1. Learning with music can change brain structure

    July 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Edinburgh press release:

    Using musical cues to learn a physical task significantly develops an important part of the brain, according to a new study.

    People who practiced a basic movement task to music showed increased structural connectivity between the regions of the brain that process sound and control movement.

    The findings focus on white matter pathways — the wiring that enables brain cells to communicate with each other.

    The study could have positive implications for future research into rehabilitation for patients who have lost some degree of movement control.

    Thirty right-handed volunteers were divided into two groups and charged with learning a new task involving sequences of finger movements with the non-dominant, left hand. One group learned the task with musical cues, the other group without music.

    After four weeks of practice, both groups of volunteers performed equally well at learning the sequences, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found.

    Using MRI scans, it was found that the music group showed a significant increase in structural connectivity in the white matter tract that links auditory and motor regions on the right side of the brain. The non-music group showed no change.

    Researchers hope that future study with larger numbers of participants will examine whether music can help with special kinds of motor rehabilitation programmes, such as after a stroke.

    The interdisciplinary project brought together researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development, Clinical Research Imaging Centre, and Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, and from Clinical Neuropsychology, Leiden University, The Netherlands.

    The results are published in the journal Brain & Cognition.

    Dr Katie Overy, who led the research team said: “The study suggests that music makes a key difference. We have long known that music encourages people to move. This study provides the first experimental evidence that adding musical cues to learning new motor task can lead to changes in white matter structure in the brain.”


  2. Article speculates on the beginnings of music

    July 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    How did music begin? Did our early ancestors first start by beating things together to create rhythm, or use their voices to sing? What types of instruments did they use? Has music always been important in human society, and if so, why? These are some of the questions explored in a recent Hypothesis and Theory article published in Frontiers in Sociology. The answers reveal that the story of music is, in many ways, the story of humans.

    So, what is music? This is difficult to answer, as everyone has their own idea. “Sound that conveys emotion,” is what Jeremy Montagu, of the University of Oxford and author of the article, describes as his. A mother humming or crooning to calm her baby would probably count as music, using this definition, and this simple music probably predated speech.

    But where do we draw the line between music and speech? You might think that rhythm, pattern and controlling pitch are important in music, but these things can also apply when someone recites a sonnet or speaks with heightened emotion. Montagu concludes that “each of us in our own way can say ‘Yes, this is music’, and ‘No, that is speech’.”

    So, when did our ancestors begin making music? If we take singing, then controlling pitch is important. Scientists have studied the fossilized skulls and jaws of early apes, to see if they were able to vocalize and control pitch. About a million years ago, the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans had the vocal anatomy to “sing” like us, but it’s impossible to know if they did.

    Another important component of music is rhythm. Our early ancestors may have created rhythmic music by clapping their hands. This may be linked to the earliest musical instruments, when somebody realized that smacking stones or sticks together doesn’t hurt your hands as much. Many of these instruments are likely to have been made from soft materials like wood or reeds, and so haven’t survived. What have survived are bone pipes. Some of the earliest ever found are made from swan and vulture wing bones and are between 39,000 and 43,000 years old. Other ancient instruments have been found in surprising places. For example, there is evidence that people struck stalactites or “rock gongs” in caves dating from 12,000 years ago, with the caves themselves acting as resonators for the sound.

    So, we know that music is old, and may have been with us from when humans first evolved. But why did it arise and why has it persisted? There are many possible functions for music. One is dancing. It is unknown if the first dancers created a musical accompaniment, or if music led to people moving rhythmically. Another obvious reason for music is entertainment, which can be personal or communal. Music can also be used for communication, often over large distances, using instruments such as drums or horns. Yet another reason for music is ritual, and virtually every religion uses music.

    However, the major reason that music arose and persists may be that it brings people together. “Music leads to bonding, such as bonding between mother and child or bonding between groups,” explains Montagu. “Music keeps workers happy when doing repetitive and otherwise boring work, and helps everyone to move together, increasing the force of their work. Dancing or singing together before a hunt or warfare binds participants into a cohesive group.” He concludes: “It has even been suggested that music, in causing such bonding, created not only the family but society itself, bringing individuals together who might otherwise have led solitary lives.”


