Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Brain Plasticity

This brief article is useful in explaining that the "plasticity" of the brain often mentioned by neuroscientists is more than simply creating new grey matter. It's also the creating of new subnetworks in what's already there.

The new study uses computational methods developed to analyze what the researchers call multilayer networks, in which each layer might represent a network at one snapshot in time, or a different set of connections between the same set of brain regions. These layers are combined into a larger mathematical object, which can contain a potentially huge amount of data and is difficult to analyze. Previous methods could only deal with each layer separately.

"Parts of the brain communicate with one another very strongly, so they form a sort of module of intercommunicating regions of the brain," said first author Danielle S. Bassett, postdoctoral fellow in physics at UC Santa Barbara. "In this way, brain activity can segregate into multiple functional modules. What we wanted to measure is how fluid those modules are."

Bassett explained that there are flexible brain regions with allegiances that change through time. "That flexibility seems to be the factor that predicts learning," said Bassett. "So, if you are very flexible, then you will end up learning better on the second day, and if you are not very flexible, then you learn less."

The central finding that the better the flexibility, the better the learning, might be behind the studies indicating music making is helpful for overall cognition, because music making seems to be all about creating lots of subnetworks throughout the brain.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Flow and Something Else

In my most recent Horn Diary I mentioned how my playing in the Fauré Requiem on Palm Sunday induced an altered state during the performance which lasted for hours after the concert. In a comment, Jonathan West pointed out that that state of mind is described by "flow". In a subsequent comment he said that in the hundreds of times he's performed (and he's high level, not an amateur), he's experienced "flow" only a dozen or so times.

Judging one's own mental states is a dicey proposition at best, but my sense is that I've experienced "flow" hundreds of times - practicing, performing, composing, running group music sessions, etc. - so I'm pretty sure there's a semantic issue here.

I've been wandering down the foggy ruins of time trying to think of other times I might have had experiences like the one playing the horn in the Fauré on Palm Sunday, and the only one I can come up with is my having attended a teaching given by H. H. the Dalai Lama and having had the opportunity to shake his hand. 

I've also been trying to find words to describe both experiences and have come up with:

Exalted - in a state of extreme happiness, from the Latin exaltere from ex- 'outward, upward' + altus - 'high"

Exultation - show or feel elation or jubilation, esp. as a result of success, from the Latin exsultare, frequentive of exsilire 'leap up' from ex- 'out, upward '+ salire 'to leap'

Individuation a process of transformation whereby the personal and collective unconscious is brought into consciousness (by means of dreams, active imagination or free association to take some examples) to be assimilated into the whole personality.

I want to take this discussion further in a subsequent post and would welcome any further comments or emails on this subject, and I can't help thinking our Vermont readership might have something interesting to say on all of this.

Limitations and Style

Here are two quotes that reinforce one another. The first is one of Terry Teachout's regular almanac citations and this one is by Igor Stravinsky:

"My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit."

Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music

The other is a quote from Rosanne Cash from that recent NYT article:

In an interview, the singer Rosanne Cash said the experiments showed that beautiful compositions and technically skilled performers could do only so much. Emotion in music depends on human shading and imperfections, “bending notes in a certain way,” Ms. Cash said, “holding a note a little longer.”

She said she learned from her father, Johnny Cash, “that your style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.”

“You’ve heard plenty of great, great singers that leave you cold,” she said. “They can do gymnastics, amazing things. If you have limitations as a singer, maybe you’re forced to find nuance in a way you don’t have to if you have a four-octave range.”

A first approximation of the difference between a music educator and a music therapist might be to say that the educator is concerned with the student being able to play in whatever style the composer asks for, while the therapist helps the client find the style most suited to that particular client's personality and abilities.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Horn Diary

Last Sunday I played horn in a performance of Fauré's Requiem and it went well. While a couple of attacks weren't as clean as they might have been, some notes weren't held as long as they should have been, and some slurs had a bit more color than the score asked for - there were no wrong notes. There's not really that much horn music in the piece, so I'd memorized all the bits and pieces and was able to blend with and help shape the sound of the chorus. 

