Speech or Song? Identifying How the Brain Perceives Music

New research explores the different ways in which the brain distinguishes between music and speech.

Source: Cognitive Neuroscience Society Press Release

Most neuroscientists who study music have something in common: they play a musical instrument, in many cases from a young age. Their drive to understand how the brain perceives and is shaped by music springs from a deep love of music.

This passion has translated to a wealth of discoveries about music in the brain, including recent work that identifies the ways in which the brain distinguishes between music and speech. 

“Over the past two decades, many excellent studies have shown similar mechanisms between speech and music across many levels,” says Andrew Chang of New York University, a lifelong violinist.

“However, a fundamental question, often overlooked, is what makes the brain treat music and speech signals differently, and why do humans need two distinct auditory signals.”

New work, enabled in part by computational advances, is pointing toward differences in pitch and rhythm as key factors that enable people starting in infancy to distinguish speech from music, as well as how the predictive capabilities of the brain underlie both speech and music perception. 

Exploring acoustical perception in infants

From a young age, cognitive neuroscientist Christina Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden of University of Toronto, Mississauga, has been singing and playing the cello, which have helped to shape her research career.

“I remember sitting in the middle of the cello section and we were playing some particularly beautiful music – one where the whole cello section had the melody,” she says, “and I remember having this emotional response and wondering ‘how is it possible that I can have such a strong emotional response from the vibrations of my strings traveling to my ear? That seems wild!’” 

That experience started der Nederlanden on a long journey of wanting to understand how the brain processes music and speech in early development. Specifically, she and colleagues are investigating whether babies, who are learning about communicative sounds through experience, even know the difference between speech and song. 

“These are seemingly simple questions that actually have a lot of theoretical importance for how we learn to communicate,” she says.

“We know that from age 4, children can and readily do explicitly differentiate between music and language. Although that seems pretty obvious there has been little to no data asking children to make these sorts of distinctions.” 

At a recent Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) meeting, der Nederlanden presented on new data collected right before and during the COVID-19 pandemic about the acoustic features that shape music and language during development. In one experiment, 4-month-old infants heard speech and song, both in a sing-songy infant-directed manner and in a monotone speaking voice, while recording electrical brain activity with electroencephalogram (EEG). 

“This work novelly suggests that infants are better at tracking infant-directed utterances when they’re spoken compared to sung, and this is different from what we see in adults who are better at neural tracking sung compared to spoken utterances,” she says.

They also found that pitch and rhythm each affected brain activity for speech compared to song, for example, finding that exaggerated pitch was related to better neural tracking of infant-directed speech – identifying the lack of “pitch stability” as an important acoustic feature for guiding attention in babies. 

While the exaggerated, unstable pitch contours of infant-directed speech, has been well-established as a feature infants love, this new research shows it also helps to signal whether someone is hearing speech or song.

Pitch stability is a feature, der Nederlanden says, that “might signal to a listener ‘oh this sounds like someone singing,’” and the lack of pitch stability can conversely signal to infants that they are hearing speech rather than playing with sounds in song.

In an online experiment, der Nederlanden and colleagues asked kids and adults to qualitatively describe how music and language are different. “This gave me a rich dataset that tells me a lot about how people think music and language differ acoustically and also in terms of how the functional roles of music and language differ in our everyday lives,” she explains.

“For the acoustic differences, kids and adults described features like tempo, pitch, rhythm as important features for differentiating speech and song.”

In future work, der Nederlanden hopes to move toward more naturalistic settings, including using mobile EEG to test music and language processing outside of the lab.

“I think the girl sitting in the orchestra pit, geeking out about music and emotion, would be pretty excited to find out that she’s still asking questions about music and finding results that could have answered her questions from over 20 years ago!”

Identifying the predictive code of music

Guilhem Marion of Ecole Normale Supérieure has two passions that drive his research: music and computer science. He has combined those interests to create novel computational models of music that are helping researchers understand how the brain perceives music through “predictive coding,” similar to how people predict patterns in language.

“Predictive coding theory explains how the brain tries to predict the next note while listening to music, which is exactly what computational models of music do for generating new music,” he explains. Marion is using those models to better understand how culture affects music perception, by pulling in knowledge based on individual environments and knowledge. 

In new work conducted with Giovanni Di Liberto and colleagues, Marion recorded EEG activity of 21 professional musicians who were listening to or imagining in their minds four Bach choral pieces. In one study, they were able to identify the amount of surprise for each note, using a computational model based on a large database of Western music. This surprise was a “cultural marker of music processing,” Marion says, showing how closely the notes were predicted based on a person’s native musical environment. 

“Our study showed for the first time the average EEG response to imagined musical notes and showed that they were correlated with the musical surprise computed using a statistical model of music,” Marion says. “This work has broad implications in music cognition but more generally in cognitive neuroscience, as they will enlighten the way the human brain learns new language or other structures that will later shape its perception of the world.”

“These findings are the basis for the potential applications in clinical and child development domains, such as whether music can be used as an alternative form of verbal communication for individuals with aphasia, and how music facilitates infants learning speech.” -Andrew Chang

Chang says that such computational-based work is enabling a new type of music cognition study that balances good experimental control with ecological validity, something challenging for the complexity involved in music and speech sounds. “You often either make the sounds unnatural if everything is well controlled for your experimental purpose or preserve their natural properties of speech or music, but it then becomes difficult to fairly compare the sounds between experimental conditions,” he explains. “Marion and Di Liberto’s groundbreaking approach enables researchers to investigate, and even isolate, the neural activities while listening to a continuous natural speech or music recording.

Chang, who has been playing violin since he was 8-years old, is excited to see the progress that has been made in music cognition studies just in the last decade. “When I started my PhD in 2013, only a few labs in the world were focusing on music,” he says. “But now there are many excellent junior and even well-established senior researchers from other fields, such as speech, around the globe starting to get involved or even devoted to music cognitive neuroscience research.”