  3. New approach to teaching music improvisation enhances creativity

    July 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    As World Music Day is approaching, taking place each year on 21 June, many are looking forward to the musical events in the streets or parks and the atmosphere it brings with it. Watching musicians perform can be impressive, even more so when they improvise. The performers produce their works in real-time and while improvising, they manage several processes simultaneously including generating melodic and rhythmic sequences, coordinating performance with other musicians in an ensemble and evaluating internal and external stimuli. All this is done with the overall goal of creating aesthetically appealing music. It keeps some of us wondering, how they do it and whether this can be learned at all.

    In fact, improvisation is being taught in music education and often focuses on the development of techniques. Dr Michele Biasutti, Associate Professor at the University of Padua in Italy however examined how to go beyond these current practices in his recent paper “Pedagogical applications of cognitive research on musical improvisation.” Based on a literature review, the aim was to develop a model that looks at developing processes for improvisation that enhance creativity.

    “Practices such as playing by ear is underexposed in current teaching approaches, which stress notated instruction and exercises such as scales and chords. Instead, I propose an approach that is based on the development of cognitive processes that enhance creativity and the abilities of the players to reflect on their performance skills,” states Biasutti.

    Improvisation is a complex and multidimensional act that involves creativity and performance behaviours in real-time. It also requires processes such as sensory and perceptual encoding, motor control and performance monitoring as well as storing and recalling memory.

    “A teaching approach based on the development of processes could be beneficial in music improvisation at several levels. A process-oriented teaching method can provide inputs for developing specific skills such as problem solving and critical thinking to assist the reflective practice during improvisation. The target processes were the following: anticipation, use of repertoire, emotive communication, feedback and flow,” explains Biasutti.

    This process approach encourages students to think about their creative processes and to self-assess their experiences, thus developing a more complete awareness about the activities performed. In the past, teaching and learning consisted of information being passed-on, memorised and repeated. Now, students have to increasingly find their own knowledge by using information in creative ways, which requires a shift in how students are taught. The paper suggests that this could be achieved by teaching improvisation abilities, whereby teachers become more of facilitators who shift the focus from the evaluation of learning outcomes to the quality of processes that lead to improvisational expertise.

    Biasutti concludes “There are several educational benefits to developing improvisational skills also for other disciplines. Improvisation could be considered an adaptive behaviour to a real-time unpredicted event. The response can be shaped through creativity and the divergent skillset that improvisation fosters. Improvisation could become a teaching technique to be used in educational contexts. Promoting improvisational skills would allow the students to develop the ability to adapt to tomorrow’s changing world, providing tools for lifelong learning.”


  4. Study suggests music sessions may help those with speech difficulties

    June 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Plymouth press release:

    Tailored music sessions could be crucial in transforming the lives of millions of people whose speech is impacted by learning difficulties, strokes, dementia, brain damage and autism, a new study suggests.

    It could enable individuals and their families to feel less isolated or neglected within society, while enhancing their ability to communicate, both with each other and the wider world.

    But consistent funding and provision needs to be increased, while health and community providers need to implement a more integrated approach to using music in supporting those impacted by strokes and dementia.

    Those are among the key findings of Beyond Words, a project led by the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Music Zone (PMZ) and funded by the Arts Council England Research Grants programme.

    It focused on those who have problems communicating with words — who the researchers now term as being ‘post-verbal’ — and how music might be used to help them.

    The study is the first to focus on post-verbal people and music, and one of the first to explore how music can have a positive effect on a wide range of health-related issues and how future provision might take them all into account rather than focussing on only specific groups within society.

    Jocey Quinn, Professor of Education at the University, led the study which involved a series of interviews, focus groups and arts workshops, as well as observing the regular sessions offered by PMZ.

    She said: “What we have shown is that music can give people a voice, allowing them to explore their creativity as well as communicating both pleasure and pain. In post-verbal children, music can enable carers and families to see the full potential of the individual, while in someone with dementia, a person’s identity can re-emerge when families might have thought it had been lost. This is not simply talking about a minority group, but millions of people who currently do not get good provision, and finding ways to give people hope for the future.”

