The State of Music Psychology

The State of Music Psychology

By Diana C. Hereld | @pathwaysinmusic

The psychological conversation surrounding music has boomed.

In a few short years, the studies of music therapy and the applied neuroscience of music have hugely invaded the mainstream — the question is, why? As many publications have noted, the initiative that music may be used in rehabilitation has been around for a century or more. What then has catalyzed the influx of media coverage in the last few years? One reason may simply be that as the success of these techniques become popularized via persons in the public eye, many of us are beginning to understand that music may be used for far more than we had ever imagined.

During the 2nd World Congress of Clinical Neuromusicology in Vienna last November, research was presented by Dr. Gottfried Schlaug (Harvard Medical School), who had performed an experiment to test the shared neural correlation of singing and speech. It was found that by actually singing the words or phrase, and not simply speaking or humming (referred to as ‘intoned speaking’), there occurred additional right lateralized activation of the superior temporal gyrus, inferior central operculum, and inferior frontal gyrus. What this means for the rest of us?  This activation is now more than ever believed to be reason that while patients suffering from aphasia due to stroke or other varying brain damage may be unable to speak, they are able to sing.

It was less than a year ago that NPR released the news story on the effectiveness and use of singing therapy on stroke patients. You may recall the Gabrielle Giffords story with regard to her suffering major brain trauma and later a surprising recovery. This story immediately caught my attention as this was precisely the groundbreaking research Dr. Schlaug presented at the conference in Vienna (originally tested and performed on nonverbal autistic children). It is through the sharing of success stories such as this via the media that the infusion of music, psychology, and neuroscience are coming to light.

Medical resilience, however, is only one facet of this field. In addition to all of the rehabilitative functions music is being found to support, there exist many others. For the music industry, it may prove profitable to look toward music psychology as a potential market sector. Companies such as Prescriptive Music develop “branded-music” programming which they believe can increase sales.

Marketing through music is a relatively new advertising theme. That being said, experts in neuroscience and emotion studies are being called upon more and more as sales consultants in a variety of venues including hotels, restaurants, and major retailers. Previous studies have shown increases in sales in resultants when the right music is carefully selected; one test conducted by marketing professor Ronald E. Milliman exhibited an 11.6% sales increase when up-tempo music was played during the lunch hour.

What does this mean for the music industry? Is it possible that via the study of our decision making, analysts will be able to discern the types of music that affect consumer behavior in a wide variety of markets? Diana Hereld for has asked Dr. Victoria Williamson, a music psychology lecturer and course co-director on the “Music, Mind, and Brain” program at Goldsmiths, University of London, for her take on these questions.

* * *

Fifty years ago, people might appear at a loss if you mentioned “music psychology,” or simply the act of synthesizing music and neuroscience, or music and psychology. What exactly is this field, and how has it become a mainstream topic in recent years?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: People are still often a little lost when you mention music and psychology/neuroscience together although it is of course more well-known now than it was fifty years ago. I come from a psychological interest and I wrote an article called “Thank You for the Music” a few years ago that outlined the kind of things that are studied in this field and why. Essentially, music is a universal human activity whether we chose to play or to listen. Therefore, as a psychologist, music is my chosen tool for learning more about the human mind and behavior. Studying the way we perceive, process, generate, and respond to music can therefore tell us something unique about what it means to be human.

What are some of the field’s most impacting accomplishments?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: Tricky one. I like to think that using music in psychological paradigms has taught us a great deal about how we learn both as babies and adults, how our memories work (or don’t work sometimes!) and how our emotions can impact on cognition. Using music in brain imaging has revealed a lot about the activity of the mind both when we are listening to sounds and when we are simply thinking about them. And there are a number of cases, such as with autism, where studying music psychology has given us new insights into different people’s worlds. The new horizon for music psychology, which is just beginning to be touched upon, is the power of music to help us deal with both everyday and extraordinary life situations.

Along with all of the neurological and therapeutic implications of the field, knowledge is become wider spread of the power of music to influence the minds and behavior of consumers. These behaviors can obviously affect their purchasing decisions, inside and outside of the music industry. Who is driving this research? Is there market incentive from large corporations?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: I can only answer for the UK, but this is actually a relatively small field of research with few published papers. It is hard to do genuine consumer research because it requires long-term and effective collaboration between academia and industry, which can be tricky to manage from both sides. The situation may change in the future but in most cases commercial interests are happy to learn from the music psychology that has been conducted in more controlled conditions and extrapolate the findings to their own environments.

One important point I want to make here is that when you talk about the influence of music it should be clear that there is no evidence that I know of that music can make people want to do something they do not want to do. Music has a subtle influence that works in combination with all the other factors in the environment. It is no magic bullet.

