Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Spinal Modulation of Nociception by Music

Spinal Modulation of Nociception by Music
Roy, M., Lebuis, A., Hugueville, L., Peretz, I., and Rainville, P. 2012 European Journal of Pain, 16: 870-877.


Previous studies show that music has an ability to modulate pain, and this paper aims to elucidate the neurophysiological mechanisms of this. Pleasant music provides a decrease in pain, while unpleasant music excerpts either has no effect or worsens pain. This trend is also seen with emotional inducers such as pictures, films, odours, hypnosis, and emotional sentences. This phenomenon when elicited by pictures is in part mediated by descending pain-modulatory pathways. Descending pathways are white-matter spinal tracts that carry information from the brain to the spinal cord. This was measured via the amplitude of the spinally mediated nociceptive reflex (RIII reflex). Therefore, pleasant images seem to mediate pain by inhibiting the nociceptive pathway at the spinal cord. This paper investigates the theory that pain mediation by music operates via similar pathways. This study also looked to address whether pleasant-relaxing music had a greater analgesic effect than pleasant-stimulating music. This question arises from contradicting theories that arousal either enhances or dampens nociceptive inhibition.

 In order to measure the influence of music on pain, RIII reflexes were measured after moderately painful electrical shock. . This study used 30 healthy individuals, with an average age of 24.26 years. After the pin-prick shock, and musical excerpt (pleasant-arousing, pleasant-relaxing, unpleasant, or silence), participants rated their pain on a visual analogue scale from 0-100. In order to measure individual arousal or sentiment brought up by the musical excerpt, participants rated the excerpt on a Self-Assessment Manikin test from 1-9 (1=unpleasant and 9=pleasant, 1= low arousal and 9= high arousal). 

In terms of results, there was no difference in pain ratings between silence and pleasant-stimulating music, and only a mild difference between silence and pleasant-relaxing music. There was no statistical difference between the pain ratings after pleasant-stimulating and pleasant-relaxing musical excerpts. Pain ratings were statistically higher during unpleasant music when compared with both types of pleasant music. Intriguingly, reflex amplitudes were at the absolute lowest during silence, which means silence mediated pain better than pleasant or unpleasant music. Pain perception was well correlated with RIII amplitudes, which supports the hypothesis that music-mediated pain alleviation operates in part via inhibition of descending pain-modulatory pathways. However, there was a discrepancy in that participant-rated pain for pleasant (both types) music generally decreased or remained the same in comparison with silent trials, but the RIII amplitudes were statistically higher with pleasant music than with silence. 


 In the summary of this paper, the authors state that this work "reinforces the idea that music is a powerful emotional inducer that can have a strong influence on pain." As much as I applaud the efforts in elucidating the effects of music on pain in humans, this conclusion was not even remotely supported by their data. Their data found no improvement in pain mediation in pleasant music trials, when compared to silence. Additionally, silence produced a stronger analgesic effect than pleasant or unpleasant music trials. This does not support the conclusion that music has a strong influence on pain. There are several factors that would need to be addressed before this claim could be made, including: fear conditioning, the effect of music on clinically relevant intensities of pain, and duration of the musical excerpt. 

 Firstly, and ironically the authors directly admit this point in the discussion, when you perform consecutive shock trials that are preceded by music, the music begins to serve as a cue for the coming shock. This creates negative anticipation of the event, and serves to make the shock seem more painful. Anticipation is key in many aspects of emotional response, such as appetite, fear, excitement, or even sexual arousal (Baumeister, et al., 2007, No matter how pleasant the music excerpt was to the participant, repeated trials train the brain to associate music with an upcoming shock, which of course would create anticipation, and a larger negative response. It would have been a much more conclusive experiment model to have extended background music interspersed by random shocks, as opposed to ordered, semi-predictable shocks during short musical excerpts of only 1 minute in length. 

 The other drawback on this experiment was that it measured the effect of music on pain from a pin-prick shock. This is a start, and experimental design on music and pain in humans is obviously restricted for ethical reasons, but the ability for music to mediate pain associated with a pin-prick is not clinically relevant.  The analgesic effect of music is probably substantially altered at a higher intensity or duration of pain. What would have been more interesting would have been to assess patients who were recovering from a commonplace surgery in a single-blind study. One could qualitatively evaluate the pain ratings of patients that had silence, pleasant-stimulating, or pleasant-relaxing music in their recovery rooms. One could inform the patient that the study aims to investigate subtle ambient differences, such as music, wall colour, or artwork and their effect on pain perception, which would allow for patient consent while maintaining the single-blind model. The only challenge with this is that it would be inconvenient and possibly uncomfortable to measure the RIII amplitude of a recovering surgery patient; however, this study validated a correlation between RIII amplitude and skin conductance response (SCR), which is much less intrusive to quantify. That being said, RIII amplitude and SCR may only be applicable to measuring pain associated with a brief, acute shock, and may not be helpful in measuring extended pain during the course of a surgical recovery. 

