Friday, 24 February 2012

Musical Cognition

I’ve just finished reading Henkjan Honing’s Musical Cognition:  A Science of Listening.  Although I had low hopes for another book about how we process music, written for the layperson, I found it to be a little gem of a book, with bite-sized, digestible chapters. 

And many of the chapters did require a bit of chewing and digestion.  The book is indeed written for the layperson, eschewing jargon and complicated figures, but that does not mean that Honing assumes (as many authors seem to do) his reader to be uneducated or slow-witted.  On the contrary, Honing allows the reader space to consider and contemplate as he carefully but conversationally guides the reader through such knotty problems as “What is music” and “How do we recognize beat and meter in music?”, referring to his own research and that of others to describe approaches to answering these questions.  I admit that I didn’t always feel like thinking that hard, but it was well worth the effort.

In the end, one of main points of this book is that we are all trained listeners, with a lifetime of experience at listening to music.  The "illiterate" listener, lacking formal musical training, is almost as good at listening to and understanding music as a professional musician, but is not able to put names on all he hears.  What the illiterate listener lacks is mostly musical vocabulary.

Far from being the fluffy read I anticipated, this book was thoughtful and thought-provoking.  I’d love to sit down with Honing and discuss the questions raised in this book over several cups of coffee.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Music makes us happy

It’s 2:55 on a Monday, and, as usual, I’m standing in the hallway at the elementary school, waiting for the 3:00 bell to ring and the children to come pouring out of their classrooms.  Another mom stops to chat with me, and says, with no preamble, “Okay, what would you say are the top three benefits to studying music?”  The subtext here is clearly: Is all this effort worthwhile?, a thought that is common to parents of young children studying music, and one I'm definitely familiar with.  Because it really is a lot of work for parents to encourage, motivate, schedule and nag their children to practice every day.

As I said last week, I really feel the number one reason to study music is for the joy of it, but it’s clear that not every second of practicing will bring you joy.  In fact, many of the minutes of practicing are just hard work, and not pleasurable at all, especially for young children who don’t really see that there is a worthwhile goal far down the road from all this effort.  One of the jobs of the teacher and parent, of course, is to try to bring the goals closer and give children some satisfaction from small accomplishments.

Music Improves Mood
But it made me think:  Is there any real scientific evidence to show that music makes you happy?  Well, happiness is kind of difficult to measure scientifically, isn’t it?  There are some standard questionnaires that can be given to people to assess mood, and, using these, it has been shown that singing (either in a choir or individually) improves people’s mood.  In addition, just listening to music can improve your mood, and has been shown to activate the pleasure centres of the brain.  Music therapy has been shown to improve mood in patients with dementia, stroke, cancer, traumatic brain injury, and depression.  So clearly, yes:  music makes people happy.

Physiological Effects of Music
There is also a body of research showing that music (either making it or listening to it) can cause physiological changes in our bodies, such as decreasing stress levels, causing our blood vessels to dilate, boosting our immune response, and acting to reduce our pain perception.  The majority of this research has been performed simply by having people listen to joyful or relaxing music, and doing before-and-after measurements of things like saliva cortisol levels (to measure stress), or saliva immunoglobulin levels (to measure immune response).

The Autonomic Nervous System
How does music entering our ears manage to affect our body?  It kind of sounds like hippie mumbo-jumbo, but there is a good anatomical explanation.  A lot of our bodily functions are looked after by the autonomic nervous system (ANS).  The ANS is made up of nerves that talk to our internal organs --  heart, lungs, glands, blood vessels, etc.  The main role of the ANS is keep all our bodily functions chugging along at a relatively even keel, so that if, for example, our heart rate starts getting too fast, the ANS will try to slow it back down to the right speed.  But what sets what the “right speed” is?  That’s the job of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that is the master control centre for the ANS.  It uses input from the body and from the other parts of the brain to decide exactly what all our organs should be doing.  The hypothalamus has direct connections with the emotional parts of our brains, so if we’re happy, that affects how our body functions.

Does musical training make you happier?
If all these benefits can be had simply by listening to music, is there extra benefit to performing the music?  Is all this musical training worth it?  I certainly think so, but what does the research say?  I was surprised to find very little research on whether musical training increases overall happiness, but as I mentioned, happiness is something that’s tricky to study. 

Here’s what I did find:  a recent study conducted in Thailand showed that students with musical training had much lower levels of stress hormones right before a stressful math exam than students without musical training.  The researchers concluded that musicians were more emotionally stable.

