Category Archives: Music Medicine & Therapy

Music and Neurosciences V – Blog 3 (Moving on the beat of music)

Hello Dear Reader

BurgundyDay 2 of Music and Neurosciences (Friday 30th May) delivered a bright blue sky over the city of Dijon. The short coffee break between the first session and this one was bathed in warm light, bringing out the soft colours of the city.

I can definitely recommend Burgundy for your travels, dear reader.

The second morning session of Day 2 (Music and Neurosciences conference) was chaired by Simone Dalla Bella and Sonja Kotz. It focused on beat related training and rehabilitation.

Trinity_Academy_of_Irish_DanceThis field of research derives inspiration from the apparently natural human ability to entrain and move to a beat. This coupling of music and movement seems effortless for most, and therefore it offers promise as a purpose of performance enhancement for those who suffer from movement difficulties or who seek a movement boost (i.e. for sports performance).

The first talk was by Eckart Altenmueller, a professor who is never without a kind smile as far as I can tell.

He has spent many years developing a form of movement related Music-supported Therapy (MST) as a way to improve motor function after stroke. This is a serious issue with 150,000 new stroke patients every year in Germany alone.

Stroke_hemorrhagicThe rationale for a music-related therapy comes from studies that have shown how musical activity can trigger reactivity of motor areas of the brain in people who only show auditory related brain activity following stroke.

Eckart presented two new adaptations to his successful pilot of MST, which included a sonification of arm movements (you move your arm and by that movement you create tones) as well as a delayed auditory feedback training for the keyboard.

in total, 26 patients took the first intervention and, to his credit, Eckart proudly declared that the intervention had no effect at all. It was clear that he only got this data shortly before the conference yet he had plenty of interesting ideas on how the paradigm could be improved. The delayed feedback task by comparison did result in improved performance on a movement task in stroke patients. One theory was that this delay gave time for the patients to focus their attention.

Running_Man_Kyle_CassidyThe second talk was by Marc Leman who demonstrated his exciting new music synchronising software that he has called “DJogger”. This software comprises a music program that flexibly adapts to a person’s walking/running speed and even changes the track when there are sudden big changes in pace (i.e. going from a slow walk to a run).

The DJogger has taken many years of study to develop and 4 experiments were presented, the results of which helped to fine tune the tempo and phase parameters of the software. I can see this development having huge commercial implications – my friend who is a runner was very keen to have a go! Hopefully there will also be useful applications for patients with movement difficulties.

The third talker was Benoit Bardy who continued on with the theme of studying the link between music and body responses. He is interested in the Locomotor-Respiratory Coupling (LRC), a natural synchronisation between the locomotion system and the way that we breathe. In both running and cycling experiments Benoit demonstrated how music can have a stabilising effect on the LRC.

Paralysis agitans-1892
Paralysis agitans-1892

Finally we heard from one of the chairs, Simone Dalla Bella, who has been working on auditory cueing in patients with Parkinson’s. In my book I have written about many of the background studies that have shown a positive effect of Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation (RAS) on movement in this population of individuals. A simple metronome beat can help them to walk more fluidly with less freezing responses. Although this effect is well documented we know little about the underlying mechanisms.

Simone proposed two theories:

1)      External rhythms support residual activity of the basal ganglia – thalamo-cortical pathway, which is damaged in Parkinson’s but may be re-stimulated by music

2)      External rhythms trigger compensatory activity in other motor pathways that are relatively spared in Parkinson’s, such as cerebellum routes.

Wittner_metronomeAt present, Simone does not have data to differentiate these theories but he has made progress in showing that auditory cueing in Parkinson’s patients can have benefits beyond their immediate motor needs, including boosts to time perception and tapping tasks. This finding suggests that the auditory cueing might be tapping into a general purpose timing mechanisms, an exciting possibility for future research to explore.

After this session I had a wander in the direction of lunch and the poster session. As usual there was an impressive array of research on show and it would be impossible to document it all. The conference proceedings include abstracts for all posters that can be accessed for free from the Mariani Foundation.    


Music, emotion and the brain

Hello Dear Reader

Beautiful York – I missed you!

This week has been one of the busiest of my life. I sold my London flat, bought a house back in my wonderful home town of York, and of course published my baby.

You Are The Music was very briefly the number one selling music book on Amazon last week, a fact that still astonishes and humbles me. I really enjoy the idea that I am making a contribution to music, however small.

I have rarely been so proud and grateful in my life: thank you, Dear Reader.

Now that the book is out there in the big wide world I am starting to hear what people think of it. That is, people other than my family and publisher, two rather biased sources of feedback. So far the word is good, there have been some kind and thoughtful reviews for which I am eternally grateful.

To be honest, I am more sensitive than I had assumed to these reviews: it’s funny how deeply you can feel towards what amounts to a pile of paper and words about music.

Speaking of deep emotion connections to music, I have just finished a cracking review on research into the brain correlates of music-evoked emotions by Stefan Koelsch and published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

The subject of music and emotions is one of the most heavily researched in the field of music psychology. This is not too surprising as it plays to a core question for our discipline – why does music change the way that we feel? Koelsch’s new article filters and frames decades of brain research in this area in an easily digestible and, in many places, surprising summary.

