unless certain parts of the inhibitory system are shutdown. In the case of damaged inhibitory system, the downside would be that certain information could be made to process uncontrollably in the mind. This is would be true in Derek's case. To me, this processing also relates to the strong sensory overload and constant bombardment of stimulation that is associated with autism and musical savants. More poignantly, it reflects the itch and compulsion that leads to the necessity for self-expression in all artists.

Beeli, G., Esslen, M. & Jäncke, L. (2003). Synaesthesia: When coloured sounds taste sweet. Nature, 434, 38.

Miller, P. (2003). Pitch memory, labeling and disembedding in autism. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 543-551.

Miller, L. K. (1989). Musical savants: Exceptional skill in the mentally retarded. Hillsdale, England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Ramachandran, V. S. (2001). Synaesthesia – A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, 3-34.

Improvisation and the Brain

Topical Reference:
"Your Brain on Improv" by Charles Limb (Full Version available on TED)

This video features a talk about musical improvisation and begins by presuming that creativity is a product of the brain and therefore able to be studied scientifically. In this case, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is capable of detecting deoxygenated hemoglobin was employed to examine which areas of the brain increase and decrease in neural activity during spontaneously generated playing vs. over-learned playing. Essentially, musicians were asked to improvise music and then play similar music that was memorized.

First, jazz piano players were tested. Participants played via a midi keyboard that was modified to be able to be played while lying in the fMRI machine. They heard the music through headphones, which included prerecorded accompaniment. Differences in activity were found in multifunctional locations throughout the brain that are associated to introspection, self-reflection and short-term memory. Specifically, areas responsible for self-monitoring shut down during improvisation, while regions responsible for autobiographical thinking and self-expressivity lit up. This was seen by the activation of an area known as the medial prefrontal cortex and deactivation of a broader area called the lateral prefrontal cortex. Limb hypothesized that "to be creative you have to have this weird disassociation in the frontal lobe. One area turns on and a big area shuts off so that you're not inhibited, so that you're willing to make a mistake, so that you're not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses."

He then repeated the test while having participants "trade 4s," which is when 2 jazz musicians improvise solos in response to each other in a musical call and response. Since Limb is a jazz musician himself, he simply played with the participants using a keyboard that was heard through headphones, which facilitated the call and response. The musicians were asked to memorize a melody then alternate between playing the melody and "trading 4s" on cue.

Broca's region, which is implicated in speech, language and expressive communication, was activated while musically responding to another musician during musical improvisation. It was not active during the memorized playing. Limb then states that a possible neurological basis for the idea that music is a language might be implicated by these results.

Finally, he tested freestyle rapping. The same memorized vs. improvised comparison was done. Interestingly, despite the rappers' eyes being closed, the visual areas lit up. At the same time, the cerebellum was activated, which is strange since this area is responsible for motor coordination and the subjects were lying still.


The question of how the brain innovates and generates novel conceptions is fascinating in light of the tremendous creative capacity of human beings. With the strong caveat that this data is from a miniscule data set, what is presented is still remarkable. Oddly, musical improvisation seemed to occur in brain regions that were somewhat surprising.

For example, the activation of visual systems while the eyes are closed is peculiar. During routine electroencephalogram testing, bright lights are flashed at the patients to activate the visual cortex and yet, freestyle rap seems to activate it without the aid of the vision! The motor-control region activation was also interesting. The cerebellum can be associated to conditioned and automated movements, which makes sense in light of the fact that motor-control of the vocal areas may need to be available for quick real time adjustments as verbalizations formulate meanings and vice versa.

The language region known as Broca's area was lit up during instrumental improvisation where the musician was musically interacting and responding to another musician. It should be noted that a homologous region was activated in the right hemisphere. This might imply that linguistic and musical communication coevolved. In any case, it seems that language specialization areas on the left hemisphere of brain may be involved in contextual musical meaning comprehension.

Improvisation and the ability to spontaneously generate ideas are highly related to creativity. The findings revealed in this video seem to shed some light onto what is happening in our brains when we are being creative. Changes in the balance between inhibition and excitation seem to logically explain how improvisers reach moments of peak creativity. Though many new questions are brought up by this research, a stepping-stone to a scientific understanding of creativity seems to be in the making. Personally, I am enthralled to witness neuroscience accepting the challenge of solving the mystery of human ingenuity and our potentially infinite creative capacities. 

Musicality in Children

Topical Reference:
 "Music and Your Child" by TVO (Full Episode available on YouTube)

This made for television panel interview features Wayne Strongman, Lorell Trainor and Lee Bartel. They discuss a variety of topics on music during child development, beginning with music and general measures of intelligence.