As a leading researcher in the field, what are some of the long-term goals this field hopes to accomplish? Do you think music psychology has the potential to become a major sector in the music industry?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: My long term aim is to learn more about the human mind and behavior by studying how we interact with music. From this level of understanding will come the tools for improved communication, wellbeing, and happiness. I think the music industry could learn a lot from interacting with music psychologists and of course vice versa. Most music psychologists (including me) know very little about the process by which music is produced as a commercial product and it would be really interesting to know more about how decisions are made, artists are chosen, and end products compiled. I think the potential is there for many exciting collaborations that will reveal more about how and why we are such a musical animal.

(Photo Credit: Flickr)

Diana Hereld (@christypaffgen) is a Los Angeles based singer-songwriter and music psychology/neuroscience researcher. She blogs at As The Spirit Wanes The Form Appears.

Request For Feedback – When Tragedy Strikes: A Music Behavioral Analysis

Dear friends,

Thus far, my research interests have lain in the children I’ve tested and taught in person, and I have had little use for gathering data from anyone over the age of 18. As I craft together my first pitch, however, I’d like to ask for some feedback. I’ve been given the opportunity to write about two subjects I find very fascinating. In fact, I believe anyone else has yet to combine them in quite this way. I’m attempting to piece together the music industry and psychological resilience. In the end, it all boils down to music behavior analysis. In this vein, I find myself happily at home. When venturing toward the music industry and modern practice, however, I’m treading on new ground.

 So I ask you, dear reader, if you have ever gone through a period of immense stress (i.e. one’s senior year of college or an audit at work), lost a loved one due to natural or unnatural causes, or experienced a major trial of any kind, to lend me your feedback. If you have ever streamed music using Spotify, Grooveshark, Songza, 8track, LastFM (etc.), or elected not to, I ask for your feedback. 


It’s been a few weeks since I really sat down on meditated on these concepts. This weekend, however, tragedy struck. A friend of mine lost his father, and I lost someone very dear to me. I suppose now is as good a time as ever, then, to write about loss, and how we respond to it.

I am interested in the way we respond to trauma/loss through the psychological lenses of music behavior with a special emphasis on playback. Because the debate of ownership vs. streaming is relatively new, there is precious little data available in the area I’m seeking. In terms of loss, this natural phenomenon has always existed. As for the modes and vices with which we counter this loss, our outlets would seem to expand on a daily basis. We grow at the speed of modern technology.

How has the ability to stream music affected stress/pain culture in the industry? Has it been altered in the least in terms of our music listening habits (ownership vs. access)? Is streaming saved for the young in age and young at heart, those without the worries of time and weather? In occasions of strife, do we turn to a new and fresh outlet which resigns our need and right of control? Or in a subconscious search for the regulation of external chaos do we flee from such an idea, clinging heavily to those old safe tunes proven time and time again to get us through?


I would appreciate any and all feedback in the aid of my essay. You may leave a comment, or if you wish to reach me privately, you may contact me on Facebook.

























Music therapy success in redirection of fight-or-flight behaviors in children with ASD

Sent to me from my friends at the Fondazione Mariani in Italy, this small article update caught my eye specifically because of my recent experiences with children with ASD and music. My lower post (My pilot in music and autism: thoughts on empathy, mirroring and rapport) goes into some detail about my experience, but suffice it to say here that I’ve only found time and time again that music proves to be a brilliant ice-breaker and way to put kids at ease, especially when they suffer from some type of social anxiety. Taken from the Journal of Biomusical Engineering,  the following illustrates some recent findings in the world of music and ASD:

Journal of Biomusical Engineering Vol. 2 (2012)
Pilot study investigating the efficacy of tempo-specific rhythm interventions in music-based treatment addressing hyper-arousal, anxiety, system pacing, and redirection of fight-or-flight fear behaviors in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Berger DS
The Music Therapy Clinic, Norwalk, CT 06850, USA

Many behaviors in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) resemble fight-or-flight avoidance responses resulting from habitual states of fear, possibly induced by sensory processing issues, causing on-going stress and deregulation of systemic pacing. This study hypothesized that patterned, tempo-based, rhythm interventions, at 60-beats per minute (pbm), can regulate and induce systemic pacing, reduce repetitive anxiety behaviors and enable focus and calm in persons with ASD. Eight-week pilot study investigated the influence of four sensorimotor rhythm interventions for habituation (entrainment) of systemic inner rhythms, pacing, stress, anxiety, and repetitive behavior reduction, ultimately yielding eye-contact, attention, motor planning, and memory. Six subjects (n = 6) ages 8–12, with ASD and minimal expressive language, were treated in 45-minute weekly one-on-one music therapy session, over eight weeks. A rating scale tracked responses and progress in vivo per session, and on video-tape. Lifeshirt heart-monitor vest with embedded wireless sensors, worn by each subject during the first, fifth and eight sessions, tracked heart-rate data. Results support the hypothesis that highly structured rhythmic interventions at a slow tempo can yield levels of systemic pacing, motor planning, visual contact, attention, reduction of anxiety and repetitive behaviors, and functional adaptation.

