A program led by Professor Shannon de l’Etoile from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music aims to help at-risk mothers engage with their babies through singing, to support and promote development of emotional and self-regulation in the infants.
Professor Shannon de l’Etoile knows the impact of a mother’s lullaby.
Early in her career, de l’Etoile witnessed that when disadvantaged mothers were encouraged to sing to their babies, the positive responses they received were amazing. She quickly realised that music was a powerful way to help mothers learn to connect with their infants and to build a relationship with their new child.
This realisation led to de l’Etoile beginning her extensive research into a practice called infant-directed singing, which helps babies learn to regulate their emotions, and allows them to later navigate socialisation, school, and the professional world:
“If a mother can sing in a way that captures the infant’s attention, it can help them tap into those brain structures that they need to develop for self-regulation,” said de l’Etoile, a board-certified music therapist and associate dean of graduate studies at the University of Miami Frost School of Music.
Yet, while singing to infants is something most mothers do naturally—without even realising the benefits—for those in difficult circumstances, infant-directed singing may not be as instinctive, de l’Etoile observed. She has noticed that mothers impacted by depression, domestic violence, or substance exposure may need encouragement and guidance to provide this unique form of caregiving. Read the full article by Megan Ondrizek.
Every Thursday evening in Box Hill, Judy Oleinikov and Katy Addis host an open jam Celtic music session for young adults aged between 15 and 25. Offered by Quasitrad Music Melbourne, the sessions are open to players of all abilities and to anyone with and without lived experience of diverse learning needs, and or disabilities. The sessions are free, funded by the Keys of Life Foundation, a charity that supports students with disabilities and or diverse learning needs to flourish through music making. The sessions offer opportunities for the development of techniques and life skills intended to enable young people to develop their aural music-making practice, while connecting up with each other socially.
The idea for the sessions was conceived by Katy Addis, a member of the Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club. Both Katy and her husband are musicians and Katy was fully appreciative of the inclusive and particularly welcoming characteristics of Celtic music making; the way you can walk into a session in Melbourne, Ireland or New York and be likely to hear the same tunes. Katy reflected that if you know the basic repertoire, the patterns and chord sequences, you can actually join in a jam session pretty much anywhere in the world where Celtic music is played.
As Judy says, “there’s a skill in learning by ear so that you can pick up tunes that other people are playing. Katy has a son who is autistic who is now in his 20s who plays in a regular Celtic Jam session which I run in Box Hill on Wednesdays. He’s a key player, he’s the one who keeps us together and he is superb. The Celtic Jam sessions are a really good social outlet for him too and provide an opportunity to enjoy the social aspect of participatory music making.”
Again, it was Katy who having seen the positive effects of this music making experience on her son, realised it had huge potential for other autistic young adults who may be experiencing learning difficulties and who may not have finished school, making them at greater risk of social isolation. After successfully applying for funding to help turn her vision into a reality, Katy approached Judy. The pilot phase of the Welcome Sessions began at the end of May and while the sessions are open to players of pretty much any instrument, as it happens everyone so far plays keys.
“This has been really good for starting up. We have a group of keyboards in a circle and have been trying waltzes, ¾ timing is something they have not all tried before but it’s a lot of fun and it isn’t uncommon for autistic kids to have perfect pitch. Keyboards are also great for working separately if we choose to take this approach, or we can all play chords or melody. One thing that has been a challenge has been all starting at the same point and playing in time together as they’re used to doing their own thing and also accepting that if you make a mistake you have to keep going!” There’s a life lesson to be learned there somewhere too.
“A couple of the kids have made recordings of the tunes which has been great and allowed everyone to familiarise themselves with the tunes that we’ll be learning in our Welcome Sessions. This means everyone actually has the chance to listen to the tunes before they then go and learn them. In that way, the tunes are in their heads which is the key to helping them learn.”
The sessions are open to a broad age range and while the blurb says 15-25, Judy points out that actually they’re open to anyone from high school age upwards; she also has plans to get a bit of a band together and find public playing opportunities at events such as farmers markets.
