Music, Mind and Meaning Conference at the Peabody Institute – Day 2 Recap

1779146_10100787537465660_2115934_nMusic, Mind and Meaning Conference – Day 2

Friday commenced with the morning keynote delivered by Dr. Ani Patel, entitled Does instrumental musical training enhance the brain’s processing of speech? In Patel’s articulate and informative lecture, he began by drawing our attention to the following: “Music and language have important connections as cognitive and neural systems, and that has implications for theoretical debates about how the mind is organized – for evolutionary studies on the origins of these abilities, and practical issues about remediation of language disorders” (Patel, 2014). Though the parallels in music and language are less novel on account of the publication of his 2008 book Music, Language and the Brain, the implications of instrumental training lending to developments in language and speech are very much so. In conclusion, operating with his extended OPERA hypothesis, Patel emphasizes that regardless of the varying direction and debates these studies may undergo, “Comparative music and language research really does deepen our understanding of human communication.” (Patel, 2014).

Dr. Elizabeth Tolbert spoke next, providing an evolutionary perspective in Music, Meaning and Becoming Human. Approaching the co-evolution of music, meaning and social intelligence, Tolbert addressed music as a behavior, not object; of possessing a social ontology, and its implicational model as derived from social interaction, shared intentionality and social intelligence. Her overarching thesis states “the story of becoming human is the story of the development of a specifically human type of meaning rooted in social intelligence, and one that likely has its origins in proto-musical behavior.” (Tolbert, 2014).

IMG_9286Dr. Ian Cross’s lecture entitled Music, Participation and Interaction further expanded on the day’s existing idea of music not only as a “practice composed by the few and consumed by many,” but as the encompassment of interactive processes far beyond a role of abstract structures, symbolic realms or lofty themes. As uniquely flexible and socially cooperative creatures, humans are capable of utilizing music as not only a mode of communicating information and ideals, but at times as phatic organisms. Cross went on to explain with conviction that if this theory were more widely considered, the insinuation might result in music being given the proper chance to utilize it’s more pragmatic magic in resolving social uncertainties (and thus social anxiety), provide powerful effects on memory and social attitude, and “provide us with new perspectives on the investigation of music beyond the bounds of Western culture” (Cross, 2014).

The second keynote, Losing the Beat: A New Window on Human Rhythm was given Dr. Isabelle Peretz (University of Montreal). Peretz has published over two hundred and fifty five scientific papers regarding everything from perception, emotion and memory to singing and dancing. In Losing the Beat, Peretz explained that a defining characteristic of human interaction with music is “the identity and ability to move to the beat.” Although this universal faculty is typically formed early in life, her recent research shows that some individuals suffer from the inability to synchronize with beats in music. This disorder is referred to as beat deafness, a new form of congenital amusia. In her presentation, Peretz conveyed a strong sensibility for the cause of studying musical disorders in regard to “reverse-engineering of the musical brain” (Peretz, 2014).

IMG_9311Later in the afternoon, Andrea Halpern took the floor to share her work on auditory imagery, and to describe her study examining the neural loci of imagined music. Halpern is a pioneer in her long-standing devotion to the field from early in its development. She has contributed fundamental work on memory and perception of musical structure, including studies on earworms and the persistence of musical memories), effects of timbre and tempo change, and perception of emotion in sounded and imagined music. In her presentation Auditory Imagery: Linking Internal and External Music, Halpern presented the argument that although internal and external music experiences are distinctive encounters, they share a number of important similarities, which both musicians and nonmusicians can exploit to enhance the musical experience.

Photo 1 – Diana Hereld

Photos 2, 3 – Scott Metcalfe

Note: I must include an apology for the delay in reporting on the conference this weekend. I simply found myself so wonderfully overwhelmed with information (but overwhelmed regardless) that I was unsure how to encapsulate the day’s culmination of so many brilliant minds in presentation of their most recent work. As a result, I’ve decided to report individually on each of them in the near future. A few other outlets have picked up specific coverage, and I will advise as those are released. I will also be sharing a summation of the conference’s concluding rountable featuring the speakers and performers, which was truly a thing to behold.

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Music, Mind, Meaning Conference 2014 at the Peabody Institute of Music

peabody library (January 30-31, Baltimore, MD) The Music, Mind and Meaning Conference will bring together scientists from the field of music cognition  and renowned musicians for a two-day event to explore the relationships between music and science at the Peabody Institute of Music. The events will include presentations from leading scientists and a special musical performance by the Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, Chair of Jazz Studies at Peabody. Keynote speakers will be Drs. David Huron, Aniruddh Patel, and Isabelle Peretz, three remarkable scientists who have led groundbreaking studies of how and why people have engaged in musical behaviors throughout human history. Conference participants will include scientists, clinicians, musicians, students and interested members of the public. Presentations will explore the idea of musical meaning by examining issues of expectation, creativity, evolution, culture, language, emotion and memory from the viewpoint of cognitive psychology, musicology and auditory neuroscience. The conference is generously supported by a conference grant from the Brain Sciences Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. For more information visit http://www.mmmbaltimore2014.org/.

