Essential Limitations in current Neurochemical Studies of Music

Essential Limitations in current Neurochemical Studies of Music

by James A. W. Gutierrez, Azusa Pacific University, college of music and art, adjunct prof.

In April, 2013, Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel Levitin published “The Neurochemistry of Music”, which presents “peer-reviewed scientific evidence” supporting claims that musical influences may correspond directly with neurochemical changes, specifically correlating “musical reward” with dopamine/opioids, stress relief with cortisol, and musical “social bonding” with oxytocin/vasopressin. Ideally, the music-as-medicine pursuit is pure in its intent toward the relief of human suffering, be it behavioral/emotional//physical/social, through a more natural medium than, say, pychosomatic drugs. However, such a strong quantification of music, and generalization of musical elements, invokes the familiar pharmaceutical path where an ambitious medical community responds to a irreducibly complex system of sociobehavioral situations with a grossly oversimplified, pill-sized answer. While there are certainly clinical uses for music, the first mistake a clinician could make, and hence the primary abuse of both music and a patient, would be to attempt to incarnate, confine to physical flesh, the essentially abstract expressive form that is music.

Such extreme reductions in musical semiotics are prevalent throughout current experimentation involving dopamine and opioids. Levitin reports: “Pleasant (consonant) and unpleasant (dissonant) music were contrasted, and the results conformed activation of the ventral striatum during pleasurable music listening.”[2] In tests examining the effect of music on the stress hormone cortisol Levitin reports: “Relaxing music mimics soothing natural sounds such as maternal vocalizations, purring and cooing (soft, low-pitched sounds with a gradual amplitude envelope), which decrease sympathetic arousal.”[3] When observing levels of polypeptides serum oxytocin and vasopressin (currently thought to regulate social behavior) Levitin reports: “a single 30-minute voice lesson was associated with an increase in serum oxytocin levels relative to a pre-lesson baseline in both professional and amateur singers” and “open-heart surgery patients who listened passively to experimenter-selected soothing music for 30 minutes one day after surgery has higher levels of serum oxytocin compared to bed-rest alone.” [4]

The systematic placement of music in such generalized categories as consonant=pleasure/dissonant=stress, “relaxing” music, etc., with the expectation of uniform results only demonstrates the assumption on the part of the experimenter that music, as represented by a particular style/tempo/dynamic range/etc., should behave as a static unit even in the testing of a broad diversity of listeners. Not only does this ignore the music biases of the experimenter, the testing environment all but extinguishes the affective contexts in which real music listening would be experienced. Could not a familiar yet up-tempo progressive rock song be “relaxing”? Perhaps the oxytocin levels post-singing lesson involved factors such as familiarity, personal connection/association, successful performance in front of an intimidating tester, or perhaps it could just maybe have been the lyrics of the song? Could not “dissonant” music be “pleasurable”? It is precisely the paradoxical nature of musical pleasure that makes musical expression unique, and problematizes this whole method of research. As Oscar Wilde observes- “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”[5] Would this response be observable in his dopamine/opioid levels?

It could be objected that it is merely seeing music in the context of scientific scrutiny that makes a musician uncomfortable, a kind of ‘we don’t belong here’ awkwardness. Could it be that I am simply afraid that music may be demystified if subjected to an empirical testing environment? Absolutely not. Even the previously stated testing is not completely void of value. The last ten years of testing the brain in all subjects surrounding music have yielded a trove of useful information. Laboratory mice have been included in the research: “Two species of ‘singing mice’ which display an unusually complex vocal repertoire exhibit high oxytocin receptor binding within regions related to social memory. Injection of oxytocin increased vocalization levels while oxytocin receptor infant knockout mice engage in fewer vocalization and show marked social deficits and higher stress levels.” [6] These findings at least establish the biological basis for a social component in music, and maybe even supports the notion that music plays an important role in creating social bonds.

Neuroscientists essentially portend to deal with ‘universal’ structures, by nature of their scope. The more they universalize musical elements, the less they are observing actual music, and they run the risk of trivialization all ‘findings’ therein. The ideal of music-based treatments is that they are noninvasive, have minimal or no side-effects, are inexpensive, convenient, and are completely ‘natural’. While the merit of this endeavor cannot be denied, let researchers admit that this reverse-engineering is in its fetal stages of development, where I contend it will remain until a more advanced treatment of musical elements can be introduced into testing. While it is delusional to attempt to incarnate an abstraction, to acknowledge an enigma and conduct research while remaining subject to it can be a step toward real understanding.