And for my Italian friends:

I bambini affetti da disordini dello spettro autistico (ASD) mostrano comportamenti di evitamento, causati da uno stress cronico determinato dalla cattiva regolazione del ritmo interiore. Questo studio ipotizza che un intervento di musicoterapia basato su strutture ritmiche a 60 battiti per minuto possa regolare il ritmo interiore del bambino, diminuendo i comportamenti ansiosi e facilitando la concentrazione. È stato effettuato uno studio pilota di 8 settimane per indagare l’influenza di 4 diversi tipi di intervento ritmico per il miglioramento del contatto visivo, dell’attenzione e della memoria. Sei bambini di età compresa tra gli 8 e i 12 anni, affetti da ASD e con scarso linguaggio espressivo, sono stati trattati con sessioni individuali di musicoterapia per 45 minuti alla settimana, per 8 settimane consecutive. I progressi sono stati riportati su una scala e i comportamenti sono stati videoregistrati per una successiva analisi. Il battito cardiaco è stato monitorato nelle sessioni 1, 5 e 8 attraverso una maglietta dotata di sensori wireless. I risultati supportano la tesi che un intervento di musicoterapia prolungata con un tempo lento possa ridurre l’ansia e i comportamenti ripetitivi e migliorare il contatto visivo, la programmazione motoria e l’attenzione.

My pilot in music and autism: thoughts on empathy, mirroring and rapport

I’ve been employed at California State University, Northridge since last September as a research assistant in the psychology department working on a study in autism, working memory and music. I completed my training and began administration of the study in January of this year. I’ve tested ten clinical subjects, three control subjects, and loved nearly every moment. What I’d like to speak about is a fairly recent observation.

It’s nothing short of ironic that I am almost identically following in the academic footsteps of my mother. Despite the fact that she was not satisfied until the completion of her second doctorate in phenomenological and existential psychology, she spent a great deal of time before and after as an independently contracted school diagnostician. When I told her I was to be trained on how to properly administer the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for children, she was beside herself. I suppose it should not be ironic, then, that the one thing I’ve come to enjoy most in the process is what I’d heard years of stories pertaining to when I was a child. That aspect is the outcome when one properly executes and achieves psychological rapport.

The concept of rapport can obviously be applied in a number of contexts and situation, and like most things, can be pursued and established for good or ill. It is a technique used in manipulation, in sales, and in seduction. It can also used to coax out life-saving information from victims in the midst trauma, to bond with strangers in a new environment, and closest to home for me, to comfort and elicit high performance qualities from nervous children brought in for an extensive battery of psychoeducational evaluation. As they frequently wonder “What is wrong with me?” or “Why am I here?” I have learnt a bit of understanding and reaching out can go for miles. One of the most interesting features  I’ve observed thus far as that the children on the ASD scale-children thought to commonly possess a ‘faulty’ mirror neuron system that would keep them from typically developed empathy responses- should seem so sensitive to their surroundings.

Every child, with the exception of one (who in the end did not meet the criteria for the study), has not only displayed a warm demeanor and trusting disposition, but also has volunteered to sing back to me in my pilot study. After testing my first two control subjects, I realized that asking high school boys to sing to me may as well have been climbing Mt.Everest (or so I thought).  However, nine out of ten of my clinical subjects, after my initial singing the pilot study to them, felt comfortable enough to sing it right back to me, as my original protocol dictates. This reasoning can be due to a number of things, but it’s an achievement I was unable to make with any control subjects. All I know is had the first autistic male not simply asked that instead of speaking the phrases after me, “Can I sing it out loud like you did?” I never would have continued the pilot in that manner, and heard the other 8 boys sing.

It is small testing group thus far to be sure. I’m still sorting through data, and trying to discern exactly what it shows about the empathy, musicianship and working memory of the young, high-functioning autistic population. Until I do, I simply wanted to share the portion of it that made me so incredibly happy. While the most difficult part of the project was reading through each individual IEP and noting every social and emotional setback the child had experienced, the easiest part was talking and joking with the boys about how much they played video games, that they were eating all the oreos and juice set aside for their parents, and what lovely singing voices they had. I do not always love the computational administration, or working with personnel who do not share my passion for children. I do, however, love these kids, and have all the hope for them in the world. Rapport does not have to be a dangerous method of transference and countertransference that sets the psychologist on the path of no return. It does not have to be an empty therapeutic tactic to secure a goal with little regard of what the patient really needs. It really can just be taking a short amount of time out of your day, and looking at life through another’s perspective. One will often be amazed with what they find.