Trainor mentions that a very minor 3- or 4-point increase in I.Q. is seen in children who take formal music lessons. Physical and motor representations are developed in relation to an instrument that is being learned. Interestingly, children who take formal music lessons also show advanced cognitive skills in the domains of concentration and attention. Bartel adds that research shows attentional rehabilitation is more effective when using music in comparison to any other rehabilitation technique for adolescents who have traumatic brain injuries, which seems consistent with the facts mentioned by Trainor.

The so-called, "Mozart Effect" is then elucidated. Products that offer the promise of intelligence to infants through music listening are dismissed as gimmicks, since music listening and lessons affects intelligence very minutely. While stimulation through mobiles, music, etc. is known to be enjoyable to infants; the effects of music on intelligence are rather insignificant.

Strongman emphasizes that community and sheer enjoyment should be underscored as music's primary value, not how it can access other academic subjects, such as mathematics. This brings up sociological topics, beginning with the social and emotional function of music in the rites and rituals of society. Music seems to be embedding within these rituals cross-culturally. For example, funerals, weddings, parties and other collective gatherings that involve the coming together of a social group often involve music. The idea that music can make many people "feel something together" attests to how music facilitates social unification and bonding in human groups. This relates to how teenage social groups define and unify themselves using music preference, which shows that music not only plays a role in structuring social groups but also affects us at level of individual identity and self-expression.

The conversation then moves from the sociological to the social-psychological. The panel brings up the idea that music seems to communicate meanings that are difficult to codify with language. Bartel quotes that music may communicate that which is "too specific for words." That said, he adds the caveat that music does not need to be thought of as a language itself but instead "can communicate what we can't find the words for." Children communicate in sounds before they communicate using words, further indicating their inherent musicality.

Sadly, mothers of today anecdotally seem to sing less and know fewer songs when communicating with their infants than in the past. Further, as access to recordings increase, singing could be replaced even further. A mother holding her infant and singing involve the child moving, smelling, touching, etc. This vast array of associative experience enhances the impact of musical experience at young ages as well as deepens the mother-child bond.

The panel then talked about more practical issues, beginning with the question, how young should a child be when beginning music lessons? The consensus is infancy. Bartel explains that music consists of manipulable elements such as timbre, volume, pitch, etc. These can all be learned through making sounds, singing and bopping mallets onto instruments. Other practical concerns in education such as specialist culture, informal musical experience and the public school system are discussed with a special focus on how schools can become more inclusive and humane. The politics of keeping music alive in public schooling was tied to the need for inclusiveness and humaneness.


I described Trainor's statement about a possible decrease in singing among mothers towards their children as sad. This issue is somewhat personal to me since my mother sings to children all the time. She is a jovial and extroverted individual who works in childcare and sings to the toddlers and infants she is responsible for during their snack time. The songs are generally improvised, highly repetitive, quick in tempo, sung in Hindi and seem to be rather silly. They often involve a mix of baby talk and gibberish. Despite their ridiculous nature, the children cry out, "mo! mo!" once she is finished, similarly to how they ask for more chocolate pudding. The babies genuinely enjoy it and she seems to know exactly what to deliver to the fans. I found this not only incredibly entertaining but also puzzling because for some reason babies never responded to my singing voice in the same way. At first, I assumed that babies must react to female voices differently. It is known that males process female voices differently than they do male voices. One author described this stating, "men hear women's melodies." Since there is more prosody in the female voice; men seem to have more trouble understanding it due to the greater information density (Epstein, 2005; Sokhi et al., 2005). However, this is a difference observed in adults. What about the infant brain and its relationship to the adult voice? In fact, many interesting discoveries on this topic have been made.

For example, it has been shown that babies respond to their mothers' voices in the womb (Kisilevsky, 2003). At the same time, the mother's voice activates the left-hemisphere, while stranger's voices activate the right. It seems that the mother's voice seems to preferentially activate parts of the brain responsible for language learning (Beauchemin, 2010). Finally, Mehler et al. (1978) showed that young infants prefer their own mother's voices to the voices of others. These facts demonstrate that a mother's voice has an incredibly powerful effect on their child. It is for these reasons that I consider it a sad fact, if true, that mothers are singing to their children less and less.

It would appear that music has tremendous impact on children. The strong connection between music, parent and child as well as the process of musical development in children is fascinating and seems to link to many aspects of cognition and the brain together. This discussion was intriguing and certainly enlightened me on the how music the lives of children and their parents.

Beauchemin, M., Gonzalez-Frankenberger, B, Tremblay, J. , Vannasing, P., Martinez Montes, E., Belin, P., Beland, R., Francoeur, D., Carceller, A. M., Wallois, F., Lassonde, M. (2010). Mother and Stranger: An Electrophysiological Study of Voice Processing in Newborns. Cerebral Cortex, 23, 728-733.