I will be attending and covering this conference, so please feel free to follow me on Twitter @pathwaysinmusic and look for coverage here directly following. A special thanks to Mr. Cooper McClain for making this trip possible.

Valproic Acid for Perfect Pitch? Steady, Now…

FDA_seizure_drug_DepakoteFor the past few days, the internet has been abuzz with the announcement of the “perfect pitch miracle drug.” Let’s back up a bit, shall we?

Valproic acid has been used alone or in addition to other medications for nearly fifty years to treat epilepsy, and is the active ingredient in drugs such as Valproate and Depakon. It is also used in the prevention of migraines, mania in bipolar disorder and for the treatment of aggression exhibited in children with ADHD. It is in the class of anticonvulsants. To talk a little bit about how it works, our brain is made up of thousands of nerve cells that communicate back and forth via electrical signal, a very intricate and delicate process that need maintain a steady and stable balance for normative functioning. When repetitive and abnormally rapid electrical signals are released, this process becomes disturbed and over stimulated. Anticonvulsants such as Valproate function as a stabilizer by increasing the amount of the natural nerve-calming chemical GABA, (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), as an HDAC (histone deacetlyase) inhibitor (Monti et al., 2009). GABA is one of the brain’s chief inhibitory neurotransmitters, which many researchers believe to regulate anxiety. When the amount of GABA in the brain falls too low, Valproate prevents the breakdown of the chemical and works to stabilize the amount of electrical activity, which explains why the drug has been found effective as a treatment for periods of mania and epileptic seizures.

Unfortunately, valproic acid is far from the ideal end-all. Valproate has been known to potentially cause serious or life threatening damage to the liver, pancreas, and blood cells, and holds an alarmingly high statistic for weight gain. It is not approved for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and has recently been the target of a lawsuit due to unforeseen birth defects. It is also known to cause ataxia, thrombocytopenia and leucopenia, so before we all go rushing off to “increase our brain function,” it might be wise to spend a moment thinking critically.

This morning, Tom Ashbrook of On Point, NPR stated “Imagine a pill that could rewire your brain. Would make your brain young again. Able to learn and absorb like a five-year old. Music. Languages. Would you take it?”  Neuroplasticity has risen to near-celebrity status over the past few months, and recent study by Frontiers of Systems Neuroscience is certainly fanning the flame. Carried out by researchers from France, Canada, Maryland, Australia, Massachusetts and England, the study set out to discover whether such periods when enzymes “impose ‘brakes’ on neuroplasticity, might be able to “reopen critical periods of neuroplasticity” via a drug that blocks productions of those enzymes. Absolute pitch was thought to be a solid assessment of this possibility because there are “no known cases of an adult acquiring absolute pitch.”

Absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to identify or produce the pitch of a musical sound without any reference point. Individuals who possess AP, constituting about 0.01% of the general population, are able to identify the pitch class, i.e., one of the 12 notes of the Western musical system, e.g., C, D, G#, of a sound with great accuracy (varying between 70–99%, depending on the task, as compared to 10–40% for non-AP individuals, Takeuchi and Hulse, 1993). The study explains:

“Importantly, acquiring AP has a critical period (Levitin and Zatorre, 2003; Russo et al., 2003). A critical period is a fixed window of time, usually early in an organism’s lifespan, during which experience has lasting effects on the development of brain function and behavior. The principles of critical period phenomena and neural plasticity are increasingly well understood both at the behavioral/experiential (Kleim and Jones, 2008) and at the molecular/cellular level (Hensch, 2005). Specifically, behaviorally induced plasticity in the healthy brain, typically after the end of the relevant critical period, can lead to improvement beyond normal or average performance levels. However, for many tasks, this requires targeted training—simple routine use is often insufficient. The factors known to influence the efficiency of such targeted training include the number of repetitions involved, the intensity of the training as well as the relevance or saliency of the stimuli or task trained. Importantly, such training-induced learning is quite specific to the trained task and to the underlying brain networks, although some transfer to other, related domains of knowledge or skills is sometimes possible. At the cellular level, critical periods close when maturational processes and experiential events converge to cause neuoro-physiological and molecular changes that dampen or eliminate the potential for further change (Hensch, 2005Bavelier et al., 2010), thus imposing “brakes” on neuroplasticity. One of the epigenetic changes leading to decreased plasticity after the critical period involves the action of HDAC, an enzyme that acts as an epigenetic “brake” on critical-period learning (Morishita and Hensch, 2008Qing et al., 2008). Research has shown that inhibition of HDAC can reopen critical-period neuroplasticity in adult mice to enable recovery from amblyopia (Putignano et al., 2007Silingardi et al., 2010), and to facilitate new forms of auditory learning (Yang et al., 2012).” (http://www.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnsys.2013.00102/full ).

