Volume III, Issue 1, Spring 1996

Table of Contents

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Music, Development, Aging and the Brain :It's Never too Late for Music

The Coloring of Life: Music and Mood

Matters of Opinion
Pre-teens: A Musical Time Slot?

Briefly Noted
More Brain Better Fingering?
Does Music Compensate for Unmet Emotional Needs of Musicians?

Recent Publications of Special Interest

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Music, Development, Aging and the Brain
It's Never Too Late for Music

Copyright © 1996 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

"By approximately age 11, the neuron circuits that permit all kinds of perceptual and sensory discrimination, such as identifying pitch and rhythm, become closed off. Not using them dooms the child to be forever tone deaf and offbeat." (1)

This dire statement from a popular magazine is provided within the context of an article that urges teachers who are untrained in music to promote musical activities in their classrooms. Of course, this is a laudable and proper goal. But the misinformation contained in the quote could have disastrous consequences. Therefore, the misconceptions it engenders require correction.

In short, the article is dead wrong. Children lacking musical training before about the age of eleven are not "doomed" to anything, much less tone-deafness, etc. This fact, and the far more hopeful and optimistic message that it brings, is true irrespective of naive and hopelessly oversimplified beliefs about brain development. In brief, the "neuron circuits" are most definitely not closed off.

Before continuing, let's be clear about some basic points.

First, all things considered, is it better to initiate musical activities, including education and play, well before the age of eleven? Yes, certainly. As reviewed previously in this newsletter, infants have considerable musical capabilities (2). Moreover, we, as others, have suggested that delayed encouragement of musical activities (not necessarily only formal lessons) fails to capitalize on the stage of musical competence that is present at a particular developmental stage (2). Furthermore, preschool children exhibit a natural interest in music and in the many cognitive processes that underlie music comprehension and behavior (3). It certainly makes sense to take advantage of their interests and abilities.

Second, do children benefit musically when taught by their regular teachers rather than by specialists in music education? Yes, without doubt. The vast majority of students who study music were introduced to musical activities, such as group singing and the use of percussive "rhythm instruments" in preschool, kindergarten or early grades, without instruction by a formally trained music teacher. It is true that musically trained teachers do help students reach a higher level of accomplishment (4). But this fact doesn't mitigate the essential influence of "regular" teachers. A recent study showed that preschool students learn a good deal about music and increase their attentiveness in class when their "non-musical" teachers are given some musical training (5). Therefore, teachers should be encouraged to bring or increase music in the classroom.

So, the article is well-intentioned. But it goes way overboard in dooming and glooming. If it were really true that we can't comprehend, appreciate, or perform music unless we learn music before the relevant "neuron circuits" close down, then how can the nameless author of the "dire dooming" account for the fact that all of these activities do occur after that age, including aging adults who have never had musical training?

Yes, it is common for professional musicians to have started at a young age and it is almost a certainty that major creative musical artists and composers have done so. But that leaves the other 99% of the population out in the nono-musical cold. Here's a challenge to the "doomers". Select anyone over the age of, let's say twenty-one, who wants to gain musical understanding and even some instrumental competence. Within six months, that person will have success on some instrument, provided she or he is motivated and has weekly professional instruction. Pygmalion redux, but why not?

Think of the terrible consequences of believing that the pre-teen years are the only period for music training. At the very least ...

Children would be discouraged from starting lessons just at the time when most show a real interest in singing or playing an instrument.

Those who start would have a "built in" excuse for lack of achievement and then dropping music. We can virtually hear their pleas -- "Ma, why should I keep practicing? ... you started me too late... I'll never be any good... etc., etc."

Teachers would be loathe to "waste their time" on teaching music to teenagers. They would also have lower expectations, leading to students having lower expectations of success.

Adults would not be tempted, as so many fortunately are, to take up music.

Is it too late to gain musical understanding and the enjoyment of performance at an advanced age, much less between the ages of e.g., 18-60? There is no evidence of such a limitation, with the caveat that one has to match physical abilities to demands of the selected instrument. On the contrary, music experience and music lessons have repeatedly been shown to be successful and have many psychological and social benefits.

A well known case in point (but apparently not well enough known to many article writers) is the New Horizons Band started by Dr. Roy Ernst, Chairman of he Department of Music Education at the renowned Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Dr. Ernst has formed a band comprised largely of adults between the ages of about 60 to 85, the majority of whom never had previous music lessons. With instruction and encouragement, the New Horizons Band has achieved excellence in performance, not to mention the great pleasure and happiness afforded both its members and audiences.