[1] Subotnik, Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music., Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991, pg. 199

[2] Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel J. Levitin, The Neurochemistry of Music, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, April 2013, Vol. 17, No.4, pg. 181

[3] Ibid. pg 186

[4] Ibid. pg 199

[5] Oscar Wilde, 1891

[6] Ibid. pg 188

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Musicality correlates with sociability and emotionality in Williams Syndrome

(Ng R, Lai P, Levitin D, Bellugi U)

From the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California, USA

Williams Syndrome (WS) is a neurogenetic developmental disorder characterized by peaks and valleys of cognitive abilities. One peak that has been understudied is the affinity that many individuals with WS have toward music. It remains unknown whether their high levels of musical interest, skill and expressivity are related to their sociable personality or their verbal intelligence. Authors examined the relationships between musicality (musical interest, creativity and expressivity), sociability (social-emotionality, social approach) and language comprehension in WS and typically developing (TD) controls. Findings suggest that emotion-expressivity through music in WS may be linked to their sensitivity and responsivity to emotions of others, whereas general interest in music may be related to greater linguistic capacity in TD individuals. Musicality and sociability may be more closely related in WS relative than in typical development; implications for future interventions for this neurodevelopmental condition will be discussed.

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La Sindrome di Williams (WS) è un problema dello sviluppo neurologico caratterizzato da punti di forza e di debolezza nelle abilità cognitive. Una qualità che è stata poco studiata è l’affinità elettiva che molti soggetti con WS hanno verso la musica. Non è chiaro se l’alto livello di interesse musicale, di capacità esecutiva e di espressività sia correlato alla loro personalità sociale o alla loro intelligenza verbale. In questo studio gli autori hanno esaminato la relazione tra la musicalità (interesse musicale, creatività ed espressività), l’attitudine sociale (emotività sociale, approccio sociale) e la comprensione del linguaggio in bambini affetti da WS e in bambini con sviluppo neurologico tipico (TD). I risultati suggeriscono che l’espressività delle emozioni attraverso la musica nei bambini con WS potrebbe essere legata alla loro sensibilità nei confronti delle emozioni altrui, mentre l’interesse generico nella musica potrebbe essere dovuto a una maggiore capacità linguistica nei bambini con sviluppo tipico (TD). La musicalità e l’attitudine sociale potrebbero essere più affini nei soggetti WS piuttosto che nei soggetti TD. Gli Autori discutono i risultati nell’ottica di possibili interventi educativi per i soggetti con WS.

Creativity in Constraint: Exploiting the Boundaries

Daniel LevitinIf one were to Google “This Is Your Brain On…”(fill in the blank), they would find everything from drugs, to football, to Jane Austen. This Is Your Brain On Music spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. Empathetic humans have a basic need and survival tendency to understand ourselves, and our behavior. Music has proven to be somewhat of an outlier and unifier simply due to the capability for a universal method of notation and expression. The expansion and sharing of music leaps from country to country, from people group to the academy and back again like wildfire. In culture, it is often a greatest common factor.

On July 11, 2013, Stanford University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences held its second annual Behavioral Science Summit. The daylong, invite-only event examines the state of behavioral science and its role in technology, the arts, business, and society as seen through the lens of creativity and innovation. Over the duration of the summit, fifteen noted speakers gave presentations on the arts, technology, neuroscience, culture, product design and workplace productivity.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) delivered the opening keynote. The recurring theme of the summit proved to be collaboration, integration and originality. Kahneman explains that in order to develop new methodologies and vocabularies to bring to their home institutions and fields, innovators across a wide variety of professions have begun coming together to exchange ideas, and open up a dialogue.

Following the keynote, Daniel Levitin (This Is Your Brain On Music) took the stage. His talk, entitled “Creativity in music: Constraints and innovation” was of particular interest to the creativity gurus in attendance. He began with a simple definition of creativity. “Works of art that we judge to be the most creative involve the artists working under constraints to produce something novel, or something that pushes the edges of these assumed constraints.” Levitin brings up an interesting point: Some of the most creative music has come to exist not in result of revolution, but by way of evolution. It’s not really true invention, but a wide blending of previous work. Levitin reminds us that Mozart didn’t invent the symphony or the sonata-what Mozart is recognized for is his ability to work within the tight constraints provided, and yet still be able to come up with such ground-breaking musical statements.

