Category Archives: Music & The Brain

Music and Neurosciences V – Blog 6 (Dance and the Brain)

Hello Dear Reader

Symposium 6 from this year’s Music and Neurosciences conference marked an interesting departure from the norm – it was entitled Dance and the Brain.

Trinity_Academy_of_Irish_DanceIn my book ‘You Are The Music’ I talk about the importance of music for dance and also discuss briefly the fact that it is a shame there are not more studies that are interested in both art forms.

It seems that now there are at least a couple of researchers seeking to address this gap in our understanding.

The first talk was by Emily Cross, who studies the impact on sensorimotor experience on the affective evaluation of movement. In other words, do professional dancers react differently when they watch dance compared to a non-dancer?

mirror-neuronsEmily started out with a nice summary of research that links perception and action. Many of you will be aware of the idea of ‘mirror neurons’ – not everyone buys into this idea but the fact is that, whatever the neural mechanism, we understand actions by matching those directly observed actions onto our own motor system. This is how we make sense of moving around in the environment.

Emily’s first study involved scanning the brains of ballet and capoeira dancers while they watched videos of both styles of dance. She identified a unique signature of activity that occured when the dancers watched their specialty, within the left ventral premotor cortex. This, she surmised, is an important centre for our action-observation brain network.

Grace_in_winter,_contemporary_balletThere is an interesting and consistent finding when people watch dance moves and rate perceived difficulty and liking: the more difficult someone rates a dance move the more likely they are to enjoy watching it. Thanks to Emily’s research we now know that this relationship is associated with activation in the visual regions of the brain as well as the right parietal lobe, an area of the brain associated with sensori-motor engagement.

Building on this finding, Emily conducted a few weeks training study using the X-box Kinect motion system to objectively score people’s dancing before, during and after a short period of training.

xboxAfter a person has completed training, the “wow” factor (liking difficult moves more) tends to dissipate. People who have new dance training like all movements and music more when they finish the training than before the training started. This is not true for people who only listen to the training music without doing any dancing – those people like the music less and less.

Overall, this work shows how our physical experience – life-long training or just a few weeks of lessons – shapes our perception of dance. This change in our experience relies on a link between our sensori-motor life and our aesthetic preferences, which it will be interesting to further explore in music (and other art forms).

The second talk was by Krysta Hyde. I first knew about Krysta for her work on amusia, though more recently she moved into the study of music and autism. It seems she also enjoys dance and wanted to see if there were cognitive and neural differences between trained dancers and trained musicians.

Mahari_Dance_festival,_2012Her conclusion, perhaps not surprisingly, was that long-term dance training changes brain structure. All long-term training (in any domain) is likely to change brain structure but the question is, what are these changes and how do they compare to the kinds of changes that we tend to associate with long-term musical training?

Krysta has scanned to date 20 contemporary dancers, 19 musicians and controls. She has been careful to match them all and to make sure that she gets ‘pure’ dancers (i.e. without any musical training) and ‘pure’ musicians (without any dance training).

She reported a number of structural differences, not all of which I had the time to write down. However, I noted white matter differences in the corpus callosum in the dancers, a finding which is already well replicated in trained musicians. There were also some differences in cortical thickness between the groups in auditory and motor areas, indicating that dancers show enhancement in some unique brain structures compared to musicians and controls but at the moment I think it is fair to say that these are quite subtle.

It seems the link between music and dance is just as close in the brain as it is in performance.

This stimulating symposium marked the end of the morning of Day 3, whereupon we all marched in the direction of lunch and the second poster session.

poster sessionI did not get much lunch as I wanted to see as many of the posters as possible before I presented in the following session. It was rather annoying that the posters had to be cleared away as soon as the session ended as it meant I could not see many of them for very long. I prefer when posters are left up all day for casual browsing.

But I made the best of the situation and luckily some kind people brought me the odd bit of food and fruit juice during my poster presentation to keep me going :-)

My poster presented a collaboration with my colleagues from my previous institution (Goldsmiths: Georgina Floridou and Lauren Stewart) and showed our brand new earworm induction paradigm, what I took to calling the ‘Pretty Woman Paradigm’ – nothing to do with me, Dear Reader…it features Julia Roberts :-)

If you would like to know more then you can download my poster here. 