 Lastly, Jourdain's book elaborates on the point that music is so powerful in part because the listener builds anticipation of chord resolution throughout the piece. Beethoven's Symphony 7 allegretto, arguably one of the most emotionally riveting compositions in history, does not elicit its strong arousal or pleasurable response in 1 minute. In order for music to elicit its maximum potential for pleasure, and potentially analgesic effects, it requires preparation time and context in order for the listener to build necessary anticipation. Using a 1 minute musical except is in many ways like measuring the satiation potential of gourmet food by evaluating a microwave dinner. 

 On the other hand, pain studies in relation to music is an extremely difficult subject matter to approach, because you can't use an animal model, and you also can't intentionally subject human participants to clinically relevant levels of pain. That being said, this study was a reasonable start. Also, I feel the comparison of RIII amplitudes with the patients' qualitative pain scoring was an elegant solution to assessing pain levels as accurately as possible, while simultaneously supporting their hypothesis of descending pain-modulatory pathway involvement. 

 In summary, there was significant room for improvement, and this study did not accurately address the question of the use of music as a complementary analgesic, nor did it solve the debate on whether pleasant-stimulating music is of greater or lesser benefit than pleasant-relaxing music. However, it did confirm the hypothesis that music-mediated pain relief involves descending pain-modulatory pathways in the spinal cord. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

van Luijtelaar, GillesVerbraak, Marcvan den Bunt, Martijn, MScKeijsers, Ger;Arns, Martijn, MSc. EEG findings in burnout patients. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 22, 208-217.

Burnout is a disorder characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, depersonalization, cynicism, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment in regards to one’s work. Burnout rates are high among high-stress occupations (the medical field is an often-cited example), including musicians. 

I was interested in whether I could find any research on the specific neurological symptoms of burnout, and what might be done to alleviate them. As it turns out, a 2010 study examined the first part of this question using EEG. Researchers compared patients diagnosed with burnout syndrome with healthy patients in order to establish whether there were any distinctive neurological markers of burnout. Burnout shares many symptoms in common with both depression and chronic fatigue syndrome; however, the study found that burnout was distinctive from both these disorders. Specifically, burnout patients exhibited a certain type of brain wave that is associated with reduced cognitive function and decision making; this wave can be present in depression patients, but depression also frequently shows frontal-lobe asymmetry, which was not present in the burnout patients. Researchers suggested that prolonged stress could impact the functioning of the hippocampus, which can result in the type of wave observed in the burnout patients. The researchers believed that, although burnout shared characteristics with both depression and chronic fatigue syndrome, it had distinctive enough neurological markers to be diagnosed separately.

These findings are interesting in terms of recognition of this disorder for diagnosis, but I was unable to find similar neurology-based research regarding treatment. It may be that this research is too new to have been investigated for treatment purposes. The Web is full of informal articles regarding treatment of burnout in musicians; many, however, are predicated on the idea that one already has a musical career in progress and is working too much. Burnout among music students out of professional frustration and lack of fulfilling music-making is also common; it would be wonderful if this research led to new treatment ideas that might allow more music students to remain committed to the passion that brought them to music in the first place. 

Music Enculturation and Brain Development in Infants


     Music has been a part of humanity since the beginning of time. Music has been used in every culture to mark traditions/rites of passages, facilitate emotional healing and unify communities (especially through religion). Adults have acquired "tastes" in music through music enculturation - "a complex, multifaceted process [involving the] processing of pitch/melodic and rhythmic/metrical structures [within] musical system(s) in a culture, the understanding of esthetic and expressive norms (like timbre voice qualities), and the learning of pragmatic uses of music in different social settings" (Trainor, Marie, Gerry, Whiskin and Unrau, 2012, 129). These differences in music are expressed when it comes to genres, timbre, etc., and we are able to communicate our preferences verbally and through facial gestures. Infants seem to absorb music in a unbiased manner (due to their inability to express their preferences verbally); therefore, they must learn the musical structures in the musical systems to become "full participants" in their cultures (129). Infants learn about "music acceptability" through musical systems within their cultures through "organizing pitch spaces and using musical scales (especially with sing-a-longs, defining and applying harmonic devices relationally with rhythmic changes, employing rhythmic and metrical structures (and linking these structures with cultural dances), identifying pleasing and disturbing timbre voice qualities, presenting in performance group structures (i.e. small and large groups) and understanding cultural rules - reserving songs for certain performers, "gendered" songs, and so on (129). Past research, conducted by Hannon and her colleagues, has shown that "young Western infants (were) able to process both simple and complex metrical structures found in music around the world, but become specialized for the simple metrical structures predominant in Western music by 12 months of age (129-130). This research also showed that "young infants, contrasting to Western adults, (were) not yet sensitive to Western tonal pitch structure, processing equally well wrong notes that go outside the key of a melody and wrong notes that are consistent with the key and implied harmony of a melody" (130). Although "studies in preschool children [suggested] that music lessons accelerate musical acquisition [measured through brain imaging techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)"], "little work has been done in the infancy period, especially within the context of connecting musical training with "accelerat(ing) enculturation to musical tonality and Western esthetic values related to musical expression" (130). However, another study suggested that "metrical specialization can be slowed by exposure to foreign musical systems around 12 months of age," and that "participation in Kindermusik classes for infants and adults can accelerate specialization for Western meters in seven-month-old infants" (130). Additionally, this study "indicated that infants showed strengthened brain responses to melodies played with a guitar and a marimba by four months of age" (130).