To illustrate his point, Levitin gave a series of examples in order to showcase his theory regarding evolution v. revolution.

  • “Rocket 88” – Jackie Brenston, 1951
  • “Sweet Little 16” – Chuck Berry, 1957
  • “Surfin’ U.S.A.” – The Beach Boys 1963
  • “Back In The U.S.S.R.” – The Beatles, 1968

When listening and comparing these examples, even the untrained ear is hard pressed not to note the similarities from beginning to end. The journey of these songs is very clearly not revolution, but evolution. By taking similar (or in Brian Wilson’s case, nearly identical) chord structures and progressions, the songwriter is able to reinvent a past work with a fresh perspective. The Beatles are notorious for this, having released countless records that may be unashamedly traced back to artists such as Buddy Holly, Elvis and The Beach Boys. Levitin elaborates, “New concepts are anchored in terms of old concepts. That’s why we so appreciate music that’s built on something that came before.” He went on to explain that links between pieces associated with preexisting others tends to be stronger than novel and isolated links in memory. By acknowledging and exercising limitations in the formative process, the creator is able to push limits in a more precise scope, often resulting in unique creative inspiration via unambiguous problem solving.

Regarding individuality in musicianship and songwriting, Levitin calls attention to the large role boundaries play in identity. “An individual musician’s style varies to the extent that you recognize Ella Fitzgerald or Paul McCartney or Arthur Rubinstein because of their own limitations. If every musician were flawless, they’d have less personality. Musicians sound the way they do because they can’t do everything they want to be able to do, and they do it in this flawed, human way. Many of the musicians we find most compelling – Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan – the really emotive singers – were responding to vast constraints to their technical ability, and you hear them fighting against it.”

How does one then use constraint to stimulate creativity? The Behavioral Science Summit aims to unite and diversify varies field strategies and project tactics. The question we need to be asking is this: How can creative persons benefit from adhering to traditional business models such as the process of phasing out, minimizing scope creep and avoiding uncontrollable expansion? William James states it well: “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task (letter to Carl Stumpf, 1886). Without an ultimate goal, creativity left unchecked may spin out of control, only to end in the failure to produce a tangible work. Music is not idiosyncratic in terms of how creativity is addressed or assessed – this subtle concept is utilized over many different arenas. Every song in the Western world comes from a chromatic scale of but twelve notes. Every mixed and melted color comes from red, blue and yellow; every sonnet from a mere fourteen lines.

In a recent post in Forbes magazine, entitled “Creativity: How Constraints Drive Genius” David Sturt (VP, O.C. Tanner ) calls attention to a study undertaken on 1.7 million people with award-winning work. Based on O.C. Tanner’s findings, it seems that “people who create new value on the job are often inspired by their constraints” (Sturt, 2013). When Frank Gehry set out to design the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, he reported limitations and constraints as the most inspirational tools in his work. When an artist, project manager or designer sits down to create a work, they must begin by asking, “What problem am I trying to solve?” In doing this we are able to better perceive that true freedom can only be exerted within limits. Not unlike the music theory student setting out to compose within a tight set of guidelines, one must first learn and observe specific statutes. Once understood, we may begin looking beyond the rules, embracing the “benefit of limitations and necessity of structure to the creative process” (Gutierrez, 2013).

In conclusion, we are left then with the following: Regarding individuals with IQs categorized as genius or savant, we must ask ourselves if some of the most celebrated inventions in technology, medicine and the arts would exist with a ceiling. Can constraint be a catalyst, or is it necessary to defy the norm in order to achieve true greatness? Imitation versus innovation, evolution or revolution, restriction and an endless realm of possibilities remain to ponder. Looking back to the creativity of Beethoven versus Mozart, Picasso versus Monet, and Baryshnikov versus Fosse, these hypotheses are no longer so transparent. Is constraint essential for effective creative production, or have our greatest visions come from pushing the limits?

(Photo Credit: Matt Beardsley

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