Neuroscience and Music Conference Explores Benefits, History of the Art

by Maria Schamis Turner

August 12, 2008

If music be the food of learning, play on. Listening to and playing music is good for your mind, said most of the scientists who presented their research at the Neurosciences and Music conference held in late June at McGill University in Montreal.

 At the conference, sponsored every three years by the Pierfranco and Luisa Mariani Foundation, a nonprofit group focusing on child neurology, a group of researchers from around the world discussed the interactions between music and the human brain. Topics ranged from how music training influences brain activity in adults and children to therapeutic uses for music in neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, and even to the idea that the relationship between music and the brain started far back in our evolutionary past.

Music training and cognitive performance

Recent research suggests that music training has an effect on cognitive functions such as spatial perception, attention and memory extending beyond the domain of music training itself [see also the report of an Arts & Cognition consortium supported by Dana Foundation]. Laurel Trainor, director of the Institute for Music and the Mind and the Auditory Development Lab at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is among those trying to understand how this might happen.

“It is very curious that music would have an effect on spatial reasoning,” Trainor says. “We have evidence that it affects the auditory cortex. Why would that affect spatial reasoning?”

To better understand the potential mechanisms involved, Trainor and colleagues played the sounds of a violin, a piano and pure tones to adult professional violinists and amateur pianists and examined their response via electroencephalograph (EEG) readings, especially evoked and induced gamma band electrical activity. They also measured the response in 4- and 5-year-old children before and after a year of Suzuki piano training and compared both groups to control groups who received no music training.

Gamma band activity is oscillatory neural activity in the gamma range (30–100 Hz) that has been shown to accompany a variety of cognitive processes, including learning and memory formation. It is usually seen in two components: an evoked response that is tightly coupled—or locked in time—to the stimulus and an induced response, which is not coupled to the stimulus.

The researchers found that induced gamma band response increased in adults with music training, especially in response to hearing the instrument they played, compared with those with no music training. Evoked gamma band activity was also more pronounced in musicians than non-musicians. In children, no significant gamma band activity, either evoked or induced, was seen before music training. A year later, only those children who had taken Suzuki piano training showed a significant induced gamma band response to the sound stimuli; the control group showed no change. Neither group showed a significant evoked gamma band response.

“We think that gamma band response is involved in executive functions,” Trainor says. “And we believe that the mechanism by which music affects other cognitive domains [mathematics, language, spatial reasoning] is through training of executive functions, things like memory and attention.”

As well as trying to understand the basic science involved, Trainor sees practical applications of this area of research. “If we can show that training enhances these networks,” she says, “then any child who has this training will have an advantage in other tasks, be it math or chess or language.”

Sound medicine

In addition to studying the effects of music on the healthy brain, researchers also are investigating the uses of music for neuro-rehabilitation. For more than 15 years, Michael Thaut at Colorado Statue University and his colleagues have been looking at the effect of music and rhythm on motor control in people with stroke, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy and other neurological disorders. Using established motor control research on the normal ranges for movement, Thaut and others developed rhythmic patterns that mimic the body’s natural motions. Playing these rhythms to people who have impaired motor controls appears to help them re-establish movement.

“Timing is a very important aspect of coordinating and controlling movement,” says Thaut. “In healthy people, [timing] works quite well. In patients, due to various factors, it doesn’t work well. Therefore we use a sensory timer, an external steady-state time reference that gives brain enhanced timing information, like a prosthesis. The auditory system feeds into the motor system. The brain can hang on it, like a scaffold. Once you fix timing, spatial positioning becomes better regulated.”

The use of music in rehabilitation is advancing beyond movement research and into cognition, Thaut says. “There is a wide application of music to re-educate the brain,” he says, including using music as a memory device, as a way to retrain attention and a method of promoting speech production in people with aphasia.

Teppo Särkämö and Mari Tervaniemi of the University of Helsinki and colleagues studied the effect of listening to music daily on the recovery of cognitive functions and mood after stroke. They found that patients who listened to music showed improved verbal memory and focused attention compared with a group assigned to listen to audio books and to a control group who received no extra audio stimulus. The music group also showed an improvement in mood.

“There is some evidence from neuroscience studies that music activates deep parts of the brain—limbic parts of the brain—for processing emotions,” says Särkämö. “One explanation [of the study results] is that elevation of mood is responsible for cognitive recovery. The other hypothesis is that music may have some plastic effects on recovery, but we don’t yet have evidence to support this.”

Music before language?

Steven Mithen is not a neuroscientist, but that hasn’t stopped him from suggesting a reason why the brain responds profoundly to music.

“I think all humans today are musical and I think our musicality evolved a long way back in our evolutionary past,” he says. In his book “The Singing Neanderthals,” the archeologist postulates that music and language both derived from a common pre-linguistic musical mode of thought and action that he refers to as Hmmmm: Holistic, multi-modal, manipulative and musical. Music went on to evolve as a communication system that specialized in the transmission of emotion and the facilitation of social bonding, while language became a communication system that specialized in the transmission of information.

Although Mithen acknowledges that these are speculations that cannot be proved, he refers to studies of the interaction between music and the brain that he thinks support his hypothesis.

“Babies are born with musical wisdom and appetite, music facilitates well-being and returns people to well-being from mental and physical impairments—it is deep in our genetic structures,” he says. And, Mithen adds, an evolutionary perspective of the brain is relevant to neuroscience today. “If human evolution is the hub,” he says, “then it starts to make sense of all these different studies. It shows how they all connect together.” Mithen also believes that coming from this perspective provides a standpoint for assessing current theories. “If something is counter to evolutionary processes, we can be critical of it,” he says.

Asked what she thought of Mithen’s ideas, Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University, who has studied the effect of music training on math skills in children and adolescents, said: “I do think there are lots of reasons to think that humans are genetically predisposed to music and dance. These activities are very widespread, and possibly universal, across contemporary human cultures. There's evidence for music pretty far back in human prehistory. And humans seem to respond to music in unique ways, compared to other animals.” Other researchers seem to agree.

“Music is a biological language,” says Michael Thaut. “I believe that artistic thinking was maybe a precursor to the development of language, math, [and other cognitive functions]. Steve’s hypothesis is very sensible and probably correct.”

One thing is clear. Mithen, like the other researchers at the Neurosciences and Music conference, takes music very seriously. “We are beneficiaries of a pre-linguistic but musical stone-age past,” he says. “And we ignore it at our peril.”