Understanding the relationship between music and language “can help us explore the fundamental questions of human cognition, such as why humans need music and speech, and how humans communicate and interact with each other via these forms,” Chang says. “Also, these findings are the basis for the potential applications in clinical and child development domains, such as whether music can be used as an alternative form of verbal communication for individuals with aphasia, and how music facilitates infants learning speech.”

Author: Lisa M.P. Munoz
Source: Cognitive Neuroscience Society Press Release
Contact: Lisa M.P. Munoz – Cognitive Neuroscience Society Public Information Officer, Cognitive Neuroscience Society
cns.publicaffairs[@]gmail.com

Reproduced on the CMVic Blog with kind permission from Lisa M.P. Munoz
Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Original research: The results were presented at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. The symposium “From Acoustics to Music or Speech: Their (Dis)Similar Perceptual Mechanisms” took place at 1:30pmPT on Tuesday, April 26, as part of the CNS 2022 annual meeting from April 23-26, 2022.

CNS is committed to the development of mind and brain research aimed at investigating the psychological, computational, and neuroscientific bases of cognition. Since its founding in 1994, the Society has been dedicated to bringing its 2,000 members worldwide the latest research to facilitate public, professional, and scientific discourse.

Committing to the Committee Model: How being Incorporated Sustains the Yarra Valley Singers

I’m totally supportive of the idea of committees of management, or whatever structures support the purpose of the singing group.”

These are the words of Belinda Gillam Derry, Musical Director of Yarra Valley Singers (YVS), a community choir established and singing together since 1988. When Belinda stepped into this role, back in 1996, Yarra Valley Singers was a unit of the Dandenong Ranges Music Council (DRMC) who at that time took care of what Belinda refers to as ‘all the official stuff’.

“The YVS committee looked after the things required by the group in its day to day running. They had a treasurer who collected fees but then passed them on to the treasurer of the DRMC, they had a president and a music librarian; members of the committee worked to ensure that the group were covered for everything they needed to do performances which back then were mainly small, local gigs.”

In the early 2000s, the committee decided to incorporate the group in its own right. 

Part of the reason for this was geographic; the DRMC is based in Upwey and the Yarra Valley Singers are in Lilydale but the members were increasingly not from the Dandenong Ranges, they were coming from the Yarra Valley and further and further out. “The Yarra Valley Singers started doing their own performances so there was increasingly cash from the office box and logistics like taking it down to deposit in Upwey or at the bank were beginning to become an issue”. 

At that point the committee had to become an official committee of management in an incorporated association and the group became Yarra Valley Singers Incorporated. They appointed a president and vice president, a secretary and treasurer as well as general committee members, basically adopting the DRMC model.  Belinda felt this support sustained her both musically and personally from the start, something she continued to benefit from even when she stepped away from the choir for a few years due to ill health.

“I think in these days when lots of people don’t attend church, that in a way these sorts of groups have taken over. ‘Community’ is definitely the word I would use to describe Yarra Valley Singers, which I know exists within so many other singing groups too. Sometimes it feels there’s a bit of a divide between formal choirs and less formal singing groups but the one thing that I think definitely unites groups is this sense of community that comes about through singing together. The Yarra Valley Singers sits very comfortably under the Australian National Choral Association model and I think we very much fit under the ethos of Community Music Victoria too with regards to how inclusive we are, and how much we look after each other between rehearsals.”

Belinda is highly tuned in to the roles filled by each committee member. “Just knowing that they are doing them means I don’t need to think about those things and can concentrate fully on being the Musical Director, although I will always jump in and help when it’s needed”. 

The Yarra Valley Singers’ committee actively seeks to promote sustainability by training up new people to take over different roles and comprises volunteers from within the choir which, with around 60 members currently (100+ pre-Covid) is still a big pool of people to draw from. “If we feel that people have some expertise which they feel a bit shy about sharing, or which they perhaps don’t even realise, we tap them on the shoulder and ask if they would like to come on the committee. We try to be as inclusive as possible, for example we now have two people who identify as living with disabilities on the committee of management. Having people with a broad range of perspectives and experiences is really important.” 

When Covid struck, the lights went out for many choirs and the return to singing proved an extremely fraught and frustrating period for many individual leaders who felt significant responsibility about exposing their singers to risk, coupled with further stress arising from a distinct lack of clear government directives about how best to proceed. 

For Belinda and the Yarra Valley Singers, this stress was immediately reduced because it was shared, and because of the collective decision-making capacity of the committee.

As Belinda says, “We actively seek out different viewpoints, so within the committee we have people who continue to feel risk averse, and we also have people with expertise in interpreting the advice provided by the DHHS. We have a COVIDSafe plan which includes social distancing, maximising ventilation and singing in 25-minute blocks, with air purifiers cranked up to maximum in between.  And now all rehearsals are offered on Zoom as well as in person so everyone can stay connected with the rehearsals however they feel comfortable. “

The committee has decided to maintain a hybrid model of delivery indefinitely. “Being an older group we have always had people who are sick or who have been unable to travel due to bad weather in the Yarra Valley or the Dandenongs. Doing it this way, every person can attend live, either in person or on Zoom and we also record the rehearsals which are available for two weeks afterwards for people to catch up.”

Belinda acknowledges the significant amount of extra work this incurs, both for herself and for everyone else, and how this agility wouldn’t have been as feasible without support from a huge group of people. 

“Setting up choir has changed radically since Covid. It’s no longer a case of just putting out the chairs, there’s all the tech to set up, we’ve got people opening windows and doors, we’ve got people checking everyone in and it takes half an hour.” 

Up until Covid struck, the Yarra Valley Singers committee conducted annual member surveys to determine the reasons why people came to choir, what they wanted to gain from the experience, and basic demographic information such as age and any barriers to participation people may have been experiencing. Belinda and the committee then worked to address as many barriers as they could, so they knew as they went into the first lockdown, that people came to choir for social reasons as much as musical reasons. 