Krzysztof Penderecki, Jonny Greenwood, Mental Illness and Encephalography

I ran across something rather intriguing the other day, thanks to this friend and music enthusiast. It is a collaboration between two highly respected musicians:  Krzysztof Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood. Imaginative, provocative and innovate as these string arrangements may be, it is in a very small component of the composing process which lies the real fascination for me:

Penderecki’s Polymorphia also had a fascinating birth. The composer played a recording of Threnody for patients with mental illnesses at the Krakow Medical Center while the patients had encephalographs (brain-wave charts) made; he then based Polymorphia‘s musical lines around the shapes on their charts. In his reply to Polymorphia, Greenwood takes up that big, glorious and triumphant C Major chord — and then shatters that harmonic glow into smithereens. He begins with a strangely Bach-reminiscent chorale (“Es Ist Genug,” or “It Is Enough,” which is also the name of a famous Bach chorale) that Greenwood then distorts and dissolves over and over again. He builds tension and lets it drain away, takes up an idea and then lets it go in swirling eddies of motion.

The original article on NPR may be found here.

Help me attend the Second World Congress of Clinical Neuromusicology!

The second world congress of clinical neuromusicology is taking place December 2-3 in Vienna, Austria. The lectures involve presentations and seminars by scholars in the fields of neurology, philosophy and neuroimaging from around the world. Here is a link to the program, which focuses on the applied neuroscience of music.

Though I am far from being a working clinician, I would be registered as a trainee. As I leave for the UK in a little over 24 hours to meet with various professionals in the field, this would be an enormous opportunity for myself. I’ve spent a couple hours online trying to find the very most inexpensive bus/train/plane/hostel to get me to this conference, and spoke with the head of the conference this morning-half in German! As it stands, I simply can’t afford it. I’m about 350$ short. This would pay for a low-cost flight, a room for one night and trainee entrance to the conference. It’s a very long shot, but I’ll be the first to emphatically proclaim you never know what you may achieve until you try. If you feel you are able, I would be so grateful for any small donation.

If anyone is interested as to why I love neuromusicology, I would love to speak with you about it! Or, you may read of it here.

In Objection of the DSM-5 : A Diagnosis-Saturation Culture

There has bit quite a bit of debate and speculation recently concerning the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). As this is a bit of a new dialogue to me, I’m yet undecided as to ‘which side’ I will find myself on ethically. I will say that upon a cursory reading of  the official opinions of the British Psychology Society (BPS, 2011) I find myself similarly skeptical. My immediate issues with the newest ed. of the DSM ranges from the overdiagnosed A.D.H.D. epidemic of our kindergartens to lowering the diagnostic criteria of paranoid schizophrenia. This complaint addressed in the Open Letter to the DSM-V in particular stuck with me:

There is a need for “a revision of the way mental distress is thought about, starting with recognition of the overwhelming evidence that it is on a spectrum with ‘normal’ experience” and the fact that strongly evidenced causal factors include “psychosocial factors such as poverty, unemployment and trauma…”

…clients and the general public are negatively affected by the continued and continuous medicalization of their natural and normal responses to their experiences; responses which undoubtedly have distressing consequences which demand helping responses, but which do not reflect illnesses so much as normal individual variation.

And here is a great statement by Allen Frances, M.D.,  chair of the DSM-IV task force and outspoken skeptic of the current methods of the DSM-V process:

The really unexplainable paradox is the APA’s systematic promotion of greater diagnostic inflation at a time when we are already so obviously plagued by diagnostic inflation, fad diagnoses, and false epidemics. Unless it comes to its senses, DSM-5 will promote greater drug use exactly when we have a public health problem caused by the inappropriately loose prescription of antipsychotics, antidepressants, antianxiety agents, pain medicines, and stimulants. The paradox is that, contrary to conspiracy theorists, the DSM-5 experts are not making their risky suggestions because of financial conflict of interest or the desire to line drug company pockets. They have the best of intentions, but are terminally naïve about how their suggestions will be misused in actual everyday practice mostly by primary care physicians who do most of the inappropriate prescribing.  (Psychiatric Times, October 24, 2011)


British Psychological Society. (2011) Response to the American Psychiatric Association: DSM-5
development. Retrieved from

Compton, M. T. (2008). Advances in the early detection and prevention of schizophrenia.
Medscape Psychiatry & Mental Health. Retrieved from

Kendell, R., & Jablensky, A. (2003). Distinguishing between the validity and utility of
psychiatric diagnoses. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 160, 4-11.

The Neuroscience of Emotional Pain, and the Necessity of Perceived Control

Two nights ago, I read what I believe to be the most personally relevant and  meaningful article I’ve come in contact with in nearly a year. I do not say this lightly,  because I remember the last moment in time I felt this way. I read Halden’s post  entitled Bonhoeffer and the Theology of Romantic Love  not when it was originally  posted in 2008, but a couple of days after New Year’s Day, 2011. It came at the  perfect time-as does the one I’ve just read-because it is about love and loss; rejection and isolation. What  isn’t, after all? Love and death are the strongest of motivators and ordeals, and death  would seem sterile and void of strife were it not for love.

