Real Voices interview: Nichola Dean

Real Voices interview: Nichola Dean

Read or watch an interview with Nichola, who has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism

How does your condition affect your life?

I’ve got achondroplasia, which is a form of dwarfism or restricted growth. We’re quite happy with the term ‘dwarf’. I’m a lot shorter than average: 4 feet 2 inches. I’ve got the same life as everyone else, but I can’t reach everything. For example, I’ve just moved into a new home, and everything in the kitchen is too high. We need car-pedal extensions to drive. And cashpoints can be awkward. So there’s a practical impact. We have to adapt to the world, it’s not the other way round.

Nichola Dean
Credit:

Nichola Dean

What situations do you find most difficult?

People staring, sometimes even pointing. Some people find it funny, I still get shocked by that. It’s partly the fault of the media, stereotyping dwarves. And partly people who aren’t happy with themselves, using playground tactics. That is getting better though, and there’s no point getting angry. For every one person doing it, there are 100 that aren’t.

How do you find people react to you now?

I’ve been to university, I work at the BBC. I never came across any discrimination in those worlds. As long as I can do the job, my height isn’t a problem. I can sense if someone wants to ask about it, and tend to mention it first.

How do you wish they would react?

I wish they wouldn’t react. I’d love there to be a time when my kids can go anywhere and no one reacts. Racism has moved on, no one falls silent and stares if they see an Asian or African person. I hope it’s the same with dwarfism in 20 years’ time.

Have you or would you consider treatment?

No, never. The leg straightening was due to pain. I disagree with leg lengthening. I’m happy with who I am, I’m pro-difference. We can’t all look like everyone else. People should be different.

Downloadable resources

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008.

Topics:
Physiology, Genetics and genomics, Health, infection and disease
Issue:
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Real Voices video interview: Henrietta, Adam and Helen from Changing Faces

Real Voices video interview: Henrietta, Adam and Helen from Changing Faces

Meet three people from Changing Faces, the facial disfigurement charity, who talk about dealing with difficult social situations and the attitudes and stereotypes that people with a visible difference can encounter

Running time: 6 mins 29 secs

Downloadable resources

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008.

Topics:
Physiology, Health, infection and disease, Medicine
Issue:
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Related links for ‘Big Picture: How We Look’

Chain link necklace

Related links for ‘Big Picture: How We Look’

Here are links to other websites that focus on issues and concerns about how we look

General

 

Organisations

  • Changing Faces, a charity for people and families living with conditions, marks or scars that affect their appearance
  • iFace, a Facebook group from Changing Faces for young people who have facial disfigurements
  • Dwarf Sports Association UK

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008.

Topic:
Physiology
Issue:
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Ailing musicians

Ailing musicians

Musicians experience a range of maladies, including carpal tunnel syndrome, musculoskeletal complaints and allergic reactions

In 1974 the ‘BMJ’ published a brief report of a delicate medical complaint afflicting regular players of the cello, dubbed cello scrotum. Sadly, it was a spoof. Baroness Murphy (Dr Elaine Murphy) owned up in 2009 when other papers started referencing the original study.

While cello scrotum may be fiction, there are many real conditions affecting musicians. Not surprisingly, hearing damage is an occupational hazard not just to those in rock bands but also classical performers situated close to loud instruments such as trombones. Hearing issues affect drummers in particular, mainly caused by the cymbals damaging higher frequency hearing. (Piccolo players also have similar problems.)

Drummers have also been known to suffer collapsed lungs when using bass drums with double pedals for excessive lengths of time, owing to sympathetic frequencies being created.

The repeated movements many players have to make leave them at risk of developing repetitive strain injury (RSI). Guitarists and pianists, for example, are prone to carpal tunnel syndrome, in which bones in the wrist begin to press on nerves as they pass through a channel (the carpal tunnel). Numbness, pins and needles, and pain can all ensue. Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist, plays with a splint on his right wrist because of RSI.