    Debbie Geraghty is the Executive Director of Plymouth Music Zone, the award-winning charity which was the focus of the groundbreaking longitudinal research. The charity is at the forefront of using music as a powerful tool for inclusion and social change and reaches out to vulnerable children, young people and adults across Plymouth and beyond.

    She added: “This research really shines a light on the tremendous personal and social impacts music can have on individuals and, indeed, how to go about using music to achieve those changes. Surprisingly for us though, it shows just how much those effects really ripple out among families and communities and uncovers the true depth and importance of the work. Plymouth Music Zone willingly opened its doors to researchers because we care so deeply about using the power of music to include and value everyone in society. I hope these valuable insights influence others far and wide as the participants who took part in this research have enrichened our lives and taught us more about the importance of connection, kindness and care than we could ever have imagined possible.”

    For the project, research assistant Claudia Blandon spent 16 months observing sessions delivered by PMZ and following the lives of 25 people who attend sessions at the centre and other community venues like care homes. MPZ’s Training and Research Manager and Music Leader, Anna Batson, was the third member of the research team who brought musical expertise to the findings.

    It also involved interviews with 44 family members, which offered an insight into the richness of the lives led by ‘post-verbal’ people, 30 arts workshops with the post-verbal people and four focus groups with music leaders and volunteers based around current provision and how they felt it might be enhanced.

    The final report is now being communicated to policy makers, charities and others in the hope that the type of sessions offered at Plymouth Music Zone, and other similar centres, can be increased in a sustainable manner.

    Some of its findings have already been communicated during conferences in Plymouth, Poland and the United States, with the hope that the lessons learned could be implemented internationally.

    Phil Gibby, Area Director, South West, Arts Council England, said: “We are delighted to have been able to support the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Music Zone through our National-Lottery funded Research Grants programme to carry out this important project. Our research programme aims to deepen knowledge and understanding of the impact of art and culture, and the complex role it plays in our experience as individuals and a society. We are pleased to see that the results of this study provide credible and robust evidence that demonstrates the wide social benefits of art and culture and hope this goes some way to making the links truly recognised.”


  5. Researchers examine science behind musicians’ movements

    June 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the McMaster University press release:

    Researchers at McMaster are one step closer to solving one of the mysteries of social interaction: how musicians communicate during a performance and anticipate one another’s moves without saying a word.

    The findings are important because a clearer appreciation of how musicians silently work together — across tempo changes, phrasing and musical dynamics — will improve our understanding of nonverbal communication. That could lead to better techniques to reach those with conditions such as autism or dementia, say researchers.

    Using sophisticated technology, which included infrared markers, motion capture sensors and mathematical modelling, scientists examined the movements of musicians from two professional string quartets. They found they could predict from the body sway of one musician, what another would do next.

    While some assumed the role as leaders, and others followers, researchers found the leaders were far more influential in the ensemble.

    They also found the degree of body sway communication among the musicians was connected to their perceptions of how well they performed together.

    “Although we are often not consciously aware of it, non-verbal communications between people is common in many situations and influences who we like and who we don’t like,” explains Dan Bosnyak, a researcher and technical director at McMaster’s LIVELab, where the work was conducted.

    “The methodology developed in this study could be useful for understanding many different types of group behaviour, such as understanding communication problems in autistic children or determining the best crowd control procedures for an emergency evacuation,” he says.

    Researchers also plan to analyze whether body sway influences other forms of social interaction, such as romantic relationships.

    They plan to run a speed dating study this summer, where they will investigate whether the amount of body movement coordination between two people interacting for a very short period of time — just three minutes — can predict a romantic match.

    The study was published online in the journal PNAS.


  6. Uncovering why playing a musical instrument can protect brain health

    June 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care press release:

    A recent study conducted at Baycrest Health Sciences has uncovered a crucial piece into why playing a musical instrument can help older adults retain their listening skills and ward off age-related cognitive declines. This finding could lead to the development of brain rehabilitation interventions through musical training.

