Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Music That Moves: How Effective Performance Engages the Brain

​Creative Brains: Music, Art and Emotion
​Music That Moves: How Effective Performance Engages the Brain


​       In a documentary titled “Creative Brains: Music, Art and Emotion,” Indre Viskontas examines how effective performance engages the brain by investigating how and why people experience chills when listening to music. Though music is subjective and often difficult to measure, Viskontas was able to conduct this study more concretely by using goosebumps as a physical indicator.
​       As a control, the researchers had participants listen to the same snippets of musical phrases, one of Brahms and one of Rachmaninoff. The results of the study indicated that although one person may experience goosebumps by listening to Brahms, the other participant may not receive the same reaction. This is largely due to music preference, an important role in whether the listener will experience goosebumps or not. Our preferences derive from past experience with music which in turn influences what type of music we will enjoy in the future. These preferences can be represented by an inverted U-shaped curve reflecting the correlation between preference and complexity. Viskontas describes the top of the curve as our “sweet spot” where music is at a level where it is complex enough to enjoy, yet not too complex to understand. She also notes that although children love repetition, adults do not, as it becomes boring. Therefore, anticipation and surprise is what allows us to enjoy music. This information is especially useful to musicians when performing as it allows them to understand and maximize the amount of pleasure that audience members experience. Viskontas states that often, it is not the big sound of a symphony that gives listeners goosebumps, rather, a solo instrument that emerges from a big sound. Some psychologists theorize that this is because it 
resembles the cry of a child which we are programmed to autonomically respond to due to evolution. 
​       Goosebumps correspond with the reward circuitry of the brain which is activated when eating, having sex or using drugs. It is important to note that this study comprised of professional musicians only. Interestingly, the participants’ brain scans showed a decrease in brain activity in the medial temporal lobe and ventromedial prefrontal cortex which plays a role in what Viskontas describes as "remembering episodes in our lives". These parts of our brains are active when thinking about day-to-day activities such as taxes, groceries, etc. Participants had stated that listening to music did not produce any associations with objects or events. The decrease in activity may be because as humans, we have too many experiences that cannot be represented or associated with one piece of music. Viskontas however, theorizes that there were no associations or memories evoked because the participants were able to turn off these parts of the brain as a result of being fully immersed in the experience of listening, thereby inducing goosebumps.
​       A follow up study was conducted in 2011 where researchers superimposed fMRI scans of anticipation and release and confirmed that there was a disassociation between the two phases. The caudate nucleus which is involved in sensory function and reward is more active during anticipation but less active in the release phase. Whereas the opposite occurs in the nucleus accumbens which is associated with pleasure.

​      This documentary made me reflect on the types of music I like and what songs have given me the chills. Viskontas noted that our preference for music derives from our past experiences. This definitely applies to everyone, but it made me wonder how being a musician and playing an instrument might influence this. As musicians, we are trained to actively listen to music. Does this training make us harsher critics because we know what to listen for? Or does it make us more open to genres? This particular experiment only used professional musicians, however, it was never specified as to what genre of music they play and enjoy. The study also did not mention how many participants there were, the ages, gender, how long they have been performing, or whether they were familiar with the examples used. I also thought it was very interesting that psychologists have theorized that solo instruments give us goosebumps because it resembles the cry of a child and that we automatically respond to this due to evolution. I have never come across this theory before and it is definitely an interesting one. I wonder if it might just be the contrast from a big symphony sound, to a soloist.
​       I think it is interesting that the results found a decrease in brain activity in the medial temporal lobe and ventromedial prefrontal cortex and this leads me to wonder whether this would also occur in non-musicians. Furthermore, it would be interesting to see if Viskontas' theory is correct - that the decrease in activity is a result of being fully immersed in the music. It would be useful to test the theory out by examining brain activities of participants while listening to music they did not like.
​       At the end of the documentary, a violinist named Heidi Clare performed an excerpt of the same piece twice to demonstrate that a listener’s chance of experiencing goosebumps is also very dependent on the musician’s performance. The first time, she plays mechanically and disengaged and the second time, passionately and fully engaged. As expected, the results were astoundingly different. Although her point is very valid, Heidi exaggerated the two examples too much. When she played it the first time, she played the melody in a very basic way by only using individual notes at a time. The second time she played it, she added many embellishments making it sound more complex and difficult, played it faster and played much more of the piece. Heidi claims that like a light switch, she is instantly able to be fully engaged in her performance. I wonder if what Heidi is really referring to is flow? I agree, that when practicing or performing, there is a shift in focus, but at times, this is not always instant because I think there are many factors that can come into play and affect my performance, such as my energy, mood, stress levels, the temperature of the room, the condition of the piano, etc. 

​         University of California Television. "Creative Brains: Music, Art and Emotion." YouTube video, 1:11:00. April 25, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6txK8LXg1o

1 comment:

angie said...

You posed many great points in your reflection! I especially appreciated your mentioning that the study didn’t mention the number of participants, the age and gender, not whether they were familiar with the examples used. I also agreed with the idea that testing the theory out by examining brain activities of participants while listening to music they did not like instead, may also be another suggestion.

How does a researcher measure goosebumps and under what circumstances for each person? Everyone is different, and would get goosebumps in different occasions (for example, some people may be cold easier than others, hence, increasing the chance of possible goosebumps. I get goodsebumps also, but usually with a piece I’ve played and/or studied that brings back memories. How does goosebumps correlate with performance and the brain?

This research also brought up other questions for me. What is it in our bodies that produce these goosebumps? What is the brain signaling us and/or the skin when we have these goosebumps? What part of the brain is affected? Lastly, the video mentioned that brain scans of participants display a decrease in brain activity in the medial temporal lobe and ventromedial prefrontal cortex--playing a role as “remembering episodes in our lives.” (Viskontas) I also wonder why that happens. Thank you for sharing this article with us, Veronica.