Category Archives: music and science

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

A Community in Action

Dr Laura Brearley

Terry and I have been walking and filming in the Coastal Woodlands over the last couple of weeks. We’ve also been spending time with singing and ukulele groups who have been learning the song ‘Are You Listening?’ for the outro of a film we are making about the precious Western Port Woodlands, currently at risk from sandmining expansion. 

We have been inspired by the community’s willingness to come together and raise their voices in this way. This week, we have worked with two of Mandy Farr’s local ukulele groups, one at the Warrawee Senior Citizens Club in Inverloch and another at the Wonthaggi Neighbourhood Centre. There we were joined by members of the Bass Coast Post community and the Gippsland Singers Network. We have filmed the Vocal Nosh group at St John’s Uniting Church in Cowes, as well as some Coastal Connections participants singing outside the Wonthaggi Arts Centre. In the middle of the week, a group of us sang together and went for a walk in The Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve, led by knowledgeable birder and conservationist Gil Smith. Last weekend, the Melbourne Climate Choir gathered in a park in Brunswick to sing for the film in support of the Western Port Woodlands campaign. The Climate Choir brings together members of different choirs from across Melbourne to support environmental actions. 

Next week, the U3A Choir on Phillip Island will be learning and singing the ‘Are You Listening?’ song. We will also be filming members of the Melbourne-based ‘Music for a Warming World’ collective and a choir from the ‘Save Western Port’ community, who are offering their support from the other side of the Bay in Balnarring. 

Nicki Johnson is a musician, an environmental activist and the Program Coordinator at Community Music Victoria. We have worked and sung together in environmental and intercultural arts projects in Bass Coast and beyond over a number of years. Nicki performed at the 2019 Island Whale Festival and has facilitated singing and ukulele workshops at Community Music Victoria’s Music Camps in Grantville. Terry has made a short film about Nicki’s work as a singing leader which reveals her commitment to climate justice and her approach to interweaving music and environmental action:

Nicki believes that community music can play an important role in raising awareness about environmental issues. In her words …

‘Music has a way of bringing us together.  If we venture into the areas of despair and grief, we won’t be able to get any work done. If we don’t feel hope, we can’t go forward effectively. I love to facilitate conversations and sing songs about the planet and the responsibility we have for making sure it is as healthy as possible. 

Singing and playing music opens us up. When we sing with people, our breathing and our heartbeats synchronise and we become one organism vibrating together. This opens our hearts and our senses and we are able to connect. I think the ability to feel connected to other people and to experience empathy is the thing that will really enable us to make a difference. 

I love that when we sing together, we start to resonate together and our hearts open. Singing is 90% listening. Ideas of blending and harmony are not just aural concepts. A choir is a living organism that can teach people how to be in harmony. Harmony is a lived experience. Giving people the opportunity to be heard is a powerful way to move forward together.’

Dr Peter Dann is another community leader who raises environmental awareness and inspires action. Peter is the Research Director of the Phillip Island Nature Parks. He has been working for over forty years in wildlife conservation, with a particular interest in seabirds and shorebirds, the ecology of islands and the conservation of threatened species. Peter was a guest speaker at a General Meeting of the Phillip Island Conservation Society held earlier this year. The topic of his presentation was ‘Ten Remarkable Things about the Natural History of Phillip Island: A Personal List.’ It was a compelling presentation, informative and from my perspective, very moving. Peter’s commitment to conservation was clear, as was the sense of care that has underpinned his decades of scientific work in the field. 

One of the ‘remarkable things’ he spoke about was the successful introduction of a population of Eastern Barred Bandicoots to Phillip Island (Millowl), now extinct in the wild on the mainland. After a successful trial release on Churchill Island, they were introduced to the Summerland Estate on Millowl. Their numbers are growing and the bandicoots are now doing so well, they have also been released onto French Island. 

