Sunday, February 27, 2011

More On Mirror Neurons

I'm betting that of all the new information we're getting about how our brains respond to music, what we find out about mirror neurons will be the most helpful in explaining how music can affect us so deeply. It's beginning to look like the ability of music to trigger mirror neurons will be the key to understanding how it can encode emotional content. 

Music is a language, but it's much more non-verbal than verbal. For me, when we talk about musicality, we're talking about how music and music makers can suggest to us everything from a marching army to a flirtatious wink, from the movements and gestures of someone deeply sad to the movements and gestures of someone exuberantly joyous. Sometimes emotionally evocative gestures are partly embedded in the physical playing of an instrument, like the harp. More often the gestural communication is in the music itself and is brought out by how it's played. Years ago I came up with the notion that, at least in part, music is gesture made audible, and the neuroscience seems to be suggesting that's the case.

Here are two excerpts from the article mentioned in a previous post. The first talks about mirror neurons and the second alludes to what I've mentioned before, how in the brain it seems almost every function is mediated by others, and nothing is particularly straight forward.

As they expected, the areas of the brain that manage emotions, like the amygdala, lit up for all subjects when the researchers played the expressive version. But, contrary to their expectations, those areas, instead of continuously fluctuating in response to changes in the music, remained relatively constant.

What surprised the scientists was the part of the brain that actually did vary: the mirror neuron system.

Large explained that when we see someone doing something, our mirror neuron system attempts to replicate the same condition in our own mind. This enables us to empathize with someone else on a very fundamental level.

The discovery that mirror neurons are involved in hearing music shows that when we listen to music, the same cells that are active in motor actions are part of the response to the music. . . 

. . . Heather Chapin, a doctoral student at the time the study was done who ran the experiments, commented on the difficulty of trying to understand the workings of the brain from the outside: "I'm a black and white kind of girl, and human neuroimaging was much more gray than I was prepared to handle.". . .

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Another Testimonial

This article talks about how music therapy, specifically "neurologic music therapy" (a term I've not seen before) has been part of the wonderful recovery Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords seems to be having.

. . . When Miss Giffords mouthed the words of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as her music therapist Maegan Morrow sang the ditty and strummed a guitar, it brought tears to those gathered at her bedside. She has now progressed to sing-alongs of jazz and rock classics such as I Can't Give You Anything But Love and American Pie. . .

. . . Miss Gifford's mother, Gloria, has told friends that her daughter's transformation from a "limp noodle" after the attack owes much to music sessions where family and friends "clap and hoot" as back-up chorus and band. The neurologic music therapy - an integral part of her packed daily routine of physical, occupational and speech therapy - "really flipped the switch" for the congresswoman, Mrs Giffords said. . . 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Music Dynamics Lab at FAU

My Google news aggregation page just pointed me to this article on the "Meaning of Music". It raises a point I want to address in a future post. For now, though, want to post a link to this wonderful Quicktime depiction of the effect of a piece of music on the brain that I found following the link in the article to the Music Dynamics Lab at Florida Atlantic University. Here's a link to their publications

Monday, February 21, 2011

Oboe Sashay

This is the audio of my friend Craig Matovich playing Louisiana Sashay. As discussed in this previous post, besides playing the flute part on oboe with a midi version of the harp part, he's added hand percussion and bass. 

I knew Craig at Shenandoah Conservatory back from '77 to '80. He, I and Susan were among the handful of students who weren't fresh out of high school and tended to hang together. His oboe sound was amazing and I thought about getting one to try until he took me aside and showed me his reed making room and talked about spending as much time making reeds as practicing. Then and there I decided double reeds were not for me.

Craig went on to teach for a while at Shenandoah. He was also a founding member of Oxymora, a group that was/is sort of over in the Paul Winter Consort neighborhood. 

As Craig says, I'm giving away the music to this piece, just asking for, if it gets worked up, an mp3 and maybe some photos of the performers to make a video like this one to have the audio here on the blog to compare and contrast with other versions. Even better would be the performers doing the YouTube themselves as Craig has done so that all I have to do is embed it. (I'm on rural dial-up and uploads take a while.) I can be reached at MusicMakersMusic at aol dot com.