The unusual posture needed to play many instruments can predispose musicians to a variety of musculoskeletal complaints, leading to back pain or other local discomforts. Another common problem is spontaneous muscle contraction (focal dystonia), particularly in the fingers.

Allergic reactions or other skin disorders may arise where skin comes into contact with an instrument. These lead to instrument-specific conditions, such as ‘fiddler’s neck’ and ‘flautist’s chin’. These occupational hazards can even include the decay – and death – of bodily tissue: Jean-Baptiste Lully contracted gangrene when his conducting stick penetrated his foot. He refused amputation and later died from the condition.

Brass players are at risk of abnormalities affecting their ‘embouchure’ (the complex arrangement of lips and other tissues at instruments’ mouthpieces). Legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong suffered particularly badly because of his forceful playing style. The condition is known as ‘Satchmo syndrome’ in his honour.

Sometimes instrument playing can reveal underlying health problems. A 17-year-old trumpet player suffered transient ischaemic episodes (‘mini-strokes’) when playing, later found to be caused by a hole in his heart. Surgery corrected the heart defect and cured his symptoms.

Female musicians tend to be affected by conditions slightly more often then men, and string players more often than percussionists. Rest is the most common therapy and generally resolves musculoskeletal complaints. Involuntary muscle contractions are very difficult to treat and can end musical careers.

Like all performers, musicians can suffer performance anxiety when playing in public. At its worst, extreme stage fright can potentially end professional careers. Barbra Streisand did not perform in public for nearly 30 years because of stage fright, which may also have affected the brilliant but eccentric classical pianist Glenn Gould. XTC stopped touring in 1982 because of Andy Partridge’s stage fright. Fortunately, a variety of psychotherapies are available for people with ‘performance anxiety’.

Rock and pop
In popular music, touring can be hazardous to health. Falling from the stage has injured several performers, including Ryan Adams and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Stage diving or crowd surfing is a dangerous pastime (Jamie Reynolds of Klaxons broke his leg doing it in 2007, while Mike Skinner of The Streets aggravated an old hernia in Cambridge in January 2009). Some performers run the risk of being pelted with objects such as bottles (or, in David Bowie’s case, a lollipop).

More seriously, the ‘rock and roll’ lifestyle has claimed numerous lives, particularly through drug overdoses or the long-term effects of overindulgence. A recent study of more than 1,000 rock and pop stars found that even after their period of fame, they were at a substantially higher risk of dying than matched controls.

Perhaps the most unusual case, though, is the fate of country singer Johnny Cash. In 1983 he was kicked in the stomach by an ostrich. Unfortunately, a severe abdominal injury led to a dependence on painkillers and a descent into addiction.

References

About this resource

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

Topics:
Health, infection and disease, History
Issue:
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development

Music and autism

Picture of a person’s hand playing piano

Music and autism

Is there a special relationship between autism and music?

Autism and autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) are characterised by abnormalities in social interactions and communication and restrictive or repetitive behaviours. Music may play an important role in the lives of people with autism – either through therapy or the special talents some display.

Music therapy has become an increasingly popular treatment for ASDs. Therapies aim to improve self-awareness and awareness of others. They may also provide an opportunity to explore the expression of emotions.

There is some evidence that music can improve children’s socialisation, particularly their communication skills. Anecdotally, positive responses have been reported by therapists and parents. However, very few rigorous, controlled trials of music therapy have been carried out, so it is difficult to say with certainty that music has long-term benefits.

It has also been suggested that people with autism have a particular affinity with music. Autism is unusual in that a proportion of people with the condition (around one in ten) show abilities inconsistent with their overall cognitive skills – sometimes, far in excess. One such skill is music. Some individuals may have better musical skills than might be expected, while a few may be prodigiously talented: musical savants.

As well as being gifted musicians, musical savants typically have special abilities, such as being able to memorise and recite a new piece of music having heard it just once.

Musical savants typically have perfect pitch. Interestingly, musicians with perfect pitch show some of the personality and cognitive characteristics typical of autism. The key may be the ability to deconstruct sounds, ‘piecemeal information processing’. Genetic factors that contribute to autism could therefore be involved in perfect pitch abilities.

