Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Neural Mapping

This Daniel Levitin book review of Connectome by MIT professor of brain science Sebastian Seung is a wonderful overview of where neuroscience has gotten to and where it's going.

. . . Progress has also been made in mapping which brain systems control which kinds of operations (my own field of research): One system is responsible for lifting your foot, another senses the pain when you stub your toe; one system helps you to solve arithmetic problems, another enjoys "La Bohème." A new approach to studying brains and individual differences involves making maps of how neurons connect to one another. Following the term genome, these are called connectomes. . . .

. . .The human brain contains 100 million neurons, and each neuron makes thousands of connections on average. If we assume that each distinct connection pattern gives rise to a distinct brain state—like the effervescent sensation after that first kiss—the number of brain states exceeds the number of known particles in the universe. Your experiences, memories, personality and thoughts are thus encoded in the ways your neurons connect to one another. The next big frontier is mapping those trillions of neural connection patterns to their brain states. By observing a particular network of neurons firing, researchers should know (in theory) whether you are thinking about love or money, beer or burgers. . .

. . .The levels of various chemicals in our brains can clearly be altered pharmaceutically. They are also influenced by diet, exercise, stress and normal biological cycles. Even if we know how the neurons are connected and the strength of their synapses, the amount of dopamine, for example, that is available in the brain at any given moment will influence firing patterns. This could cause the same neural network (a group of connected neurons) to give rise to different thoughts or different networks to give rise to similar thoughts. . . .

Perhaps due to my having been an English major the first time around, I find the neologism "connectome" unfortunate as the suffix makes me of the word "lobotomy" every time I see it and pronounce it in my mind, but as a way of understanding the way the brain works it looks to be a terrific tool.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sound Awareness of the Ancients

Here are two articles talking about research presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. One by the BBC is mostly about Stonehenge and how the placement of the standing stones closely maps the sound interference pattern of two flutes being played at the center of the site.

Another at InsideScience includes information about other sites such as Chichen Itza, where the echo of a hand clap in front of the stepped monument comes back as a chirp. Having been there and experienced the phenomenon first hand, I can say it's a very striking effect that seems to be more than happenstance.

These articles reminded me of visiting "Agamemnon's tomb" in Greece, and having had some time alone in it between tour groups. The video at the link gives a taste of the reverberation inside it, and I'd find it hard to believe the people that built it didn't notice the acoustics and put them to use somehow.

The InsideScience article also mentions something I'd seen before, that cave paintings are often in the most acoustically interesting parts of the caves.

I always wonder how anyone can say with any certainty what the people of those long ago times were up to, but since all the new neuroscience points to just how important sound and music are to the human brain, that they were aware of that in their own way and somehow put it to use wouldn't surprise me at all.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Horn Diary

The following comment just came in on a Horn Diary post back in 2009:

Before I get too far into anything, I should probably say up front: yes, I realize that this was posted in 2009... I guess I'm posting on hope. I have been having 'meltdowns' with embarrassing frequency the past few months. It is almost entirely my fault. I'm a freshman in highschool, but I have been playing the french horn since fifth grade. Four or five years, overall. The problem is that I practiced very rarely during the last school year, not at all over the summer, and in a very inconsistent fashion during this school year... In short, I had more endurance two years ago on a single F horn than I have now on a double horn. If I practice consistently for a week, I'm fine, but I have no buffer -- three days of not practicing and I'm back at square one. Again, my own laziness -- which no one can correct but myself. So, people have been giving advice -- very good advice which I will keep in mind in the future -- for band rehearsals. Which leads me to this: I have a solo very rapidly approaching. I realize that there's very little I can do in time for this particular performance that's going to save me from my own laxity, and I look forward to the eminent embarrassment... [Okay, not really.] But I'm curious. Does any one have tips for preserving your chops during a solo performance? (People here are also mentioning that they find the mental attitude of people in bands sometimes... disappointing. Thought I'd add my own observations about this high school band which I'm suddenly thrust into. All of a sudden I've gone from being one of two [the second was a late arrival, even] french horn players to the second least experienced one of six. This is also the first time I've experienced chair tests/auditions. Is the level of competition and the slight feeling of animosity [or aloofness] from the higher chairs common?)
By Anonymous 

I'm bringing this comment up to a new post to make a few points and to see if any regular readers have anything to add. 

The commenter realizes that regular practice is the real answer to the problems cited, so as a music therapist I'm very curious as to why the practicing slacked off here lately. I'm so old I can't even remember what it's like to be a freshman in high school, but maybe the lack of practice just has to do with lack of time. The thing is, though, in my experience, the horn, unlike the guitar, demands regular practice or the lips just stop working well. So the question becomes, is playing the horn something you care enough about to make the time commitment?

(In my personal experience, that last question becomes, do I care enough about playing horn that I'm willing to learn all this concert band music that doesn't really appeal to me as much as the small brass ensemble things I'm arranging myself.)

It's my sense that part of what goes on in music educators' classrooms is a winnowing out of people that aren't as committed as others. So at the bottom of all this, you have to decide if playing the horn in this context is something you really want to do and are willing to make the commitment.

As to tips for saving chops during a solo performance, other than full preparation through daily practice, I don't really have any. I will say, though, that how you practice is crucially important and that I found Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure method a lifesaver. I was on the verge of giving up the horn (and was encouraged to do that by a music educator who thought taking it up in my 50's was somewhere between ill advised and insane), but working with the exercises in that book brought better endurance and range within a few weeks of regular practice.