    The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience on May 24, found that learning to play a sound on a musical instrument alters the brain waves in a way that improves a person’s listening and hearing skills over a short time frame. This change in brain activity demonstrates the brain’s ability to rewire itself and compensate for injuries or diseases that may hamper a person’s capacity to perform tasks.

    “Music has been known to have beneficial effects on the brain, but there has been limited understanding into what about music makes a difference,” says Dr. Bernhard Ross, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and senior author on the study. “This is the first study demonstrating that learning the fine movement needed to reproduce a sound on an instrument changes the brain’s perception of sound in a way that is not seen when listening to music.”

    This finding supports Dr. Ross’ research using musical training to help stroke survivors rehabilitate motor movement in their upper bodies. Baycrest scientists have a history of breakthroughs into how a person’s musical background impacts the listening abilities and cognitive function as they age and they continue to explore how brain changes during aging impact hearing.

    The study involved 32 young, healthy adults who had normal hearing and no history of neurological or psychiatric disorders. The brain waves of participants were first recorded while they listened to bell-like sounds from a Tibetan singing bowl (a small bell struck with a wooden mallet to create sounds). After listening to the recording, half of the participants were provided the Tibetan singing bowl and asked to recreate the same sounds and rhythm by striking it and the other half recreated the sound by pressing a key on a computer keypad.

    “It has been hypothesized that the act of playing music requires many brain systems to work together, such as the hearing, motor and perception systems,” says Dr. Ross, who is also a medical biophysics professor at the University of Toronto. “This study was the first time we saw direct changes in the brain after one session, demonstrating that the action of creating music leads to a strong change in brain activity.”

    The study’s next steps involve analyzing recovery between stroke patients with musical training compared to physiotherapy and the impact of musical training on the brains of older adults.

    With additional funding, the study could explore developing musical training rehabilitation programs for other conditions that impact motor function, such as traumatic brain injury.

    Research for this study was conducted with support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which supported research staff and equipment.

    Dr. Ross’ work is setting the foundation to develop hearing aids of the future and cognitive training programs to maintain hearing health.


  7. Humanizing, harmonizing effects of music aren’t a myth

    June 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Arizona press release:

    Jake Harwood turned his lifelong hobby as a musician into a scholarly question: Could the sharing of music help ease interpersonal relations between people from different backgrounds, such as Americans and Arabs?

    To explore the issue, and building on his years of research on intergroup communication, Harwood began collaborating two to three years ago with his graduate students and other researchers on a number of studies, finding that music is not merely a universal language. It appears to produce a humanizing effect for members of groups experiencing social and political opposition.

    “Music would not have developed in our civilizations if it did not do very important things to us,” said Harwood, a professor in the University of Arizona Department of Communication. “Music allows us to communicate common humanity to each other. It models the value of diversity in ways you don’t readily see in other parts of our lives.”

    Harwood is presenting his team’s research during the International Communication Association’s 67th annual conference, to be held May 25-29 in San Diego.

    In one study, Harwood worked with UA graduate researchers Farah Qadar and Chien-Yu Chen to record a mock news story featuring an Arab and an American actor playing music together. The researchers showed the video clip to U.S. participants who were not Arab. The team found that when viewing the two cultures collaborating on music, individuals in the study were prone to report more positive perceptions — less of a prejudiced view — of Arabs.

    “The act of merging music is a metaphor for what we are trying to do: Merging two perspectives in music, you can see an emotional connection, and its effect is universal,” said Qadar, who graduated from the UA in 2016 with a master’s degree in communication.

    The team published those findings in an article, “Harmonious Contact: Stories About Intergroup Musical Collaboration Improve Intergroup Attitudes.” The article appeared in a fall issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Communication.

    Another major finding: The benefits were notable, even when individuals did not play musical instruments themselves. Merely listening to music produced by outgroup members helped reduce negative feelings about outgroup members, Harwood said.

    “It’s not just about playing Arab music. But if you see an Arab person playing music that merges the boundary between mainstream U.S. and Arab, then you start connecting the two groups,” Harwood said.