The only other instruments were strings, including harp and piano. I ended up standing behind the chorus with all the other instruments down front. The bell of my horn was pointing right at a corner of the sanctuary, the walls of which are brick and only a couple of feet from the horn. That had the effect of broadcasting the sound throughout the space in a wonderful way. Sort of let the welkin ring.

The other thing about standing behind the chorus was that I felt much freer putting some body english on some of those lovely sighing pianissimos. From years of playing guitar and singing in front of groups, I tend to dance and move with the rhythms, which just looks wrong with something like the Fauré. Being hidden from the audience let me not worry about that.

After the performance I got a number of enthusiastic comments on my playing from some of the best musicians present. I feel I can now lay claim to being an adequate small town amateur horn player.

Part of the reason things went so well was due to my emotional involvement with the piece. Over the past year a number of us have been all up close and personal with death and dying. In particular, the chorus director lost his wife, who was also the best choral accompanist I've ever heard, and though unspoken, this requiem was for her. I was basically in an altered state for the whole performance and for hours afterwards. There was all the busy technical stuff flying though my head, but there were also deep feelings coming up from my heart and finding expression in the sound of the horn. I've never before participated in such high level music with that sort of deep emotional expression. And the thing about the horn is, no other instrument, including my voice, allows me to tap so deeply into that well of what being human is all about.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Neuroscience Roundup

This long article in the NYT is a nice summary and discussion of things I've already posted on. They even use in the title the "tickle the brain" image I've talked about before. The added value is their having interviewed Paul Simon, Yo Yo Ma and Rosanne Cash to get their responses to the data.

I really like this from Ms. Cash:

In an interview, the singer Rosanne Cash said the experiments showed that beautiful compositions and technically skilled performers could do only so much. Emotion in music depends on human shading and imperfections, “bending notes in a certain way,” Ms. Cash said, “holding a note a little longer.”

She said she learned from her father, Johnny Cash, “that your style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.”

“You’ve heard plenty of great, great singers that leave you cold,” she said. “They can do gymnastics, amazing things. If you have limitations as a singer, maybe you’re forced to find nuance in a way you don’t have to if you have a four-octave range.”

And here's a quote from Dr. Large at FAU on mirror neurons:

So did the mirror neuron system, a set of brain regions previously shown to become engaged when a person watches someone doing an activity the observer knows how to do — dancers watching videos of dance, for example. But in Dr. Large’s study, mirror neuron regions flashed even in nonmusicians.

Maybe those regions, which include some language areas, are “tapping into empathy,” he said, “as though you’re feeling an emotion that is being conveyed by a performer on stage,” and the brain is mirroring those emotions.

Regions involved in motor activity, everything from knitting to sprinting, also lighted up with changes in timing and volume.

And here's something I hadn't come across, but surely reinforces my notion of the primal importance of physical gesture in musical communication.

Anders Friberg, a music scientist at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, found that the speed patterns of people’s natural movements — moving a hand from one place to another on a desk or jogging and slowing to stop — match tempo changes in music that listeners rate as most pleasing.

“We got the best-sounding music from the velocity curve of natural human gestures, compared to other curves of tempos not found in nature,” Dr. Friberg said. “These were quite subtle differences, and listeners were clearly distinguishing between them. And these were not expert listeners.”

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Who's In Charge?

The elephant in the room, as far as all the new neuroscience is concerned, is that our conscious mind is not fully in charge of our behavior. Here's a paragraph from an article looking at how this new information might change our thinking about legal issues. 

The first lesson we learn from studying our own circuitry is shocking: most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you – the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning – is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain. Although we are dependent on the functioning of the brain for our inner lives, it runs its own show. Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.

Freud and Jung may have gotten various details wrong, but they were on the right track with their basic notion that the conscious mind is just one of many players creating our personalities and driving our behavior.