Unfortunately, great as the ups may be, so great are the downs. Having a fair bit of  recent exposure to both tribulations, I would like to share some insight I’ve found in  direct correlation to the more neuroscientific side of things.

At UCLA in 2003, a study was done explicitly on the neural correlates of social  rejection entitled Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Obviously,  anyone with access to the internet and a free subscription to a science mag online  could tell you that these have been done before; it’s nothing new to observe the psychological underpinnings of pain when a child is picked last (or not at all) for a game of sport after school. It is new information to me, however, that the physiological aspects in the pain of rejection have now proven quite similar to any other type of physical pain: when we lose someone we love, for whatever reason it may be, it literally hurts. The abstract of this article below may better explain the premise:

A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. Participants were scanned while playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress. Right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) was active during exclusion and correlated negatively with self-reported distress. ACC changes mediated the RVPFC-distress correlation, suggesting that RVPFC regulates the distress of social exclusion by disrupting ACC activity.[1]

In the aforementioned, we see that this test was administered to children whilst playing in a ‘virtual ball tossing game’ where they were eventually excluded. If the ACC activity is ‘disrupted’ by such a common and (what many might view as childish experience) what can we say of the potential for anguish of those who lose a spouse? A parent? A child? Of those not only excluded, but abandoned? This brings me to the article in question. Though I’ve found the writing and vocal stylings to stem from a slightly more youthful (and charmingly so!) perspective than I’ve become accustomed in my daily journal fix, pain is pain is pain. We don’t need sappy (and wonderful) song lyrics from Blindside  to tell us that ultimately, at the end of the day, we’re in this together. All of us are searching for an open arm. I could go on forever in tangent about why I can’t wrap my head around referring to God as ‘big other’ or humanity as at last to be but cold, selfish and detached. There is something else at work here, when one experiences pain beyond a certain magnitude. Christie Wilcox does a fine job of breaking this process down for us:

 Evolutionary biologists would say that it’s not surprising that our emotions have hijacked the pain system. As social creatures, mammals are dependent from birth upon others. We must forge and maintain relationships to survive and pass on our genes. Pain is a strong motivator; it is the primary way for our bodies tell us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Our intense aversion to pain causes us to instantly change behavior to ensure we don’t hurt anymore. Since the need to maintain social bonds is crucial to mammalian survival, experiencing pain when they are threatened is an adaptive way to prevent the potential danger of being alone.

Christie goes on to state the unfortunate obvious: sometimes understanding the evolutionary biology or even rationale behind it all is simply not enough. We may now see the possibly the main hook for me in her article: she turns to music. We all know the studies on how exercise/having sex/listening to music/interacting with art, etc. are proven to release dopamine, arousing feelings of happiness and positive valence. The thing that really caught my attention is something I’m shocked I had not let sink in previously: music stimulates and creates a feeling of control. I cannot begin to list the litany of mental illnesses that include negative outcomes which seemingly stem directly from a perceived lack of impulse control, but just for effect, I will name a few:

A)    ASD (Autism, Asperger’s)

B)    Attention Deficit Disorder

C)    Manic Depression

D)    Paranoid Schizophrenia

E)    Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

F)     Borderline Personality Disorder

G)    The paraphilias (exhibitionism and pedophilia)

H)    Various disorders advocating self-harming behaviors

The list plainly goes on and on. From the little I’ve observed in various interpersonal encounters in various stages of life, very few of us enjoy a major lack of control; those suffering from preconceived abandonment/loss apprehensions, even less. Here we have the ultimate tie-in that I seem to be making quite a lot lately: Chalk one more up for music psychology. I would be telling a blatant untruth if I refrained from admitting I too have found listening to music to be all of the above: exhilarating, liberating, calming, but more importantly creating the massive sensation of immediate…not necessarily peace, or ease, but control.

As I draw near to the day when I must nail down my precise research proposal for graduate school, I’ll again briefly show how this relates to what I want to do, and feel can be done. In that exact moment of conflict (commonly the amygdale hijack) our mental, emotional and physical actions are crucial. Countless sufferers of self-destructive behaviors including those who engage in self-inflicted physical pain, sexual promiscuity, domestic violence, and kleptomania suffer from a perceived lack of control-and will do anything to reclaim it. If one is in control, there is a (even if false) sense that everything will be okay; that everything’s not lost. I very simply believe that like many other (‘healthy’) activities that people engage in, music can be an instantaneous way for the patient to achieve, even if for a moment, control. 

I certainly here digress, but will continue this thought process further in future posts.

[1] Science 10 October 2003:
Vol. 302 no. 5643 pp. 290-292
DOI: 10.1126/science.1089134

She’s Lost Control: Amygdala Hijack?!

