Melodic Marvels lesson idea

This issue’s activities explore the nature of auditory illusion and hallucination, the effect of music on our minds and bodies, and the potential for music in medicine

There has been an exciting growth in music-related research in the biological and physical sciences in recent years. In some ways it is an important new frontier for arts and sciences, concerned with the relationship between perceiving, thinking, feeling and the physical world. These activities are designed to offer a general introduction to this research, what it may mean for us as individuals in our daily lives, and how it may impact on health, education and social care.

The exercises are intended primarily for students of biology, physics and music, but have something to offer to all post-16 students who are interested in culture, psychology and society.

The content may be tackled at various levels. It may simply be approached experientially with general discussions, or you may wish to follow up on more scientific paths suggested in these notes (the teacher notes are aimed at those with a general interest, with apologies to specialists). The exercises are all well road-tested and have been used by the author in both school and university teaching and in the training of fieldworkers for many years.

There are five classroom exercises to choose from, covering the following areas:

  • moving and feeling
  • auditory illusions
  • music and healing
  • music and learning
  • auditory hallucinations.

For a one-hour lesson, a choice of two or three out of the five activities is recommended. If possible this should include ‘Exercise 1: Moving and feeling’, as it provides the basis for the homework.

Materials and equipment required 

Exercise 1: Moving and feeling

The aim of this topic is to introduce students to questions of how music makes us want to move and how it may change the state of our bodies and minds (in this case heart rate and emotions). The learning is based around two simple, practical experiments.


a. This exercise casts the teacher in the role of agent provocateur. Ask the class for quietness and concentration, and to close their eyes.

As soon as there is silence, make a sudden, short, really loud noise – perhaps with a metal or wooden object. (If you have students of a nervous disposition please, of course, use your discretion.)



Some, if not all, of the students will have had a physical response to the noise. What was the response – a jump, a blink? Was it voluntary? Did they think about moving or was it simply automatic?

This is a phenomenon called ‘acoustic startle response’. Evidence from research with rats suggests it is ‘hard-wired’, with neural pathways passing fairly directly from the auditory cortex to motor systems. In other words, sound can make our bodies move in a very direct way without our having to ‘think’ about it. People have different degrees of response. Some war veterans, for example, or people who have suffered trauma, may have an exaggerated startle response.


b. Invite the students to take their pulses and record their heart rates. This may require some mentoring.

Then, play track 1 from the online audio library – a dance music track composed by Zack Moir – as loudly as is comfortable and acceptable. At the end of the track invite the students to take their pulses again.



Some people’s heart rates are likely to have changed and to be faster than before the track was played. Some may show little or no change. There are wide variations in individual responses to music and a number of factors, such as medication, may also have an affect.

Why have some people’s heart rates increased? Is it excitement, enjoyment or stress?

Music appears to interact strongly with the autonomic nervous system. In general terms, fast, exciting music tends to activate the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system and speed up the heart. Slow, relaxing music seems to activate the parasympathetic division and slow down the heart. These effects seem to work in tandem with changes in levels of certain hormones and neurotransmitters. For example, loud, fast, exciting music, like a lot of techno music, may raise levels of cortisol in the bloodstream, a hormone associated with arousal and the ‘fight or flight’ response. This increases blood supply to the hands and feet, and inhibits functions such as digestion and the immune system.

There seem to be several systems at work giving music this special ‘hotline’ to our minds and bodies. These range from simple reflexes like the acoustic startle response, through ‘empathising’ with the feelings of those who make/made the music by way of systems such as mirror neurons (neurons that possibly help us mirror and internalise the actions and states of body of others), to responding mentally to musical events and structures.

Can music affect our emotions?

Emotions are heightened states of mind and body, usually related to real or imagined events. Music’s ‘hotline’ to our nervous system, endocrine system and mind enables it to shape and explore human emotions.

Why did the music make us want to move?

Once again systems like our reflexes, mirror neurons and mental responses appear to enable music to activate many parts of the brain associated with movement, including the premotor cortex, basal ganglia, cerebellum and vestibular system (responsible respectively for sensory guidance of movement, motor control, coordination of movement, and balance, orientation and posture).