Another study compared professional vs. amateur musicians and investigated whether they reported having “peak experiences”, defined as “experiences of ego transcendence, glimpses of higher consciousness lying beyond ordinary daily experience”.  The study found that professional musicians were more likely than amateurs to report having these transcendent experiences, and that performing music caused these moments, in both professionals and amateurs.  I can certainly relate, and I'd be curious to know how non-musicians would compare with these two groups of musicians.

Despite the lack of research, I would argue that people with musical training are more likely to listen to music and more likely to be made happy by listening to music.  Simply put, being a musician brings more music into your life. And the satisfaction of making music yourself cannot be denied.  I keep getting sidetracked to the piano today because all this talk of how enjoyable music is makes me just want to go and play music.

Oh, yes...
And the second and third of the top three benefits of music training?  I would say they are the improvements to executive function and to verbal skills, which I really will get around to blogging about one of these days.

  • Beck RJ, Cesario TC, Yousefi A, Enamoto H. (2000). Choral singing, performance perception, and immune system changes in salivary immunoglobulin A and cortisol.  Music Percept. 18:87-106.
  • Bernatzky G, Presch M, Anderson M, Panksepp J. (2011). Emotional foundations of music as a non-pharmacological pain management tool in modern medicine. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 35(9):1989-1999. 
  • Grape C, Sandgren M, Hansson L-O, Ericson M, Theorell T. (2003). Does singing promote well-being?: An empirical study of professional and amateur singers during a singing lesson. Integr Physiol Behav Sci. 38(1):65-74.
  • Khalfa S, Bella SD, Roy M, Peretz I, Lupien SJ. (2003). Effects of relaxing music on salivary cortisol level after psychological stress. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 999:374-376. 
  • Kreutz G, Bongard S, Rohrmann S, Hodapp V, Grebe D. (2004). Effects of choir singing or listening on secretory immunoglobulin A, cortisol, and emotional state. J Behav Med. 27(6):623-635.
  • Laohawattanakun J, Chearskul S, Dumrongphol H, et al. (2011). Influence of music training on academic examination-induced stress in Thai adolescents. Neurosci. Lett. 487(3):310-312. 
  • Menon V, Levitin DJ. (2005). The rewards of music listening: Response and physiological connectivity of the mesolimbic system. NeuroImage. 28(1):175-184.  
  • Miller M, Mangano CC, Beach V, Kop WJ, Vogel RA. (2010). Divergent effects of joyful and anxiety-provoking music on endothelial vasoreactivity. Psychosom Med. 72(4):354-356.
  • Travis F, Harung HS, Lagrosen Y. (2011). Moral development, executive functioning, peak experiences and brain patterns in professional and amateur classical musicians: Interpreted in light of a Unified Theory of Performance. Consciousness and Cognition. 20(4):1256-1264. 

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Music Training and IQ

No one doubts it: Parents have a hard job.  In addition to all the day-to-day cooking, cleaning, cajoling, and ferrying kids about, parents have to make big decisions about what’s best for their child.  We all want our kids to be well-adjusted, happy, and living up to their potential.  And one of the trickier minefields to maneuver through is the choice of extra-curricular activities.  Dance, swimming, drama, a multitude of team sports, martial arts, chess club, scouts, Mandarin class, gymnastics, the list goes on.  Oh, and did I mention music?  The parent has to weigh out the time involved, the child’s eagerness to participate, and the potential benefits to the child.

Does music training make you smarter?
Which is, of course, where I’m going with this.  It’s hard to nail down all the benefits of musical training, but one that keeps coming up again and again is the idea that musical study makes people smarter.  But does it?  A few weeks back I advised you to take research about music and IQ with a grain of salt.  Ask around, and you’ll hear that people who study music are smarter overall than people who don’t, and the common assumption is that the musical training itself contributes to the increase in IQ.  But the causation could run the other way too:  people who are smarter are more likely to take and stick with music lessons.  The basic question is this:  Does studying music make people smarter OR do people study music because they are smarter already?

The only way to really test this question is by a longitudinal study, where people are randomly assigned to either receive music lessons or not, and the effects on IQ are studied.  In the last decade, there have been a couple of good studies that have investigated this question.

Figure from Schellenberg (2004).

Music training leads to a greater increase in IQ
The first, a study by Glenn Schellenberg at the University of Toronto was published in 2004.  In this study, 6-year-old children were placed into four different groups:  piano classes, voice classes, drama classes, or no classes.  The children were given IQ tests at the beginning of the study, and at the end, after 36 weeks of classes.  All groups showed an increase in IQ, which is expected, because they were 9-10 months older, and had been attending school during that time.  But here’s the key result:  children taking music (piano or voice) classes had a slightly larger increase in overall IQ compared to control or drama students.  The researchers made sure there were no overall differences in the parent’s socio-economic status between the four groups, and included the drama class control group to prove that it was specifically music and not extracurricular activities in general that improved IQ.