    As part of his ongoing research in a different study, which he will present during the International Communication Association conference, Harwood and Stefania Paolini, a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle’s School of Psychology, measured people’s appreciation for diversity, gauging how they felt about members of other groups. After doing so, the team asked people to listen to music from other cultures and then report how much they enjoyed the music and what they perceived of the people the music represented.

    The team found that people who value diversity are more likely to enjoy listening to music from other cultures, and that act of listening furthers one’s pro-diversity beliefs.

    “It has this sort of spiral effect. If you value diversity, you are going to listen to more music from other cultures,” Harwood said, noting that that research is continuing. “If all you are doing is listening to the same type of music all the time, there is homogeneity that is not doing a lot to help people to increase their value for diversity.”

    For Harwood and his collaborators, these findings are affirming given the decades-old world music explosion and more recent examples of performers around the world who regularly sample and cross-reference outgroup musical traditions and elements.

    Harwood pointed to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album as an early and notable example. Released in 1986, the album drew influence from South African instrumentation and rhythms.

    “It was the start of the world music phenomena,” Harwood said. “Suddenly, everyone wanted to listen to African music. Then Indonesian, then Algerian music. Then you see this modeling of new music with different musical cultures and different people collaborating with each other.”

    Harwood also said artists such as Eminem and Rihanna are among those who are experimenting with music that crosses cultural boundaries. “This whole new type of music is emerging that would not exist if you did not have that kind of cross-collaboration.”

    Harwood also said his team’s findings build on earlier research and emergent models of intergroup dialogue that encourage direct contact and conversation to help build cross-cultural understanding and cohesion.

    “We must think about music as a human, social activity rather than a sort of beautiful, aesthetic hobby and appreciate how fundamental it is to us all,” he said. “We can then begin to see people from other groups as more human and begin to recategorize one another as members as the same group.”


  8. How listening to music in a group influences depression

    June 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Listening to music together with others has many social benefits, including creating and strengthening interpersonal bonds. It has previously been shown that enjoying music in a group setting has an impact on social relationships, and that synchronizing with other group members to a beat influences how people behave to individuals both within and outside of the group. Similarly, the sharing of emotions has many social benefits as well: it helps us create and sustain relationships with others and to cement social bonds within a group, and it intensifies the potential for emotional responses. A question that still remains is whether sharing emotional and musical experiences with others might be a particularly powerful form of social bonding, and what the outcome of such an interaction might be.

    In this study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers wanted to investigate the self-reported effects on mood that comes with listening to sad music in group settings, and how mood is influenced by rumination (a maladaptive focus on negative thoughts), depression, and coping style. To do so, they recruited 697 participants who completed an online survey about “their ways of using music, types of musical engagement and the effect of music listening.” The participants also completed a number of additional questionnaires, which helped the researchers determine factors such as: the presence of symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress; general tendencies towards depression; coping styles, i.e. tendencies towards rumination or reflection (i.e. healthier tendencies to self-reflection); musical engagement as a measurement of wellbeing; as well as questionnaires addressing a variety of aspects of music listening, both alone and in a group. The results reveal two distinct behavioral patterns related to group music listening:

    1. Listening to sad music and talking about sad things tended to make people feel more depressed after listening to music. This kind of group rumination was more common in younger people, and likely reflects relative importance of both music and social relationships to younger people.

    2. Listening to inspiring music in a group and engaging in discussions about music and life is a more positive interaction that makes people feel good.

    These results provide some clues as to how people with depression use music, and why. “Behaviors relating to music use fall into distinct patterns, reflecting either healthy or unhealthy thought processes,” says Dr Sandra Garrido (corresponding author). “These results reveal important information about how people with depression use music.” The results shine a light on how music can facilitate the sharing of negative emotions, and show that the outcome is related to the coping styles and thinking patterns used in each setting, meaning that people with generally maladaptive coping styles are more likely to experience negative outcomes from group rumination of music.