Exercise 2: Auditory illusions

The aim here is to explain concepts of harmonics and spectra before introducing the idea of auditory illusions and the Shepard scale.


a. Play track 2a from the online audio library. Encourage the class to listen to the subtle, inner detail of the sound.



Are these ethereal sounds from the violin real notes? Are they there the whole time? Do they form a pattern?

A vibrating string creates very many resonances or ‘harmonics’. In practice we tend to hear the fundamental, or lowest harmonic, as the pitch of the string and the upper harmonics as a kind of generalised colour or ‘timbre’. By running a finger lightly along a string a player may sound individual upper harmonics at their nodes. In mathematical terms, these harmonics are integer multiples of the fundamental frequency, f – that is, f, 2f, 3f, 4f, etc. If the fundamental frequency of a string is 200 Hz (or cycles per second), approximately G below middle C, then the harmonics are 200 Hz, 400 Hz, 600 Hz, 800 Hz etc. (G3, G4, D5, G5, etc.). The resulting pattern is called the ‘harmonic series’. It is a fundamental form of mechanical energy, and a characteristic of symmetrical resonating objects, like the sound of the wind blowing through a hollow tree or drainpipe.

Asymmetrical objects and many shapes and textures of wood, metal or stone have harmonics that do not conform to the pattern of the harmonic series, and are referred to as ‘inharmonic’. There are also instruments that produce intriguing and beautiful hybrids of harmonicity and inharmonicity, like bells, gongs and the strings of the piano. (If you have an acoustic piano available, play the bottom note several times loudly with the sustain pedal on, and invite the class to listen to – or if they are brave, sing – the extraordinary array of harmonics.)


b. Play track 2b from the online audio library.



Can we hear the sounds of harmonics in the voice? Are they related to the vowels of miaouw?

Encourage the class to try the miaouw activity, perhaps by dividing the class into two halves so everyone can both participate and hear the result. The exaggerated mouth and lip movement, from wide grin to full pout, is essential for the success of the exercise.

The voice is a symmetrical, resonating instrument and produces the harmonic series. Some musical cultures filter and reinforce vocal harmonics as part of their musical tradition, for example in Tibetan chanting and Mongolian throat singing.

When we speak or sing we isolate and reinforce groups of harmonics in our voice to make the sounds of vowels by changing the shape of our mouth. The word miaouw involves a glide of vowels from the front to the back of the mouth, picking off different harmonics on the way.


c. Play track 2c from the online audio library.



Is this glissando infinitely long? If it is an illusion, how was it created?

In the mid-1960s the American psychologist Roger Shepard invented what later became known as ‘Shepard tones’. He generated sound with sine waves (pure tones), adding a second harmonic to a fundamental (i.e. an octave above) and several further octaves. By playing these tones in a long rising scale and subtly changing the amplitude (loudness) of the harmonics – generally keeping all low and high harmonics quiet and amplifying anything in the middle register – he created the illusion of a continually rising scale. The French composer Jean-Claude Risset applied the same principle to his long descending and glissando-ing chord.

Exercise 3: Music and healing

The objective of this topic is to introduce students to ideas behind ancient music healing practices and the principles underlying contemporary music medicine and music therapy.


a. Play track 3a from the online audio library.



How would you describe this music? Is it possible for music to ‘heal’?

This music is probably very ancient; according to some Georgian scholars it is thousands of years old. It involves three voices singing distinct lines: first the upper two voices appear to follow one another, while the lowest voice remains still; then there is a short section of four-part singing, followed by a passage where the top and bottom voice move together. The harmony is unusual but warm and beautiful – there are dissonances and parallel movement of voices we would not hear in conventional vocal harmony. Because of the independence of the voices, this music is described as ‘polyphony’, literally ‘many sounds’.