“Even though we are a choir, the social aspect scores equally as highly as the artistic aspect and that has been the case over a number of years, so we knew it was really important to keep people socially connected in lockdown because for many of them, choir was the only thing they did socially. That’s why we worked so hard to get online rehearsals  up so quickly.”

The committee also committed to keeping everyone employed by the choir on the payroll throughout lockdown, something Belinda acknowledges was ‘just so amazing’. 

“Admittedly, being a group that’s been going for some time there were some financial reserves in the bank but they said ‘okay, we can’t do performances, we can’t do rehearsals at the moment but we would like to keep paying you what you would get if you were coming to rehearsals. Which then gave me the confidence to say,”Well, you know what? I have never done a rehearsal online before in my life, but I’m willing to give it a crack.”

Belinda believes that for committees to operate at maximum efficiency, it is important for members not to feel tethered to their role, but to remain fluid. “They all have job descriptions but these are reviewed annually and they adapt and change.  For example, we didn’t need an IT manager prior to Covid!” 

This versatility extends to the way the singers, well, sing!  “Last year we did a wedding between lockdowns. It was outdoors and for the first time ever we sang along to a backing track. It was a surprise for the bride set up by her father. We couldn’t set up the keyboard, we couldn’t do a rehearsal at the venue or anything. It was all really unusual for us as we used to always have live accompaniment, but because we did it and it was so successful, we realised, ‘Well hey, this might work for us as we come out of lockdown’! ”

The committee was so convinced by this approach that the choir cancelled all indoor performances for the rest of the year (given they were pretty sure they wouldn’t happen anyway), applied for a grant and purchased backing tracks and battery-operated outdoor speakers. They learnt all of the parts via Zoom, and when lockdown finally lifted in November last year, Yarra Valley Singers had only two in person rehearsals and then seven performances in just four weeks because they were, as Belinda describes, ‘all ready to do it!’. 

“That again was the committee who were prepared to pivot completely, apply for grants and just go for it.  Incidentally, that’s another benefit of being an incorporated association; ie being able to apply for grants without needing to be auspiced by another body.  Having a formal structure can give funding bodies more confidence that you will be responsible with their grant money.  In our case, Yarra Ranges Council was extremely supportive with regards to grants to keep us going during lockdowns.”

For anyone wondering whether the move to become an incorporated group and elect a committee is worthwhile for their own group, Belinda believes that an important consideration is the question of ownership:

“It depends on who feels they have ownership of the group and who, ultimately, will step up to make sure it continues. Is ownership centred around the leader or is it centred around the people in the group? I don’t think it is a bad way to be one way or the other, because you don’t necessarily set something up thinking that it’s going to go on forever, and some groups are meant to have their time and then not continue, which is part of their charm.  When I was sick, the choir continued for four years with a different musical director.  This wouldn’t have happened if they were relying on me to do everything, but it was possible because of the structure at the time.”

Belinda’s final piece of advice is that the structure of the organising support should always fit the goals of the group.

“Having an incorporated group and a committee of management and things like that won’t be appropriate for smaller singing groups whose goal is to get together and sing for Christmas, for example. They might be better served by just having someone to collect fees, put out the chairs for rehearsal and check everyone’s vaccination certificates.  But for groups which want to continue operating and develop artistically, it’s great if the organisational load can be spread amongst others so the Musical Director can concentrate more on the musical aspects.”

By Deb Carveth, online editor for CMVic in collaboration with Belinda Gillam Derry

For information on how to join Yarra Valley Singers, click here

Featured image: Yarra Valley Singers singing at Montrose Market in November 2021, supplied by Belinda Gillam Derry

Singing in the Brain


Summary: Researchers have identified a population of neurons in the auditory cortex that responds to singing, but not any other type of music.

For the first time, MIT neuroscientists have identified a population of neurons in the human brain that lights up when we hear singing, but not other types of music.

These neurons, found in the auditory cortex, appear to respond to the specific combination of voice and music, but not to either regular speech or instrumental music. Exactly what they are doing is unknown and will require more work to uncover, the researchers say.

“The work provides evidence for relatively fine-grained segregation of function within the auditory cortex, in a way that aligns with an intuitive distinction within music,” says Sam Norman-Haignere, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“There’s one population of neurons that responds to singing, and then very nearby is another population of neurons that responds broadly to lots of music.”

Norman-Haignere

The work builds on a 2015 study in which the same research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify a population of neurons in the brain’s auditory cortex that responds specifically to music. In the new work, the researchers used recordings of electrical activity taken at the surface of the brain, which gave them much more precise information than fMRI.

“There’s one population of neurons that responds to singing, and then very nearby is another population of neurons that responds broadly to lots of music. At the scale of fMRI, they’re so close that you can’t disentangle them, but with intracranial recordings, we get additional resolution, and that’s what we believe allowed us to pick them apart,” says Norman-Haignere.

Read the full article by Anne Trafton, here

**A big thank you to Kass Mulvany for sharing this with us all!
Featured image by Rhendi Rukmana via unsplash.com

For the first time, MIT neuroscientists have identified a population of neurons in the human brain that light up when you hear singing, but not other types of music. Credit: MIT

CresFest: The New Folk & Roots Music & Dance Festival Putting Creswick on the Map

“There’s music everywhere!” says Judy Turner, convenor of the inaugural CresFest taking place between April 1-3.  For two days, the township of Creswick is throwing open its arms and its doors and inviting visitors to savour two of life’s transformative pleasures: music and dance. CresFest will celebrate the return of live music and performance while showcasing the beauty of Creswick’s historic architecture, its pubs, cafes and public spaces and the great beauty of the Central Victorian landscape. 

Judy’s desire to entice visitors to Creswick arose from her feeling it was underused, underknown and underappreciated with a plethora of lovely buildings just waiting for someone to bring a festival to town, and to share the talents and spirit of the local community with a broader audience. Drawing on a lifetime’s experience of coordinating festivals, fundraisers and cultural events for a broad range of audiences, Judy decided it was time to drop a big old pin and mark Creswick out on the map.