Trinity_Academy_of_Irish_DanceKoelsch first talks about the earliest (i.e. most primitive) brain origins of music evoked emotions.  As soon as music hits the ear it stimulates spinal motor neurons and vestibular, visceral systems.

These activations are responsible for some of the arousing effects of music and may also contribute to the feeling we get that when music makes us want to ‘move to the beat’.

Next, Koelsch talks about the core emotion brain network and focuses down on three main candidates: the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens and the hippocampus.

AmygdalaThe amydala (from the Greek amygdale, ‘almond’) is a deep, central brain structure that receives some of the first projections from the lower brain centres. Music stimulates the amydala in a similar way to faces, smells and other sounds, most likely because all these stimuli are perceived as having social significance due to their communicative properties.

According to Koelsch the amygdala is part of a larger network that regulates approach-withdrawal behaviour in response to socio-affective cues, including those given by music.

Finally, the amygdala likely has a role in how we evaluate and learn about positive as well as negative stimuli and therefore is involved in how our behaviour eventually becomes reinforced towards or away from certain musical sounds.

Wall_Street_Sign_NYCNext, the nucleus accumbens (NA). The NA is well known to be activated by peak emotional experiences, known as chills or frisson  but it is also activated as soon as music is experienced as pleasurable. In general the NA is sensitive to primary rewards (food, sex) and secondary rewards (money, power), so it represents hedonic value for us and helps to initiate behaviors that aim to obtain more of these rewards for consumption.

This finding suggests that music can be a very rewarding emotional stimulus: a fact that few music lovers would doubt. The NA activation signals the anticipation of the rewarding experience of hearing pleasurable music, as well as the actual experience of enjoying the music. It also has a role in predicting whether we go on to acquire the track for ourselves.

Hippocampus_and_seahorse_croppedFinally, Koelsch moves on to the hippocampus (from the Greek hippos meaning “horse” and kampos meaning “sea monster” – it looks like a little seahorse!) Now, here is a brain structure that I thought I knew quite well because it is so involved in memory (my main research interest).

But I learned new things about the hippocampus from this article.

Firstly, I learned that the hippocampus is connected to our emotional reactions via its involvement in the regulation of our brain’s chemical stress response, which comprises the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands all acting in synchrony. The hippocampus is implicated in music-evoked positive emotions that can, in effect, pacify this system, reducing the release of stress hormones like cortisol.

Apparently the hippocampus is quite sensitive to chronic levels of these kinds of stress hormones in general and long term exposure, for example in some cases of PTSD and depression, can damage the neurons in this brain structure. This damage may have consequences for the way that someone reacts to positive stimuli as well as their sensitivity to levels of oxytocin, a neurochemical that promotes social bonding.

The fact that the hippocampus reacts to emotional music (including fear and joy) suggests that it is responsive to the potential of music to stimulate the release of brain chemicals that affect its function, by virtue of that music’s emotional associations and core meaning.

The article then goes on to support the role of these three structures (the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens and the hippocampus) in emotional regulation by citing studies of patients with brain lesions in those areas. Lesions or degenerative damage in these areas can impair the ability to perceive or react to emotion in music.

happyHow does music actually evoke emotion? 

Of course there is the debate surrounding whether music really stimulates actual emotions, but Koelsch argues that it does (at least in part) because musical emotions have all the signs of ‘real’ emotions including bodily reactions, facial expressions, and action responses (such as dancing, singing, and crying).

So if we assume that at least some musical emotions are the genuine article, how does music make us feel this way? 

Koelsch identifies four sources within music itself (i.e. not its memory associations) that can trigger emotional reactions : 1) acoustic factors (e.g. consonance/dissonance, loudness); 2) structural stability (e.g. moving to and from the tonal centre); 3) the extent of structural content in the music; and 4) structural breaches.

Lövheim_cube_of_emotionTherefore, one of the sources of emotion in music relates strongly to our responses to any sound (number 1) while the other three are down to the way that composers play with the structure within music as it progresses, creating an ebb and flow of tension and relaxation, that in the right quantities provide the recipes for different emotional reactions.


Another interesting source of emotion is referred to as ‘contagion': The idea that once an emotion is triggered, we experience the physiological manifestations of that state – so, for example, we might smile. That smile then feeds back into the system and reinforces the happy emotion that we feel.

0Koelsch finishes the article with a few words about the potential of the emotional power of music to have measurable effects when applied in therapeutic/ medicinal settings. The key is evidence that music can change activity in brain structures that might otherwise be damaged in conditions such as PTSD, depression, and dementia. We have yet to know whether music has a strong enough effect to ameliorate the brain basis of some of these conditions and therefore reduce the symptoms, but the theoretical potential is there.

Click here for a previous blog about the power of music and memory that features Henry, the man in the image above.

In sum, this detailed and well researched article provides an excellent overview of the ways in which music can evoke activity in core areas of the brain that underlie our experience of emotion, and outlines some of the ways in which the music itself can trigger these changes.

With this wealth of evidence in the bag it is now time to broaden the horizons in this field and move into lesser explored territories such as music and emotion in children and ageing populations, as well as the above mentioned exciting possibilities for therapy/medicine.

Article: Koelsch, S (2014) Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 170-180