It seems very unlikely that music can ‘heal’, and almost ludicrous to suggest that it could heal German measles. On the other hand, calming music may have an effect on the body. It may cause raised tone in the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, relaxing the body and slowing down the heart. As we have seen, music may regulate levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Whereas exciting techno music may raise levels of cortisol and weaken the immune system, relaxing music may lower levels and help strengthen it. The presence of three well-wishers, singing warmly in harmony and polyphony may also offer reassurance to a sick child. Through empathy and possibly mirror neurons, the child may come to share aspects of the states of mind and body of the singers. Although ‘Batonebo’ may not ‘heal’, it may in a humble way help deal with symptoms and assist recovery.

These principles underlie the emerging movements of music in hospitals and music medicine. There is good evidence that music in hospital may improve patient satisfaction and perceived wellbeing, and that musical play may help ‘distract’ children from their health problems and the pressures of being in hospital.

Music has been effective in helping deal with chronic pain. There may be an element of distraction, but there is also evidence that music activates circuits of opioid neurotransmitters associated with blocking pain. There have been quite startling results using music in certain phases of Parkinson’s disease. The first coordinated movements of babies are cued or ‘attracted’ by the mother’s vocalisation, and this capacity for sound to both cue and give power to movement appears to continue into later life. It is not unusual to see patients who have great difficulty walking, dancing and even running to music. (There also seems to be a regulatory connection between music and the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is depleted in Parkinson’s disease.)

Music may offer relaxation, reflection, consolation and a sense of self-worth in palliative care, and help to stimulate thought and memory in dementia.

There are arguments that music and music medicine may be cost-effective interventions in medical services, provided that the modest, limited and subtle nature of the effect is clearly recognised.


b. Play track 3b from the online audio library.



What is happening in the music therapy session?

The session involves Stephen, a four-and-a-half-year-old boy diagnosed with autism, working with the distinguished music therapist Jackie Robarts. Autism is a brain development disorder, more common in boys than girls, affecting communication, interaction and the ability to empathise. It may lead to a preoccupation with detail rather than the ‘big picture’ and limited, repetitive and sometimes highly agitated behaviour. In Stephen’s case it involves difficulty in social interaction, no communicative speech, fear of strangers’ voices, obsessive and ritualistic behaviours, and limited imaginative play. Discuss with the class what is happening and what kind of communication is taking place.

The principle behind the session is ‘co-improvisation’. The therapist is seeking to respond to cues from the boy, and to find ways of relating to and sharing his state of mind and body through music. Music has the advantage of being largely non-verbal, and of being able to shape and communicate emotion.

Music therapy has been effective in many areas. For children who are victims of war and conflict, for example, it may help build self-esteem and trust, and improve communication, self-expression and social wellbeing. It may also help regulate stress, heart rate, breathing and movement, and above all bring enjoyment and creativity.

Exercise 4: Music and learning

The aim of this topic is to explore, through a practical exercise and through listening, how music may affect thinking and learning.


a. Encourage the class to attempt the long word/clapping exercise.



Does the rhythm help us to learn?

Of course splitting up the word helps, and chanting can make repetition enjoyable. But there may be other factors. It is well-recognised that thought itself is in many ways a ‘rhythmic’ process, involving the entrained firing of neurons in pulses in our brains: for example, firing in beta waves (over 12 Hz, or cycles per second) when we are particularly alert, or delta waves (0.1 to 3 Hz) in deep sleep.

Study of interactions between mothers and babies around the world has shown that musical pulses, phrases and narratives occur universally in mother–infant vocalisation (cooing, singing, games, ‘baby talk’). It is possible that this is a process of laying down or activating rhythmic/time structures in the brain that may later serve a child’s thinking, learning and language.

Perhaps these ideas form some of the background to why rhythms may help us think and learn.


b. Play tracks 4a and 4b from the online audio library.

The dyslexia exercise was designed by Katie Overy, whose research has shown that children with a strong risk of dyslexia are significantly worse than others at rhythm and tempo perception and production. Musical activities may improve coordination, language, concentration, attention and memory among these children.

Encourage your group to try this simple exercise, inviting each member in turn to say their name after the two claps.

Can Mozart help us learn?

The ‘Mozart effect’ is highly controversial, although research shows some short-term improvements in spatial–temporal reasoning and longer-term benefits in mental development. It would seem reasonable to suggest that the ‘effect’ may apply to all music that has clear, regular metre, melodic lucidity and harmonic clarity.