Music and Neurosciences V – Blog 2 (Musical expertise and more?)

Hello Dear Reader

BreadButterKnifeDay 2 of Music and Neurosciences began well, as only a breakfast in France can….freshly baked bread and President Butter!! Oh if only this stuff was part of a healthy diet. No harm in a treat when you are in one of the homes of good food though ;-) After enjoying my breakfast I wobbled to the conference in time for the official welcome from the representatives of Dijon and the local university.

The first symposium of the day was arranged by Sylvain Moreno, a researcher whose who features quite a lot in my new book.  Sylvain has a big interest in the transfer effects of musical expertise. He started a few years ago, working on the theory that there was likely to be transfer between music and language skills. It appears now that the interest is turning to attentional control…

But more on Sylvain’s work in a minute…

The symposim was entitled ‘Music expertise and more? ‘

First we had a presentation by Vesa Putkinen, who made use of the visually stimulating Prezi format for his presentation. This software makes a nice change from PowerPoint but the hardware did appear to struggle a little with the transitions. Nevertheless, the presentation contained some fantastic longitudinal studies of musical training.

Longitudinal studies are an important step forward in the search for music transfer effects. They are expensive and suffer from high dropout rates but they help isolate the effects of music training that (ideally) are not present before the training starts.

Me in EEG!
Me in EEG!

In one of Vesa’s projects (MusicPupils) he reported 1-6 recordings for children from the age of 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17yrs. That is an impressive data set of ten years testing! His measure is EEG and he reported increases in MMN (mismatch negativity) amplitude in children who took music lessons compared to a control group. The increased neural response applied to tests of melody, rhythm, mistuning and timbre.


One of his interesting findings related to an EEG component indicative of attention (P3a). Vesa reported a difference in this component in musical individuals compared to controls at age 13-15, but then not between 15-17 years of age. The possibility is that musical children might see early advantages in attentional processing that equalise to control children later in life.

lisa_singing_by_steven4554-d3fn7hbThe next talk came from Dana Strait who gave a succinct presentation on the work she has completed with Nina Kraus regarding the cABR or complex auditory brain stem response. Complex refers to complex sounds like speech and music as opposed to simple sine tones. Her research has looked at over 300 individuals from three different cross section populations, pre-schoolers, older children and adolescents.

The older children and adolescents but not the pre-schoolers reliably show more faithful reproduction of harmonics in noise.

Dana discussed a theory as to how musical training may sharpen basic neural responses. This theory centres on cellular changes in a brain structure called the inferior colliculus. This crucial pathway in the auditory system may play a crucial role in promoting the acquisition of related learned abilities such as language.

Painting_kidThe third talk came from the chair, Sylvain Moreno. He talked about intervention programs, where music lessons are introduced, compared usually to visual art lessons.

In previous studies, after one month of lessons, musical interventions have been associated with better verbal IQ.

Newer studies in older adults suggest that inhibitory control may also be enhanced following musical training.

Following his data with children and adults, Sylvain has adopted a 3D model of music transfer effects characterised by the levels and nature of the transfer. This framework offers a model for future testing in this area.

The final talk was given by Glenn Schellenberg. Glenn summarised his thoughts on the transfer evidence to date, adding a welcome note of caution that musical training is likely to be a cause as well as a consequence of enhanced cognitive abilities and that differentiating these factors is very difficult – though longitudinal intervention studies are perhaps the best way to tackle this issue.

ukeleleGlenn spoke about his work linking personality to music transfer effects; perhaps different personality dimensions in children and adults. This will be a factor that of importance for future studies to consider. Glenn also gave described some new data linking a ukulele intervention in schools to an increase in social skills, as assessed by questionnaires.

The questions from the crowd at the end of this session were interesting but I thought the best came from Andrea Halpern who brought up the issue of having proper control groups for transfer studies. It is of course not obvious what is the correct control group for any one study and this would probably depend on the hypothesis in question.But this is a serious issue that needs to be considered in any intervention stufy.

A good morning’s brain activity! I headed for a nice cup of tea (yes, you can take the girl out of Britain…) and a chat with colleagues.