    The results also show that young people may be especially vulnerable to the impacts of group rumination with music. “While young people with tendencies to depression who are a part of social groups may be perceived as receiving valuable social support, our results here suggest that the positive impacts of such group interactions depend on the types of processes that are taking place in the group,” explains Dr Garrido. “Susceptible individuals with a predilection for rumination may be most likely to suffer negative outcomes from group rumination, with social feedback deepening and exacerbating negative thoughts and feelings. However, group interactions that provide social support or opportunities for processing of emotions in a constructive way have a much higher likelihood of being positive.”

    These findings partially help clarifying under what conditions social interaction around music provide social benefits, and when it might instead amplify negative emotions. This opens up for further research to create a more detailed picture of how group interaction dynamics influence the outcome.


  9. Music has powerful (and visible) effects on the brain

    April 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center press release:

    It doesn’t matter if it’s Bach, the Beatles, Brad Paisley or Bruno Mars. Your favorite music likely triggers a similar type of activity in your brain as other people’s favorites do in theirs.

    That’s one of the things Jonathan Burdette, M.D., has found in researching music’s effects on the brain.

    “Music is primal. It affects all of us, but in very personal, unique ways,” said Burdette, a neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “Your interaction with music is different than mine, but it’s still powerful.

    Your brain has a reaction when you like or don’t like something, including music. We’ve been able to take some baby steps into seeing that, and ‘dislike’ looks different than ‘like’ and much different than ‘favorite.'”

    To study how music preferences might affect functional brain connectivity — the interactions among separate areas of the brain — Burdette and his fellow investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which depicts brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Scans were made of 21 people while they listened to music they said they most liked and disliked from among five genres (classical, country, rap, rock and Chinese opera) and to a song or piece of music they had previously named as their personal favorite.

    Those fMRI scans showed a consistent pattern: The listeners’ preferences, not the type of music they were listening to, had the greatest impact on brain connectivity — especially on a brain circuit known to be involved in internally focused thought, empathy and self-awareness. This circuit, called the default mode network, was poorly connected when the participants were listening to the music they disliked, better connected when listening to the music they liked and the most connected when listening to their favorites.

    The researchers also found that listening to favorite songs altered the connectivity between auditory brain areas and a region responsible for memory and social emotion consolidation.

    “Given that music preferences are uniquely individualized phenomena and that music can vary in acoustic complexity and the presence or absence of lyrics, the consistency of our results was unexpected,” the researchers wrote in the journal Nature Scientific Reports (Aug. 28, 2014). “These findings may explain why comparable emotional and mental states can be experienced by people listening to music that differs as widely as Beethoven and Eminem.”

    Not surprising to Burdette was the extent of the connectivity seen in the participants’ brains when they were listening to their favorite tunes.

    “There are probably some features in music that make you feel a certain way, but it’s your experience with it that is even more important,” said Burdette, who also is professor of radiology and vice chairman of research at Wake Forest School of Medicine. “Your associations with certain music involve many different parts of the brain, and they’re very strong.

    “In some cases, you might not even like the particular song, but you like the memories or feelings that you associate with it.”

    In other research projects, Burdette and colleagues at the School of Medicine and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro have found that trained music conductors are likely to be better at combining and using auditory and visual clues than people without musical training; that activity in brain areas associated with vision decreases during tasks that involve listening; and that different levels of complexity in music can have different effects on functional brain connectivity.

    “I find this type of work fascinating, because I think music is so important,” Burdette said. “If science can help get more people to recognize what music does to and for us, great.”

    Music is just a small part of Burdette’s research activities — his most recently published study, for example, showed that brain volume could be an accurate predictor of success in weight-loss attempts by the elderly — but it has long been a big of part his life.

    Burdette grew up playing viola, piano and guitar. He has been singing since childhood and continues to do so, including in the chorus in productions staged by the Piedmont Opera, of which he has been a board member for more than 10 years. He’s also done some conducting. His wife, Shona Simpson, plays piano. Their three teenage daughters — Fiona, Ellie and Jessie — perform professionally as the Dan River Girls. His brother, Kevin, is a singer who has appeared as a soloist with the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic and other top-tier opera companies and symphony orchestras.

    “Music is my avocation,” the physician in the family said. “Radiology is my vocation.”