What might be going on? One idea is that, without the attention usually absorbed by social interactions, more of the brain’s processing power can be devoted to other tasks, such as music. Another suggestion is that the repetitious behaviour characteristic of ASDs may be crucial: since elite performance depends on extensive practice, people with ASDs may be well-suited to the endless rehearsal needed to excel.

Australian researcher Allan Snyder goes one step further, arguing that everyone has hidden savant-like ‘supertalents’. In most people they are repressed, whereas an autistic savant can access them freely. To illustrate the phenomenon he has used a technique that temporarily disrupts brain activity (transcranial magnetic stimulation), applying it to a specific region of the brain to enhance normal people’s skills at drawing from memory.

Lead image:

Niklas Morberg/Flickr CC BY

References

Further reading

About this resource

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

Topics:
Neuroscience, Physiology, Psychology
Issues:
Music, Mind and Medicine, Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Backwards messages

Backwards messages

Are bands corrupting young people by burying subliminal messages in music, audible only when played backwards?

Many modern songs include lyrics that parents might not want their children to hear. As well as this obvious form of corruption, some people have worried that songs played backwards contain subversive messages – the practice of ‘backmasking’.

In one notable case, the heavy rock band Judas Priest were taken to court when two of their fans committed suicide after listening to one of their records. The judge decided that it was impossible to conclude that listening to the music had caused the fans to kill themselves – there was no good evidence that music had such power to influence, and adolescents with a predisposition to suicide might be attracted to Judas Priest’s style of music.

Music played backwards was pioneered by The Beatles in the 1960s, and triggered a persistent rumour that Paul McCartney had died (the song ‘Revolution 9’ supposedly included the phrase “turn me on, dead man”).

The backmasking controversy took off when Christian commentators in the USA began to find what they thought were satanic messages in rock music. A prime target was Led Zeppelin’s classic ‘Stairway to Heaven’, which was supposed to make reference to Satan. Even such middle-of-the-road acts as Electric Light Orchestra and Styx were accused of attempting to pervert the young. Famously, Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ was accused of including a pro-marijuana subliminal message.

With CDs it is difficult to play songs backwards, so from the 1990s onwards the furore died down. Ironically, death metal bands began deliberately including backwards anti-Christian messages in their music (Cradle of Filth’s ‘Dinner at Deviant’s Palace’ includes a backwards version of the Lord’s Prayer).

Others lampooned the accusations: Pink Floyd’s 1979 song ‘Empty Spaces’ includes the message: “Congratulations – you’ve just discovered the secret message.” The band Mindless Self Indulgence recorded a song exhorting people to misbehave, in the midst of which were backwards messages including “respect your parents”, “clean your room” and “do your homework”.

Psychologists have found that backwards messages are difficult to identify unless specifically pointed out to listeners. Several studies have found no evidence that messages affect the attitudes or behaviour of listeners. Psychology professor Mark D Allen concluded that “delivering subliminal messages via backward masking is totally and ridiculously impossible”.

Artists such as Aphex Twin have used new digital technologies to embed images in music. In the late 1990s, using spectral analysis software that visualises music, Aphex Twin (Richard D James) included pictures of himself in the track ‘Mathematical Equation’.

About this resource

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

Topic:
History
Issue:
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Musical scientists

Musical scientists

Scientists are increasingly turning to music and dance

The polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a method for amplifying fragments of DNA, might not seem like the obvious topic for a song. Yet the surprisingly professional ‘The PCR Song’ by Scientists for Better PCR has been viewed over a million times. In fact, the song owes its existence to a company selling PCR equipment.

Viewers may also enjoy a reworking of Village People’s ‘YMCA’ advertising enzymes, and a frankly bizarre heavy metal-inspired advertisement for cell monitoring equipment.

The above are the work of US producers. Europe has answered back with The Large Hadron Rap’, which, remarkably, has accumulated close to 8 million views.

