Music in the brain: the musical multi-feature studies by Peter Vuust
In Peter Vuust’s ‘The musical multi-feature studies’, he mentioned that the study of how musicians’ brains evolve through daily training has recently emerged as an effective way of gaining insight into changes of the human brain during development and training. Mismatch negativity (MMN) studies have consistently revealed neural differences in early sound processing between people with different musical backgrounds. And he throws a question, “Can the MMN paradigms be adapted to resemble a musical context while keeping the experimental duration contained, and will they reveal differences in sound-related brain activity among different types of musicians?”
For his experiment, he made two changes to classic MMN-paradigm: 1. Emulating harmonic progressions found in real music by using the Alberti bass with underlying a harmonic scheme of major and minor chords. 2. Embedding more than one type of sound with alternating pitches. Through using this musical multi-feature paradigm, he could test for differences between musicians playing different styles of Western music, specifically between classical, jazz and pop/rock musicians.
Regarding the listening experience, there are differences in relation to how musicians are taught and learned. For example, for Jazz musicians, they typically learn and perform music by using the ear and they are taught by ear training programme at Jazz school, in contrast, Classic musicians are less focused on learning by the ear. (Suzuki method teaches music by ear in the early years of childhood)
He applied the new fast musical multi-feature MMN paradigm with classical musicians, jazz musicians, band musicians and non-musicians with 6 types of acoustic changes: pitch, mistuning, intensity, timbre, sound-source location, and rhythm in the same sound sequence for 15 minutes. They obtained larger overall MMN amplitude in Jazz musicians as compared with all other types of musicians across six different sound features. This indicates a greater overall sensitivity to sound changes in Jazz musicians as compared to others. Especially, sliding to tones is a typical feature in improvisational music such as Jazz music as opposed to Classical music. When interpreting these results, it should be kept in mind that jazz musicians score higher in musical aptitude tests than rock musicians and non-musicians, especially with regards to tonal abilities.
He points out few interesting implications and applications of this study. First, the MMNs obtained in relation to the auditory deviants in our musical multi-feature paradigm shows that it is possible to develop highly controlled brain measuring paradigms which still resembles “real” music. “We may be able to track brain measures (MMN) involved in survival-related attentional processing during ‘real’ music listening, and thereby study other important aspects of music.” Secondly, this paradigm provides an ecological method of comparing MMNs in musicians from different musical genres and this is important because musical complexity, in many instances, is crucial in order to detect fine-grained auditory processing differences between participants from various musical backgrounds. Lastly, it may find usage in clinical studies, where it may be used to identify the cognitive limitations related to musical processing.
I was very thrilled to know about the concept and purpose of Mismatch negativity (MMN) and it was interesting to see the differences in sound-related brain activity among different types of musicians. I was surprised that Jazz musicians scored higher in musical aptitude and obtained larger overall MMN amplitude than others since I expected Classic musicians would score higher than others. Vuust mentioned, “Jazz music in its modern form is characterized by complex chord changes, rich harmonies and challenging rhythmic structures such as polyrhythms that place great demands on listeners’ and performers’ theoretical and ear training skills”, as if classic musicians are not trained as much. I do not agree fully with his point because there are many classic musicians who have very well-trained ear and improvisation skills. Furthermore, we can see all of complex chord changes, rich harmonies and challenging rhythmic structure in many classic pieces since baroque to contemporary music. Also, for Rock musicians, there are many musicians who can improvise and composed very well as much as Jazz musicians. Of course, the result of this study would be varied depending on who they chose but I am just wondering if all musicians have same level of musical skills.
Moreover, since this study is first to show differences in pre-attentive brain responses between musicians, it would be very interesting to see “multi-attribute ‘profiles’ of sound-discrimination abilities in single individuals” in further study if they can refine ERP method at the individual level like what they mentioned. Also, I strongly agree and support the idea that it may be helpful to those who have cognitive limitations related to musical processing.