“People tend to dash through Creswick on their way to somewhere else and we want it to be a bit more known”, says Judy. “The Goldfields region is a beautiful place to come and explore, people can stay in Ballarat, Daylesford or Clunes and be here for the festival in fifteen minutes. It’s a beautiful part of the world to visit and CresFest is happening at a beautiful time of the year.”

Picture source: http://www.cresfest.com.au

A festival committee was formed of like-minded locals from Creswick Folk Club, the Neighbourhood Centre, Leavers Wine bar where open mic nights have run for many years, and the Creswick Theatre Company. Together, they have fought for funding and been shaping the show, growing it from the ground up for many, many months. CresFest now has an enviable program which has grown to include 360 musicians.

In addition to a phenomenal line up of headline acts including Emma Donovan and The Putbacks, Eric Bogle Trio, The Maes, Lucy Wise, Fiona Ross, Kee’ahn and oodles of others, CresFest offers a whole other program – the Armband Program – filled with an exciting range of opportunities for community participation. 

Festival goers can sing along with the Creswick Chorus led by Stella Savvy, strum and hum in the Creswick Ukestra led by Jen Hawley, strike out with Strat and Lyndal’s street band, and the Creswick Brass Band or be blown away by a Bollywood Dance ensemble. In addition to all of this and more, CresFest will include a series of live theatre shows called ‘Stories of Us’, funded by Festivals Australia, interspersed with short films in which music plays a key role. 

A kids’ choir has been created with funding from a local family and open mics will be running all weekend, some hosted by the alumni of Youthrive, a statewide group based in Creswick working to support kids from rural areas in supporting their education and bringing their skills back home. For lovers of flips, tricks and ollies there is a YMCA skate competition included in Sunday’s program.

The festival’s ticketing model gives punters the choice of buying a pass for all of the activities taking place in and around the town as part of the Armband Program, with an additional ticket required for access into the Town Hall where the headline acts will be playing across the weekend, offering what Judy calls ‘two levels of commitment’.

“There’s also heaps of free stuff” Judy says, “for people passing through or wanting to dip their toe in the water. The famous Creswick market will be home to an outdoor stage which in turn will host Saturday Breakfast from Ballarat ABC in a first live OB from Creswick.”

In addition to putting Creswick on the map, the committee hopes CresFest will increase the role and prevalence of shared participatory music making and performance for people of all ages within the Creswick community as well as communities from the surrounding small towns who have been brought into the festival fold. 

As Judy says, “that idea that people love getting together to sing, play and perform has been at the heart of what I’ve been doing all my life.” 

Planning this event has taken nerves of steel, and CresFest appears to have struck lucky in being able to proceed in a window of opportunity when other regional town-based festivals held earlier in the year had to be cancelled. As Judy says, “everything is fraught when you’re surrounded by uncertainty, particularly when it’s the first time doing something”. Undeterred, Judy has been driven on by holding in mind the sheer joy that making music and performing with others can bring, a bug she caught back in the 70s when she began performing at folk festivals:

“For me, it is really all about amateur music and the power of performance. I just love the atmosphere and the chance to sit down and play and play and play until I can’t play anymore, and I like to provide that for other people.”

The inclusive and collaborative culture of CresFest extends beyond the music and dance. Local businesses have provided backing and volunteers of all ages have been drafted from across the community with plenty more still needed. 

“We have a terrific team of people on the job, a mix of younger professionals and older volunteers, and it has worked really well and everyone is doing a terrific job. If anyone would like to be involved we could do with more stage managers, front of house people, we need people to serve the food in the artists’ green room, we need trouble shooters who can be runners, we need gofers, and before that we need people to put up posters!” 

CresFest sounds an incredible way to spend a weekend. For ticket bookings and information about how to participate in the festival – become a CresFest volunteer, put up posters or offer a billet to a visiting act – click here, and and be sure to try and get yourself and everyone you know there.

CresFest: April 1-3, 2022. Creswick is just 1.5 hours’ drive from Melbourne, between Daylesford and Ballarat. It is accessible via V/Line on the Maryborough route. For more information visit http://www.vline.com.au or call 1800 800 007

Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria with Judy Turner

Good Vibrations: How the infectious energy of John Lane makes life feel better

All my training has been on the job and I have learnt it by doing it… I always loved singing and I loved acting and I liked being the centre of attention, I guess, whether it was in music or theatre.” This love of the limelight may have been a starting point, but John Lane has spent his entire working life bringing others into the frame to experience the joy of participation that has perpetuated his own effervescent, irrepressible energy and enthusiasm for community arts practice.

“Being in musical vibration together with others is the closest I get to being really spiritual, that’s my spiritual observance, it’s why I like going to the footy; if your team wins you get to sing with 20,000 people! This world with all this pain and sorrow also has all this beauty and one way of plugging into that, viscerally, is to be vibrating in harmony together.”

Having learned piano as a child, John branched out into trumpet and the French horn at secondary school before teaching himself to play the guitar, inspired by the likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. “I took every opportunity I could to be a part of productions, both at school and university where I was very much into musical theatre.” 

After three years of medical school, John decided to take a gap year to try and get theatre out of his system. This was a plan destined never to work. He was offered a job in Brisbane and spent three immersive years touring political musical comedy shows with the Popular Theatre Troupe, also organising and running drama workshops and improvisations based on what he had been doing in student theatre workshops, back in Melbourne. John found he couldn’t stop soaking up skills and knowledge in whatever ways he could from whomever he could.  “I worked my chops up by just ‘doing it’ and learning on the job from watching other people.”

“This world with all this pain and sorrow also has all this beauty and one way of plugging into that, viscerally, is to be vibrating in harmony together.”