The randomized, double blind study was conducted on twenty four men, half of which received Valproate and the other half, a placebo. The men who received Valproate showed advantage in pitch class identification. To come to the conclusion, it is imperative that we acknowledge the fact that these powerful pharmaceuticals were in no way developed for something so “trivial” of the acquisition of perfect pitch – the diagnostic simply was appropriate for a brief and extremely small study and subject pool. The researchers conclude:

If confirmed by future replications, our study will provide a behavioral paradigm for the assessment of the potential of psychiatric drugs to induce plasticity. In particular, the AP task may be useful as a behavioral correlate. If further studies continue to reveal specificity of VPA to the AP task (or to tasks on which training or intervention is provided), critical information will have been garnered concerning when systemic drug treatments may safely be used to reopen neural plasticity in a specific, targeted way.”

It is vital during this time of exponential and rapid advances in the realm of neuroscience that we keep the grounding measures of ethics and morality at the forefront of our minds. There is a reason performance enhancing drugs are strictly forbidden in competitive sports. While it is truly of great interest to deliberate over the implications of a drug altered to target neuroplasticity, with great power (all together now) comes great responsibility. 

Photo credit: http://sheller.com/practice-areas/practice-areas.php?title=Depakote-divalproex_sodium

Music and Memory 2014 Columbia Music Scholarship Conference

CMSCThe tenth annual Columbia Music Scholarship Conference (CMSC) will be held on March 8, 2014 at Columbia University in the City of New York. The theme of the 2014 meeting is Music and Memory. The conference is organized by graduate students from the Department of Music at Columbia University with financial support from the Department of Music and the Graduate Student Advisory Council.

The conference welcomes Prof. Jonathan Sterne from the Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University as the 2014 keynote speaker. Prof. Sterne teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. He is author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke 2012), The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003); and numerous articles on media, technologies and the politics of culture. He is also editor of The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012). His new projects consider instruments and instrumentalities; histories of signal processing; and the intersections of disability, technology and perception.

Burgeoning interdisciplinary inquiry on memory is enabling scholars to develop new perspectives in a diverse array of fields ranging from history, anthropology, sociology, literary studies, art history, archeology, cultural studies, and media studies, to philosophy, political science, theology, education, psychology, and the cognitive sciences. This conference will add to this growing interdisciplinary conversation about memory in the sciences, arts, and humanities, stimulating a dialogue both on the role of memory in music studies and on the place of music in studies of memory.

The conference seeks to consider the complexity of memory’s embeddedness in music’s practices, subjects, objects, ideologies, sites, and technologies. Interests lie in memory as lived, constructed, represented, performed, transmitted, inscribed, incorporated, and stored, as persisting, travelling and circulating, as material and immaterial, human and non-human, as a capacity and a resource that impacts and shapes everyday lives. In what ways can memory influence musical practice, and in what ways can musical practice influence memory? How might memories be theorized musically? What can music scholars offer to memory studies, and memory scholars to music studies?

Information provided by the CMSC website.

 

All of Us Are Searching for an Open Arm: The Uprising of Sad Music in the Media

Ever since the great tearjerker of ’11, the media has seemingly at last seen fit to begin a shift in focus toward a more somber melody. With a growing spotlight on artists such as Adele, Muse and Interpol to Chelsea Wolfe and Zola Jesus, songwriters would seem, in some cases, to be enjoying a more visible success specifically due to the inclusion of the melancholy than in recent years. For some, largely gone are the days of the I, IV, V and in are the repeated inclusion of the appoggiaturas and resolving minors. 

John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology from my alma mater (Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London) states it like this: “Your hair’s standing up on end, shivers going down your spine, a lump coming into your throat, even tears running down your eyes.” And how is this? These effects are not solely felt, they are physiological responses to a specific perception-but do we even know what we’re perceiving? Just yesterday, Research Digest brought attention to a bit of qualitative research being done by Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards (University of Limerick) regarding the negative experiences of 65 individuals, and the music they chose to listen to. The research then would obviously fall into two separate themes or categories-the strategy adopted in music selection, and the function the music serves.