Epstein, D. (2005). Men Hear Women's Melodies. Discover, accessed on December 3, 2012. doi:

Mehler, J., Bertoncini, J., Barriére, M. & Jassik-Grenschenfeld, D. (1978). Infant recognition of mother's voice. Perception, 7, 491-497.

Kisilevsky, B. S., Hains, S. M. J., Lee, K., Xie, X. Huang, H., Ye, H.H., Zhang, K. & Wang, Z. (2003). Effects of Experience on Fetal Voice Recognition. Psychological Science, 3, 220-224).

Sokhi, D. S. at al. (2005). Male and Female Voices Activate Distinct Regions in the Male Brain. NeuroImage, 3, 572–578.

Peculiarities of Absolute Pitch

Topical Reference:
Takeuchi, A. H. & Hulse, S. H. (1991). Absolute-Pitch Judgments of Black- and White-Key Pitches. Music Perception, 1, 27-46.


This is an influential paper on Absolute Pitch (AP), the ability to accurately label pitches without the aid of an external reference. It confirms a known attribute of this ability, which is the fact that AP possessors (APers) seem to identify the pitches of black piano keys less quickly and accurately than the pitches of white-keys. Experiments on AP accuracy at the time involved identifying pitches using a motor-response such as pressing a key on a piano keyboard. This may have created a motor-response bias or a labeling-response bias, where the APers choose more white-key labels as responses, accounting for the raised white-key accuracy. These researchers decided to use a task that eliminated both of these biases by presenting the pitches auditorily while simultaneous presenting pitch-labels visually. The APers would then respond with "Same" or "Different" on a computer keyboard. All APers had to meet the criteria of responding with 90% correctness within a semitone to be included in the analysis; meaning errors of a semitone were counted as correct.

The APers responded to black-key pitches significantly more slowly and significantly less accurately than for white-key pitches. Response times were also significantly slower for visual presentations of black-key labels in comparison to white-key labels.

The first possible explanation given was that the difference in perceptual and memory-retrieval processing between black- and white-key may be due to how these pitches occur in the music literature. The second was that APers encode primarily the white-key pitches and interpolate black-keys from neighboring white-keys, adding an internal comparison step for black-keys while identifying white-keys with sheer pitch memory.

It would appear that the black- and white-key difference in accuracy and reaction time is confirmed to be an aspect of AP. In this case, labeling white-keys would involve a single step, which would imply that true AP only exists for white-keys. Black-keys however would use multiple steps, where a white-key label is associated to the pitch then modified. This processing would first determine whether the pitch is a white-key and if not, add a sharp or flat to the label of whatever white-key pitch was reflexively recalled.

In this sense, the labeling system and pitch categorization process become conceptually the same. It seems that in AP, black-keys are categorized as if they were modified white-keys. Ironically, this is exactly how black-keys are labeled in Western musical notation, as modified white-keys! Thus, the label and notation might affect the way musical pitches are perceived. In essence, the label seems to effect the perception of what is being labeled. Truly, categorization is an odd thing.

This attribute of AP is not the only thing that makes AP far from deserving the title 'perfect.' The fact that semitone errors abound in AP seems to even further demystify the ability (Levitin & Rogers, 2005). The practice of not counting errors that are only a semitone off in AP experiments is common. AP actually has a range of accuracy gradients, where high scores and quick reaction times are correlated (Atho et al., 2007; Bermudez & Zatorre, 2009).

What is particularly ingenious about this test was its apparatus. They created a kind of AP Stroop test. This type of test presents multiple categorizations at the same time. One example involves presenting the word "blue" in a red font and vice versa (Ex. Blue, Red, etc.), then having the subject simply name the color in question. Reaction time effects were seen in these experiments as well (Stroop, 1935).

AP is of interest to me primarily because it is evidence of a stable link between internal representations and musical sound, which is extremely rare and measurable (Baggaley, 1974; Lockhead & Byrd, 1981). In particular, it is remarkable because it gives rise to evidence of some kind of memory retrieval for auditory information that is an order magnitude greater than chance, which for categorizing musical pitches is 8.3% (Zatorre, 2003). APers are able to consistently accurately label the pitch of specific sound sources presumably due to an internal template of pitches, encoded into the long-term memory during a possible critical period for AP acquisition (Russo et al., 2003; Ward & Burns, 1978).

Questions of whether AP involves motor-representations and other cross-modal phenomena have been fostered by these kinds of studies. How this ability is actually acquired is still unknown but the majority of APers seem to report early-age fixed pitch instrument training, particularly on the piano (Parncutt & Levitin, 2001; Takeuchi & Hulse, 1991). APers also identify the pitches of a piano faster than that of other timbres, which shows some link between AP and piano training in my opinion (Miyazaki, 1989).