Music Classes, Sensitivity and Results:

     Gerry, Unrau Trainor and Trainor studied "the effects of music classes for infants and parents on enculturation to Western music" on randomly-assigned 6-month-old infants (130). The 38 infants participated in this study for 6 months in" weekly-hour (active or passive) classes" at Ontario Early Years Centers and "attended at least 75% of the sessions" - along with their parents/guardians. The classes took place at two different centers - one was in a middle-class setting, and the other was in a lower socioeconomic area. Afterwards, the infants were tested on their "sensitivity to Western tonality, esthetic preferences, brain responses and social development at the beginning of the classes (130). Sensitivity to Western tonality and esthetic preferences came unpredictably earlier than expected, resulting in these differences being measured at 12 months of age for the infants (130). A Suzuki-philosophy approach was used for infants in the active classes [i.e. teachers engaged infants and parents in movement, singing, playing percussive instruments and building a repertoire of lullabies and action songs] (130). The goals were to emphasize musical expression with infants, have them sing and play along with their parents, get them to repeat repertoire and have parents become aware of their infants' responses to music enculturation (130). Infants in the passive classes "listened to a rotation of CD's from the baby Einstein series while the teacher encouraged play and interaction at art [i.e. building blocks, stacking cups, etc.] (130). The CD's consisted of" synthesized Classical music without music expression," and parents were encouraged to take home a different CD each week for the purposes of listening and interacting with their infants (130). The structure of the passive class was determined to be equivalent to the active classes, in terms of "stimulation, motivation, and social interaction" (130). Enculturation to Western tonality was measured through head-turning of two versions of a sonatina [one in G major and one "atonal" version] (131). Esthetic enculturation to Western Classical music was measured according to assumed stylistic norms of expressive performance (Waltz in A-flat major by Chopin). Effects of musical enculturation on brain development through piano tones and speakers' voices (133) and social consequences of musical enculturation was measured through the administration of an Infant Behaviour Questionnaire [IBQ] (135). For example, sensitivity to Western tonality was clearly shown in infants after 12 months of age, but "active musical participation involving social interaction between infants, their parents, and others in the group promotes earlier enculturation to the pitch structure of music (131). Although infants showed moderate responses to esthetic enculturation to Western Classical music, there was no difference between active and passive participants (133). Active participants showed a stronger correlation than passive participants between musical training and musical enculturation on brain development  at 12 months of age (135), and these participants were considerably "less distressed to limitations and when confronted with novel stimuli," more relaxed (more smiles and laughter) and showed easier soothability (135).


     There are a number of issues which need to be addressed in order for this study to have more validity. The first issue is that there were only 38 infants who were randomly selected to be a part of the study. The study does not mention the racial or cultural backgrounds of the participants, except that they are "Western" babies. If infants are accustomed to listening to both Western and foreign musical systems, there might be an error in assessing the actual knowledge of Western musical systems for this study. Secondly, the passive participants should have had the option of listening to real-live recordings on CD's instead of synthesized music with no musical expression; I feel that the lack of musical expression skewed the results towards the active participants. Thirdly, there are different types of music classes which are emerging which do not completely follow the "Western" or the "foreign" musical systems (i.e. hip-hop/DJ courses). This study does not account for such musical systems, and the researchers would not be able to assess infants of this music enculturation effectively. 

Work Cited:

Trainor, L.J., Marie, C., Gerry, D., Whiskin, E., and Unrau, A., 2012. Becoming musically enculturated: effects of music classes for infants on brain and behaviour, Volume 1252, Issue 1, Issue: The Neuroscience and Music IV: Learning and Memory, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,

Background Music Changes Are Processed First, Reducing Ad Message Recall



Two experiments were conducted to determine how background music can impact the recall of an ad message.

The first experiment had 132 third year business majors who voluntarily participated in this study. The study was described as an advertising concept test to explore alternative ad designs with no indication of researching into background music. Participants watched the aids on computer screens and ranked each of them on a 5 point liker scale. Then they recorded the brand ad and message they recall seeing. There were 6 experimental ads with topics of a car, athletic shoes, fitness water, long-distance service, cat food and an ADIS charity, were created which were based on Clio award winners. One ad had sound effects while the other five playing background music. The order of the ads had an equal chance to be placed in the beginning, middle and end.