Music training causes structural brain changes
In 2009, a similar study was published by a group of scientists in Boston. In this study, there were only two groups:  one group received 15 months of keyboard lessons, and the second group received no lessons.  The children were given a set of behavioural and IQ tests before and after the 15 months and it was found that keyboard training increases performance on finger fine-motor tasks and melodic and rhythm discrimination tasks.  However, this study found that there were no significant differences in IQ between the two groups of children.  This result may be due to the small number of children in this study.  Only 31 children were studied, compared to 144 in the Schellenberg study.  When the differences to be observed are small, a large number of test subjects is required.

The Boston researchers went one step further and performed MRI brain scans of the children before and after the 15 months of training.  Amazingly, they were able to show that musical training causes structural changes in children’s brains.  Children who had 15 months of keyboard lessons had more growth in the following areas (compared to children with no music training):
  • The corpus callosum, which connects the two sides of the brain
  • The right primary auditory cortex, which processes sound information
  • The right motor cortex, especially the hand area, which controls the left hand
  • The left and right frontal cortex, involved in working memory and the processing of harmony and tonality
So musical training causes changes in the brain, but for the most part, these changes occur in the places that one would expect, the parts of the brain that are involved in music processing and production.  Does growth in these parts of the brain lead to improvements in overall intelligence?  I would argue that it could, especially growth in the frontal cortex.  As I reported back in November, the frontal cortex is involved in a variety of general-intelligence skills known as “executive functions”, and these have been shown to improve in preschoolers taking music classes.  Increased connectivity between the two sides of the brain through an enlarged corpus callosum could also contribute to improved mental processing.  And a more finely-tuned auditory cortex could allow for improved verbal skills.  In sum, structural changes in the brain caused by musical training could certainly underlie a small increase in general intelligence.

But is this really the main benefit of musical training?
I should reemphasize that this 2009 study did not find any overall increases in IQ.  I think most researchers believe that the enhanced brain growth and rewiring caused by musical training results in an increase in overall intelligence, but the effect is small.  If we only focus on the benefits of musical training on intelligence, I think we are missing the boat.  Music offers so much more than this:  a vehicle for self-expression, training in self-discipline, solace, an opportunity to stand up in front of people and perform, a chance to be really good at something.

Personally, I want my children to study music simply for the joy of making music.  There’s nothing like it.

  • Schellenberg EG.  (2004) Music lessons enhance IQ.  Psychological Science 15(8):511-514.
  • Hyde KL, Lerch J, Norton A, Forgeard M, Winner E, Evans AC, Schlaug G. (2009) Musical training shapes structural brain development.  Journal of Neuroscience 29(10):3019-3025.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Musical training protects auditory processing speed

Neurons in the auditory pathway have the fastest temporal responses of any sensory neurons.  And this makes sense:  visual, tactile, taste and smell stimuli don’t change as quickly as sounds do, so the neurons supporting those senses don’t have to be as fine-tuned in time as those that support hearing.

It has been known for a while that the auditory pathway in older brains doesn’t work as quickly as in younger brains, so that, quite apart from actual hearing loss, older people have a harder time understanding speech because they just can’t listen fast enough to be able to properly register to such high-speed auditory input.

But now a new study has shown that musical training can reduce or eliminate this decrease in neuronal processing speed in the auditory pathway.  The study, conducted in the lab of Nina Kraus at Northwestern University compared brainstem auditory responses to the sound “da” in four groups of people:  younger and older non-musicians, and younger and older musicians.  What they found was revealing:  older non-musicians had much slower responses to the transition between the consonant and the vowel in the sound “da”, compared to younger non-musicians.  In contrast, the auditory responses of older musicians were very similar to those of younger musicians.

(Figure from Parbery-Clark, 2012.  Panel A shows the temporal characteristics of the sound “da”, while Panels B and C show the subjects’ brainstem responses to the sound, as measured by EEG)

Musical training therefore acts in a protective fashion to maintain the auditory processing speed of older adults, which undoubtedly helps them to be able to understand speech.  The question now is whether musical training starting later in life can help elderly people regain auditory skills that they have lost.

Parbery-Clark A, Anderson S, Hittner E, Kraus N. (2012) Musical experience offsets age-related delays in neural timing.  Neurobiology of Aging in press, doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2011.12.015