This ability has long been misunderstood. Though many might associate AP with musical genius or giftedness, calling it 'Perfect Pitch' would be a misnomer in light of the limitations of AP that experimental psychology has demonstrated. Nevertheless, it remains enigmatic due its rareness and novelty.

Athos, E. A., Levinson, B., Kistler, A., Zemansky, J., Bostrom, A., Freimer, N., Gitschier, J. (2007). Dichotomy and perceptual distortions in absolute pitch ability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, 14795-14800.

Baggaley, J. (1974). Measurement of absolute pitch. Psychology of Music, 2, 11-17.

Bermudez, P. & Zatorre, R. (2009). A distribution of absolute pitch ability as revealed by computerized testing. Music Perception, 27, 89-101.

Lockhead, G. R. & Byrd, R. (1981). Practically perfect pitch. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 70, 387-389)

Miyazaki, K. (1989). Absolute pitch identification: Effects of timbre and pitch region. Music Perception, 7, 1-14.

Parncutt, R. & Levitin, D. J. (2001). Absolute pitch. In Sadie (Eds.), The New Grove.

Russo, F. A., Windell, D. L., Cuddy, L. L. (2003). Learning the "special note": Evidence for a critical period for absolute pitch acquisition. Music Perception, 119-127.

Schlaug, G., Norton, A., Overy, K., & Winner, E. (2005). Effects of music training on the child's brain and cognitive development. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1060, 219-230.

Stroop, J. R. (1935). Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18, 643–662.

Zatorre, R. J. (2003). Absolute pitch: A model for understanding the influence of genes and development on neural and cognitive function. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 692-695.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pleasures of Prediction

Robert Jourdain brings up an interesting idea in his book, "the quest for universals in melody design is important to our larger concern of how music takes hold of us and gives us pleasure (Jourdain, 1997, p.60)." He continues by adding, "spontaneous neural activity increased [is] a sign of heightened expectations." This brings to light an important question: how does music bring about pleasure? Interestingly, Jourdain’s connection of pleasure to expectation corresponds to what is observed by modern neuroscientists.

In fact, anticipation and prediction are taken on by the limbic system as opposed to the cortex regions in musical chills. This system releases dopamine not only during peak emotional moments within the form of the music but also 15 seconds before these moments (Salimpoor, 2011). What does familiarity and anticipation have to do with pleasure? The answer is intriguing, yet simple: craving and desire, which can be described as the anticipation of reward. It is quite interesting that an abstract reward, in this case music, can allow pleasure to arise that is similar to the satisfaction of appetite, sex or addictive drugs. Dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter is implicated in motivation. This substance is excreted from the primordial regions of the brain, which are sometimes referred to as the 'reptilian core.' This system evolved earlier than brain regions that process higher-ordered internal representations. Salimpoor et al. (2011) notes that pleasure for music resembles pleasure derived from tangible objects. Since music is conceptually abstract and not tangible, that fact that musical pleasure requires both systems that process higher-ordered representations and also autonomic systems demonstrates how the love music taps into systems that are deeply ingrained into our neurology, including those implicated in basic survival urges.

Another peak experience some derive pleasure from is described as "flow" (Czikszentmihalyi, 1990). Flow seems to be a highly temporal experience that allows the quick prediction of manipulability to become relaxed and continuous. It seems to align and connect moment-by-moment kinesthetic or cognitive experiences. As these moments unfold and are automatically categorized by the brain, they sequence into a perpetually forward moving feeling, which is referred to as flow. This kind of experience is one that is not necessarily unique to music. One can feel this kind of feeling in the engagement of a competitive sport or even inane activities, which are essentially endless in scope. Complete engagement seems to be the key in both chills and flow. When attention is highly focused, engaged and cognizant of incoming streams of feelings and sensations, particular types of stimulation might become highly pleasurable.

While finding a universally pleasurable melody seems a difficult quest, certain melodies are able to get stuck in minds of most people in a very pervasive sense. These are called “ear worms.” Earworms are essentially involuntarily difficult to forget (Liikkanen, 2011). A common example is heard in the classic TV commercials for antiperspirant where the company’s auditory watermark is a Perfect Fourth interval between 2 pitch-classes performed by a group of manly baritones that sing, “By Mennen.” To classically trained ears, this brings about connotations of a stable Perfect Cadence, a harmony often heard at the end of melodies such as in the ‘amen’ sung during church services. Once heard, this simple set of notes repeats in the mind. One might ask, “isn’t a melody that’s catchy also pleasurable to think about?” The continuous involuntary imaging of a single melody is not necessarily enjoyable because its incessancy can cause irritation. This could be especially true if it involves the involuntary remembrance of an antiperspirant ad, which seems to be the goal of the good people at the Mennen Corporation. Earworms seem to pervasively encode into the memory and become almost unforgettable. In this sense, a part of the lack of musical pleasure from remembering an earworm might be that there is nothing to anticipate and therefore nothing to crave. Ironically, eventual familiarity also might bring about enjoyment, which in theory could occur with any earworm as well if it is reheard. Songs often contain earworms for example. Even taking into account the 15-second expectation of pleasure observed by Salimpoor et al. (2011), it should be noted that the group had their participants bring in music they personally found pleasurable and were familiar with. If the goal is to imprint an association between a melody and a tangible object, certainly the almost universally unforgettable earworm is a good type of melody to use. Nevertheless, while earworm theory provides the basis for universally memorable melodies, it certainly does not elucidate a theory of universal aesthetics in melody construction.