While living in Queensland, John bumped into a fella named Linsey Pollak and the two of them went busking together; John played tenor saxophone and Linsey played a broom, the end of which he’d turned into a flute (of course). “We played songs that he had written, and some that we both knew, and it was Linsey who first said to me ‘you could write your own songs!’” Having been given his first lessons in the ukulele by Joe Geia from the band ‘No Fixed Address‘, John would carry his banjolele with him everywhere he went – wearing it slung around his back, ready to whip out at any point and pair it with a quick bit of kazoo to entertain people at festivals or in the streets, in the piazzas of Rome, Bologna and Perugia perhaps, and even on a 24 hour bus trip from Dharamsala to Kashmir.

“The only real formal performance training I did was later on, with the Nanjing Acrobats of China, spending six days a week with them for three months in Wodonga, practising alongside members of the Fruit Fly Circus and Circus Oz. I was open to anything and everything and by that stage was feeling ‘this is so much fun, everyone should have this opportunity’. ”

John’s primary focus became finding ways for other people to experience the joy that he’d had of participating and being ‘in it’. For the first ten years of his working life, John acknowledges that he was very lucky to have been employed full time doing theatre with the type of community-based theatre companies where you weren’t just an actor, you were involved in writing the material, creating sets and props and anything and everything else.

“With West Theatre we went into housing commissions, we did projects with the Vietnamese Community at a time when they had newly arrived in Australia, we worked with the Nurses Union, we put on these very professional big community shows. There was a collective of between 7 and 12 professional theatre makers and together we would run events that involved dozens to hundreds of people in the community, putting on shows that were sometimes political, often based around personal and local issues; and community music was always a big part of that work.”

By this point it was the mid-80s and John became heavily involved in festivals around Melbourne and across Victoria. “Festivals were the most obvious opportunity for lots and lots of people to participate in a cultural event. These could be run as projects with artists in schools and artists in the community that culminated in a festival.”

Towards the end of a long period of freelancing, one of the jobs John started doing in 2000 was working for the Royal Children’s Hospital. “They had acquired funding from VicHealth to engage professional arts facilitators to work in schools and they were looking for a coordinator. I got that gig which was 2 days a week for 6 months and this kept going as an annual contract job among the many other jobs I was doing like the Darebin Music Feast, the Kites Festival and the Kew Festival, and stuff for the Royal Melbourne Show and City of Melbourne.”

Unsurprisingly, John had also learned to juggle by this point which came in handy and helped him to keep all these professional balls in the air at the same time, as well as beanbags, skittles, fruit, kitchen knives and whatever else came to hand.

Striving to support the voice of people who had been oppressed or suppressed drove John’s passion for agitprop theatre.

“It was therapeutic for me to be involved with music and with drama and I was always really interested in the application of creative arts techniques to psychological medicine, which I had only just begun to research as part of my medical training. This stuck with me and became a personal political goal of doing this type of work because of its benefit to people’s mental health… including mine!”

The Royal Children’s Hospital’s “Festival for Healthy Living” (FHL) program was an embodiment of this philosophy, and upon taking up a newly created salaried role of FHL Artistic Coordinator, by 2004 John found he had gone full circle from leaving medical school in 1976 back to working within a hospital where he remained until his retirement from that post in October 2021. 

So how did John keep up his energy? “Keeping a role for myself as a hands-on participant, even when I was coordinating projects, was vital for me. I’d end up being an MC or I’d pop up in the band playing the trumpet or tenor horn, keyboards or uke. I think my work as an overall coordinator suffered sometimes because I was so obsessed with being in things, but I gradually realised I didn’t need to be front and centre and that my role in life as I got older was in being a facilitator and capacity builder.”

John firmly believes that some of the best capacity building happens by learning on the job, side by side with someone who is really experienced. “I would be there alongside emerging artists, doing the stilt walking or juggling workshops, or building a gigantic puppet or encouraging kids in a songwriting session. At other times the job was all about writing funding submissions or facilitating steering committees, but doing only that would never last very long with me and I had to find at least some time to keep working on the ground. It was a crazy life rushing hither and thither!”

Finding ways to help people feel better, and experience wellness from connecting with other people in their communities, schools or families, working for the Royal Children’s Hospital proved to be a great way in for John to build countless productive partnerships in over 30 different communities across Victoria. More recently, working closely with local agencies, under the RCH/FHL banner the annual Dream Big Festival was established in Melton. This was run for the first time in 2015, with John at the helm as Artistic Director.

A year later, John decided he needed more brass back in his life and joined Melbourne-based street band, Havana Palava (cos he obviously had so much spare time on his hands). There he met Lyndal Chambers who at that time was coordinating CMVic’s StreetSounds project. As part of a collaboration between StreetSounds and the Dream Big Festival, together they established The Fabulous Meltones Street Band.

Facilitating the band was an opportunity for John to embrace participatory music-making and perform on a regular basis while bringing together community players of brass, strings, percussion and more, in a riot of colour and sound. The band has played at the Dream Big Festival each year, and at dozens of other community events including the local Djerriwarrh Festival, and also featured in spectacular appearances at Geelong After Dark for three consecutive years.

Since his ‘rewirement’ last month, John has been reflecting back on all of this history and allowing himself to dream of what might come next.

“In the future I do see myself as always wanting to get community music to happen with people of all ages.”

If history is anything to go by, John won’t be sitting still in one place for very long before his energy fizzes over and propels him towards his next adventure. There may be kazoos… Watch this space!

Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with John Lane

Photos supplied

Jeannie Marsh takes Outdoor Singing in her Stride

“You have to do whatever you need to do these days, when it comes to singing, and that extends to Virtual Tour Guiding!” says the ingenious and unstoppable community choir leader Jeannie Marsh.

In conversation with Jeannie it is often hard to pre-empt what brilliant idea is going to pop out of her in-jeannie-ous brain next. Her latest iron in the fire is the Elwood Singing Walking Trail, cooked up in lockdown and coming to fruition a little more each day.