Results indicate that an average of 79% of participants correctly recalled the advertised brands, just 53% recalled the message. Experimental evidence suggests that background music changes interrupt processing of brand and message information, reducing message recall. Message recall from ads with background music was significantly lower than message recall from ads with sound effects and no music. More harmonic changes, multiplied by distinct instruments also reduce message recall. At faster tempos, changes are heard more frequently, increasing distraction frequency and reducing recall. By re-orchestrating music for fewer distinct instruments or subtly changing tempo ought to reduce distraction and improve message recall.

The purpose of the second experiment was to reduce background changes to improve the recall of the ad brand and message. This experiment had 52 third year undergraduates view an advertising concept test. The backgrounds of the ads from the first experiment were modified (replacing an orchestral except with a piano reduction and increasing the tempo of a piece) upon and reused in the second experiment. Participants watched the ads, were asked to complete a 10 minute distraction activity and then asked to recall the ads.

The results from experiment 1 and experiment 2 produced similar results when it came to recall of ad brand and messages. Results indicate that there was an increase in recall when the tempo was increased and only one timbre quality being used.

Overall, experiment one results demonstrate that brand message recall is higher when the rate of background music change is less. This is expected from higher priority processing of background sound changes. Experiment two results demonstrate that reducing the rate of background music change, by replacing an orchestral except with a single instrument or increasing tempo very slightly, retaining the same music backgrounds and can improve brand message recall. Music changes are processed first before brand and message elements.


After reading this research on how music affects advertisement recalls, it made me remember that music as a powerful tool of communication. Many of the television advertisements that I encounter all have background music playing. Marketers have to determine which type of music best resonates with consumers so their ad will immediate capture the viewers’ attention.

This study looked at ads which a message, which is when the harmonic changes and many instruments may distract the audience. Most ads we watch and listen to feed the viewers all the important information, attract more attention by evoking emotional responses, or even trigger more images from ad viewers, achieving affective goals.

This study has other implications can be tied to areas in our lives such as distraction. If music is processed first, this means that when drivers are listening to the radio or music in their car, they will automatically become distracted. Our brain processes these musical ideas before processing other things that are happening around us.

This is another application for students when they are listening to music while they are completing their assignments and studying. “When music I heard in the background, processing of other task-related material is compromised and reduced” (Fraser & Bradford, 2013, pg.72). Prior research has indicated that studying with music has allowed the brain to make connections with the song and the content being studied. It is important for students to re-evaluate this idea of studying with music.

Electric Brain Responses to Inappropriate Harmonies During Listening to Expressive Music

Stefan Koelsch and Juul Mulder: “Electric Brain Responses to Inappropriate Harmonies During Listening to Expressive Music,” Clinical Neurophysiology, Issue 113, pp 862-869, 2002.


The processing of a pattern or a rule-based auditory stimuli in the brain has been the focus many neuroscientists’ research. This work has been primarily conducted via the investigation of linguistic stimuli. Quite recently, however, the processing of organized musical information in the brain began to be researched. Stefan Koelsch from Harvard’s Medical School and Juul Mulder from the University of Groningen have joined forces in an experiment to examine the nature of the brain’s electric responses after musical input has been interrupted by the harmonic altering of one chord in a sequence. The intensity of brain’s activity was recorded with the electroencephalogram (EEG).

In the study, eighteen participants, none of them having considerable musical training, were presented with two versions of excerpts from piano sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. The excerpts in the first group were taken from the sonatas as originally written while those in the second group had the last tonic chord altered by one raised semitone. The participants were informed about the alteration made in one of the examples and were asked to indicate the change. The study showed that only 39.6% of the participants were able to detect the alteration. The effect of a chord change caused a strong reaction over centro-temporal leads, occupying predominantly the right hemisphere of the brain. Furthermore, recorded ERP (event-related potential) waveforms showing the brain’s electrical activity over time showed early negativity as a result of introducing unexpected or altered chords on the music played to the participants. According to the authors, such occurrences reflect an interruption of the regularities characteristic for the Western European tonal system. This means that participants who noticed the effected alterations built certain expectations throughout a sequence. Given that altered chords were transposed by a semi-tone, they strongly opposed the harmonic context generated by previously heard harmonic sequences.


The study performed by Koelsch and Mulder underlines the importance of organization and regularity in the brain’s processing of environmental stimuli. However, the author’s decision to conduct the study with musically untrained participants raises the question of experience in cognitive processes. Trained musicians would score significantly higher in the test simply because they are trained to recognize harmonic relations in music. Another aspect informing the nature of cognition is context. In this case, context can be equated to genre in music. Tonic resolutions are typical not only in music of the early or late classical era; they are normative for the majority of the music genres westerners usually listen to. If for some reason participants were exposed to genres that did not use the traditional Western harmony (i.e., modal, atonal, pentatonic), the right response, even from a small percent of successful participants, would not be guaranteed. I am not stating that the above mentioned study was not performed properly; it consider necessary to note, however, that specialized domains are not suitable for studying the reactions of average people. In that sense, studies focusing on the processing of audible linguistic stimuli could present more accurate results that could be widely applied.