She’s Lost Control

In considering the why, and now the how of better implementing tools made available in music psychology, I am consistently struck by how very complex our musical preferences and responses are as humans.While avoiding the attempt to craft any groundbreaking expository theories,  I’d like to visit a motivation of mine in the field whilst bringing attention to an old Joy Division favorite. First, I will disaggregate the various schools of thought that overlap in this field of music psychology.  What do the following have in common?

1. Existential and phenomenological psychology

2. Jungian personality dichotomies

3. Psychological resilience

4. Malabou’s concept of neuroplasticity

5. Psychoanalysis

6. Advances in the neurological study of fear

7. Critical understandings of cultural and societal treatments of emotion

8. Music

In addition to composing the framework of my greatest motivators toward an existential understanding of life, I’d posit that not only do they contribute to the eventual pragmatic method I seek to establish in a clinical therapeutic setting, they are necessary in totality. The more I engage a dialogue regarding the concept as a whole, the more I am struck by just how much need be taken into consideration as well as shedding some light into my peculiar distaste for ‘music therapy’ as a solitary solution. Though music therapy practices have occasionally been proven effective for various wellness processes in young children as well as adults, I remain skeptical. I would argue that one need explore deeper into the psyche, history and personality of the patient. Far too often we see music therapy studies carried out on young adults in particular that prove completely blanketed – with the total exclusion of considerations such as gender, individual neuronal histories and variance in personality.

To come quickly to the point, I recently posed a vital question: In the occurrence of a (negative) amygdala “takeover”, what is the immediate goal? Is it to utilize music to objectify the patient’s feelings, or to quickly placate and soothe the individual’s distress (particularly if the patient suffers a history of auto-destructive behavior)? My response to the above is both, but objectively more as well. Here are a few thoughts to consider which barely skim the surface in composing the process of discerning what type of method and music should be used:

  1. History of Mental Illness (i.e. What are the immediate concerns? Has the patient demonstrated a capability or propensity for harm to self or others?)
  2. Medical and Psychiatric History (Has there been any type of surgery or modification in brain chemistry or anatomy?)
  3. Socioeconomic Background (What types of music to which the patient been exposed as a part of their ‘nurture’ upbringing, and the extent of music appreciation in their cultural worldview?)
  4. Religious/Familial/Educational background (i.e. unconscious and conscious conditioning-in what context has the patient learned or been taught to treat music? Is it a daily ritual, mainly a social luxury, rite of a religious tradition, utilized in education, etc.)
  5. Personality (What characteristics of extroverted or introverted personality types are being displayed?)
  6. Musical Preferences and Affect Regulation (How and to what extent are they affected by repetition, unfamiliar versus familiar rhythms and meters, Eastern/Western depictions of consonance and dissonance, ‘major’ versus ‘minor’ tonalities, etc.)
  7. Musical Propensity and Skill in Practice or Performance
  8. Existential values and spiritual/moral motivations of the patient

On the tip of the iceberg of gaining a general understanding of the patient, we see already that the answer lies beyond sitting down with a troubled teenage male, playing a bit of Mendelssohn and assuming to illicit the disclosure of an exhaustive account for discord with his father. Establishing a rapport and fluency over the course of time, making the effort to implement music he responds to, and eventually gain an empathetic understanding of how to meet him on his level, however, is something I’m interested in.

I’d like to now return for a moment to the ultimate motivator and the necessity for this type of process. When I speak of the amygdala hijack, I am referring to the very instance in which the fight or flight response occurs. Although the ‘limbic system’ was long perceived to be an emotional center of the brain, the amygdala has been found to be the main ‘limbic’ area involved clearly implicated in the processing of threats. A ‘hijack’ occurs when our brain responds to threats; devoid of reasonable consideration or logic. Typically, when we are presented a stimulus, three events occur: we sense (visual, aural, olfactory, touch, etc.), we process, and we react. These occur in rapid succession. At the moment the threat is processed, the amygdala can override the neo-cortex, a center of higher thinking which deals with sensory perception and motor commands, and initiate an impulsive response (which holds the potential of negatively producing instances of destructive behavior and emotional irrationality). Because it is easier for the amygdala to control the neo-cortex by arousing various brain areas than it is for the neo-cortex to control the amygdala, the ability to shut down anxiety producing hormones and emotions is no simple feat, and proves an exquisite challenge in undertakings of crafting a therapy.

One theory (enter elements of LeDoux, Goleman and Damasio) is that if we can slow or somehow manipulate this hijack process, we may buy ourselves the time it takes to properly process the stimulus, and respond in an appropriate, healthy fashion. LeDoux was hopeful about the possibility of learning to control the amygdala’s impulsive role in emotional outbursts: “Once your emotional system learns something, it seems you never let it go. What therapy does is teach you how to control it – it teaches your neocortex how to inhibit your amygdala. The propensity to act is suppressed, while your basic emotion about it remains in a subdued form.” My theory? We can do it with music.