A sense of possibility and agency was also central to Peter’s story of the buy-back of the Summerland Estate on Millowl, which has enabled the on-going restoration of the Little Penguins’ habitat on the Peninsula. Peter’s stories are engaging and inspiring. I wrote two children’s songs in response to his stories, one about Eastern Barred Bandicoots and one about Little Penguins. Over the coming months, I will be teaching the songs to local children and telling the stories about the conservation work that inspired them. The world our children and grandchildren are inheriting needs stories like these. Here are the links to the songs:

There are many reasons to feel discouraged at times in the conservation field. So much has been lost and continues to be threatened. It’s easy to slip into a sense of despair and powerlessness. The conservation work that Peter as a scientist and Nicki as a musician undertake is vital in the deepest sense of that word. 

On Saturday 17th July, COVID-willing, you can also be part of this life-affirming work that calls for the protection and preservation of the natural world. The Bass Coast Artists Society is hosting an event, Halcyon Harmonies and Reflections Exhibition’ at the Goods Shed in Wonthaggi. There will be photographs on display and local musicians will be performing all day. At 2.00pm, we’ll be facilitating a Pop-Up Conservation Choir to learn and sing the song ‘Are You Listening?’ for the Coastal Woodlands film. You are warmly welcome to join us. The lyrics and recording of the song can be found here.

And if singing publicly is not your thing, there are other ways you can be involved. You can learn to sign-dance the song (a slow form of deaf-signing) or you can be there to simply witness the strength and resolve of our community in action. 

To learn more about the Save Western Port Woodlands campaign and become involved in a range of ways, go to http://www.savewesternportwoodlands.org/

Nicki Johnson with partner Craig Barrie at the 2019 Island Whale Festival – Photo Teresa Cannon
Mandy Farr’s Ukulele Group at the Wonthaggi Neighbourhood Centre – Photo Terry Melvin

Written by Dr Laura Brearley
feature photograph: Walking in The Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve with Gil Smith and friends – Photo Laura Brearley

Choir singing can improve cognitive functioning among the elderly

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.

Read the full article here.

Source: University of Helsinki. (2021, February 10). Choir singing can improve cognitive functioning among the elderly. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 16, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210210133432.htm

Find a community singing group or choir on the CMVic website, here!
https://cmvic.org.au/groups

photo: eberhard-grossgasteiger-iIFLDQmXPiw on unsplash.com

Ballarat Choral Society Researches Safe Ways of Singing Together Again

In a quest to know if and how it could be safe to all sing together again, Ballarat Choral Society applied 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.”

L-R: Helen Duggan (BCS Musical Director), Professor Catherine Bennett, Brian Sala (electronics engineer, Vice Pres & bass singer), Rex Hardware (sound engineer), Mike Knowles (civil engineer) and Merle Hathaway (project manager, & President of  BCS). Photo supplied


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.”

L-R: Helen Duggan (BCS Musical Director), Brian Sala (electronics engineer, Vice Pres & bass singer), and Merle Hathaway ((project manager, & President of  BCS). Photo supplied


Stay tuned to STA research findings, updates and outcomes by joining BCS mailing list: info@ballaratchoralsociety.com

Article by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with Merle Hathaway, President of Ballarat Choral Society

How maths helps us understand why music moves people

By Elaine Chew, Queen Mary University of London

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.

Happy Birthday (first part)
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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.

Happy Birthday (second part)
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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.

An introduction to the MuSA.RT application which implements the spiral array model and its real-time algorithms for determining chords and keys.

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.

PDQ Bach: The Short-tempered Clavier: Minuet in C with real-time spiral array tonal analysis; note the deviant trajectories when the music strays away from the expected tonal context.

Musical tension

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.
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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.

Tipping points

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.

Tipping points in Fritz Kreisler’s recording of his Schön Rosmarin.
Beat lengths in Fritz Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin as performed by Kreisler: example of tipping points.
Elaine Chew

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.