Craig has used the "Louisiana Sashay" title that was on the score I sent him. Carol, the harpist for whom it was written used just "The Sashay" once when referring to it and I liked that. Dr. Andy, a musical companion of over 15 years prefers the working title "Vermont Song". I blogged the composition of this piece in an effort to demystify the composition process, and that was what it was first called. I think all of those titles work and can't settle on one being better than the others.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Narratives and Enactments

Here a couple of weeks ago Craig, an oboe playing friend from conservatory days, commented on Facebook how much he was enjoying a piece with a 5/4 time signature. I sent him a email talking about how much I enjoy irregular rhythms and included links to The Sashay and Timepiece. He asked for the music to The Sashay (and a midi file, which I had to figure out how to do). He's liking The Sashay enough to work on it and send me mp3 files of each version he's recorded with his oboe, adding some hand percussion, a bass, and tweaking the midi harp playback.

For one thing, he's a wonderful oboeist and I'm having a similar response to the one I had hearing The St Clements Wind Ensemble play Timepiece. Really good players take notes I've written and bring out depths of musicality I simply was unable to even imagine before hearing them.

Another thing that strikes me is that the piece is really holding up with the different instrumentation. I can't wait to compare it to what Susan and Carol do with it, but I'm pretty sure the evoked feelings will be different, though with some overlap. I'm enough of a chauvinist to think two Louisiana ladies with flute and harp are going to excel at evoking the flirtatious movements and banter that was in the back of my mind when I wrote it for them and that I hope is gesturally embedded in the music. 

They have also been steered in that direction because of my having long conversations with Susan detailing what I was thinking at various measures along the way. She suggested I do a post of all those mental visuals that helped me compose the music, but I didn't, and Craig's work is helping me understand my reluctance.

Sometime back I linked to a post of Kyle Gann's where he said he thought of his music scores as lines for a play, that different players and groups of players would perform them differently, just as plays are performed/produced differently. I agree with that wholeheartedly. My feeling is that if when composing music I make it coherent enough for me to feel a musical narrative run from measure to measure, then players will be able to sense that narrative in their own way and enact it convincingly, even if their sense of the narrative is different from mine.

And that's what Craig has done. His take on The Sashay is exceptionally dance-like, and I think because of his amazingly textured oboe sound combining with the unusual rhythms there's an Armenian, near Eastern, Scheherazade feel to what he's doing. He keeps sending updated mp3s that clean up various things, but here soon I hope to do one of those simple YouTube embed posts with the audio as it stands now. Then blog readers can decide for themselves whether there's a convincing narrative and what a particular enactment does with it.

One of the things I most enjoyed back when I had the private practice in San Antonio was the yearly recitals with various clients playing various instruments. There were always a few piano players and I always had all of them play one piece in common with the others, along with the things only they were doing. Hearing different players present their individual enactments of  the same piece was always a wonderful illustration of just how expressive of our personalities making music can be.

Memory Aids

Here are two articles having to do with memory. The first concerns a study on older people.

A new study shows that one year of moderate physical exercise can increase the size of the brain's hippocampus in older adults, leading to an improvement in spatial memory. . . .The right hippocampus expanded in the older folks who exercised and shrank in the older folks who did not exercise. If you sit idly your capacity to form memories will decay.

For me, this study's results strengthens my feeling that there are a number of things people can do in their everyday lives that will benefit their music making (for which better memory is an asset). As a music therapist, I feel the reverse is also true, that going about music making in a non-stressed way can be of overall benefit to people in various ways. 

In an earlier post I made the point that a basic finding of the new neuroscience research is that within the brain all sorts of functions mediate all sorts of other functions. It's more an ecosystem than a machine. This study suggests that on a much more general level our non-musical behaviors can mediate our musical behaviors.

The second article is about a study indicating taking a test, i.e. working with retrieving information from memory, is better than other study methods.

Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it and creating cues and connections that our brains later recognize.

