Tag Archives: brain

The real reason dinosaurs became extinct (& some neurological benefits of music-making)

Dinosaurs couldn’t sing. Perhaps their demise had nothing to do with earth impacting asteroids or the frustration of tiny arms after all and was instead triggered by their physical inability to sing. Now, I’m no scientist but…

Findings from a report published last year suggest the Jurassic age was filled with awkward silences punctuated only by squawks, leaf munching and worse. Without the option to experience the joy of shared breathing patterns, matched heartbeats or the release of life affirming endorphins catalysed by singing together, life in the days of the dinosaurs must have been bleak. Imagine having no way to celebrate the break of a new day or the setting of an evening sun. Imagine a world without song.

The oldest, complete example of a found fossilised syrinx belonged to a species of ancient bird related to the ducks and geese of today called Vegavis iaai, which lived during the Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic Era between 66-69 million years ago.

The specimen was dug up on Vega Island in Antartica by a team from the Argentine Antarctic Institute, led by Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at The University of Texas.  Twenty five years later, upon subsequent re-examination in 2013, Clarke and her team discovered the fossilised bird was found to contain a complete syrinx, the avian equivalent of a human larynx or ‘voice box’.

The team spent the next two years searching records of previous Jurassic finds to establish whether earlier examples of a syrinx existed. Their research came to nothing, with all other examples of fossilised syrinxes occurring in species of birds that evolved long after the extinction of land-based dinosaurs.

This discovery was important as it offered insight into the Jurassic soundscape: Without a syrinx, those poor old land lubbin’ dinosaurs would have been incapable of song:

“To speculate wildly, we might have closed-mouth booms more similar to crocodilians in large-bodied dinosaurs like  T. rex…..said Clarke.”

If you’re thinking okay, enough about dinosaurs already, what does all this have to do with community music? Well, for the sake of this blog, what’s relevant was a subsequent observation of Clarke and her team:

“…the evolution of vocal behaviour can provide insights into other anatomical features… such as the development of bigger brains.”

Aha, now this is more like it! Jumping from the Jurassic age into the 21st century, a study led by Dr Vanessa Sluming from the University of Liverpool and published in 2002 of a British Symphony Orchestra found that musicians exhibited larger volumes of grey matter in Broca’s area, the part of our brains responsible for language and verbal working memory, and this volume varied depending on how many years they’d been playing their instrument.

“Although this area declines with age, orchestral players kept more of their brain cells than non-players, as they aged.” Dr Vanessa Sluming

Furthermore, it’s well documented that singing and learning songs builds neurological pathways, and also boosts levels of acetylcholine in the brain, an organic chemical which functions as a neurotransmitter sending messages through the brain and playing a highly important role in memory retention.

In committing new material to memory and then drawing on that in the context of our singing and music making, we improve our capacity to recall and remember.

Valuable for all this and more, community music making provides the opportunity to simply celebrate being alive. We should all keep learning and singing new songs and playing new tunes, recalling favourites from the archives along the way and our long term mental health and well-being will reap the rewards. And we should all be grateful not to have been born a dinosaur.

Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria

Further reading:

Music improves brain power – in some performers
https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/sep/12/health.research

Do musicians have bigger brains?
https://www.braintraining101.com/do-musicians-have-bigger-brains/

Boost your memory and your brain by singing
https://www.lifehacker.com.au/2013/08/boost-your-brain-and-memory-by-singing/

And further reading on dinosaurs…

Dinosaurs couldn’t sing
https://scienceblog.com/488716/dinosaurs-couldnt-sing/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+scienceblogrssfeed+%28ScienceBlog.com%29

Fossil evidence of the avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic https://www.nature.com/articles/nature19852.epdf?referrer_access_token=N4n-vV1ZFQa_2ZrBCVDDqNRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0POdDZwZ05Pa-IKumwU5iqFPqb9J0RCiSbNodY9t6fsIlllkLV3NV3ydjAEF95r56mcI_GYrpf2Qnn5rc1s0gl6sKaUASwdqhDR20W53nuCUV_E8jqkJBnLnuEms1KFl1PFBulm

 

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A child’s brain develops faster with exposure to music education

A study by researchers at the University of Southern California shows that exposure to music and music instruction accelerates the brain development of young children.

