Music and Neurosciences IV

Day 2 – Cultural neuroscience of music

I was intrigued by the title of the third symposium on the first day of Music and Neurosciences IV. “Cultural neuroscience of music” – fascinating I thought; finally, some research on the different world of cultures that exist within World music and the different ways they might affect both our brains and bodies. And I was not disappointed. They may be small first steps but it is great to see a wider view being taken of the World’s music and its people.

The symposium was chaired by Steven Demorest who I first met last year when he was the head of organisation behind ICMPC 11, in Washington. And it appears Steve’s flair for organisation has not left him as he had arranged a 2 hour symposium featuring speakers from the US, Denmark, and Finland. I can only give short highlights to get it all into one blog, but I will provide as many links as I can so you can search these people and their work as efficiently as possible.

1) Laurel TrainorEffects of learning on musical enculturation in infancy

Laurel presented the results of three experiments where she has investigated how enculturation, by mere exposure but also simple music lessons, influences infants’ sensitivity to system-specific knowledge relating to 1) Western meters, 2) Timbre, and 3) Tonality.

The overall research question was, does enriched exposure to music speed up the normal maturation timetable for music processing?

Her research shows that knowledge of key membership develops earlier than knowledge of harmonic syntax (around 12 months). She has shown in very interesting (and well controlled studies) that infants who participated in Kindermusik classes showed earlier biases for Western rhythmic structures (duple time rather than triple time).

In the second experiment she had babies listen to melodies played on guitar or marimba for 20mins per day for 4 months. At the end of the exposure phase babies who had heard guitar showed greater ERP responses to quarter note pitch changes in their instrument of exposure. There were no differences in the marimba group (incidentally this is not the first instance I have heard of marimba conditions showing no effect in a timbre experiment – might be wise to be wary of that instrument!)

In her third experiment she presented her research on Suzuki classes vs. Baby Einstein CDs that was shown at ICMPC. Again, the babies who took the 6 months of Suzuki training showed preferences for Western tonality ahead of the other group. Together the studies demonstrate that music acquisition is not simple genetically acquired but can be modified by musical enculturation.

2) Peter Vuust Practiced musical style shapes auditory skills

I saw Peter give this talk in Aarhus just a couple of weeks ago and it made me laugh that he gave the same disclaimer – he did not analyse the results himself, so to not blame him for the fact that the findings show an advantage for Jazz musicians! (Peter being an exceptional jazz bass player himself)

He aimed to determine how musical style of practice influences brain responses to music, and in particular the MMN, a pre-attentive EEG response to changes in an auditory stream. He tested Classical (C), Jazz (J), Band (B) and nonmusicians (NM). His new MMN paradigm uses Alberti bass lines (see image), to create more realistic stimuli compared to the boring series of beeps that are usually used in an MMN experiment.

He found that J musicians showed larger MMN responses to all different types of changes he made to the bass line (6 changes in total, including timbre and rhythm). J and C musicians scored more highly on his new musical ear training/aptitude test (MET).  These findings indicate that not only can musical training change your neural response to music, but also the type of music you play (and probably listen to the most as a consequence) can influence these neural differences.

3)      Mari TervaniemiExpertise in folk music alters the brain responses to Western harmony

Mari treated us all to some beautiful traditional Finnish folk singing at the start of her talk. It takes courage to stand up and talk in front of a large international hall of experts, never mind sing, so I was hugely impressed! She went on to talk about her work where she compared ERAN responses (EEG again) in 13 Finnish folk musicians (who played a huge variety of instruments between them) and 13 control participants. The ERAN is normally enhanced in Western classical musicians. In her study she found they were also enhanced in the folk musicians compared to controls.

4) Ed LargeNeurodynamics of tonality

Ed is a fascinating presenter and I have to admit it was the first in-depth talk on neurodynamics that did not baffle me completely, but I still felt a little out of my depth. I am assured by the experts in computing that I work with as part of the Centre for Computation, Cognition and Culture at Goldsmiths, that his talk was brilliant. For me, I will hold up my hands and admit that the maths went mostly over my head.

But what he seemed to be outlining was a new theory of musical tonality that treats our auditory system as a complex nonlinear dynamic system, with active and additive efferent as well as afferent feedback networks. This idea is certainly increasingly supported by both behavioural and neural evidence (such as Nina Kraus’s work for one). I will admit I was intrigued by what I understood from his talk but I am afraid he would have to put it in simpler terms if someone like me is ever to understand it fully!

5) Steven DemorestERP responses to cross cultural music expectancy violations

We know anecdotally that it can be difficult to listen to the music from another culture. One of the reasons being that we have not internalised the rules for the melodic organisation within that other culture and therefore find it difficult to make predictions , which is one of the sources of pleasure gained from music listening. Steve looked at the brain responses behind this phenomenon.

The background for his work is that recent ERP research into second language learning has shown implicit learning can occur before we ever have conscious knowledge that we have learned anything. So maybe my brain knows more Spanish than me! Steve tried this out with music using Western folk melodies and traditional Indian ragas. Preliminary results indicate that Western listeners were sensitive to violations of their own culture but not those in the ragas. Time will tell whether exposure to the ragas will change the brain response over time.

6) Patrick Wong The bimusical brain

Have you been exposed to more than one musical culture during your childhood and formative years? Chances are then that you might have a ‘bimusical brain’. This was a relatively new but interesting concept to me. But it makes sense given that musics have a syntax in the same way as languages, which we learn largely through passive exposure.

Patrick is interested in looking at the effects of different musical exposures on the brain, in people who do not have formal musical training, and in this talk presented some very thought provoking ideas about how the brain acquires multiple symbolic systems (through music). In the present fMRI study he looked at people who had been exposed to Western music only, Indian music only or both (bimusicals). First they made tension (affective) judgements on samples of both musics. There were the predictable behavioural differences in ability depending on experience.

When bimusicals and Western only listeners were then scanned he found a more complex behavioural-relationship in the bimusicals suggesting that affective responses in this group are driven by multiple neural factors (perhaps the origins of the multiple symbolic systems?). All-in-all fascinating evidence showing how the brain can develop when exposed to the music of more than one culture.

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