Arguably, music has no biological survival value like food or warmth, yet the fact that music is seen in all human cultures seems ironically better explained through neurobiology. Salimpoor et al. (2011) also tested music for other biological factors that seem important in pleasure states. This includes physiological indicators of emotional arousal including changes in heart rate, respiration, electrodermal activity, body temperature, and blood volume pulse. Music indeed aroused basic bodily systems in ways that correspond to pleasure and emotional states.

Certainly, the conception of melody is highly related to anticipation and its subsequent resolution. Tension and release seems to be one of the elements that create forward momentum and therefore room for anticipation in certain melodies. As the momentum builds and expectations mount, the anticipation networks fire and are played with in a pleasurable way. This interaction between prediction and pleasure in musical peak experiences occur at the level of biology and brain. While universal answers to music making may not be available, science has been able to answer some questions as to how music takes a hold of the human consciousness and gives pleasure. Certainly, it would appear that expectations offered by a continuous incoming stream of meanings play a key role in musical pleasure.


Czikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.

Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the Brain and Ecstasy. New York: Harper Perennial.

Liikkanen, L. A. (2011). Inducing involuntary musical imagery: an experimental study. Musicae Scientiae.

Salimpoor, V. N., Benevoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience,14, 257-264.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The effect of Audience on Music Performance Anxiety

Effect of Audience on Music Performance Anxiety
Albert LeBlanc, Young Chang Jin, Mary Obert and Carolyn Siivola
Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 480-496

This study looks at the effect of audience on music performance anxiety.  In particular, 27 high school band members were chosen that were performing in an upcoming concert (16 males and 11 females).  The instruments represented included flute oboe clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, french horn, trombone, euphonium, tuba, snare drum, and orchestra bells.  Participants were tested in three performance situations, corresponding to three levels of audience presence: the first was performing alone in a practice room; the second situation was in the practice room with one researcher present; the third was in a rehearsal room with the researchers present, a peer group (9-16 members of participants in the study), and a tape recording being made at the same time.  The recording was then judged by the four researchers on a scale from 1 to 10. 
Study took place six weeks befrore a major performance.  Students that did not have a solo to perform in the upcoming concert, were allowed to choose from a collection of wind instrument solos that would be relatively easy (as determined by the band director). 
Anxiety levels were measured through a self-reported survey, the Personal Performance Anxiety Report, which participants would fill out immediatley after each performance situation, which asked them to indicate anxiety levels on a scale ranging from 0 to 10.  Heart rate was measured by a Polar-Vantage heart-rate motnitor that monitored heart rate during each performance situation, recording heart-rate at five-second intervals. 
The students were instructed to prepare their solos in typical conditions - practicing at home, with the option of asking the band director for help.  No student performed from memory.   
Not surprisingly, the anxiety self-reports indicate increased anxiety in each of the performance situations.  Both anxiety levels and mean heart-rate remained nearly constant between the first two performance situations.   Both anxiety and heart rate rose significantly in the third performance setting.  Gender proved to be a factor not only in self-reported anxiety but also in increased heart-rate.  While female musicians presented better perfomances (as determined by the judges), they also reported significantly higher anxiety levels and increased heart-rates than male students. 
In an exit interview, the participants were asked which situation was the most stressful to them.  Not surprisingly, the third situation was rated as the most stressful by most participants - 63%, representing 17 participants.  30% (eight participants ) said playing for one researcher was the most stressful, while 7% (two participants) said playing alone was the most stressful. 
The authors conclude that this study confirms earlier studies done of older musicians that the presence of an audience has an effect on both anxiety and on heart-rate of performers.  The authors also suggest that music pedagogues should be aware of the potential stress that can arrise in performing in front of an audience for music students, as well as the possible effect of gender on anxiety. 