Source: A child’s brain develops faster with exposure to music education

Researchers discover the anatomic reasons for the persistence of musical memory in alzheimer patients

For anyone witnessing the degeneration of a person affected by the later stages of Alzheimer’s, it can be baffling but extremely heartening to witness their response to music and songs from their past.

This phenomenon has been well documented with singing and music therapy incorporated increasingly into care programs. But, until very recently, no scientific explanation or evidence has been available about how and why this should be.

In a recent study using MRI scans to show brain activity, neuroscientists have been able to locate the precise area of the brain where our musical memories are stored. In doing so they also realised that in a brain affected by Alzheimer’s, this ‘musical storeroom’ appeared more resilient to other degenerative effects of the disease.

Reading the article below, first published by Medical Xpress, two things spring to mind. One is the importance of remaining active music makers to build and maintain strong neurological pathways, and the second, based on concern about a particular mental store room where the shelves are cluttered with guilty pleasures from the 70s and 80s, is to expose ourselves to a wide variety of as much good music as possible, while our brains remain healthy.  Read the article 

Seeing in tune

Musicians don’t just hear in tune, they also see in tune.

By David Salisbury

150626SeeintuneThat is the conclusion of the latest scientific experiment designed to puzzle out how the brain creates an apparently seamless view of the external world based on the information it receives from the eyes.

“Our brain is remarkably efficient at putting us in touch with objects and events in our visual environment, indeed so good that the process seems automatic and effortless. In fact, the brain is continually operating like a clever detective, using clues to figure out what in the world we are looking at. And those clues come not only from what we see but also from other sources,” said Randolph Blake, Centennial Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, who directed the study.

Scientists have known for some time that the brain exploits clues from sources outside of vision to figure out what we are seeing. For example, we tend to see what we expect to see based on past experience. Moreover, we tend to see what our other senses tell us might be present in the world, including what we hear. Read more

NB: The Community Music Victoria model of teaching doesn’t rely on a person’s ability to read music and follow dots. In singing leadership, for example, we involve a hand, raised and lowered to demonstrate changes in pitch, creating a visual soundscape which is inclusive and easy to follow. It would be interesting to know how that kind of cognitive association with music applies in the context of these findings.

Recipe for a weekend warmer

weekendwarmerWe’re trying a new approach to the blog this week! As it’s getting colder and more wintery with every passing day here in Victoria, we thought some focus on snuggling up and hunkering down this weekend, wouldn”t go amiss.

In light of this we’ve found a Canadian music website packed full of interesting stuff for you to read and relax with, and we’ve come up with an easy recipe for a great wintery soup too.

Chop up the ingredients before clicking through the links and it can bubble away whilst you’re reading. By the time you’re done, you’ll have had food for thought, the house will smell great and there’ll be something warming and delicious to eat whilst you indulge yourself in some dedicated downtime.

So here’s the recipe:

  • 600 grams butternut squash or pumpkin (prepared weight)
  • 1 handful fresh coriander to garnish
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 4 large carrots (roughly chopped, always music to these ears)
  • 1 large potato (roughly chopped too)
  • 500 ml of stock (veg or chicken)
  • salt (to season)
  • pepper (to season)
  • 150 ml cream (up to you how much)

Method: Chop everything up and pop it in a pot – don’t add the fresh herbs yet – then leave it to simmer and soften up whilst you’re reading, and then whizz it up: bingo! Add the cream if you’re having some, top it off with the herbs and consume with crusty bread after a long walk; after an indulgent kip on the sofa. or, if you’re off to work, have it when you come home. It’ll taste even better. The world’s your oyster, well, your butternut.