Cross-Cultural Trance


Gage, J. (2010, October 29). Science of Santeria: Do a little happy trance. Retrieved November 26, 2013, from


For practitioners of santerìa, trance states are a way of connecting with the spirits. The space between the living and the dead is a liminal one and the combination of chanting, music and dance is a way of breaking down this barrier and literally communing with the spirits. The spirits of this Afro-Cuban practice are an adaptation of Catholic saints and African orishas. When slaves were forced to convert to Catholicism, many recognized that Catholic saints resembled their own ancestral spirits. The resulting blends have spawned several popular religious ideologies including Cuban santerìa, Haitian vodou and Brazilian candomblé. Each of these evolved under the oppression of French, Spanish and Portuguese colonization. 

Some followers of santerìa literally believe that the music can channel important messages from the gods. When the drumming and chanting occurs in a particular sequence, some of the listeners go into a trance state. Armenteros, the founder of a Miama band called Los Herederos states that all of the right elements must be present in a ceremony for trancing to take place. Dr. Peter Naish, a senior lecturer in cognitive psychology, has determined that certain types of people are more prone to trance behaviour than others. His research demonstrates that “those whose two hemispheres process information at disproportionate speeds are more capable of playing the hallucinatory tricks indicative of hypnosis and trance” (Gage). Furthermore, he asserts that based on the social expectations of the ceremony, if there is an assumption of entering the spirit world, that is what will happen. Thus, there are some physiological factors to trancing, but also some learned behaviours.

Lastly, this article describes how the stereotypes of Afro-Caribbean religious ceremonies are not always accurate. Many of the stereotypes that especially stem from Vodou ceremonies preceding the 1791 Haitian revolution to overthrow the French frightened the slaveholders of the time. While some practitioners perform animal sacrifices and cast spells, there is still a moral code attached. All of these religions still espouse a basic concept of respect and leading an upright life. Ultimately, trancing serves as a way of getting messages from the spirits out to other people by becoming enraptured in the song and music – a type of high.


Though many aspects of these Afro-Caribbean trance practices may seem outlandish and primitive from a Western perspective, we have similar aspects in some of our own religious practices. When I first began research for my final paper, I was initially only interested in trance and experiences of ecstasy in charismatic Christian communities. My research lens expanded when I started seeing connections to other religious trance experiences. The role of trancing in santerìa – to relay direct messages from the orishas or spirits – isn’t unlike the Christian practice of speaking in tongues. In the original context of this practice, tongues simply meant “language” and referred to the God-given ability to evangelize in languages that were foreign to the speaker. Tongues started to appear in the church context as a direct revelation from God which was interpreted by another church member. In the santerìa context, this is perhaps done in a more orderly fashion: often a ring of people envelop the spirit-possessed person while in the state of trance. The Pentecostal practice often looks much more chaotic with many people entering and exiting states of trance while speaking in tongues simultaneously. Whether the contemporary practice of speaking in tongues is faithful to the first-century practice is debatable[1], but the connections of trance to both Christianity and Afro-Caribbean religions are clear.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, used MRI scans to identify what is happening in the brain while people pray in tongues. He used a variety of participants in this study including a pastor and a congregation member. Based on the pastor’s brain scans, the results show that while praying in English, the frontal lobe was activated as a result of the intense focus. While praying in tongues, the frontal lobe was not activated as much since the frontal lobe also stores the speech centre of the brain. This quieting of the frontal lobe is consistent with the experience of transcendence that people purportedly feel while praying and the resultant glossolalia. Other study participants entered a trance state while listening to music and began speaking in tongues. The pastor is perhaps able to speak in tongues without requiring music since it is a habitual and learned behaviour for him. This parallels Dr. Naish’s suggestion that part of trance inducement can be learned and conditioned.

By contrast, an earlier study by Dr. Newberg focused on Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns. This study showed an increase in frontal lobe activity while praying as a result of the intense focus and mindfulness they use in prayers through repetitious phrases or mantras. This is a stark contrast to the trance-induced states that result in a drop of frontal lobe activity. In my understanding, other types of meditation may also result in a quieting of the frontal lobe since some meditation practices seek to quiet the mind by getting rid of conscious thoughts. Here is a link to a YouTube video which presents Dr. Newberg’s work:

         Thus, some of the trance practices of charismatic Christianity are reminiscent of the practices of other religions. This discussion also falls into the gray area where faith can’t be entirely explained by science. However, an understanding of the underlying neurological processes involved in these trance-like states gives us a clearer idea of what is actually happening in moments of transcendence.