The Buddhist idea of "mind training" is also built in part on the idea that getting our conscious mind more in control of the situation is a tough thing to do, and that having a concept of what you're trying to do and how to go about it can be very helpful.

The previous post on the potentiating nature of dopamine, which can be released during music making, suggests it can be helpful in reinforcing positive aspects of the mind outside direct consciousness while quelling some of the negative stuff rattling around up there.

On a much more specific level, it seems to me that when we're helping someone make music, being open to non-verbal ways of transmitting information is the way to go, because we're probably already doing that whether we're aware of it or not.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

More On Dopamine

This article on dopamine release and addiction makes the point that dopamine does more than simply make you feel better.

When we drink alcohol (or shoot up heroin, or snort cocaine, or take methamphetamines), our subconscious is learning to consume more. But it doesn't stop there. We become more receptive to forming subsconscious memories and habits with respect to food, music, even people and social situations.

In an important sense, says Morikawa, alcoholics aren't addicted to the experience of pleasure or relief they get from drinking alcohol. They're addicted to the constellation of environmental, behavioral and physiological cues that are reinforced when alcohol triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.

"People commonly think of dopamine as a happy transmitter, or a pleasure transmitter, but more accurately it's a learning transmitter," says Morikawa. "It strengthens those synapses that are active when dopamine is released."

Since listening and making music can release dopamine, something similar is probably happening. One of the first things that popped into my mind when I read this is that it's a possible explanation for people putting up with music educators that get over into what might be considered abusive behavior in other contexts. I've always felt the context in which music is made affects both the music and the musician and that positive rather than negative emotional environments are better, but this article suggests dopamine release may well trump that in some situations. Lots of abusive relationships in which the participants choose to remain are fueled by alcohol.

The positive side of all this is that paying attention to how one helps a client go about learning music making can reinforce positive attitudes and behaviors. It's another way of seeing how music can have beneficial effects on the personality of the music maker.

Music Making and Seniors

This brief article is about a preliminary study that suggests music making is of cognitive benefit to older people.

. . . Researchers Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and Alicia MacKay at the University of Kansas Medical Center surveyed 70 healthy people aged 60 to 83, giving them a series of neuropsychological tests. Those with at least 10 years of musical experience had “better perfor­mance in nonverbal memory… and executive processes” compared to non-musicians, the investigators wrote. . .

. . . It has already been known that “intensive repetitive musical practice can lead to bilateral cortical reorganization,” or wide spread changes in brain wiring, Hanna-Pladdy and MacKay wrote. But it has been un­clear, they added, whether musical abilities “transfer to nonmusical cognitive abilities” throughout life.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sackbut Timbre

In my last Horn Diary I talked about enjoying blending the sound of the horn with that of a chorus much more than blending it with the sound of a concert band.

In the sackbut entry in Wikipedia there's this about the timbre of that precursor to the trombone:

Mersenne wrote in 1636, "It should be blown by a skillful musician so that it may not imitate the sounds of the trumpet, but rather assimilate itself to the sweetness of the human voice, lest it should emit a warlike rather than a peaceful sound."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Old Dogs & New Tricks

The problem with old dogs learning new tricks may not be due to brain decrepitude. This brief article outlines a study where adults formed new grey matter over the course of just a few days in response to complex conditioning.

The researchers subjected 19 adult volunteers to a study where colored cards (2 shades of green and 2 blue) were shown to them; each with nonsensical names. The participants were then asked to accept the new words as actual descriptors for the new colors and to memorize them so that they could reply with the correct color name at a later date and to match them when asked. After the conditioning was carried out (over three days with five sessions; total time less than two hours) the subjects all underwent MRI scans, where it was revealed that new grey matter had formed in the left hemisphere of their brains. . . 

. . . It appears the key lies in the name differentiation, and how the subjects perceived the colors based on the names they were given; something much deeper than say, asking subjects to simply memorize a list of names. It was a change in perception. This is backed up by the fact that the areas of the brain that grew new matter were parts of the brain known to process color and vision, but more importantly, perception.