While the above all benefit from the resources available to large companies and international projects, almost anyone can now generate material. There is no shortage of musical science on YouTube, including a love song about DNA replication and many others of variable quality.

Finally, a catchy and visually striking work, ‘Richard Dawkins  Beware the Believers’, is well worth a view. You can then join the debate about whose side the producers are on.

Further reading

About this resource

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

Topic:
Careers
Issue:
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development

Related links for ‘Big Picture: Music, Mind and Medicine’

Sheet music

Related links for ‘Big Picture: Music, Mind and Medicine’

Fascinated by this topic? Follow these links to discover more

  • BBC Science and Nature article on hearing, which includes an animation and descriptions of the different parts of the ear.
  • Deaf Rave, parties organised by deaf people for deaf people.
  • Nature essays on science and music, which explore what scientific research has to say about music  what it is, why we make it, how we make it, why we listen to it and how it is changing.
  • Science of Music: Exploratorium’s Accidental Scientist explores the science of music through online exhibits, movies and questions.
  • The Musical Braina project funded by a Wellcome Trust People Award that explores what happens in the brain when we listen to and create music. Led by composer and music therapist Nigel Osborne, the project hosts lectures, workshops, open rehearsals, discussions and concerts.

About this resource

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

Topics:
Medicine, History
Issue:
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development

Melodic Marvels lesson idea

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.)

 

Discussion

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.

 

Discussion

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.

 

Discussion

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.

 

Discussion

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.

 

Discussion

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.

 

Discussion

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.

 

Discussion

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.

 

Discussion

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.

 

Discussion

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.

 

Discussion

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.

Homework

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.

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

What is music?

What is music?

Music is created by combining different elements

Music always involves combinations of pitch, timbre, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, texture, melody and harmony, which create an overall structure.

Putting these elements together in various ways creates a huge diversity of music – from African drumming to Johann Sebastian Bach, Inuit throat singing to Green Day.

Individual elements

There are many elements that refer to characteristics of an individual musical note.

Pitch – how high or low a note is – is a building block for music in all known cultures. Pitch (measured in cycles per second, or hertz) is linked to the acoustic structure of the sound wave, especially the regularity or rate of repetition. For simple notes, like that from a tuning fork, the repetition rate and pitch have the same value as the single frequency within that sound.

Most musical instruments and people’s voices contain a large number of frequencies: the fundamental frequency – the note we hear – and higher harmonics (notes at multiples of the fundamental frequency). For each doubling of wavelength, pitch goes up an octave, which is a musical interval of eight full tones (e.g. from C to the C above it).

The fundamental frequency can be removed only for listeners to still hear the same note – the ‘missing fundamental’ phenomenon. Pitch therefore does not depend just on the brain measuring some aspect of the stimulus: it is a perception that requires the brain to ‘abstract’ sound features.

Timbre is the reason why a note on a viola sounds different from the same note on a violin, even when it is played at the same pitch and loudness. Timbre is also sometimes called tone colour and refers to the quality of the sound.

There are other, less complex elements: duration refers to the length of the tone, while dynamics refers to how loud or quiet a note is, which is sometimes referred to as volume.

Compositional elements

In addition to the characteristics of an individual note, there are ones that describe the composition – or combination – of musical notes.

  • Harmony: Notes of different pitches put together to create a new (and ideally pleasing) sound.
  • Rhythm: A sequence of different notes over time that is repeated. (This term is also used in discussions of movement and the spoken word.)
  • Texture: Refers to the different layers of a piece of music, which can include instrumental sound and voice. This includes melody and accompaniment (all instruments playing together) or all instruments playing independent lines at the same time.
  • Tempo: The speed of the music, such as fast or slow, which can vary within a piece of music.
  • Melody: Combining notes of different pitches in succession to make a tune.
  • Structure: The arrangement of these individual and compositional elements, which forms the overall plan of a piece of music.

Further reading

About this resource

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

Topics:
Medicine, History
Issue:
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
11–14, 14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development

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