This study reminded me of a back and forth I had with Jeffrey Agrell some time ago about the benefits of practicing with the eyes closed. This study suggests that part of the benefit of doing that is that when not looking at the music on the page, you're amping up your retrieval process in the brain, which would be helping you remember how to play that particular passage.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

In Praise of Technique

As a music therapist I tend to let working with clients' musicality lead the work on technique. The idea is that as they become more engaged in music making, the more they'll appreciate how empowering technique can be, and the more motivated they'll be to do the work involved to improve it. Too much technique too soon and you're going to lose a client.

For educators, technique is much more central, and in the last generation or two there's been a huge payoff. In this post Kyle Gann talks about a piece of very difficult music written by John Halle that can only be played these days because the, "rhythmic complexity standards have risen miraculously among the younger generation".

As Kyle always offers audio examples of music he's talking about, there's a link in the post to an mp3 of the first movement of the piece. It's astonishingly beautiful, takes me to places I've never been before, and I can't even begin to get my mind around the technique needed to achieve it. 

Antonio Demasio

This article in the WSJ is a profile of Antonio Demasio, whose 2003 book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain was one of several I read back then, trying to understand all the neuroscience that was coming out. It was obvious something really big was beginning to happen to our understanding of ourselves, but it wasn't particularly clear, to me at least, what the new information meant. The main thing that book and others like it left me with was a much deeper understanding of just how complex and interconnected brain function(s) is/are. So many things are mediated by so many other things. 

Here are a few snips from the article (the bolding for emphasis is mine):

. . . He is famous for overturning the notion that emotions have no role in rational thought. Through clinical studies of brain-damaged patients, he discovered that the neural circuits responsible for our feelings also are critical to healthy decision-making and moral reasoning. . . 

. . . Gradually, Dr. Damasio and other scientists are identifying some of the brain circuits underlying creative thought. Generally, brain-wave measures show that a sudden insight is the climax of intense brain states below the level of our awareness. It appears to involve more neural cells than methodical reasoning. Our brain may be working hardest when it seems most unfocused. Moreover, studies of neural signals suggest that our brain appears to make up its mind 10 seconds before we become conscious of a decision. Our most creative thoughts may be beyond our conscious control. . . 

. . . Moods powerfully bias what people think, remember and perceive. When critical brain regions are injured, the damage can sever links between emotions, memory and reason, crippling our ability to make decisions just as a stroke can rob a patient of sight or the use of an arm. . . 

It's my feeling that the points in bold have to be considered in helping people make music, especially those with no experience and for whom it doesn't come easily. Purely rational analysis in the conscious mode is absolutely part of the picture, but there are a lot of other factors that need consideration. 

A point that keeps being made by the researchers is that music involves more parts of the brain than anything else we do. When teaching music, we need to involve as much of the brain as we can, not just the conscious rational part that's most amenable to "do this" verbal instructions.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Music Educators' Gated Community

Over the weekend I came across a post of Dave Wilken's from back last March which is a lacerating review of Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure. Before getting to the specifics of the disagreements, I want to do this post laying out what I think are the divergent world views which underlie them.

I think of music educators as a privileged elite living in a gated community. As children they were blessed by nature and/or nurture to have what it takes to pass the audition to get into their school's music program, which serves a minority of students and is often callous in its rejection of those viewed as unworthy. They benefited from a lot of money and attention spent on them the other students miss out on. 

As time went on, they excelled in the very Darwinian advancement process, which tends to favor technique (which is somewhat quantifiable) over musicality (which is much more subjective). By the time they reach the top of the heap, they've spent their entire career with folks just like themselves. They've never had to work with "regular" people. And sort of like the Harry Potter wizards, there's often an us versus them view of the "muggles."

For those admitted into the system it works very well, but I think it sets the members of that gated community up for not appreciating the issues associated with helping those outside it learn how to make music. Because they never think about those issues, my feeling is that certain biases creep into their framing of those issues.

I'm often reminded of the Victorians of the Industrial Revolution when reading music education materials. They're often based on Cartesian dualism, where the body is like a factory full of machines waiting for the brain to be the captain of industry laying out what has to be done. Apply industriousness and force of character to a correct understanding of the mechanisms involved and all can be achieved. 