“It really is just a chance to use music as a tool for a social outlet, coming together and having a group to meet with once a week, especially for young people who, once they’ve finished school, might not feel there is much happening around them, hence the name, ‘Welcome Sessions’. ”
If anyone would like to support the program, Judy suggests donating directly to Keys of Life which also offers training to music teachers and therapists of students with diverse learning needs and disabilities. “Any teacher who might be working with a child or with children who doesn’t fit the mainstream mould might benefit from exploring what Keys of Life has to offer.”
“As Welcome Sessions are a new thing and people aren’t too sure what to expect yet, our work at this point is all about reaching people. We’ll put up some videos that will hopefully break a bit of ice, but being an innovative program it takes a bit of courage for kids to come along and we’re hoping to break that ice further a bit and expand it.”
The sessions will continue to run every Thursday night from 7:30pm – 9:00pm throughout the school term. To find out more for yourself or somebody you know or if you are planning to pop along and try a Welcome Session for yourself one Thursday, contact Judy: firstname.lastname@example.org and make the world of the Celtic jamming your musical oyster.
Article by Deb Carveth, CMVic Copy Editor, in conversation with Judy Oleinikov.
“We are quite isolated in terms of where we sit within Victoria. Given that we are a really diverse community, we punch well above our weight in terms of the people we have involved in performing arts and community music and I feel that we’re really just under the radar.” So says Kylie Livingston, Community Music Victoria’s Local Catalyst for Mildura, Sunraysia and the Mallee, an exciting role created through the Growing Community Music Project (GCM) to support and nurture a network of community music-making practitioners and participants, living in this north-westerly corner of Victoria.
It’s a region well known for its fruit and wine, a number of annual music and arts festivals, and its picturesque location along the banks of the mighty Murray River. Kylie is keen to contribute to the riches of the existing cultural framework by championing the role of community music and is collaborating with other like-minded people to create inclusive and participatory music making opportunities that further support the health and wellbeing of this Victorian community.
For the past three years, Kylie has been president of the committee for Electric Light Theatre, an amateur inclusive theatre company for youth based in Mildura. Each year, ELT stages a Variety Show, a celebration of music and performance art involving up to 100 kids from a broad range of backgrounds. As an experienced facilitator who loves connecting people, Kylie has been quick to get the ball rolling since joining the Community Music Victoria (CMVic) team six months ago, creating events and workshops that support community music leaders to develop their skills, re-energise and reactivate their practice and, in doing so, draw more people into a network of local music-makers.
”Over the last couple of years, I think community groups have really struggled and floundered and might not feel they have the skills or the energy to support themselves, or to continue and flourish, and that networking aspect is really important. The feedback we are receiving is that people are unsure where to go to find out about what’s on. Everyone is relying on Facebook and that’s a bit hit and miss. Even though people may have numerous informal contacts, connecting and networking for the benefit and support of everyone can feel really hard.”
To overcome the seemingly false sense of security fed us all by Facebook, Kylie is encouraging people to utilise the What’s On Mildura website as an alternative, free and consistent approach to marketing local community music-making events and opportunities in the area.
Kylie’s hope is that her role will support the evolution of a self-sustaining network for Sunraysia, Mildura and the Mallee that is inclusive, eclectic and open, and which continues to grow after CMVic’s immediate involvement in the region ends; a network where people feel stronger together, sharing and fostering a culture of inclusion that acknowledges and meets individual needs so that everyone can feel safe and welcome to participate without barriers or judgement.
“This is a very multicultural community, we have a big number of First Nations people and refugees from various regions and over the last ten years the area has become far more ethnically diverse, however we don’t tend to see that diversity represented in our audiences and participants.”
Kylie is supported in her role by a dedicated local action team of community music activists who each take time out of their busy lives to act as consultants for GCM. “There’s lively conversation at 7:30am on a Monday morning each month”, Kylie laughs. This early bird time slot is a testimony to the conviction and passion shared by the group who willingly swap breakfast for brainstorming.