In Neuroscience in Music Pedagogy.  Editors:  W. Gruhn and F. Fauscher. pp. 233-266.  2008. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. ISBN: 978-1-60021-834-7

In his chapter entitled Musical Learning in Individuals with Disabilities, Eckart Altenmueller discusses how music can be shared with children with disabilities.  He addresses a range of physical and intellectual disabilities. 

Altenmueller begins by celebrating the “richness of musical experience”, recognizing that music engages us at the emotional, sensorimotor and cognitive levels.   He describes the extensiveness of the brain’s neural response to music and notes music’s impact on the brain, demonstrated by plasticity and the brain’s adaptation as a result of musical performance. He suggested that this plasticity, evidenced in a musician’s brain, may also have benefit for disabled children, potentially “helping to improve various sensory, motor, coordinative or emotional disabilities.” In acknowledging that a child’s disabilities will at some level interfere with the music experience, Altenmueller makes the important statement that there are yet several abilities with which the disabled child can participate in and enjoy the musical experience.

Altenmueller addresses music learning with four categories of disability:  physical disabilities, localized brain lesions, developmental disabilities, and chromosomal disorders.

Within physical disability he addresses physical, visual, and hearing impairments.
In localized brain lesions he addresses receptive and expressive amusia, congenital amusia, and focal dystonia. Developmental disabilities included are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Savants.  Chromosomal disorders include Down Syndrome and Williams Syndrome.

Altenmueller recognizes that the above list of disabilities contains a range of levels of severity of disability and that music activities need to be modified and adjusted to each individual’s need.  He also acknowledges that it will take time to achieve a plastic response or to observe development with children with special needs.  His chapter is primarily addressed to educators, so he reminds them to be realistic about time-lines and to encourage parents to be the same. 

He concludes by commenting on the social experience that music provides and the value for children with special needs to participate in the group sharing of music.


Altenmueller covers a lot of information in his chapter, describing various disabilities in a range of categories and provides suggestions on how music educators might engage these children in music learning.  Of importance to me was his underlying philosophy that music is a powerful experience at several levels: emotional, physical, and cognitive, and that children with disabilities can benefit from music and should participant in musical experience.  He focuses on what the child can do, and how to use this ability in music. 

I facilitate a weekly 45-minute music therapy session with a group of six profoundly disabled high-school students.  None of these students have the ability to learn music.  They cannot respond with speech or singing, nor can they hold any instrument without hand-over-hand support.  Yet, we share a beautiful musical experience together.  Songs that have become familiar bring out smiles, and in some cases laughter.  Recognizing their name in a song often results in eye contact. 
In spite of fine and gross motor challenges, great effort is exerted (with the hand-over-hand support from an aid) to move an arm towards an instrument to produce a sound in the space provided for them in a song.  We are making and sharing music together and it matters.  Sounds of my instruments crashing together as I arrive in the room causes some students to begin rocking and others to vocalize in anticipation of “music time”.  The students know that I have arrived and are getting excited.  Music matters to them.  As Altenmueller noted, we celebrate what the child can do, and use that ability to engage in music, at whatever level that is for that individual. 

Of interest to me is the response of the students when we are united in rhythm.  Some songs are what are considered “action songs” where the student, with hand-over-hand support, clap hands, stamp feet, or lift arms to a strong beat.  I often vary a rhythmic pattern for these actions.  The support workers imitate my rhythmic pattern with the students’ clapping or foot stamping.  As we begin to go though a number of these rhythmic variations, the students begin to recognize the imitation that is taking place.  As they do, smiles and laughter break out. I often ponder, what is it about the experience of sharing rhythm that results in such strong responses from the students?

 In another song I play a long descending glissando at which time the students drop their arms from a raised position.  This song has become a favourite.  Again, matching the music with their body brings a strong response.

As I reflect on this group of students, another music therapy client I worked with 3 years ago comes to mind.  He was a nine-year-old boy with profound disabilities.  He had minimal motor-control, was blind and completely deaf.  I had 4 sessions with him at his home.  Initially I was at a loss of what I could do with a child with this level of disability.  Uneasiness crept over me as I tried to think of what to do to give this young boy an opportunity to engage with me, somehow with my music.  Then I realized that he could feel, that he could have a tactile experience.  I took the cabassa to him, placed his hand on top, and began to move his hand with mine, in a strong rhythmic pulse.  I then moved it to the top of his leg and repeated the rhythm.  He began to laugh when he recognized the same rhythm being played on his leg.  As he laughed, I imitated the rhythm of his laughter with the cabassa on his leg.  He laughed again as he realized I was imitating him. We had connected.  For the remaining 3 sessions, we shared rhythm with a variety of percussion instruments.  Sometimes a buffalo drum was laid against his cheek to feel the vibrations, other times we struck rhythm patterns on the rough leather top of the bongo drums with our hands, the cabassa was always a favourite.  It is of interest to me that, as in the class mentioned above, sharing rhythmic patterns had such an impact on the child. 