    Burdette additionally has deep interest, if not direct involvement, in music’s clinical applications.

    “Music isn’t going to cure anything, but it definitely can play a therapeutic role,” he said.

    In countries such as Germany, Burdette noted, music therapy is commonly an integral part of the rehabilitation process for people who have had strokes, brain surgery or traumatic brain injuries.

    “If you’re trying to restore neuroplasticity in the brain, to re-establish some of the connections that were there before the injury, music can be a big help, and I’d like to see it used more widely in this country,” he said.

    Burdette also is a proponent of programs that help people with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive and physical problems re-connect with the world through music. One such program is Music & Memory, which employs iPods with customized playlists featuring songs popular when the participating individual was under 30 years old.

    “You can actually see the power of music,” Burdette said. “People who were just sitting there, not engaged in anything, light up when they start hearing music from when they were 25.

    “It’s fantastic. What else can do that? I can’t think of anything other than music.”


  10. Musical scales may have developed to accommodate vocal limitations

    March 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University at Buffalo press release:

    For singers and their audiences, being “in tune” might not be as important as we think. The fact that singers fail to consistently hit the right notes may have implications for the development of musical scales as well.

    At issue is not whether singers hit the right or wrong note, but how close are they to any note. It’s what researchers call microtuning, according to Peter Pfordresher, a UB psychologist and the paper’s lead author of a new paper with Steven Brown of McMaster University published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology.

    The findings not only suggest a different approach to the aesthetics of singing but could have a role in understanding the evolutionary development of the scales, as well as applications to childhood singing development and speech production for tone languages.

    There is a long-standing belief that musical scales arose from simple harmonic ratios. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras found that plucking a string at certain points produced pleasing steps similar to the progression heard in musical scales — Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do. Scales came about as a way of getting as close as possible to Pythagoras’ pure tuning.

    Or maybe not.

    Pfordresher says there are at least three problems with trying to match Pythagoras’ pure tuning. First, scales are not purely tuned, which has been known for a long time. It’s also not clear to what extent all of the world’s musical scales tie into the kinds of principles Pythagoras pioneered. Pfordresher cites Indonesian musical scales as an example that does not align itself with Pythagorean pure tones.

    The third problems rests with Pythagoras basing his theory on instruments, first strings and later pipes.

    “This is where Steve and I came up with our evolutionary idea,” says Pfordresher. “Probably the best starting point to think about what we call music is to look at singing, not instruments.”

    The researchers studied three groups of singers of varying abilities: professionals, untrained singers who tend sing in tune and the untrained who tend not to sing in tune. They weren’t listening for whether the singers were hitting the right notes, but rather how close they were to any note.

    Pfordresher and Brown found that the groups did not differ in terms of microtuning, although they were very different aesthetically.

    “Our proposal is, maybe scales were designed as a way to accommodate how out of tune, how variable singers are,” says Pfordresher. “We suggest that the starting point for scales and tuning for scales was probably not the tuning of musical instruments, but the mistuning of the human voice.”

    To set up a kind of musical grammar requires rules that allow for songs to be understood, remembered and reproduced. To accomplish these goals, that system needs pitches spaced widely enough to accommodate inconsistencies from person to person.

    The space between Do and Re, for instance, is heard by playing two adjacent white keys on a piano keyboard and provides that kind of liberal spacing.

    “When you look around the world, you find there are a couple of properties for scales,” says Pfordresher. “There’s a tendency to have notes that are spaced somewhat broadly, much more broadly than the fine gradations in pitch that our ears can pick up.”

    This broad spacing helps all kinds of singers, including the nightingale wren, a bird whose virtuosity has been the province of poets since antiquity. Pfordresher says earlier research by Marcelo Araya-Salas found that flexibly tuned instruments like violins and trombones were more in tune that the wren’s song.

    And though not part of the published study, Pfordresher also analyzed an excerpt of a studio version of Frank Sinatra singing “The Best is Yet to Come.”

    “It’s a wonderful recording and a challenging song to sing, but when acoustically analyzed using several measurements, the pitches are not purely tuned,” says Pfordresher. “Although he’s close enough for our ears.”