Jeannie Marsh and the Elwood Community Choir came up with the idea of the Elwood Singing Walking trail following last year’s lockdown when they were thinking up safe, physical activities for singers in their local community. The plan was to identify 12 locations along a route in Elwood taking walkers along the beach and the canal and around the streets while sharing stories and songs that reflect the history of this leafy hood, with its Art Deco flats; unfurling its rich Indigenous and settler history along the way.

The whole route covers around 6.5km in its entirety. It was conceived with the idea  that people approach doing the walk in whatever way suits them, taking in however many locations they choose on any given day and – because it will be permanent – is something to be returned to and enjoyed multiple times. 

Half way through next year, Jeannie and the team are planning to hold a big launch of the infrastructure. The research and development stage has been quietly ongoing throughout the turbulence of 2021 and was launched in April, funded by City of Port Phillip. Some surprising revelations about this quiet residential corner of the bay have come to light, in the process.

There used to be a dance hall called ‘Maison Deluxe’ located on the corner of Broadway and Glenhuntly Road where everyone used to go for dances with a live, very busy dance band who would travel all across Melbourne doing two or three dances a night.

As a local, Jeannie has lived near Elwood for over 20 years and had grown increasingly curious about the history of the area she was walking around.

“I would think ‘what’s the history of that little corner’ and ‘what’s that all about’ so it’s been really interesting to understand!”

Elwood Community Choir Leader, Jeannie Marsh

The original focus of the project was to provide an activity for the Elwood Community Choir which Jeannie runs, with a weekly cohort of around 40 singers, as the research phase could be done throughout lockdown and a lot of the stories have come from the choir.

The next phase, currently underway in the planning, is to get all of the infrastructure in place. Elwood Neighbourhood Community Centre (where the Elwood Community Choir  rehearses) will be assisting the choir in setting up the processes and infrastructure. The choir  will be recording these songs early in 2022 and, if lockdowns continue to prohibit them doing this work in person, they will create the recordings remotely using their phones.

The intention is to get the whole community singing and aware of the history of the area. Some of the songs are traditional songs that people will know; some reflect and honour the local Jewish and Russian communities and there are also songs created by Jeannie, Tracy Harvey, and songs that members of the choir have created.

To celebrate Seniors Week this Friday 15 October from 1:30 – 2:30pm and again on Saturday 16 October, there will be a one hour ‘Musical Zoom’ session where Jeannie together with ‘local legend’ comedian, writer and radio/TV presenter, Tracy Harvey, will be joined by members of Elwood Community Choir to conduct a lively virtual stroll along the Elwood Singing Trail, singing along to a selection of simple songs on the way that capture the spirit and essence of Elwood. It’s also an opportunity for walkers to explore and support some of the local businesses along the trail, such as  Elwood Sourdough which is owned and run by Tracy and her partner. Jeannie highly recommends stopping off there for a ‘Spotty’.

‘Local Legend’, Tracy Harvy

“A spotty is one of the most sensational fruit buns you will have in your life. They marinade all of the fruit and it’s like eating a full meal, it is spicy and fruity and unique!”

Jeannie and Tracy have filmed each of the locations and on Friday and Saturday will be using these clips and singing each of the songs, together with the Elwood Community Choir for everyone to join in with. Folks who register will be sent a word sheet to singalong to.

“It’s a teaser to get people ready for when we launch next year when we’ll have everyone out there walking along in real life, and singing!”

To join Jeannie, Tracy and the Elwood Community Choir for the FREE Musical Zoom along Elwood Singing Walking Trail, bookings are essential before 5pm on Thursday and can be made via esnlc@esnlc.com.au or leave a message on 9531 1954

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria in conversation with Jeannie Marsh; thank you Jeannie!

Going back to U-Bass-ics, with Oli Hinton

Nine years ago or thereabouts, Oli Hinton retired from UK academia and made the move to Australia for what began as a sabbatical holiday. Oli and his partner, Jess, had known Jane Coker for many years through playing community music back in the UK.

“We got in touch with Jane when we arrived in Australia and Jane said, ‘fantastic, can you come and volunteer for CMVic?’” Oli laughs.  

By the time the CMVic coordinator role came up some months later, the winning combo of life down under and volunteering at CMVic-bug had well and truly bitten and Oli decided retirement could wait and that here was an opportunity for him to get his teeth into something new and exciting.

“I wanted to do something even more interesting than I had been doing and working for something I feel passionate about which is playing music.”

Yet to deploy full-holiday mode, Oli embraced his new life and kept busy putting down roots and playing baritone sax in Havana Palava, a local street band. In what seems like no time at all he got to know more about the different music-making opportunities in and around Melbourne and started playing his accordion again with The Footscray Gypsy Orchestra. “I got to know more and more of the wonderful community that’s involved in community music in Victoria and I just feel that I have been incredibly fortunate.”

Baritone Saxophones and accordions aren’t known for being quiet instruments so how did a small, stringed instrument like the ukulele find its way to Oli’s heart? “We found ourselves often in the company of other people who were playing ukuleles and none of the other instruments we played were really suitable for playing alongside them so we thought, if we can’t beat ‘em we’ll join ‘em!”

Oli and Jess got themselves soprano ukuleles and started playing along, but Oli quickly found he missed playing the bass rhythm lines, and the strings of the little ukulele hurt his fingers.

“I kept talking about the U-bass and then Jess bought me one for Christmas and it arrived and I’ve never looked back, it is faaaabulous!”

Having never played a string instrument of that sort before, Oli found it took him a while to get to grips with all the different technical challenges and fundamental things like knowing the strings and where the notes were. “In my usual way of learning I did it by learning one tune and then another tune, and another tune and then I thought, ‘ah, I’m getting the general idea here!’ “

Oli confesses this is the way he’s learnt to play every instrument. “The great thing about learning by playing a tune and then another tune is that you get instant results!”.  He’s also quick to point out that a few lessons from someone who’s been playing for many years is also incredibly valuable.