My biggest age related issue is my fingers not being as flexible and quickly responsive as I'd like on the flute. Part of that might be that even though I've played the flute and alto flute off and on for years, I've spent a lot more time on the keyboard and guitar and banjo, all of which use the fingers in different ways and I'm having to work at not using them in those ways with the flute, as much as trying to learn the new ways.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Horn Diary

I'm having the opportunity to play horn for a performance of the Fauré Requiem on Palm Sunday. We have two violins, two violas, a cello, a string bass and an organ, and, of course, the chorus. The harmonies are wonderful and the writing for the horn brings out the qualities I most love about it.

What I've come to realize is that one reason I so loved playing in the cantata at Christmas was playing horn with voices. Somehow, for me, playing with the chorus feels much more natural than playing in the community band. Maybe it's because I've sung so much and that part of the wonder of the horn is that it's so like the voice. Whatever the reason, blending the sound of the horn with the sound of the chorus is one of the most exhilarating musical experiences I've ever had.

Playing Softly

With both horn and flute I've lately been working on playing more softly than I ever have before. Very helpfully, James Boldin recently posted on that very subject as regards the horn. 

Something that's impressed me is how playing at the softest level possible requires such a different embouchure on both flute and horn, and how that change has deepened my proprioceptive sense of the embouchure. Somehow the delicacy needed reveals the underlying structure of the embouchure in a different light.


Proprioception is a vital component of music making, but rarely expressly mentioned. Here are some snips from the current Wikipedia entry:

Proprioception . . . from Latin proprius, meaning "one's own" and perception, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body. . . a . . .  distinct sensory modality that provides feedback solely on the status of the body internally. It is the sense that indicates whether the body is moving with the required effort, as well as where the various parts of the body are located in relation to each other. . . 

. . . Kinesthesia is another term that is often used interchangeably with proprioception, though use of the term "kinesthesia" can place a greater emphasis on motion. Some differentiate the kinesthetic sense from proprioception by excluding the sense of equilibrium or balance from kinesthesia. An inner ear infection, for example, might degrade the sense of balance. This would degrade the proprioceptive sense, but not the kinesthetic sense. The affected individual would be able to walk, but only by using the sense of sight to maintain balance; the person would be unable to walk with eyes closed. . . .

 . . .The proprioceptive sense is believed to be composed of information from sensory neurons located in the inner ear (motion and orientation) and in the stretch receptors located in the muscles and the joint-supporting ligaments (stance). There are specific nerve receptors for this form of perception termed "proprioreceptors," just as there are specific receptors for pressure, light, temperature, sound, and other sensory experiences. . . .

. . . Proprioception is what allows someone to learn to walk in complete darkness without losing balance. During the learning of any new skill, sport, or art, it is usually necessary to become familiar with some proprioceptive tasks specific to that activity. Without the appropriate integration of proprioceptive input, an artist would not be able to brush paint onto a canvas without looking at the hand as it moved the brush over the canvas; it would be impossible to drive an automobile because a motorist would not be able to steer or use the foot pedals while looking at the road ahead; a person could not touch type or perform ballet; and people would not even be able to walk without watching where they put their feet.

One thing about music making is that there is really no end to how much we can develop and deepen our ability to do so. Part of that is our becoming more and more proprioceptively aware of how we play our instrument. One reason for this post is for it to be here as foundation for a flute diary post on how an advancement in technique was based on increased proprioceptive awareness in my fingers.

Advances in technique can lead to advances in our more fully inhabiting the music, and our growing interpretive sense can lead to advances in technique. Nurturing that interplay can keep music making fresh and rewarding for a lifetime.

I also have the intuitive sense that there's an overlap between our proprioceptive sense of balance and the ways we can feel "balance" in music making and in music we listen to, particularly in rhythm, but in all the other elements of music as well. How well and in what ways music is "balanced" is sort of a primal gesture to which all the others contribute.