Without the ability to sing together, to play an instrument unaided, to dance, or to move to the music, sharing the strong beat of the rhythm, even though the movement is supported by another, allowed the children to be part of the music, to connect to me, and to experience a social activity. 

The responses of these children reflect what Altenmueller described as the richness of music experience, impacting at the levels of emotion, sensorimotor, and cognition.  The children responded on all of these levels: emotion-joy; sensorimotor-the motor sensation of rhythm; and cognition-the recognition of this.

What they could not do did not matter.  What they could do brought smiles and laughter.  Why? Because they recognized and enjoyed what they could do, in music.

Practice Strategies: Effects of Blocked and Random Practice Schedules

Reference: Laura A. Stambaugh. "When Repetition Isn’t the Best Practice Strategy: Effects of Blocked and Random Practice Schedules". Journal of Research in Music Education. January 2011.
This article investigates effects of different practice techniques on performance accuracy and retention. Stambaugh compares between two different techniques: Blocked practicing and Random Practice schedules. Blocked practicing is essentially practicing the same thing for a blocked period of time (example she uses is: 111 222 333), compared to Random Practice Schedules which the learner is constantly switching tasks (ex: 123 231 312). In studies, it is shown that blocked practicing is more effective for immediate performance, but that random practice orders help facilitate long-term recollection and memory retention. 

She mentions something called contextual interference, which has to do with the number of interruptions we get while doing a given task. In blocked practice, there is a low level of interference, as the individual is focused on one task for a period of time, while in random orders there is a high level of interference as the person is moving attention from task to task. Basic results of a study that she conducted found that blocked orders is best at acquisition, while random orders are supportive of a greater degree of retention. Although there are some inconsistencies in the studies done thus far, it is still speculated that more research needs to be done in the area of contextual interference.
To put these practice orders to the test, Stambaugh took these techniques to a group of seventh-grade musicians to see the effects on retention in a 24-hr retention test. From this study and reviewing other work, they concluded the following:

1. Students in blocked condition will perform more accurately, faster, and more steadily at the end of practice (acquisition) (p.370)
2. Students in the random condition will perform more accurately, faster, and more steadily at 24-hour retention and transfer testing (p.371)

She ultimately suggests that simply repetitive practice may not actually be the most effective way to practice, or to teach practice techniques at an educational level. She suggests that students learn to randomize their practice structures, and that students learn to self-regulate their practice as well. Although their study was quite specific to beginner musicians at a specific age, Stambaugh invites others to study other groups and suggests that similar results will be found.

As someone who has been in some form of musical training for most of my life, and now as a private music instructor, I found this article very interesting. I grew up playing piano and would probably say that the majority of the practice that I did was much more similar to what she calls blocking. I would do my scales for a half hour, do technique for a half hour, and then play through repertoire I was working on in solid blocks. I never had big issues with memorization (once I got myself to focus and practice regularly), but I did have problems focusing for that amount of time, and and I see the same problems exemplified in my students. Once I began voice lessons (in college), my practice habits did not change much from what they were in piano, I would warm up and then just work on repertoire for an hour- two hours every day. But again, had the same issues of focus and then remembering things because I had done it so much over and over.

I like her suggestion of random orders very much, and think it makes a lot of sense to both beginner and advanced musicians. Getting the information in as many different ways as you can is an important tool to develop as a musician, and being able to move from task to task. And sometimes what we think is the most productive for ourselves may in fact prove to be counter-productive in reality. In most parts of life, I think that efficiency is important, especially in the practice room, and this offers another tool to develop efficiency.
In her pedagogical implications for Music Education, Slambaugh suggests that beginner students learn to facilitate this kind of randomized learning/practice on their own. Although I do agree that it can be beneficial, I am not sure how exactly this begins to be implemented. Obviously if it is suggested and modeled by the teacher, but I think for some young students (5-7yrs old), even just sitting at the piano for longer than five minutes to practice and focus is a feat in itself. I do think that she offers some important insights into the way that musicians practice, and the importance of facilitating solid practice habits in our students based on the way our brains can retain information.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Music and language reading