As well as playing music, Oli has had a lot of fun arranging tunes for different street bands which has given his knowledge of music theory a good workout. “I’ve had to really get to grips with the keys of different instruments and chords and harmonies and actually as a bass player, you’re much more aware of what the notes are and the progression of the chords.” This experience has even led Oli to compose a small ditty for the BUF lunchtime concert on Saturday – something he never dreamed of doing in the past!

In considering the fundamental, scaffolding role of the bass, Oli sounds amused as he admits that played really wrong it can actually destroy a tune but has realised if you carry on with aplomb, things will generally be okay.

“From playing bass the most important thing I’ve learned is to keep plucking something in time and the great thing about bass is the ear isn’t very good at determining the bass notes…if you ever try to tune a bass instrument using your ears it’s really hard! Nearly all bass tuning is done with a gadget, by me anyway, and if you hit a bum note it’s fairly easy to get away with it!”

On Saturday, Oli will be running a workshop for absolute beginners and has promised that by the end of it, everyone will be able to play a tune. “Because I’ve said this is a workshop for absolute beginners, I’m going to start by which end you hold it! I can still remember how surprisingly hard I found certain things when I started, so I’m going to try and pull those out.” For example, string damping; when you start out you think ‘oh no, I’ve got to stop that horrible noise happening!’ The strings play off each other and you can get intermediate harmonics happening between them.”

Another thing Oli noticed when he started playing U-bass in a uke group was that rarely are you presented with the tabs for the bass chords of a tune. “So what happens is the leader of the group will say ‘let’s play so and so’ and you flick to the page and of course, you’ve got the normal presentation of lyrics and chords, and you then have to work from that to something which makes sense. It’s not like reading the exact bass line. You may be really lucky and it’ll be a tune you’re familiar with and you’re familiar with the bass line that goes with it, and so you can at least get the feel for what it should be.. or you might not!”

Oli is keen to acknowledge the joys and the challenges of online music workshops for everyone. “We know it can’t be as good as being together live cos you miss the interaction where you’re playing off each other and can see what each person is doing and developing things alongside them at the right pace, and that’s hard on zoom. But we’ve found that people get loads of fun from them. Things may go a bit slow or too fast from time to time but there’s always the opportunity to follow up!”

What Oli hopes more than anything is that anyone who comes to his workshop this Saturday leaves thinking ‘yep I’m going to get a U-bass and I’m going to take it along to my group’… cos they’ll have so much fun with it!

By Deb Carveth, Online Editor for CMVic, with Oli Hinton, CMVic Coordinator

**BUF took place online on Saturday 25 September. Take a look at what happened here: https://cmvic.org.au/whats-on/boroondara-uke-festival-past-eventl

Uke Lovers Get inTo the BUF in Ashburton

Boroondara Ukulele Festival (BUF) was born of Margaret Crichton’s desire to bring something to an area of Melbourne where, for some years, she has been running a number of community music groups. Back when plans were evolving for BUF, COVID wasn’t even a thing. Having experienced restrictions derail so many other face to face events since then,  Margaret, who is a program coordinator for CMVic, has been making ‘contingency plan after contingency plan’ to ensure the show goes on.

If by the end of September,  BUF is not able to go ahead ‘in real life’ then depending on the levels of regulations, Margaret and the CMVic team are ready, with a myriad of creative ways tucked up their sleeves to ensure its delivery, either entirely online, or as a hybrid event.  

“We all need to be able to plan things, we need it for our personal wellbeing, we need to have something to look forward and aspire to… it’s a bit like having that recipe where you go, ooh I’d love to make it but I haven’t got quite those ingredients I’ll just substitute this, and it might not be the same but it will still be amazing.”

BUF will feature a range of workshop topics offered by a host of leaders from across Victoria. There will be banjo techniques for ukulele and banjolele by Julie Bradley from Gippsland, Dan McEoin, the man behind the Hills Ukulele Festival and current president of AUTLA will be teaching picking techniques, Bruce Watson will be doing what he’s calling “I’ve got rhythm, Uke got rhythm” and running a session of his surely world-famous-by now, Ukeoke. Oli Hinton and Dave Rackham will be running bass workshops. 

As Margaret points out, “if you’ve got an instrument with four strings or even a guitar handy you’ll be able to have a go at the bass workshops, you won’t necessarily need to have a bass ukulele. And if BUF runs online, remember when you’re in a Zoom room no-one else can hear but the cat, you so you’ll be able to pick up a lot of techniques for when you can get your hands on a bass.”

Margaret will be offering a beginners workshop where there will be ukuleles and some basses to borrow for anyone coming along who has never played before. “If people come along to my workshop knowing nothing, they’ll be able to play something by the end of it, and if they know a little bit, they’ll leave knowing how to play a little bit more”.

Nicki Johnson and Craig Barrie will be leading a song writing workshop for ukulele, and the day will end with Tom Jackson leading a Q&A session to answer any uke-related questions to wrap things up.

What Margaret wants more than anything is for people to come to BUF and have a really good time, to learn new skills and make new connections.

“Should we all still be in lockdown,  connection is what we’ll need. If we can bring some brightness into people’s days – even if they can’t be in the room with us literally, we’ll bring them into our rooms.”

BUF is a testimony to Margaret’s longstanding love for the humble ukulele which began back when she was a child. “When I was about 10, I wanted a guitar but we couldn’t afford one so I had to save up. In the meantime I got a ukulele and played that for a little while. Then, eight or nine years ago, when ukulele really took off, I decided to get another one and predictably it was purple…” The CMVic queen of all things purple and a staunch devotee of stringed instruments from ukes to harps, Margaret still loves the uke’s accessibility for people of all ages and all levels of ability. “It doesn’t really matter what age you are, you can pick it up and instantly play a song.”