As to the chair issues - as a music therapist I find the competition based methods of educators not helpful for what I want to do, but understand why it works for them. It's the people they want to winnow out I most want to work with. I will say that the horn players I've had the chance to work with have been wonderfully helpful, but that they've been imbued with that extreme competitiveness from an early age and it's sort of always there. As a therapist I can't help wondering if the new psycho/social situation you've been "thrust into" is the precipitating factor for a lot of this. Playing the horn is unlike any other instrument I've ever worked with, and one's mental state, e.g. confident or unconfident, is a huge factor.

My best wishes to the commenter, and please come back to continue the conversation if you'd like. To close I'd say that all the new research points to making music regularly as being very beneficial, and that for me personally, the horn has taken me to musical places I didn't know existed, so is worth the commitment. But the bottom line is to figure out what it is that's really important to you and spend your time pursuing that. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Non-conscious Knowing

This article from Discover Magazine is a great overview of how it is we can know things without being conscious of all the details. Quoting just a few snips from it is hard because it's full of info and ideas that illuminate music making and music therapy. Here's one bit where music making is specifically mentioned:

You are not consciously aware of the vast majority of your brain’s ongoing activities, nor would you want to be—it would interfere with the brain’s well-oiled processes. The best way to mess up your piano piece is to concentrate on your fingers; the best way to get out of breath is to think about your breathing; the best way to miss the golf ball is to analyze your swing.

The article talks about two very arcane skills that could only be taught in a master/apprentice situation that sounds a lot like some aspects of teaching music. One of the taught skills is learning to determine the sex of baby chicks.

The mystery was that no one could explain exactly how it was done. It was somehow based on very subtle visual cues, but the professional sexers could not say what those cues were. They would look at the chick’s rear (where the vent is) and simply seem to know the correct bin to throw it in. And this is how the professionals taught the student sexers. The master would stand over the apprentice and watch. The student would pick up a chick, examine its rear, and toss it into one bin or the other. The master would give feedback: yes or no. After weeks on end of this activity, the student’s brain was trained to a masterful—albeit unconscious—level.

I prefer the word "non-conscious" over both "unconscious" and "subconscious" as they have all sorts of Freudian connotations that might muddy the waters.

UPDATE - This post caught the eye of Dave Wilken and he's done a great post on the subject here.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Understanding vs. Feeling

Here's Terry Teachout's Almanac quote for the day:

"The music started off at Bach's typical quick trot, a pace which, being uniform and neither fast nor slow, the pace of the mind rather than of the emotions, left Eustace respectful but unmoved. This was a case for understanding, not feeling, and he did not understand."

L.P. Hartley, Eustace and Hilda

Besides being a very apt description of how a lot of Bach strikes me, it's also a very good way of describing what I've called "theory mind", which if you have it means you experience music in a very different way than those that don't.

The phrase "pace of the mind" is particularly striking to me as I've been mulling a post on how both "pace" and "tone" have etymological roots in the verb "to stretch". The insight that pace (in both speed and flexibility) can apply to how we receive music as well as how we play it is terrific.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Live Music and PTSD

Back in the 70's  when I was getting my B.A. in Music Therapy, the texts talked about how it got it's start in the modern era as something that helped veterans of WW II suffering from what was then called "shell shock". Now there's this article talking about how live music performed in waiting rooms at a VA hospital is making a difference with patients dealing with PTSD and brain injury.

Dr. Hani Khouzam, a psychiatrist who treats both disorders, said patients have been arriving for appointments so notably calmer that it takes him longer to make a diagnosis — something he welcomes.

"You have to understand what it means for a combat veteran to be agitated in the waiting room. Their pupils are dilated. They are angry or waiting for something to happen," he said. "But when we have live music that day, they come to me far more relaxed. It's like an amazing miracle, and I don't say that lightly.". . .

. . . The "amazing surprise," Khouzam said, has been that the random playing of live music in the waiting room — doctors and therapists have not seen the same result with recorded music — helped patients with psychological damage from war.

Down in the comments to the post, there's this:

As the Executive Director of Musicians On Call, a national nonprofit organization that brings live and recorded music directly to the bedsides of patients in healthcare facilities, we recognize the healing power of music. Forty-one times a week in five cities we have local volunteer musicians - and volunteer guides who accompany them – who go room to room, bed to bed to play for patients, their families and caregivers. . . . . For more information on Musicians On call please go to www.musiciansoncall.org. Leslie Morrison Faerstein, Ed.D., LCSW, Executive Director.

Music Listening and Brain Networks

This article on research carried out in Finland talks about how new research methods are giving us more detail on what's going on in the brain when we listen to music.

The researchers found that music listening recruits not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also employs large-scale neural networks. For instance, they discovered that the processing of musical pulse recruits motor areas in the brain, supporting the idea that music and movement are closely intertwined. Limbic areas of the brain, known to be associated with emotions, were found to be involved in rhythm and tonality processing. Processing of timbre was associated with activations in the so-called default mode network, which is assumed to be associated with mind-wandering and creativity.

Music Therapy at MIT

Some time back I did this post on Tod Machover of the Media Lab at MIT. Here's a new article on what he's been up to since then.

In an inspiring feedback loop, Machover and his MIT minions, which include some of the nation's most forward-looking graduate students, are applying their musical gadgets to therapy. The process of making remarkable restorative advances is changing how they think about and make music. And that could affect how the rest of us might think about and make music in the not-so-distant future.

It all began with Hyperscore, a program Machover developed to enable children to compose by drawing and painting on a monitor. A sophisticated computer program translates their artwork into a musical score. . . .

. . . The Media Lab scientists designed a more refined headset for Ellsey that not only inspired him to compose (he turned out to have interesting musical ideas) but even allowed him to perform by controlling tempo, loudness and articulation. He blossomed, and Ellsey, while still a severely affected cerebral palsy patient, has become an active participant in the Hyperscore program, performing, making CDs and teaching other patients. He was a star at the 2008 TED conference.