Music and Language Reading
Music Educators Journal (November 1947), 34 (2), pg. 29-30
In this article, Janet insists that there is a correlation between reading and music and, also, “there are many areas in which activities used in music and reading can prove invaluable to both.” Firstly, he pointed out that the development of auditory perception is important; there is a connection between the hearing of sound in reading and the ability of the child to match a pitch in music. In his work, he found out that if a child has a poor auditory perception in reading, the child also seem to have trouble with pitch and rhythm in music. It is important to form good listening habits to those children. To establish good habits of listening music and reading, it needs to play vital part. For example, much practice in matching pitch, both through individual and group work, is helpful. “As the children become more and more accustomed to hearing good music they will be able to appreciate it and will thus be developing a phase of auditory perception from which they will get much enjoyment.” Furthermore, to develop good habits in ear-training, rhythm band work is an invaluable aid as well as playing various instruments at different musical intervals. In addition, there is a strong connection between in language reading and reading of music which both relates to visual perception. The ability to reason may be brought out through music; in reading music and working with syllables along with other technical terms involves a great deal of reasoning. “When children are listening to music in order to find out what it tells them to do or discuss how it makes them feel, reasoning automatically becomes part of the process of thinking.” Finally, the author says, music does have its place in a   well-balanced program of reading that is designed to meet the individual needs of children.  Reading, being the complex subject that it is, gives us the opportunity to learn much about the child and the many obstacles which he has to overcome during the very complicated process of learning.
It was very thrill to see how music could be used as a guide to help children who have defect on reading, especially through ear-training. I never thought that hearing the sound in reading and the ability to match the pitch in music would have correlation to each other. Although I agree to some of concepts what the author mentioned, in my opinion, the concentration and the interests on what they are reading may be more important than just having a good listening habit. Of course, learning music and listening to music can improve the concentration in some ways, but even for playing the instrument and listening to music, the child must be interested in it; otherwise, the child would give up. From my own experience, it is really hard for me to read a book or article if I am not interested in the topic or genre of literature. Furthermore, although I agree that there would be some correlation between reading a book and reading a music, however, since the languages are totally different, it would be hard to say that they actually help each other. Nevertheless, I strongly agree that it is very crucial to make children to think and do some various activities. Learning music and listening to music would not harm at all anyways, so it would be great to try what the author pointed out.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Music and Memory


    Music often triggers many recollections, from nostalgic bliss to melancholic nightmares. People associate music with events and moments such as national anthems, reunions, weddings, funerals, favourite pastimes, sports games, etc. The collective memories of these musical moments allow people to participate in sing-alongs together and to further build on musical traditions. Neuroscientists have wondered about the region in the brain which connects memories with musical memory. Petr Janata, a professor at the University of California (Davis), used his knowledge in cognitive neuroscience to discover the part of the brain responsible for “mental movie tracking”- the medial pre-frontal cortex, located behind the forehead. Janata wanted to explore the music-memory connection through the medial pre-frontal cortex when he witnessed the brain activation relating to chord and key changes through the fMRI scan. The medial pre-frontal cortex was also activated when people participated in self-reflection and facts relating to autobiography (Hsu, J. 2009. Music-Memory Connection Found in Brain, LiveScience,

     Janata went on a mission and recruited 11 female and 2 male students from the University of California (Davis) to assist him in his study. All students were between 18-22 years of age. Participants listened to 30 nostalgic music samples from the Top 100 music charts from 15-20 years ago. The students were told to give signals to researchers through the fMRI when a music sample brought about memories of aspects of their lives. The students were self-determining the “integration of sensory information with self-knowledge and the retrieval of autobiographical information; they were not determining the familiarity or unfamiliarity of any of the preselected songs (Janata, P., 2009. The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories, Cerebral Cortex, Advance Access Publication,, Pg. 1). The participants were not allowed to make associations with the music in advance (Janata, 2009). Students also had to complete a survey in which they wrote down their autobiographical connections to each music sample. On average, the students recognized 57% of the sampled songs (17/30), and the more intense emotions were evoked when students listened to musical samples which triggered very strong autobiographical moments. The fMRI detected spikes in the medial pre-frontal cortex when music-memory links were made (Hsu, 2009).

     Interestingly, the medial pre-frontal cortex is one of the slowest degenerating parts of the brain, which may explain why many patients with Alzheimer’s can still recall and play music – despite their deteriorating memories in other aspects of life. This finding suggests that the “re-introduction” of music for Alzheimer’s patients can improve the quality of their lives (Hsu, 2009).


     Reading both articles made me think about my autobiographical moments with music. I can recall my music associations with past events in my life – riding on the school bus, reading books in the library, graduating from high school, and so on. I am fond of most of my memories with music, as it has enriched my life immensely. Music facilitated my social skills during my secondary school years. I was able to make friends through my association with other “music geeks;” this association made me feel as if I had a place in my high school. As a teacher, I used music to bring poignant issues to students in my community (i.e. coping with changing family dynamics, dealing with peer pressure, etc.) and aided in forming organizations geared to support these students. Although I have many music-autobiographical memories, I realize that I have been taking my memory for granted. These articles make me wonder about further studying on how early musical training may reduce the risk of having Alzheimer’s in later years. Researchers may not know this answer for another 20 years, but the fact that many Alzheimer’s patients can remember songs sung or played decades earlier helps me to remain hopeful of a possible early music training-reduced Alzheimer’s rate connection.

Works Cited

Hsu, J. 2009. Music-Memory Connection Found in Brain, LiveScience,

Janata, P., 2009. The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical MemoriesCerebral Cortex, Advance Access Publication,