“We’ve got a music therapist who is very involved in community music, a person who also works in disability, a music teacher in a primary school, a community place maker who is a First Nations woman which is great, and a member of Mildura Strings, who is really fantastic also. As well as this core group, I’ve spent lots of time having discussions with community music leaders and participants around the region. This means that we’ve been able to hit the ground running as we have contacts through our connections back into the community, who are also advocates for GCM and CMVic.”
An excellent example of this took place on a chilly, clear Saturday, back in the middle of June. In collaboration with Mildura Rural City Council, Mildura Riverfront, and members of the local action group, Kylie facilitated ‘Winter Solstice’, a midwinter celebration for the community with opportunities to enjoy music and art along the riverfront in Mildura.
Waking up to a beautiful, sunny morning following days of clouds and rain, Kylie took the opportunity to maximise the good weather feels of the day with one final push of publicity to everyone out enjoying the sunshine. It paid off and Kylie estimates that somewhere between 500 and 700 people attended the Winter Solstice, later that evening.
“We wanted it to be as inclusive as possible. There were a lot of people working together to make the night a success, including volunteers from the community and local organisations. There was a Drum Circle with Catherine Threlfall, and a mix of groups from the community. Sunraysed Voices performed and we also had Sunraysia Irish Dancers and a mix of buskers and professionals. There was Art with Missy who ran craft activities with the kids, there were fire twirlers and a smoking ceremony at the beginning which got everything started, including a big campfire. It was great to see so many age groups represented and probably different demographics as well.”
Over the course of the evening the Lions Club cooked up 400 sausages and the chef from the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council’s food relief program ladled out 500 serves of soup!
Kylie says, “the fact we got that many people along on such a dark winter’s night shows that there is a real interest and need for participatory music and activity in our community. There was a real sense of community and connection.”
Article by Deb Carveth, CMVic Copy Editor, with Kylie Livingston, CMVic Local Catalyst for Mildura, Sunraysia and the Mallee; photo credits: Mildura Rural City Council and Mildura Riverfront. A big thanks to everyone!
GCM in Mildura, Sunraysia, Mallee is supported by the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust and the Department of Social Services Information Linkages and Capacity Social and Community Participation Stream.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“WithWest 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 orfacilitating 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’sStreetSounds 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!
A common mindset when approaching musical participation, especially working collaboratively, is that you need to reach a certain skill set before you can perform. However performance can have many advantages beyond other people enjoying your music.
Community Music Victoria is driven by the belief that every person should have access to the benefits of making music regardless of skill set. Making music can help improve our state of mind and stimulates the brain. Performing in a group provides opportunities to socialise and build friendships, and can also build up our team-based skills.
From personal experience as someone who plays the ukulele, performance is exponentially more enjoyable if it’s in a group. It gives the feeling that you are part of something more and that you’re contributing to something meaningful. It’s as though you are helping create a masterpiece in an auditory art form.
From a medicinal standpoint music can provide clear benefits. In treating depressive illnesses, four out of five trials involving music therapy were shown to be effective, this can be correlated to the brain’s reward centre. When a person is singing or playing music it triggers the reward system in the same way it does for things such as eating chocolate. This indicates that participation in musical activities can improve your mood. Additionally, researchers theorise that music making can stimulate the cerebral cortex which manages higher functions such as memory, correlation and processing of information. By stimulating the cerebral cortex it is essentially providing a warm-up for that area of the brain which allows it to process information more effectively.
Medically speaking, it is evident that there are advantages to playing music, especially in terms of mental health and cognitive function.
Although solo music playing can be constructive, singing and playing music in a group provides all the same health benefits whilst also introducing a social aspect. Making music in a group allows for social interaction and collective catharsis. We can express emotion through music as a group and certain song choices can provoke certain emotions. It also provides a sense of belonging for those included as they are part of a collective, and share experiences with their musical comrades. Friendships can also be built and strengthened through communal music, as everyone is participating in the same thing and building skills and confidence together.