A very interesting study that supports the idea that playing in front of a physical audience can be more stressful than practicing.  This seems to indicate that these types of situations need to be created in the period of time leading up to a performance, as an example of "practicing performing." 
The authors point out a possible weakness in the study: only highly motivated  students would choose to perform a solo, thus self-selecting the better performers.  However, other studies have confirmed similar results. 
It seems at first glance surprising that some participants would cite performing alone as the most stressful.  However, one of the possible weaknesses of the study is that it is possible that during the study, students were in fact learning how to deal with performance anxiety.  In the first scenario, students probably felt some anxiety since the situation is new, as compared to practicing at home.  In the second, with one researcher present, they may have mentally prepared, gotten used to having a heart-rate monitor strapped to them. By the third, they may be expecting the more stress, but have found their own coping-mechanisms for performance anxiety, thereby perceiving the situation as not stressful.  This kind of gradual "practicing performing" is something that can be tremendously useful to all music students and performers. 
Lastly, there are other studies that have not found gender to be a factor in predicting performance anxiety.  I wonder if the results in this study as pertains to gender would be replicated in a larger-scale study. 

Dementia and Music Therapy (Chapter 29 of Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia)


Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia (2007)

Chapter 29: Music and Identity: Dementia and Music Therapy


Alzheimer's is generally recognized by the loss of certain forms of memory, with more profound cases progressing to a profound amnesia. Alzheimer's can also cause the loss or impairment of language and the diminishing or loss of judgment, foresight and the ability to plan. Most drastically, patients can lose the capacity for self-awareness, though Sacks suggests that some aspects of one's essential character remain intact even during advanced dementia.

One example is that some patients still have the capacity to respond to music. Music therapy for dementia aims to access the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts and memories that may have been long forgotten. Sacks notes that musical perception, musical memory, musical emotion and sensitivity can survive longer than other forms memory (p. 373).

Sacks notes several patients - a woman with advanced Alzheimer's who is still able to memorize complicated (newly learned) piano compositions; he also describes a musician with Alzheimer's who no longer had the capacity for language, but who continued to play and record at possibly an even higher level than previously; another example is an older gentleman who knows baritone parts to acapella songs from memory but could not otherwise say who he was.

One patient's family wonders if song could be used for amnesiac patients to learn new information - such as a song about the date and time of day, or filled with other practical information that they would like the patient to absorb - but without context, such information is meaningless. Sacks suggests that learning new information from performance and procedural memory seemed unlikely, though research is still ongoing.

Music that is most helpful for patients with dementia is music with which the patient has some familiarity and that can call on personal memory. Group therapy sessions often take patients of a similar age and background, choosing music they would all be familiar with. Patients that are incapable of any coherent reactions or interactions can focus and engage in a group. Some patients that were without the capacity of language for years can sometimes sing.

Incorporating movement into the therapy is also tremendously useful. Dance is particularly helpful because it is multi modal, allowing patients who were otherwise reactionless to become animated and move among others. Sacks also mentions drum circles as a possible therapy because it calls upon "very fundamental, subcortical levels of the brain" (p. 382).

Sacks also suggests longer-term effects by mentioning patients with advanced Alzheimer's that would have hallucinations. After listening to certain types of familiar music these patients could become calm and ultimately stop hallucinating, even while not listening to music.

In some cases, even previously unfamiliar music can provoke an emotional response - pointing to the fact that musical response is, not only cortical (Alzheimer's is a cortical disease) but also sub-cortical, which allows it to persist throughout the advanced stages of Alzheimer's.


This chapters shows just how far-reaching the effects of music can be. One of the most striking things that we have learned in class is that it is the multi-modality of music that makes it so complex and useful as a treatment.

Music therapy helps patients with Alzheimer's because they can find an activity that they are fully engaged in and allows them to revisit long-forgotten memories. However, I wonder if the greatest gift that music therapy gives is the relief that comes from the mental clarity that patients can temporarily gain from this activity. I wonder if this also has a therapeutic effect for the families of those patients, who can see their loved ones revisit their former selves with such immediacy, even if it is for short periods of time.

Most strikingly, music, even unfamiliar music, can have an emotional effect on patients with dementia, also owing to the fact that music processing is spread throughout the brain. This indicates that the emotional response to music is so ingrained in our character that it is cannot be easily forgotten.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Kinetic Melody: Parkinson's Disease and Music Therapy (Chapter 20 of Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia)


Oliver Sacks Musicophilia (2007)

Chapter 20: Kinetic Melody: Parkinson's Disease and Music Therapy


In this chapter, Sacks looks at music therapy for Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders, such as Huntington's disease and encephalitis lethargic. The latter is a disorder that occurred as the worldwide epidemic of sleeping sickness after World War I, with patients in a frozen-like state for forty or more years. Some patients could not speak, and when they could they lacked tone and force. As in Parkinson's disease, these patients had trouble initiating movements - but amazingly they could often respond to movements if, for example, a ball were thrown to them. Also, patients could sometimes move with great naturalness, often when hearing music. The patients that could not speak could sometimes sing.