And here’s the brain food bit.

These articles were both published on the website of CBC, based in Vancouver, Canada, together with several others compiled for their focus on music as part of Science week. The first one ‘How Music Works: How does the Human Voice Work?’ is not only a fascinating read about the dynamics of something most of us take for granted, it’s got a video close up of some singers’ vocal cords working and everything!

The second short article is ‘How Music Works: why do you sound better when you’re singing in the shower?’ which exposes the science behind the reason we really all do sound more divine when we sing in the shower.

You’ll see a whole heap of other interesting posts to read, too, such as why some people get the chills when they listen to music. And there are also links to music from all sorts of genres too, so you’ll be able to while away as much time as time allows…just don’t let that ole soup stick! We’ll link these articles on the CMVic website too, as they’re great for future reference.

Keep warm, bon appetite and a happy weekend from the team at CMVic. (let us know how your soup turns out…)

How the brain reads music: the evidence for musical dyslexia

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Could dysmusia be to reading music what dyslexia is to reading text, and dyscalculia is to math? Sheet music via http://www.shutterstock.com.

By Jennifer Mishra: Associate Professor, Music Education at University of Missouri-St. Louis

Music education in the western world often emphasizes musical literacy, the ability to read musical notation fluently. But this is not always an easy task – even for professional musicians. Which raises the question: Is there such a thing as musical dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning disability that occurs when the brain is unable to process written words, even when the person has had proper training in reading. Researchers debate the underlying causes and treatments, but the predominant theory is that people with dyslexia have a problem with phonological processing – the ability to see a symbol (a letter or a phoneme) and relate it to speech sounds. Dyslexia is difficult to diagnose, but it is thought to occur in up to 10% of the population.

In 2000, Neil Gordon, a retired pediatric neurologist, proposed the idea of musical dyslexia (dysmusia) based on growing evidence that the areas of the brain involved in reading music and text differed.

The idea that dyslexia could affect the reading of non-language symbols is not new. For instance, dyscalculia is the difficulty reading and understanding mathematical symbols. Recent research supports dyslexia and dyscalculia as separate conditions with unique causes (dyscalculia is thought to be caused by a deficit in spatial processing in the parietal lobe). If the brain processes words and mathematical symbols differently, why not musical symbols too?

Music’s written system

Western music, like language, has a highly evolved coding system. This allows it to be written down and transmitted from composer to performer. But music, unlike language, uses a spatial arrangement for pitch. The page is divided into staffs of five lines each. Basically, the higher a symbol is placed on the staff, the higher the pitch.

Unlike letters in text, pitches can be stacked, indicating simultaneous performance (chords). Music also uses a system of symbols to indicate how pitches should be played. Symbols can indicate duration (rhythm), volume (dynamics) and other performance cues. Music also utilizes written words to indicate both the expressive features of the music and the lyrics in vocal music. Lyrics may be in languages not spoken by the performer.

Due to differences in the physical features of the written systems, it makes sense that the brain would read music and text differently. This appears to be the case – at least to some extent.

Text and music reading in the brain

In the brain, reading music is a widespread, multi-modal activity, meaning that many different areas of the brain are involved at the same time. It includes motor, visual, auditory, audiovisual, somatosensory, parietal and frontal areas in both hemispheres and the cerebellum – making music reading truly a whole brain activity. With training, the neural network strengthens. Even reading a single pitch activates this widespread network in musicians. While text and music reading share some networks, they are largely independent. The pattern of activation for reading musical symbols and letters is different across the brain.

Brain damage, especially if it is widespread, as was the case with the composer Maurice Ravel, (perhaps best known for Boléro, will likely impair both text and music reading abilities. Ravel had a form of frontotemporal lobe dementia.

However, there have been cases where a more limited brain injury impaired reading of one coding system and spared the other.