Expanding on this, collective music making can build teamwork and communication skills through working collaboratively with others and learning how to have discussions with fellow group members.
Overall there are many reasons to participate in communal music making. Group music can improve mood and provide a cognitive warm-up, both of which have clear benefits to wellbeing. There is also a strong social aspect involved when playing music with others, and there is a sense of belonging and feeling like you are contributing to something greater than yourself.
As someone learning the ukulele I can personally verify that playing music definitely has its benefits, but when participating in a music group it is far more rewarding. The atmosphere itself is much more lighthearted and warm. There is opportunity for conversation or constructive feedback and you get to appreciate others abilities as well as the group’s as a whole. When you compare this to solo practise or performance you miss all the laughter and joy that comes from collaboration.
Music is often a key component that relates to many cultures and allows people to be immersed in their culture. The engagement in our own culture is important, as we gain a sense of inclusion within our cultural community. Through music people can gain a stronger understanding of their identity and culture, and the identities and cultures of others. For example in Indigenous Australian culture the stories of creation are told through songs and music, and sacred music performed in ceremonies are a crucial aspect of indigenous culture. In terms of my own culture my father is British, and always enjoys when I play popular British songs on the ukulele. This illustrates how we can connect with our culture and share parts of our culture through music.
Overall there are many reasons to participate in communal music making. Group music can improve mood and provide a cognitive warm-up, both of which have clear benefits to wellbeing. There is also a strong social aspect involved when singing and playing music with others. Friendships and skills develop, and there is a sense of belonging and feeling like you are contributing to something greater than yourself.
Scarlet Lee is a year 10 student and a keen ukulele player who joined the CMVic team for work experience in April and May
Researchers have made exciting new discoveries on the benefits of choir singing which may include positive effects on cognitive functioning similar to playing an instrument.
Alongside the effects of lifestyle, including physical exercise and diet, on ageing, research has increasingly turned its attention to the potential cognitive benefits of musical hobbies. However, such research has mainly concentrated on hobbies involving musical instruments.
The cognitive benefits of playing an instrument are already fairly well known: such activity can improve cognitive flexibility, or the ability to regulate and switch focus between different thought processes. However, the cognitive benefits of choir singing have so far been investigated very little… until now.
Findings from a study conducted by Emmi Pentikäinen, a doctoral student in the Cognitive Brain Research Unit and the Music, Ageing and Rehabilitation Team at the University of Helsinki, has provided evidence of how group singing is beneficial for our brains, in the same ways as playing an instrument. Singing in a choir requires flexible executive function and concentration, and supports our wellbeing by giving our rhythm and memories a workout as we learn new material. It connects us emotionally to the content of the music and we form friendships and connections with other singers, too.
In a quest to know if and how it could be safe to all sing together again, Ballarat Choral Societyapplied for funding from Regional Arts Victoria to conduct some research of their own. “What we were anxious about was that there didn’t appear to be any specific information coming through for choirs” says Merle Hathaway, President of the Ballarat Choral Society (BCS), a non-auditioned community choir with over 100 singers on the books.
“To just not sing any more is not really a good idea when you look at all of the health benefits associated with it. Our idea was to form a small team of people with expertise in all sorts of different areas to work out whether it was at all safe for us all to sing together and also to explore whether there was any sort of technology we could use which would enable us to sing in the one space.”
The resulting Singing Together Again(STA) team comprises Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University; civil engineer Michael Knowles, sound recording expert Rex Hardware, and BCS choir members Brian Sala, an electronics engineer; Musical Director Helen Duggan, and Merle, who is the project manager. “We got the grant and then realised that we didn’t have an epidemiologist on the team”, Merle laughs. “We didn’t have anyone from the world of health at all. Somebody had heard Professor Catherine Dennis speaking so we asked her and to our surprise she said yes.”
In this world-first project, the plan was always to share the findings with other singing groups and choirs.