Music therapy began informally after the second World War with large numbers of soldiers returning with PTSD. Musicians would informally play in hospital wards and see tangible improvements in patients. In 1944 the first music therapy program was started (at the University of Michigan).

Parkinsonism affects not just movement, causing a kind of 'kinetic stutter,' but also, when more severe, affects thoughts, feelings and flow of perception (p. 274). However, Parkinson's patients can, with the right music, experience ease of movement. Generally the music used has to have a legato melody, with a steady, but not overpowering, pulse.

Some patients reported that even just imagining such music freed her from the wooden movements - though the mental music would sometimes stop and the symptoms would return. Similarly, patients report that walking with another person, falling into a rhythmic step, helps to initiate her own movement; again, when their partner stops, this patient would involuntarily stop as well. Another symptom of Parkinonism is 'personal time' - that the patient's perception of time is drastically slower than other people's perception of time, but that they will only be aware of it when compared with a clock or another person. Again, music can restore this sense of time.

Parkinsonism's main problem is the inability to spontaneously initiate movement, due to a damaged basal ganglia. If severely damaged, patients cannot initiate spontaneous movement, though are still able to respond to stimuli such as throwing a ball - for short-term movement - or music, for a slightly more prolonged period of movement.

Most strikingly, Sacks mentions a patient who could walk only with wooden movements and whose hands were generally immobile. But due to the patient's previous musical training, she could still play the piano, with her hands expressive and her facial muscles would relax and gain expression. Simply saying the name of a Chopin piece to this patient would cause her body to relax - results that were mirrored by an EEG scan.

The best therapy, Sacks notes, is music combined with movement, such as dance, which can be helpful to patients with Huntington's disease as well. Dance, or any activity with a regular rhythm (sometimes even a sport) can be therapeutic for a brief period of time, and sometimes for a short time afterwards, alleviating symptoms.


A few years ago, I met an lady at the conservatory in her late seventies who had Parkinson's disease and whose hands always visibly shook. I would meet her on her way to an intensive Japanese Taiko drumming every week. I had tried the class once and left half-way through because I found it too straining and so I could not imagine this frail lady participating in such an activity. The lady explained to me in great detail how the Taiko drumming regulated her body's rhythm and how she felt this rhythm throughout her body. She said that during class she did not feel any inhibition of movement and also for a time afterwards (she cited the effect as lasting a few hours). It was not until I read about music therapy that I really believed the profound effect that she was describing was possible.

Oliver Sacks' chapter on Music therapy for Parkinsonism is a fantastic introduction to the topic filled with interesting cases of individuals that are affected positively through music and movement. As with other chapters in the book, I would wish for a more substantial section on the neurology behind such treatments, though it does make me want to read much more on the topic. An elderly relative of mine has Parkinson's and I know that they have not tried music or dance therapy - and so I intend to dance with them when I see them next.


An Auditory World: Music and Blindness (Chapter 13 of Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia)


Oliver Sacks Musicopilia (2007)
Chapter 13: An Auditory World: Music and Blindness

Music, Mind and Brain Blog: Jauary 12, 2012. Accesssed December 6, 2012.



In this chapter, Oliver Sacks looks at how music is processed in the brain of the blind. As an example, he mentions Jerome, a friend who was nearly blind until the age of two and had a special sensitivity to sound. As well, he mentions Martin, a musical savant who was functionally blind until the age of three. Sacks muses whether blindness had a role in making him a musical savant.

Sacks notes the strong historical tradition of extraordinary blind musicians - from Gaelic harpers and pipers to modern jazz musicians. He notes that children are often precocious verbally and will naturally "discover or create a rich world of touch and sound" (p. 173).

Sacks cites a study in which Adam Ockelford, who teaches music at the Royal National Institute of the Blind in the UK, compared 32 families of children with septo-optic dysplasia, a condition that can leads to minor, and often profound, blindness. Half of the children with septo-optic dysplasia were blind (they had no vision or could only perceive light or movement) while the other half were partially sighted. There was significantly more interest in both groups in music compared to that of sighted children. Additionally, the group that was blind showed considerable more inclination toward music-making and above-average ability than the partially-sighted children. Often this interest would present itself without any formal musical training. In other studies, Ockelford found that 40-60 percent of blind children had perfect pitch independent of the start of musical training (compared to 10 percent of sighted children).

Sacks notes that cortical reorganization may occur when visual input is lost. With a third of the human cortex devoted to vision, this part of the brain does not remain functionless but rather takes on other sensory inputs - such as hearing and touch. A study found that people who were blind from an early age were significantly better than sighted people at discerning "the direction of pitch change between sounds, even when the speed of change is ten times faster than that perceived by controls" (p. 175), an extraordinary difference in any study.