Tipping points in Maria Callas’s recording of O Mio Babbino Caro from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi.
Beat lengths in Giacomo Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro as performed by Kathleen Battle, Maria Callas and Kiri te Kanawa: example of tipping points.
Elaine Chew

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.The Conversation

Elaine Chew, Professor of Digital Media, Queen Mary University of London

Featured image: Kovac via Shutterstock.com

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

Music Helps Spoken Language Development For Children With Impaired Hearing

A new study from the University of Helsinki has found that music, in particular singing, is beneficial to the brain of children with hearing impairment, and the development of their spoken language.

Ritva Torppa, a university Lecturer of Logopedics and Speech Therapist, and Professor Minna Huotilainen have published their findings together with those made by other researchers in a comprehensive paper called “Why and how music can be used to rehabilitate and develop speech and language skills in hearing-impaired children” published by Hearing Research.

This paper is a comprehensive review of the reasons why music could and should be used for improving the speech and language skills of children with mild to severe hearing impairments with cochlear implants and/or hearing aids, and contains a series of ten guidelines by Torppa and Huotilainen for the use of music with children of different ages and varying backgrounds for parents, caregivers, educators and therapists.

These recommendations can be found in section 3 of the paper, sub-titled How to use music to enhance speech and language skills of hearing-impaired children. Emphasis is placed on the value of using singing as your main instrument, especially with a young child, and the benefit of supporting the musical hobbies of teenagers with hearing impairments. The recommendations are made on the basis of the intervention studies and correlational studies described in the article, and on the basis of the traditional auditory rehabilitation, music therapy methodologies, and speech and language therapy methods.

“…the current evidence seems enough to urge speech therapists, music therapists, music teachers, parents, and children and adolescents with hearing impairments and/or cochlear implants to start using music for enhancing speech and language skills. For this reason, we give our recommendations on how to use music for language skill enhancement in this group.” – Rita Torppa and Minna Huotilaienen

Read the full article here: Hearing Research. doi:10.1016/j.heares.2019.06.003

Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria
Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

How playing an instrument benefits your brain – TED Ed

This TED Ed video is as engaging and share-worthy today as it was when it was very first published.  It’s a great incentive for anyone wondering whether to dust off an old instrument or pick up a new one for the first time. It’s also the perfect incentive to practise! If you’re looking for new music-making opportunities yourself, try the group search section of the CMVic website and get a party going in your own brain.

When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active. But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout. What’s going on? In this TedTalks video from 2014, Anita Collins explains the fireworks that go off in musicians’ brains when they play, and examines some of the long-term positive effects of this mental workout. [Directed by Sharon Colman Graham, narrated by Addison Anderson, music by Peter Gosling].

Source: https://www.ted.com/talks/anita_collins_how_playing_an_instrument_benefits_your_brain?language=en#t-8963

Full transcript available here

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Music lessons improve children’s cognitive abilities & academic performance

Findings from new research conducted in the Netherlands show that structured music lessons have a significant and positive effect on a child’s cognitive abilities, improving verbal intelligence, inhibition and planning skills.

kids

The study which followed 147 children from six schools over a 2.5 year period, was undertaken in response to the increasing disappearance of music from school timetables in countries across the world:

“Despite indications that music has beneficial effects on cognition, music is disappearing from general education curricula,” said lead author Dr. Artur Jaschke, who is a researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “This inspired us to initiate a long-term study on the possible effects of music education on cognitive skills that may underlie academic achievement.”

Read their findings and the full article here

Sources: 
Music Education Works: https://musiceducationworks.wordpress.com/2018/03/28/music-lessons-improve-childrens-cognitive-skills-and-academic-performance/ 
Frontiers: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2018.00103/full

Ageing in harmony: why the third act of life should be musical

Image 20160601 25573 yu48y8.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
It’s never too late to pick up a musical instrument. In fact there are many reasons why it’s a great idea, particularly in old age.We normally hear about reasons to increase music education for children, and for good cause. There are many cognitive and social benefits to playing an instrument that aid a child’s development. Consequently, as an older adult, there are long-term effects of having taken part in these musical activities, as it can limit cognitive decline.

Even a small amount of training can have long lasting effects. But this doesn’t mean that those who have never played an instrument in childhood have missed the boat. The ageing brain is plastic: that means it is able to learn new things all the time. So, should we consider an increase in music programs for those in the third age?