The problem with that view is that it presumes the conscious mind is 100% in charge, but the new neuroscience suggests that's not the case at all, the work of Benjamin Libet being some of the earliest work on this subject.

As a side note I'd add that the "force of character" angle also helps those living outside the gated community understand the verbal abuse that educators veer into from time to time and that students (at least those not offended and quit) seem completely OK with. My guess is that students accept the verbal abuse as par for the course due to the combination of their agreeing with the notion that simply trying harder is often the answer to musical problems (they are an elite, after all), and the (perhaps unconscious) knowledge they can be expelled from the elite as easily as they were admitted.

As a therapist, the population I most want to serve are all those of us outside the gated community. As for Jeff Smiley, my sense is that years of mindfulness while teaching has led him to an approach very much at odds with that of most educators, and one that I find to be a great way to approach music making in general for "the rest of us". It really works for me, but I can see how someone who's spent a lifetime with another world view that has worked for them isn't going to appreciate how valuable it can be for someone with "beginners mind" when it comes to making music.

2/8/11 - When I put this post up I sent a note to Dave saying I'd be happy to put any response he had to it down at the bottom of it. Here's what he said down in the comment section (with slight editing):

Hi, Lyle. Interesting read and I look forward to reading more details. Thanks also for the link. I think Jonathan's summary of my opinions in his comment above is spot on.

The broad strokes you paint with in this post make it difficult for me to step back and objectively see how my teaching philosophy or review of BE mirror a "gated community." On the one hand, I do feel that the "ivory tower" culture of academia sometimes makes us miss where the metal meets the mouth. On the other, some people outside that culture could benefit from poking their head inside the tower and looking around once in a while. I think the idea of a lone genius with a personal lab of students revolutionizing brass pedagogy is largely a myth. Real progress is a collaborative effort, opposite a "gated community."

In the comment below Dave's I try to be more clear about what's meant by "gated community".

Dave has also done a second post on Jeff's work here

And as an example of what Jung would call synchronicity (and a skeptic mere coincidence), here is the latest post over on Scott (Mr. Dilbert) Adams' blog where he turns his "thinking out of the box" mind loose on education as we know it.

A few moments later - Here's a link that just popped up suggesting an effect of diet on education which I want to save for a future post on Dave's reservations about Jeff's talking about general health matters in his embouchure book.

2/9/11 - Here's another synchronous/coincidental link, this time from Pliable (another outside the box thinker). A snip from near the end of his post:

I looked in vain at last night's performance for any of the mainstream music journalists who repeatedly pronounce on the future of music education from nearby London.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Horn Weirdness

James Boldin, a player and teacher of the horn, is recording a series of ├ętudes and embedding the videos on his blog. In the first of these posts he mentioned playing around with his recording apparatus to get a better sound, and in the comments I encouraged him to keep writing about the audio aspects of the project. I find the sound of the horn to be the most difficult to adequately capture in recordings.

My initial setup for recording was flipped 180 degrees from last week, with my bell facing directly towards the door and front wall of my office. After trying a few takes with this setup, I wasn’t very happy with my sound, and I also was having more trouble than usual with fracking notes. The notes seemed to be splitting in an unusual way, and I think this was in part because of “slap echo,” a type of harsh echo effect which Derek Wright discusses in this excellent post on making an audition tape. Make of this what you will, but after slightly turning so that my bell wasn’t directly pointed at bare surfaces, the recording went much more smoothly.

In the comments I asked:

Are you saying the angle of the bell had an indirect effect on your playing? I can believe it, just want to be sure I’m understanding you. Is it that the bad acoustics interfered with your auditory feedback? Or is it possible the sound waves in the room actually interfered with what was happening in the horn?

He replied:

In this case, I think it was the latter of the two. I believe the actual reflection of the sound from the back wall was causing some additional accuracy problems for me. The sound wasn’t great either, and so I’d be willing to bet that both the inaccuracy and weird sound were caused by playing too close to the wall.