Without regurgitating the large amount of insight that many other researchers have almost simultaneously come across, there are definitely a few reoccurring themes in explanation of why people gravitate toward sad music:

  • Distancing (the act of distancing oneself from a sad experience via listening to sad music)
  • Desire for connection (in order to connect life events and current mood with a choice in music)
  • Trigger (in order to connect with an experience or person lost via nostalgia and emotive progressions)
  • “As The Spirit Wanes The Form Appears” (my personal favorite, exhibiting belief that when the spirit is most tried and tested, one is able to more fully come to grips with the state of things around and within them, and reach out for either a  perceived or real hope)
  • Common humanity (in order to feel part of a greater puzzle-instead of feeling isolated and alone, one may feel they are being reached out to via the lyricism or voice of the music and are thus part of a “larger human experience”)
  • Control (although sad music obviously often evokes melancholy emotions, they would seem to be separate from reality. These sad events are not actually happening in real-time, not unlike when we read sad fiction. We are able to experience sadness without any real threat to our safety, mental state or well being. Richard Kunert has written a great post on precisely this over at Brain’s Idea which walks through this a bit more in depth. Richard states:

Prolactin is a hormone associated with feelings of tranquillity, calmness, well-being, or consolation. Huron (2011) suggests that the body uses it to counteract grief and thus avoid descending into an uncontrollably depressive episode. Such hormonal counter-measures to negative environmental inputs are also found for physical pain. Physical pain is reduced by endorphins. Such a bodily mechanism can be exploited – as when heroin addicts fool the brain’s response to pain. Huron (2011) proposes that sad music can activate the counter-measures to actual sadness – i.e. prolactin production – without any real sadness being present. One gets the hormone’s consoling effect without the sadness and might thus actually enjoy it. (Kunert, 2012).

 

I’d like to briefly focus on the last theme of control: what does this say for people who suffer from mental illness, post traumatic stress or major trauma? These circumstances largely represent a loss of control for the subject. This loss of control is often to blame for irrational and impulsive behaviors. Suicide, acts of self-inflicted harm and many crimes of passion are the ultimate act and statement of control-which is the very override we’re trying to buy time against in the amygdala when thinking in terms of behavioral manipulation.

My friend and fellow music psychology comrade Kelty Walker put it this way: “Same goes for any emotion, song, genre, movie, book, person, car, job, and yes, belief system. Anything that elicits a response in the amygdala can be used to condition ourselves into our desired state. Now, if only we were more widely aware of it…”

 

In the spirit of “sad” music and emotional/physiological response, I’m enclosing one of the most powerful songs (and experiences) of my life. There are few songs which elicit the type of response this work is capable of in me-in any situation, mindset or setting. Come 3:15, the response is quite Pavlovian.

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.

The “Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker” and my cover of Adele

In futile effort of keeping up with the Joneses of pop culture and music psychology, consider this my token post on Adele. Why?

 A) She’s fabulous

B) She just won big at the Grammys

C) WSJ Online has just released a major post largely on her hit Someone Like You entitled Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker 

D) I have covered her countless times, and her piano songs are a part of my teaching repertoire

In terms of the post WSJ released, I strongly recommend giving it a good read. The research was originally conducted at McGill, a university widely celebrated for their Music Perception and Cognition program, and home to celebrity writer Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music. In light of Adele’s recent superstardom and the widening knowledge and appreciation of music psychology as a whole, I’d wager this article is going to get some serious attention. While I wholeheartedly agree with it’s main premise, I find something deeply awry here, and it is found the in subtitle itself:

Why does Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ make everyone cry? Science has found the formula.

As a twenty-something young woman who has not only sung since age three, composed angsty love ballads on the piano for years but also been left by a lover in the worst way, I love Adele. Let me be clear on this: I love Adele. Someone Like You and Hometown Glory (as well as Rollin’ In The Deep, which I will teach tomorrow) are also favorites of my young vocal and piano students. However, I think if we look at that tag line again of this post-‘science has found the formula’- we will see that something is very wrong. I may be alone in my feeling here, but I doubt it. With the way EEG, MRI, fMRI and now even rtfMRI are developing, we know more about the human brain and it’s reactions to stimuli than ever before-more than we ever dreamed possible. I have a couple problems with the way the article glorifies grace notes and appoggiaturas-but most of all, how they glorify her. Yes, she and Dan Wilson have crafted a brilliant combination of soul, melodic intonation and dissonance in all the right suspended instances-but at the end of the day, I would be cautious in how objective we lean in quantifying beauty. There is a line to be drawn-there necessarily is. In saying “science has found the formula,” we have inadvertently taken the ‘magic’ (for lack of a better word) out of her song, and made it just that: a scientific formula. It should not be a commercial marketing scheme, however, and God forgive us should we ever make it one. It’s a great article, yes, and I hope everyone reads it. I only hope we can all take a step back from the science behind every mathematical placement of every ornamentation and remember why this lovely woman crafted the song in the first place.

And now, just for fun, a rough cover I did of Adele’s Hometown Glory in 2011.