Playing music as a workout for the brain

Learning to play a musical instrument is an extremely complex task that involves the coordination of multiple sensory systems within the brain. Many instruments require precise coordination between the eyes, the ears and the hands in order to play a musical note. Using the resulting sound as feedback, the brain prepares for the next note and so it continues. The act of music-making is quite a brain workout.

The relationship between the motor and auditory parts of the brain is strengthened when physically playing music. This may explain why adults trained to play certain melodies have an enhanced representation of music in the brain compared to adults only trained to listen to the same melodies.

As playing music involves many different parts of the brain, even a short-term program for older adult musical novices can lead to generalised improvements for cognitive ability.

Music as a workout for the fingers

Learning to play an instrument such as the piano involves many complex finger sequencing and coordination tasks. As such, it can be a great test-bed for learning to move fingers independently.

The creativity of music and the enjoyment people take in playing is particularly important for rehabilitation, as it encourages sustained practice leading ultimately to higher benefits.

It’s thanks to this that piano lessons have been used to successfully retrain hand function for patients who have had a stroke. The immediate auditory feedback from each finger movement is thought to help adults reduce errors in movement and work towards moving at a more regular pace.

Music training is an excellent environment to train cognitive and motor abilities, both in the contexts of child development and for rehabilitation. The question for older adults is this: can learning a musical instrument not only put the brakes on cognitive and motor decline, but actually allow development of new skills?

Older adults can improve their motor learning – that is, they can improve their rate of learning new things – and the best environments for brain training are ones that are novel and flexible.

Of course many activities can be novel such as juggling or knitting, but the advantages of learning an instrument can be found in the breadth of skills required to play. At Western Sydney University, we are currently investigating how piano training can be used with healthy older adults to improve their general hand function in unrelated daily tasks.

Music for health and wellbeing

Often, the worry is that playing an instrument will be too difficult for older adults to manage. On the contrary, learning to play an instrument can provide a great sense of achievement and satisfaction.

Older adults relish the opportunity to learn something new. Cogntive benefits aside, music can also be a great social activity for older adults, facilitating social bonding and decreasing feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Music programs are linked to improvements measured in markers of the body’s immune system such as the presence of antibodies and vital signs (heart rate/blood pressure).

It’s suggested that this is a consequence of decreases in stress that can happen when taking part in musical activities. However, further research is needed to determine exactly how this relationship functions.

Music for all

It’s vital to understand how we can aid the current generation of older adults, in terms of both health and personal enjoyment. With the myriad benefits provided by playing a musical instrument, it would seem beneficial to have a wider variety of musical activities on offer to the older generation.

Wouldn’t it be great if the third age wasn’t viewed as a final descent from some mid-life peak, but some new act of life that opens up these opportunities? Perhaps we should give older adults the chance to develop in ways they could never have imagined before.

Activities such as singing in a choir, or playing the piano can provide this opportunity, as well as offering many general benefits to health and wellbeing.

Ageing in harmony: why the third act of life should be musical was written by
Jennifer MacRitchie, Research Lecturer in Music Perception and Cognition, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Image: Playing music is good for people at all stages in their lives – including the elderly – photo by Jeremy Brooks, CC BY-NC

 

Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease improve with singing, study finds

A study led by researchers from Griffith University has found that symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can be improved with regular singing.

Over 70 patients participated in the study run through Queensland Conservatorium of Music, which incorporated singing, warm ups, vocal cord and breathing exercises, to learn more about ‘how song could help battle the disease’, improving mobility and the overall quality of life.

It didn’t matter how well participants in the study could carry a tune, they simply had to commit to singing one hour each week for six months.

All of the patients involved in the trial reported an increase in self confidence and well being from taking part. Tremors associated with the disease were also reduced in some singers.

The outcomes and findings reaffirm, once again, the broad range of benefits to the individual in belonging to a community singing group or choir.

Read the original article in full, here.