There is ‘hard’ science based on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging – a form of brain scanning) that shows that musical training significantly increases the volume of brain areas such as the basal ganglia and corpus callosum, associated with spatial–temporal thought, important for both mathematics and language.

Certainly music therapy has proved useful in aiding recovery from brain damage. Melodic intonation therapy, for example, has been particularly effective in helping stroke victims with Broca’s aphasia or marked difficulties in producing speech.

Exercise 5: Auditory hallucinations

This is perhaps the least focused and most wide-ranging of the topics. It includes a practical exercise in listening, both to the environment and sounds ‘in the ears’, and a general discussion of auditory hallucinations, imagined music, dreams and synaesthesia.


a. Encourage the class to take the listening exercise seriously. Although it seems to resemble an activity for young children, it may – like many simple things – be used to profound purpose.



The exercise should provide rich material for discussion, including the extraordinary sensitivity of the human ear and mind to sound – to the quality and inner detail of sounds, their precise locations, their trajectories and, in some cases, the human intentions lying behind them. The discussion may touch on the evolutionary purpose of the complex phenomenon of audition – the fastest firing neural system in the brain.

There are also sounds generated in the body – the sounds of breathing, the heart and mild disorders like tinnitus, which may result from various causes, ranging from ear infections and medication to damage from loud noises; in rare cases tinnitus may be audible to others. Normally we ‘filter out’ cognitively the noises in our ears, but sometimes they surface in consciousness. Our Neolithic ancestors appear to have been particularly interested in this threshold of perception. There are many cave paintings that appear to be entoptic, i.e. that are representations of disturbances associated with the retina and inner eye (‘floaters’ etc.) and the optic nerve.


b. Play tracks 5a and 5b from the online audio library.



The first example is the opening of a piano piece by Katrina Burton called ‘Moon Palace’, where she transcribes the sounds of her tinnitus. The second example is an attempt to notate an auditory hallucination of hearing a Beethoven string quartet, which composer Luke Drummond experienced during a severe illness of the inner ear.

Many auditory hallucinations are associated with psychosis (for example ‘voices in the head’ or ‘radio antennae broadcasting to the brain’). But some may be of less worrying origin. There is substantial evidence of a possible ‘backflow’ of information from higher parts of the brain to the sensory organs. This ‘upstream backflow’ is normally inhibited by the normal ‘downstream’ flow of information from the senses to the brain – from ear, eye, hand, nose, tongue and other organs to the mind. But in certain circumstances the inhibition may be interrupted, resulting in ‘release hallucinations’. In his book ‘Musicophilia’, psychiatrist Oliver Sacks describes a lady with a regular ‘playlist’ of hallucinatory music, including Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Amazing Grace’.

Of course many people, including trained musicians and especially composers, are able to imagine music vividly in their heads, and can access a large, private, copyright-free, neurally programmed database of songs, symphonies and their interpretations at will.

Synaesthesia, or the ability to hear colours and see sounds, is an interesting and well-documented phenomenon. The latest theories suggest it may have an evolutionary origin, concerned with our ancestors’ need to make rapid integrated impressions of their environment.


The homework is a simple listening and questionnaire task, fully described in the students’ notes. It follows on directly from Exercise 1 of the classroom work. In addition to taking their pulse, students are asked to assess the cycle of their breathing and dilation of their pupils. Both of these tasks are tricky but useful exercises in self-observation. Fast breathing is associated with arousal and effort, and slow breathing with relaxation. The pupils of the eye are dilated by tone in the sympathetic nervous system (and therefore by stress and activation) and constricted by parasympathetic tone (associated with relaxation).

Other aspects of the questionnaire relate to music and emotion, movement, the meaning of music, its associations and its social connotations. The outcomes of the homework may be useful material for further class discussion.

Lead image:

Wellcome Library, London CC BY

Further reading

Downloadable resources

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Neuroscience, Physiology, Psychology, Medicine
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Independent research projects, Continuing professional development