The internal piano – music and space


Hello Dear Reader

Well things are hotting up with the book publication this week. We are now 13 days from the big day – launch!

For me this time period has been a learning experience in of itself, seeing first hand how publishers cope with the task of bringing a book onto the shelves and internet. For example, there are now several sites offering free copies of the book in prize draws such as Good Reads¬†(so far I have a 4/5 as a rating on this website, which is really nice to see!) and National Book Tokens. If you have entered then I wish you the best of luck ūüôā

Me bookIt was a very emotional moment when I got to hold the book for the first time. Sounds a bit silly, but 18 months of hard work, joy, intrigue and stress exploded all at once – I am just glad that I was on my own at the time! I hope that people find the book interesting and helpful. Getting reviews is something I had not really considered (other than those of my family and friends) so I am nervous…let’s see how my baby fares in the big wide world.

To distract myself from the temptation to read reviews over and over again I am applying my eyes to the more useful task of glancing through freshly released music psychology research.

My eye was drawn to an article in Psychological Research by Eric Taylor and Jessica Witt. The article was inspired by the anecdotal experience reported by musicians, that their hands and fingers often twitch while they listen to music. I remember my earworm project research assistant Sagar Jilka telling me about this (he is a great keyboard player) and if I think about it I can imagine this happening to me if I listen to guitar music that I know very well.

motor-cortexThis anecdote suggests that musicians experience activation of a motor representation in the brain when they listen to music. Such a theory has been well supported by previous imagining studies that have shown activation of areas within the motor cortex when musicians listen to or imagine music in the scanner or when they watch silent videos of performances (e.g. Zatorre & Halpern, 2005; Haslinger et al. 2005)

If listening to music recruits motor circuitry then action must be a integral part of the musical experience for a musician. The most recent causal demonstration of this theory was a study that temporarily disrupted motor cortex activity using the brain stimulation technique TMS and found that this interfered with pianists ability to coordinate a well learning performance (Novembre et al., 2013).

The relationship between music and action is not as strong in novice musicians or non-musicians. Studies suggest that motor representations of music are linked to the concept of how to produce those sounds, something that only instantiates itself within the neural network in people with many years of practice.

The question for the present article was ‘Can we relate this link between music and action to the ¬†simple representation of space?’

Perfect_octave_on_CWe know that there is an association between music and space, the idea of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, in metaphorical terms and in the way music is notated on a Western classical score.

People’s responses to sounds can also be facilitated by a match between ‘high’ in musical terms and ‘high’ in spacial terms, as opposed to when there is an incongruity in these dimensions (see the SMARC effect).

So can we tie these two things together? Can hearing music prime spatial actions for musicians?

The hypothesis: If listening to music primes musicians to the motor actions necessary to produce those sounds, then the speed of their arm movements, left or right, should be impaired when listening to a scale that moves in the other direction, even if that scale is in the background and totally irrelevant to the task.

The test: 13 pianists and 16 novices completed the study.  First the authors established baseline ability for the pianists to move their arm in a broad left or right hand motion from the centre of the keyboard, in the absence of music. The musicians were then shown a visual screen with arrows pointing left or right, and asked to make the corresponding movement on the keyboard. While they did this they heard in the background either an ascending or a descending C major scale. Novices, who had never received any piano instruction, performed the same task.

The results: In the results of the pianists the authors found the crucial interaction Рa compatibility effect between the speed of arm movement and the background scale. When the pianists heard a descending C major scale they were quicker to move their arm to the left than to the right, and the opposite was true when they heard an ascending scale.  No such interaction was found for the novices.

DownloadThe conclusion: This is a small scale study, and the effects found were quite small too Рnot brimming with statistical power. But the overall pattern of the results supports the theory that when pianists hear musical scales they automatically generate the corresponding broad based spatial action in their mind, while novices do not. When this activation clashes with a required movement then the pianists experience a slowing of the real time performance of that movement.

The implications: This paper suggests that the relationship between musical perception and spatial action in musicians may be even more abstract than previously thought. The pianists in this study were not performing said scales, but only moving their arm to the right or left. Furthermore, these were simple scales and movements, yet their was no sign of an association between music and space in the novices.

This kind of basic spatial priming by compatible music in musicians implies that music and spacial actions are linked by common or at least strongly bound codes, and that these codes develop only through musical practice.

An interesting follow-up would be to see how these kinds of representations affect the way that musicians respond when they observe the musical performances of others. Then maybe we can move closer to understanding the reason why musicians might twitch when they hear music.

Featured paper: Taylor JE & Witt JK. (2014) Listening to music primes space: pianists, but not novices, simulate heard actions. Psychological Research, epub ahead of print.