If I didn't play the horn I'd have a difficult time believing this. I think he's right, though. No other instrument I've ever played is so greatly affected by the environment in which it's played. In this specific case, I can't imagine the actual mechanics of sound production of any other instrument being as affected by standing waves in a small environment (which is my guess as to what's happening).

Jonathan West's comment is so on point, want to bring it up to post level:

I'm not in the least bit surprised by this. One orchestra I play in, for the concerts we are tightly squeezed into a narrow area at the front of the church. The area is made narrow by the lady chapel on the left and the organ on the right. So the person on the end of the horn line has his bell right up against the wooden panel of the organ casing. It's horrible to play there! But even one seat over is usually OK. It makes life hard for the 2nd & 4th horns 

On the other hand, sometimes I practice in my bedroom. There is too much soft furnishing in there and it absorbs the sound to an extent that I just don't feel I am producing any tone at all.

And then there is the traditional problem of the timps being placed just behind the horns. The vibrations coming up the bell and hitting your lips make it it near impossible to play during a loud timpani roll. Often, relatively small adjustments to position can make all the difference, they cause the phase and/or amplitude of the reflected sound to change to the extent that the problem goes away. 

In the circumstance described by James Boldin, I'm not in the least bit surprised that turning the seat a little was all the change that was needed to eliminate the bad effect.


Over at On An Overgrown Path, Pliable has been doing a series of posts on his notion of "transmission". His idea is that for classical music to survive and thrive there has to be something going on between performers and audience more than the merely auditory, and that a lot of the new fangled attempts to bring in audiences actually interfere with "transmission".

He talks about that more in this post, mentioning music therapy, and then at the end giving a link to the CD over on the right I did with Lama Tashi. While that CD can be simply listened to, the main point was the insert which has all the chants notated for voice, guitar and keyboard so that practitioners might learn to do them themselves. Full transmission(?)

Anyway, here's the comment I just submitted:

As you might imagine, this post really struck a chord with me, even before the very pleasant surprise there at the end(!). Synchronicity being what it is, just got off the phone with Lama Tashi in Arunachal and he's doing well.

Another Jungian term you hint at with your title being so close to his "collective unconscious" is archetype. My feeling is that great music which is widely appreciated must somehow evoke something archetypal in most listeners.

I'm convinced of that in the non-classical folk realm in the case of minor blues tunes like "House of the Rising Sun", and "St. James Infirmary Blues", because performing those songs nearly always elicits a noticeably deep response from some listeners.

Your link to that old BBC story on the benefits of live music reminds me there hasn't been any follow up on that so far as I know.

One music therapy principle connected with your idea of transmission is that the first step is to play music which engages the client, which matches his/her mood as precisely as possible. Then once the connection (empathetic transmission?) is made, the therapist can use that connection to help the client get to different places.

My sense is that a lot of classical musicians present their work as take it or leave it. For them the canon trumps all, whereas for the therapist, connection/transmission trumps all.

Thanks so very much for putting music therapy in such a fine light for your very high level readership.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Anecdotal Testimonial

Here's a brief story with nothing new in it,  just a nice summation of how music can benefit someone recovering from brain surgery. In this case the patient was a critical care surgeon who is also an amateur musician. (In my experience there are a lot more medical people who are amateur musicians than you'd find in other professions.)

"The surgery had discombobulated my brain, and you can't have that and be a surgeon in a critical-care unit. I was trying to recover, but things weren't working right. I didn't think I'd have the mental skills again that I needed to return to my profession." 

"And gradually, sitting at the piano, I started getting some of that feeling back in my brain. What I recognize now . . . was that music involves every part of the human brain. To play music requires rhythm, melody, timing, timbre, harmonics, physical manipulation and responses."

What was happening, Fratianne said, was that he "was being forced to integrate all parts of brain function. As it came back, I regained my ability to do other things that the rehab therapists were asking me to do." Fratianne's mental and physical skills came back, and three months after his brain surgery he was able to operate again (the first time, he did so with a backup surgeon next to him, ready to take over.) "For a surgeon, that's an incredibly short amount of time to come back, and I can't help but think that it was music therapy that turned the corner for me".