Margaret with one of her trusty four-stringed friends

Community Music Victoria will host BUF on September 24-25 in partnership with AUTLA and Pat’s Music. For all of the info click here and watch the CMVic socials for booking details, coming soon!

Written by Deb Carveth, CMVic Online Editor, with Margaret Crichton, CMVic Program Coordinator

Feature photo: Bennettswood Ukulele Groups and Singalong and Stringalong (BUGSS) at Hawthorn Market, supplied

Musicians and the Climate Crisis

Musician Climate Crisis Network (MCCN) was founded by musician and climate activist, Simon Kerr, emerging out of a longstanding involvement in music and concern about the climate future we face.

Simon sees climate change as a crisis of culture, not just a scientific or political crisis. We are in this mess, he says, because of the ways we think about ourselves, our expectations of the future, and in the types of stories we tell ourselves.

For Simon, the story begins in the late 1990s when he was teaching at a New Zealand University while completing his PhD in Political Ecology:

“I was becoming very aware of global warming, as it was called then, but it all felt a bit theoretical, something that was still far in the future. Since then, I think what all of us who follow the science have been stunned by is how rapidly the planet has been heating and the speed and severity of the impacts of this heating on our world. Things are changing so much  faster than anyone anticipated.”

Even though he has worked in universities in the last 25 years, having moved from New Zealand to Australia in 2008, Simon was frustrated by the lack of overall urgency and understanding of what sort of dangerous future we are creating. In 2015, fuelled by the ongoing denial in Australia, he wrote and produced a multi-media, live music show about climate change called ‘Music For a Warming World’. It had a narrative in four parts: The Coming Storm (the science); Loss; Change; Hope. The show was a response to what Simon saw as the lack of emotional engagement with the implications of the science. This frustration came in part from the experience of attending seminars on climate change that ended with the speaker concluding, ‘It looks like it’s quite possibly the end of the world. Thank you for listening. (Then, after some polite applause) … Let’s all go and have a beer.’

“I wanted to engage in a more immersive and emotionally honest way and so decided to use multi-media visuals and live music to tell a story of the climate challenge”

The show became Simon’s primary musical focus and has now been performed around 80 times up and down Australia at music festivals, such as Woodford and Illawarra, universities, house concerts, community centres, small art galleries and large public theatres. Simon confesses to having no formal training in music. His journey began as a teenage drummer playing in a number of bands until he went to live overseas and realised that guitars make far easier travelling companions. Simon was in his late thirties before he discovered he could actually write songs that people seemed to like listening to. He has since then produced four studio albums and an EP.

During last year’s lockdown, Simon found himself thinking a lot about eco-grief and the notion of solastalgia, the experience of bearing witness to the loss of the places where one still lives. Simon says the extraordinary bush fires of 2019/2020 are not an accident but the outcome of decades of planetary warming.

“The sort of optimism we hear for the future, I wouldn’t say it was misplaced but I think that while we will see lots of really positive developments towards zero emissions, we are yet to recognise the scale and irreversibility of the climate and ecological challenges we face. We can no longer ‘solve’ climate change. We have moved into a new epoch where serious climate disruption will define our future. Not just our grandchildren or our children, but us, living here right now. It will do so faster and with increasing impact that most of us realise.  This raises really important questions about the type of life we live. I keep wondering if this enormously consumptive lifestyle and the way we produce things is still fit for purpose?”

Simon’s thinking and songwriting has recently shifted from trying to explain and prove climate change towards asking more fundamental questions. We now must learn to live with dangerous climate change so what types of people does this future need us to be? What sort of new stories or narratives will we need to help us live with this changing future?

Simon Kerr

In 2019, just prior to the bushfires, Simon set up the ‘Musicians Climate Crisis Network’, a community for musicians, composers, choir leaders, choir members, singers, songwriters and other artists to meet and share their concerns about the climate crisis and how it affects their music, and to find meaningful, positive ways to respond.

 “I felt I was watching our world, the world I loved, vanish. I realised I needed a community to help me deal with all the grief and frustration I was experiencing. I believe the arts can offer different ways, or different languages to help us process all these changes. I wanted a community I could talk through these things with, and with whom I could share music and artistic practice.”

MCCN seeks to offer a safe space where people can say, ‘do you know what, all this is really freaking me out’ and embodies Simon’s belief that art and music have something powerful to offer by creating new stories for a new future.

MCCN meet monthly, face to face in metropolitan Melbourne, or online. “We meet for a couple of hours, start with an informal chat, then usually have a topic to discuss, sometimes from an external speaker Zooming in”. Past speakers include the ‘Climate Music Project’, based in San Francisco; Prof Suzie Crane, a US-based anthropologist/musician and expert on permafrost melting in Siberia, as well local speakers such as ‘Psychology for a Safer Climate’. There are also often meditations and reflections, and the meeting generally ends with some music making.

For Simon, it’s about building a supportive community where conversations can flow and ideas can percolate in a safe and inclusive environment. Much of the focus is in considering what climate disruption means for our communities and for us as individuals. How do we re-think how to be ‘okay’ in the face of a deeply unpredictable future? What does a ‘future worth living’ look like in a epoch where things are constantly and more frequently disrupted by storms, bushfires, sea level rise and economic shocks?

“We seek to learn more about the science, the psychology and cultural issues of the climate crisis, supporting each other’s musical and emotional journeys and exploring collectively what it means for our music and our art in order to be relevant and to have a voice of compassion and truthfulness.”

For more information on how to join the Musician’s Climate Crisis Network contact Simon Kerr at  musiciansclimatenetwork@gmail.com 

Written by Simon Kerr with Deb Carveth, CMVic Online Editor, for Community Music Victoria

Feature photo: Music For a Warming World band members: Daniel Hook, Scott Lewis, Mal Webb, Simon Kerr, Kylie Morrigan and Christine Parker

Photos supplied

We can all make music! Inspirational stories to celebrate and champion the practice of community music making.

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