music and the mind

Have you ever heard of the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra? Their website introduces them as a group that performs music solely on instruments made of vegetables, with “carrot flutes, pumpkin basses, leek violins, leek-zucchini-vibrators [??], cucumberophones, and celery bongos.” Sometimes, they even include the noises of kitchen instruments.

Geez, I’m hungry. Good thing I’m going to Hillcrest Farmer’s Market after finishing this post!

Anyway, here is the cover of their album Automate, complete with my favorite vegetable, romanesco (fractal) broccoli. I’ve never eaten this cauliflower relative, but I have been known to call supermarkets when it is in season to see if it happens to be in stock.

Here are some of their instruments:

Cool! I was ignorant to the existence of this musical ensemble before finding a video of a talk by Dr. Patel called called “Music and the Mind.” It is part of a series available on YouTube called Grey Matters: From Molecules to Mind. Ani included the group as an example of how humans are constantly innovating new ways to explore as musical beings. This topic is one of the many interesting remarks made throughout the talk, and I wanted to write on some its highlights as a way to introduce formally the overarching topic that inspired my summer project.

Part IAn introduction

The video starts with an introduction from Dr. Ralph Greenspan of the Neurosciences Institute. He remarks that Ani is a clarinetist and a classical guitarist and that this musical background sparked his interest in the way the brain intersects with music. (I played clarinet and piano throughout my pre-collegiate education and attribute my interest in the field to this musical background!) Greenspan also notes how appropriate it is that, in light of this, Ani works at NSI, which is not only a premier research institution on brain science but also the home to a beautiful performing arts space that offers a plethora of performances throughout the year. Luckily for me, I get to benefit from both of these aspects of NSI, and of Dr. Patel!

Part IIA song is…

Patel’s talk begins with a quotation from Plato circa 400 B.C.: “Rhythm and harmony find their way into the inwards places of the soul…” He reflects that despite this early mention of the real impact that music can have on the individual, the field is only several decades old. He continues to explain some research with which I am vaguely familiar on the physiological manifestations of strong experiences with music, powered by the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus acumbens, brain areas involved in the reward circuit featuring the neurotransmitter dopamine. My Haverford adviser Marilyn Boltz showed me a journal article on this topic when I was planning the syllabus for a Hurford Humanities Center class I co-taught with Jane Holloway ’11 on film music. Ani was focusing on strong experiences with purely instrumental music that was not paired with lyrical or filmic stimuli.

More generally, it is important to consider why music neuroscience is an important field. How is research in the field able to contribute to a scientific understanding of brain mechanisms and humans as a species? Is it anything other than just really awesome? Yes, indeed! And Ani lists several compelling reasons why. He indicates the benefits of the fact that music engages many brain functions, including emotion, memory, learning & plasticity, pattern perception, imagery. Also, music and language are universal and unique to human beings.

You may be like, no, birds sing. Haven’t you heard of parrots? Or the lyrebird? But Ani addresses this point of controversy, pointing out that birdsong tends to be triggerd by hormonal and neuronal changes that happen at certain times of year and in certain contexts, mostly by males who have reached sexual maturity. Humans of both sexes, conversely, are musical from an early age.

It is important to understand how both humans and, for example, parrots are able to produce complex sound patterns based on auditory input, known as vocal learning. Ani explains that this phenomenon also exists in songbirds, hummingbirds, whales, dolphins, bats, and seals. He showed a video of a dancing parrot, and cited not only vocal learning capabilities but the existence of the basal ganglia as reasons why this parrot was able to synchronize its body movements to a beat. It is also true that species unable to vocally learn, such as our closest genetic relatives chimpanzees and bonobos, cannot move to a beat.

Part IIILife without music, or without language

Since there is no animal model, much of the research on music neuroscience has focused on individuals who are amusic, or those with problems with, for example, recognizing familiar tunes, spotting sour notes, or telling the difference between two tunes. (Ani provides these specific examples in this talk, citing the research of Isabelle Peretz.) These problems can range from melody perception/production, rhythm perception/production, and the emotional response to music, which has elucidated that the brain has no specific musical center. This was found by observing and studying two groups: amusics without aphasia (language loss), and aphasics without amusia. This talk introduced me to another cool musician, composer Vissorion Shebalin, who suffered several strokes and lost his ability to speak

Intrigued by these findings, Ani’s lab (circa the 90′s) was the first to use brain imaging to study the processing patterns of music and language in health patients without brain damage. Using musical and linguistic sentences with grammatical anomalies (a wrong, “sour” note, or an incorrect verb tense), they found that the brain responses to were nearly identical. It has also been shown that some areas of the brain deemed specific to language, such as Broca’s area, are activated by music. The connection between music and language in the brain described by these findings is bolstered by another finding that musical and linguistic grammar impairment is significantly correlated, with the severity of one predicting the severity of other depending on the degree of aphasia or amusia.

Part IVBabies

Of most relevance to the current project, Ani divulged that humans are the only species that use music to soothe their young. Lullabies are universal among humans, as is “parentese,” the sing-song-like speech that adults tend to use around children. This summer’s research aims to continue to explore the merits of these behaviors on the health of newborns, in particular the cardiac surgery recoverees.