Ian McDonald, a neurologist and amateur pianist, documented the loss and recovery of his own ability to read music after a stroke, though his ability to read text was unaffected. Oliver Sacks described the case of a professional pianist who, through a degenerative brain disease, (Posterior Cortical Atrophy), first lost her ability to read music while retaining her text reading for many years. In another case, showing the opposite pattern, a musician lost his ability to read text, but retained his ability to read music.

Cases where music and language seem to be differently affected by brain damage have fascinated researchers for centuries. The earliest reported case of someone who was unable to speak, but retained his ability to sing, was in the 1745 article, On a Mute who Can Sing.

More recently, the Russian composer, Vissarion Shebalin, lost his language abilities after a severe stroke, but retained his ability to compose. Maintaining the ability to sing in the absence of language has led to the creation of a therapeutic treatment called “Melodic Intonation Therapy” that essentially replaces speech with song. This allows the patient to communicate verbally. These cases and many others demonstrate that music and language are to some extent separate neurological processes.

Differences in reading ability can occur even within musical notation. Cases have been reported where musicians have lost their ability to read pitch, but retained their ability to read rhythm, and vice versa. fMRI studies have confirmed that the brain processes pitch (spatial information) and rhythm (symbol recognition) differently.

Musical dyslexia

The research starts to imply how a specifically musical dyslexia could occur. This deficit may be centered on pitch or musical symbols or both. No conclusive case of musical dyslexia has yet been reported (though Hébert and colleagues have come close) and efforts to determine the effects of dyslexia on reading musical notation have been inconclusive.

Children in western cultures are taught to read text, but not always taught to read music. Even when they are, inabilities to read music are not generally treated as a serious concern. Many gifted musicians are able to function at a professional level purely learning music by ear. Among musicians, there is a wide range of music reading proficiencies. This is especially apparent with sight reading (the first performance of a notated piece). Identifying musical dyslexia could help explain why some musicians read well and others don’t.

This article appears on the Community Music Victoria  blog courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives)

http://theconversation.com

Why I love Marimbas

Great instruments for community music-making

by Heather McLaughlin

MARIMBA

I have been a keen fan of homemade marimbas since the very first community-built instrument was made in Australia, at a family music conference in Melbourne in 1991. As I now come to the end of my teaching career in schools, I’ve realised that the absolute favourite part of my job in recent years has been getting kids and adults playing marimbas (often along with xylophone and other melodic percussion). I also really enjoy helping people to make marimbas, and a one-day working bee with a group of families can result in an instrument that will last for years. For adults in the community they are a perfect step into playing music in groups. (One of my most satisfying workshop sessions was getting some novice 90 year old men playing marimbas.)

In the early 1990s, Jon Madin and Andy Rigby began what is now an international movement by adapting the marimba-making model Andy had learnt about in Botswana. Ever since then, playing marimbas, encouraging others to play them, and making them with school and community groups has been a big part of my life.

Some of the instruments I have been using in schools recently were made in the early 1990s and are still going strong – with perhaps a few bars replaced over that time, and a bit of re-tuning every few years.

What’s so magical about Marimbas?

  • Lots of things!  They are so big, you can make them yourself, they are made of lovely wood, they can be played by anyone, they always sound good, and you can play with your friends! Someone can play just a two note bass and others can add in other patterns and it will sound good. Or you can play more complicated things like the “Can Can” which is great fun. All levels, all ages.
  • I just love the sound of a room full of marimbas booming away, whether it’s school kids or top-level musicians or a mix of all ages or beginner adults.
  • Anyone can sound good on a marimba within ten minutes.
  • With carefully selected pieces, even a new group of players can sound terrific in fifteen.
  • Marimba playing = Immediate gratification!

In schools    PPSperf2012

As a foundation to a classroom set of xylophones and other percussion, they have now become common in music programmes, especially in the Australian states where music specialists are regular members of staff in primary schools (Victoria, Queensland etc). Ideally they are the Jon Madin design and have been made by parents and children at the same school, for feelings of ownership and empowerment.