Sacks closes with a touching story of a blind writer, Jacques Lusseyran, who writes how extraordinary it was for him to first attend a concert. "For a blind person music is nourishment... music was made for blind people" (p. 176).


I briefly met a nearly -blind little girl at a concert last year who was tremendously drawn to sounds, which is what drew me to this article. The girl seemed to have a visceral reaction to music. While I often tell music students to attend concerts, I know that unless they have some familiarity with the music being played as well as extraordinary attention spans, most will not get so much out of a serious concert as they will when they are older. But this little girl's experience seemed to be tremendous - I was awed and humbled by her reaction to a serious orchestral concert.

Sacks mentions that blind and nearly-blind children have a greater aptitude for music in part because the brain reallocates the part of the brain that would otherwise be devoted to sight. I would have been curious to hear more descriptions of how these children perceive music as compared to sighted children. I imagine that it is as if one's mind were ten-times more focused on sound than it already is, with an added visceral element - every sensation intensified. I also would have been interested to read about how music instruction differed for blind children as compared to sighted children - not only though the incorporation of reading musical-Braille, but also how "reading" music is processed differently in the brain in the absence of a visual mode of input, since the music is "read" through touch.

As an example of this kind of cortical reorganization, I found a study in which Ockelford states that in blind and autistic children it is possible for perfect pitch to develop "in the absence of language" - that is, before the ability to even name notes. Ockelford demonstrates this by describing an autistic boy with no language ability who could point to the correct key on the piano that corresponded to the pitch he was singing. These children show tremendous ability and love ot music without access to language - something truly humbling. 


Oliver Sacks' Musicophelia: Phantom Fingers and the Case of the One-Armed Pianist

Oliver Sacks Musicophelia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007)
Chapter 21: Phantom Fingers: The Case of the One-Armed Pianist

 This chapter of Oliver Sacks' Musicophelia deals with the issues of phantom limb syndrome.  In particular it looks at the experience of pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during the first World War.  A former student of Wittgenstein's, Erna Otten, sent a letter to Sacks describing her lessons with Wittgenstein.  According to Otten, Wittgenstein described feeling every finger in his missing arm and would suggest fingerings to her while imagining his missing limb play. 
 Previously phantom-limbs were thought to be 'in the mind,' a purely psychic hallucinations.  The physician Silas Weir Mitchell first studied this during the Civil War.  Mitchell found that nearly all soldiers that he encountered with a missing limb experienced a phantom limb in the sense that they had sensations of that limb still being attached, in addition to a 'persistent neural representation of the limb in the brain' (p. 285).  They could describe willing a movement with their amputated arm with such precision and would often result in twitching in the remaining stump.  Mitchell showed that there were real neurological constructs dependent on the 'integrity of the brain, the spinal cord, and the remaining, proximal portions of the sensory and motor nerves in the limb' (p. 286). 
 More recent studies have found similar results.  A German study (Farsin Hamzei et al., 2001) found that the entire 'sensory-ideational-motor unit is activated in phantom motions' (p. 286).  Additionally, they found that there is a functional reorganization in the cortex following an amputation - the movements of the amputated limb are still represented in the cortex but also that the missing limb's representation is concentrated in the newly enlarged stump-area in the cortex. 
 In fact, this kind of willing of the nonexistent limb is essential to the successful use of a prosthesis.  It is the amplification of these nerve impulses that turns phantom movements into real ones.  Sacks muses on the philosophy of Paul Wittgenstein's brother, Ludwig Wittgenstein - perhaps, he suggests that the influence of his brother's experience can be seen in the the corporeality of his assertion 'If you do know that here is one hand, we'll grant you all the rest' (p. 289). 

After reading this chapter, I am left wanting a fuller description of the experiential aspect of phantom-limb syndrome.  The first study posited that each soldier that had lost a limb experienced sensation in their missing limb - painful or otherwise  - but I am left wanting a fuller description.
As it relates to music, Sacks describes the process of choosing a fingering without a limb; one can certainly choose an appropriate fingering without feeling a limb, purely through imagining. However, I wonder if the imagining process differs for a person with a missing limb versus for a person with one that is in tact. The research that Sacks references seems to suggest that there is often a strong image of a missing limb, but that there is reorganization in the cortex - I would be interesting to see how such a reorganization affects one's perception of such activities as playing a musical instrument.   It would suggest that while one can still will the missing limb to move and imagine it, the 'functional reorganization of the cortex' would result in a different experience of one's body. 
Lastly, this question makes a strong case for 'mental practicing' to students - if Wittgenstein can effectively make musical and technical decisions without an arm, what excuse do we have?