In closing, I’d like to briefly provide an example of my conviction that the above considerations are essential for a beneficial psychologist/patient relationship. It would seem safe to assume that were we to randomly sample a group of 1,000 healthy, typically functioning women age 18-30, and narrow from there the women who have an extensive knowledge and listening history of the English ‘post-punk’ band Joy Division, we would be presented with an entire spectrum of emotional affect regarding participant’s specific and individual musical associations. Obviously this study is strictly hypothetical primarily in that were we to stop there, the comorbidity and variables would be obscene. My point is, it is almost guaranteed that there will be few in this clinical group who associate exclusively a strictly negative or strictly positive sentiment, and valence and arousal reaction to any one specific selected musical styling of Joy Division. Human experiences, associations and implicit reactions are unique, thus requiring a highly individualized method of interplay. I leave you now with a narrative appropriate to the study itself, with the hope of one day creating a methodical approach designed to alleviate the anxious and distressed of this very sentiment.

Why Beauty Exists: The Neuroscience of Curiosity

I’ve come across a wonderful post over at Lapidarium Notes this morning and cannot help but share. Originally written by Jonah Lehrer in his blog (The Frontal Cortex) Jonah puts forth an speculative (albeit intriguing) theory as to the literal faculty of why beauty exists.

Upon initial reading, I’m taken back to working through my introductory thought process on Hegel’s Philosophy of Art. At first glance, to be completely honest, not only does it seem a bit of a narcissistically beaten-horse, I’ve simply come so near to believing (more than once) that the whole discussion is better left to Kantian scholars of aesthetics; and for the good of the academy, I simply best stay out of it. Au contraire, enter the reason I love plasticity and neuroscience in the first place: with a little dissection, a lot of faith and a very open mind-the potential of our neuronal comprehension is, at this point at least, limitless.

It also brings into play a fundamental reason why I become giddy at the overlap of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience: pragmatism! “Speculative” as Jonah’s theory may be, the minute you bring in data from fMRI and PET scanners, things become a bit more serious. Neuroscience (for me) is a way of turning  highly theoretical abstracts (philosophy) into possibly more practical endeavors (clinical psychology).  Now, before I am the target of hate emails, I am not saying philosophy is not practical, by all means, I find it very much so. I’m speaking in the context more in the arena of bettering the all-encompassing, easily accessible acculturation of society by means we may find in a clinical (or neurologically educational) setting. Jonah has done (as per usual) a splendid job of combining the concepts of arousal, the ‘mental itch’ that is the curiosity of an inquisitive mind, and the usefulness of beauty as learning signal, emotional reminder, and motivational force.

Before I go on and let Jonah explain the study far better than myself, I will say one thing more. Ironically enough, I pin the very moment I knew I wanted to study music and neuroscience concurrently to him. I remember so clearly-a friend had sent me a blank email, except for the link to the post. I often ignore such things, but the respect I had for them academically prompted me to do otherwise. I’ll never forget that evening sitting at my laptop at the local pizza joint reading that article and knowing this is what I had to do. The post, entitled The Neuroscience of Music, can be found here.

The following is taken directly from Jonah’s blog post Why Does Beauty Exist?


“Here’s my (extremely speculative) theory: Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity. It’s a learning signal urging us to keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth figuring out. Art hijacks this ancient instinct: If we’re looking at a Rothko, that twinge of beauty in the mOFC is telling us that this painting isn’t just a blob of color; if we’re listening to a Beethoven symphony, the feeling of beauty keeps us fixated on the notes, trying to find the underlying pattern; if we’re reading a poem, a particularly beautiful line slows down our reading, so that we might pause and figure out what the line actually means. Put another way, beauty is a motivational force that helps modulate conscious awareness. The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.

Let’s begin with the neuroscience of curiosity, that weak form of beauty. There’s an interesting recent study from the lab of Colin Camerer at Caltech, led by Min Jeong Kang. (…)

The first thing the scientists discovered is that curiosity obeys an inverted U-shaped curve, so that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer). This supports the information gap theory of curiosity, which was first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. According to Loewenstein, curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.

The fMRI data nicely extended this information gap model of curiosity. It turns out that, in the moments after the question was first asked, subjects showed a substantial increase in brain activity in three separate areas: the left caudate, the prefrontal cortex and the parahippocampal gyri. The most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions. (For instance, the caudate has been shown to be activated by various kinds of learning that involve feedback, while it’s also been closely linked to various parts of the dopamine reward pathway.) The lesson is that our desire for more information – the cause of curiosity – begins as a dopaminergic craving, rooted in the same primal pathway that responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll.