Carl Orff, a German composer and music educator, inspired an approach to learning music that encouraged playing  and singing as a group, integrating music and movement or dance, and used instruments that were easy to play.

The set of instruments used in an Orff-inspired music programme is called the ‘instrumentarium’ and usually consists of ‘melodic percussion’ or barred instruments:  xylophones (wooden bars), glockenspiels (the little high-pitched metal ones), and metallophones (larger, lower-pitched metal ones), Percussion instruments such as drums and wood blocks, and recorders, are also part of the ‘Orff Instrumentarium’. Marimbas are an ideal addition to this collection, and are common in primary schools around Victoria. One of the enormous bass marimbas added in gives great ‘oomph’ to the music and is always popular with students.

The Victorian Orff Schulwerk Association (VOSA) runs lots of workshops and other events for teachers and other adults interested in music and/or working with children. Carl Orff also emphasized improvisation, and marimbas and percussion.

Marimbas:90yr oldMarimba

  • sound great, look impressive
  • are really satisfying to build (for $300 or less)
  • are perfect for schools and community music-making
  • improvising is easy, with a visual aspect
  • are good for people with varied musical background
  • can be used for quick group music
  • are a non-threatening introduction to instrumental music
  • are ideal for social interaction.

The large size and physical nature of the marimbas make them appealing, especially to older students and adults, and they give a good bass to the other instruments.

Ideas that work

Many of the musical pieces Jon Madin and others have developed over the last twenty years have a quite simple bass line – often only a few notes – and use similar ideas to those developed by composer and music educator Carl Orff after his interest in African and Indonesian traditional music:

  • repeated patterns or ostinatiHeatherClose-upMarimba
  • segments that are visually and aurally separate
  • sometimes removal of some of the notes to make patterns easier
  • familiar tunes (from the Pachelbel Canon to Hell and Toe)
  • catchy rhythms can emphasise the percussive nature of marimbas
  • a small number of notes
  • avoiding big jumps
  • songs which tell players which letters to use

By combining a simple bass with a middle part which is not too difficult, and perhaps a more complex top part or melody which is fairly quick to learn, groups of novice musicians can be led to group music-making that is immediately satisfying.

Jon Madin’s “Boris the Bassman” has been a great favourite for 20 years because it incorporates these elements.

Community Marimba Playing

There are regular events where you can play marimbas.  Weekends such as Community Music Victoria’s Treetops Music Camp, Turramurra Bush Music Camp, Roses Gap/Charnwood Folk Camp, and the monthly playing sessions in West Heidelberg (HeidyMarimba) all offer opportunities for everyone to try these instruments.

You’ll see them at some festivals. Look out for Jon Madin and his marimbas (plus all those other surprising instruments such as Musical Bikes and DingBoxes). Andy Rigby may be there with some marimbas as well as harps or flutes of various types. The annual Melbourne Wood Show has a stand where you can see an instrument being made, and try them out. In Geelong, and at the Port Fairy Folk Festival, you may see the Tate Street Primary group playing. Maybe your local primary school has a couple.

Marimbas are all around, especially in Victoria – hooray!

Want to know more? Want to play? Want to make one? Contact CMVic or like Marimba Victoria on Facebook

Resources

Jon Madin: Make Your Own Marimbas ; Jon Madin: Marimba Music 1 etc. (Four books/CDs of pieces and songs);

Walt Hampton Hot Marimba

Gerard van der Geer Marimbamania

Andy Rigby Marimba!

Click here for Jon Madin’s website

Video clips:

Joseph Bromley with ukes and marimbas in Wangaratta, Spanish Harlem

Dani Rocca’s session at CMVic Tune Up 2012 – “Banuwa”

Jon Madin’s “Rocking Dogs” – NSW Small Schools Marimba group

2012 Tune Up  session with Heather McLaughlin

Joseph Bromley with Morricone at Treetops:

How playing an instrument benefits your brain – Anita Collins

Runs for 4min & 45sec

A TedTalk: 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? 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.