“I came across a bunch of people singing in a park recently, all side by side and sharing the same piece of music. They were having a lovely time and singing at the top of their voices, but the way they were doing it was too risky and so we started to think it was time to begin sharing the findings of our research with singers and singing groups everywhere.”
Over the course of the past year, the STA team has followed what’s been going on around the world and staying on top of the data emerging from world research around aerosol dispersal and voice projection, translating all of the associated findings and risks into a COVID safe plan that takes a whole range of things into account.
The findings of their research to date recommends singing in a well-ventilated space, limiting indoor singing time to 20 minutes, and spacing singers 2 metres apart with 3 metres between rows. Air movement and effective ventilation is key. BCS are also planning to conduct temperature checks at the door as a way to avoid complacency and as a reminder to themselves that the risk of infection is real and ever present.
Merle adds, “other advice from Professor Bennett has included using fans to blow out the space when you’re not in it during breaks between singing, when all of the singers have moved out of the rehearsal area. The time that you sing for is really critical too. Keep ‘solid singing’ to 20 minute blocks and then move out of the room and use fans to blast air through it before returning back in.”
Ballarat Choral Society is hunting for a space which fits this criteria and has even considering singing in underground car parks because they’re usually draughty spaces. “In Ballarat the winters are quite cold so ideally we want to find a big space or a space that allows us to move from one place to another like a church hall attached to a church, or like the football oval where there’s indoor and outdoor spaces adjoining for singers to move between.”
They were all set to try out a new venue – two adjacent halls – when the latest Victorian regulations postponed all gatherings for at least a week. The choir is also making a set of specially designed singers’ masks, with stiffening away from the face.
Merle and the team are also exploring ways to overcome the challenge of everyone effectively holding their parts whilst physically distanced. “We have some very strong singers and we also have people like me – I rely very heavily on the presence of having a very good singer behind me!”
One idea being considered is for singers to wear a headset which feeds the sound into a mixer and relays it back to the singers’ ears. While this would call for more funding, Merle is excited about the possibilities this technology could open up: “I think we could really have fun with it, we could try our underground carpark idea, each coming from different directions, we could try singing in the Botanic Gardens at a huge distance from each other like a flashmob while all remaining connected.”
To overcome the natural gravitational pull of navigating towards each other whilst singing, the BCS have found a lovely, low-tech solution to the problem. “A member has donated a set of sports field markers – yellow plastic discs – which we can place on the ground to give us all a nice bright reminder of where we should be standing!”
One thing which preoccupies Merle in the small hours of the morning is the hope that “we’ve got it right and what if we’ve got it wrong?”
It’s important to keep in mind that this is a live project, the findings being shared are what the team has discerned to date, and that precautions can be increased or reduced, for example the wearing of masks indoors, depending on the level of threat from COVID in the community at any point in time.
The STA team had expected to conclude their research in February but because of the fluidity of the whole situation, Merle believes that it is likely things will roll on beyond this point. As Merle says, when it comes to considering a world without any face-to-face community singing, “to do nothing is more risky; we’re better off to share what we know – to say it’s early days and to encourage other people to continue their own research as well… All we want to do is sing.”
Music is known to provoke the senses, give pleasure and sometimes move people to tears. Surely this has little to do with mathematical models which are so frequently associated with cold and rational logic. So what can maths tell us about this powerful phenomenon closely connected to the emotions? Can mathematics help us measure what’s sublime or ineffable about a piece of music?
Music evokes strong emotions such as frisson (goose bumps), awe and laughter – and has been found to use the same reward pathways as food, drugs and sex to induce pleasure. A shiver down one’s spine or an uncontrollable guffaw when listening to music is most often a case of the music defying your expectations. Expectations can be defined in two ways: schematic – knowing how a genre of music is supposed to go – or veridical – knowing how a particular piece of music unfolds.
On one end of the spectrum, a performance or a piece of music that does just what you’d expect runs the risk of becoming banal. On the other end, music like that of PDQ Bach – which uses tongue-in-cheek egregious violations of known expectations – makes many people laugh.