I see beauty as a form of curiosity that exists in response to sensation, and not just information. It’s what happens when we see something and, even though we can’t explain why, want to see more. But here’s the interesting bit: the hook of beauty, like the hook of curiosity, is a response to an incompleteness. It’s what happens when we sense something missing, when there’s a unresolved gap, when a pattern is almost there, but not quite. I’m thinking here of that wise Leonard Cohen line: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Well, a beautiful thing has been cracked in just the right way. (Italics mine)

Beautiful music and the brain

The best way to reveal the link between curiosity and beauty is with music. Why do we perceive certain musical sounds as beautiful? On the one hand, music is a purely abstract art form, devoid of language or explicit ideas. The stories it tells are all subtlety and subtext; there is no content to get curious about. And yet, even though music says little, it still manages to touch us deep, to tittilate some universal dorsal hairs.

We can now begin to understand where these feelings come from, why a mass of vibrating air hurtling through space can trigger such intense perceptions of beauty. Consider this recent paper in Nature Neuroscience by a team ofMontreal researchers. (…)

Because the scientists were combining methodologies (PET and fMRI) they were able to obtain a precise portrait of music in the brain. The first thing they discovered (using ligand-based PET) is that beautiful music triggers the release of dopamine in both the dorsal and ventral striatum. This isn’t particularly surprising: these regions have long been associated with the response to pleasurable stimuli. The more interesting finding emerged from a close study of the timing of this response, as the scientists looked to see what was happening in the seconds before the subjects got the chills.
I won’t go into the precise neural correlates – let’s just say that you should thank your right nucleus accumbens the next time you listen to your favorite song – but want to instead focus on an interesting distinction observed in the experiment:

fMRI and PET results,

In essence, the scientists found that our favorite moments in the music – those sublimely beautiful bits that give us the chills – were preceeded by a prolonged increase of activity in the caudate, the same brain area involved in curiosity. They call this the “anticipatory phase,” as we await the arrival of our favorite part:

Immediately before the climax of emotional responses there was evidence for relatively greater dopamine activity in the caudate. This subregion of the striatum is interconnected with sensory, motor and associative regions of the brain and has been typically implicated in learning of stimulus-response associations and in mediating the reinforcing qualities of rewarding stimuli such as food.

In other words, the abstract pitches have become a primal reward cue, the cultural equivalent of a bell that makes us drool. Here is their summary:

The anticipatory phase, set off by temporal cues signaling that a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming, can trigger expectations of euphoric emotional states and create a sense of wanting and reward prediction. This reward is entirely abstract and may involve such factors as suspended expectations and a sense of resolution. Indeed, composers and performers frequently take advantage of such phenomena, and manipulate emotional arousal by violating expectations in certain ways or by delaying the predicted outcome (for example, by inserting unexpected notes or slowing tempo) before the resolution to heighten the motivation for completion.

While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like an intricate pattern of pitches – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. They want to make us curious, to create a beautiful gap between what we hear and what we want to hear.

To demonstrate this psychological principle, the musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), analyzed the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Meyer wanted to show how music is defined by its flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order. To prove his point, Meyer dissected fifty measures of Beethoven’s masterpiece, showing how Beethoven begins with the clear statement of a rhythmic and harmonic pattern and then, in an intricate tonal dance, carefully avoids repeating it. What Beethoven does instead is suggest variations of the pattern. He is its evasive shadow. If E major is the tonic, Beethoven will play incomplete versions of the E major chord, always careful to avoid its straight expression. He wants to preserve an element of uncertainty in his music, making our brains exceedingly curious for the one chord he refuses to give us. Beethoven saves that chord for the end.

According to Meyer, it is the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations) that is the source of the music’s beauty. While earlier theories of music focused on the way a noise can refer to the real world of images and experiences (its “connotative” meaning), Meyer argued that the emotions we find in music come from the unfolding events of the music itself. This “embodied meaning” arises from the patterns the symphony invokes and then ignores, from the ambiguity it creates inside its own form. “For the human mind,” Meyer writes, “such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty.” And so we wait, expectantly, for the resolution of E major, for Beethoven’s established pattern to be completed. This nervous anticipation, says Meyer, “is the whole raison d’etre of the passage, for its purpose is precisely to delay the cadence in the tonic.” The uncertainty – that crack in the melody – makes the feeling.

Why the feeling of beauty is useful

What I like about this speculation is that it begins to explain why the feeling of beauty is useful. The aesthetic emotion might have begun as a cognitive signal telling us to keep on looking, because there is a pattern here that we can figure out it. In other words, it’s a sort of a metacognitive hunch, a response to complexity that isn’t incomprehensible. Although we can’t quite decipher this sensation – and it doesn’t matter if the sensation is a painting or a symphony –the beauty keeps us from looking away, tickling those dopaminergic neurons and dorsal hairs. Like curiosity, beauty is a motivational force, an emotional reaction not to the perfect or the complete, but to the imperfect and incomplete. We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what. That’s why we call it beautiful.”

 Jonah Lehrer, American journalist who writes on the topics of psychology, neuroscience, and the relationship between science and the humanities, Why Does Beauty Exist?, Wired science, July 18, 2011