PDQ Bach: The Short-tempered Clavier: Minuet in C. EC, Author provided735 KB (download)
The craving that comes from musical anticipation and the euphoria that follows the reward have both been found to be linked to dopamine release. As a result, performers and composers alike play with listeners’ expectations, often going to great lengths to carefully choreograph their expectations, and then sometimes breaking them, to provoke and heighten emotional responses.
Playing with expectations
In tonal music, which is almost all of the music that we hear and can be thought of as being based on a scale, the note sequence sets up expectations, then suspends, fulfils, or violates them. For a simple example, sing the first three phrases of “Happy Birthday” and stop at the end of the penultimate phrase.
Anticipation for the resolution to this musical cliffhanger creates a palpable knot in the gut. This hollow feeling can be further intensified by delaying the final phrase. The release is evident when the final phrase is heard and ends happily on the most stable tone.
Two things are at work here in this miniature example: tonality and time. Tonality provides a framework through which expectations are formed – and the play on time, the delaying of expectations, uses the framework to create a musical cliffhanger and titillate the senses.
Where maths comes in
Expectations can be modelled mathematically and time can be measured – so the shaping of both expectations and time can be described in numbers. Over the years, in my research lab, we have developed models and computer algorithms for quantifying tonal properties and expressive parameters in music. Many of the tonal analysis algorithms are based on what is known as a “spiral array model”.
The spiral array can be plotted in 3D to allow us to visualise the dynamic evolution of musical keys and spot when the notes and their timing combine to do something interesting to tug at our emotions.
As music is heard, the notes can be mapped to the model, duly weighted and summarised as points inside it. Movements in the space inside the model allow listeners to see deviations from expected tonal behaviour.
Just as pitches that sound close one to another are spatially near each other; the converse is true: pitches that sound far from one another are spatially far apart. Feelings of tension translate to quantifiably big distances – notes mapping to widely dispersed points or pulling far away from an established centre of gravity.
Composers actively vary the tension over time to generate interest and captivate the listener’s attention. The shaping of tension over time also helps create meaningful long-term structure. It is notoriously hard for computer algorithms to generate music with long-term structure. But the MorpheuS system, developed by music researcher Dorien Herremans, circumvents this problem to generate music with a pre-set narrative structure by using a tension model based on the spiral array. Listen to this version of JS Bach’s “Minuet in D”:
MorpheuS-Bach: A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena: Minuet in D. EC, Author provided582 KB (download)
It follows the tension profile, rhythms, and repetition patterns of the original piece from A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach:
JS Bach: A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach: Minuet in D. EC, Author provided605 KB (download)
The notes of the generated piece also conjures up similar degrees of tension to the original music. For example, discordant sounds follows the same patterns of discord in Bach’s original piece.
Not only do notes themselves create tension, a performer can delay resolutions to heighten suspense. Judicious use of timing is one of the most potent expressive devices for eliciting emotional responses. The right amount of delay can sweeten the anticipation – but take too much time and the performer risks losing the listener.
In music with a beat, the musical pulse forms a baseline grid on which to measure timing deviations – prolongations and reductions of the time unit. In extreme cases, these warpings of musical time produce tipping points, the feeling of being poised at the brink of an abstract hill in an imaginary roller coaster.
We can use maths to present this graphically. When a piece of music is performed precisely as written, it is displayed as a flat line in these graphs. But music is almost never played exactly as written. Performers often exercise significant creative license; as a result, anomalous peaks signal the evocation of musical tipping points.
By elongating specific notes – or words or syllables – the performer draws the listener’s ears to details that might have been missed or glossed over. Because the listener often knows what’s coming, the delay prolongs expectation – creating drama and exaggerating emotional cues.
Mathematics is the language through which scientists understand the nature of the universe. However, the extent to which numbers can explain the ephemeral experience of music has yet to be fully explored. Why does music move us? How do its variegated structures translate to musical expectations? How do performers and composers exploit these expectations to craft profound and moving musical experiences? Our mathematical forays into these questions are but the tip of the ice berg.