Sometimes, special curricula are needed, as in the case of the institutionalized aged (6). But whether healthy or slightly infirm, there is no question of adequate musical capability and equally no question of benefit (7). The interested reader, whether a skeptic or a supporter of music "after sixty", should find it well worth the time to review the extensive bibliography of resource materials on music and arts in the aged, compiled by Marie DiGiammarino and colleagues (8).

So, from a behavioral standpoint, it is "never to late" for music. But if the "neuron circuits" are "closed down" in the pre-teen years, how is this possible? Well, to put it in a nutshell, the circuits are not closed down... they are operating just fine. What could possess someone to make such a claim? Probably a misunderstanding of technical findings on the brain. For example, string players have an enlarged representation for the digits of their left hand, and this enlargement is greater the earlier the age at which instruction began (see Briefly Noted, this issue) (9). But such findings don't preclude great violin playing when instruction is started after puberty.

As many scientists wrongly believe that sensory cortical systems can't change after some critical stage of development, it is hardly surprising that non-scientists might be similarly misled. Actually, it has been known for at least a decade that experience in adulthood, including learning-induced "retuning" in the auditory cortex (the highest level of the brain's auditory system), modifies sensory and perceptual processing (10). So, since it is never too late for the brain to change, it is hardly astounding that it is never to late to learn music.


(1) Music: Exercise for the Brain (March/April, 1996)Learning, pgs. 62-64. This article, appearing without author attribution, "was adapted from material developed by John Langstaff and Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer." My criticism of the quoted statement is restricted to the article in Learning,, as the material on which it is said to be based is currently unavailable and therefore has not been reviewed.

(2) "The Musical Infant" (1994)MRN, vol. 1 Spring

(3) "The First Music Lessons" (1995) MRN, vol. 2, Spring.

(4) Lamar, H.B., Jr. (1989) An examination of congruency of musical aptitude scores and mathematics and reading achievement scores of elementary children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern Mississippi.

(5) Nichols, B. L. and Honig, A.S. (1995) The influence of an inservice music education program on young children's responses to music. Early Child Develop., 113, pgs 19-29.

(6) Bell, J.C. (1987), Music and the elderly. Educational Gerontology, Mar-Apr, 13, pgs. 147-155.

(7) Osgood, N.J. (1993) Creative activity and the arts: Possibilities and programs. IN: Activity and aging: Staying involved in later life. Kelly, J. R., Ed. Sage Publications, Inc, Newbury Park, CA, US. pgs. 174-186.

(8) DiGiammarino, Marie; Hanlon, Heather; Kassing, Gayle; Libman, Karen. (1992) Arts and aging: An annotated bibliography of selected resource materials in art, dance, drama and music. Activities, Adaptation & Aging, , 17, pgs. :39-51.

(9) Elbert, T., Pantev, C., Wienbruch, C., Rockstroh, B. and Taub, E. (1995) Increased cortical representation of the fingers of the left hand in string players. Science, 270, pgs. 305-307.

(10) For example, see Weinberger, N. M., (1995),Dynamic regulation of receptive fields and maps in the adult sensory cortex, Ann. Rev. Neurosci., 18, pgs. 129-158.

After completion of the issue of MRN, I learned of the book Piano Lessons: Music, Love & True Adventures, recently published by Delacorte Press. The author is Noah Adams, host of NPR's All Things Considered. At the age of fifty-two, Noah decided to begin taking piano lessons, for reasons that readers of his book are likely to find fascinating. Within a relatively brief period, Mr. Adams had achieved a good level of performance competence.

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The Coloring of Life: Music and Mood
Copyright © 1996 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

We go about our daily lives in the belief that we see objectively, remember accurately, think rationally and act appropriately. We readily admit exceptions, such as on occasions when we feel an intense emotion, be it happiness, sadness, amusement, fright, bodily pleasure, or whatever. But even when we are in a strong emotional state, and know that we lose reason for a bit and act impulsively for a while, we maintain our belief in being able to see the "real world", not a world of our own construction. This belief is open to serious question, if not subject to outright rejection. It is not that we hallucinate and believe in the existence of people or objects that don't exist. Rather, it is that our daily perceptions and memories, and thus are consequent actions, are "colored" by our moods. Recent research emphasizes that music plays a major role.

Initially, we can ask whether music affects mood. Many systematic studies have assessed the detailed relationship between various types of music and emotional reactions thereto. For present purposes, one recent experiment will suffice. Lewis, Dember, Schefft and Radenhausen determined the effects of music or videos on several measures of mood: the Optimism/Pessimism Questionnaire (OPQ), the Multiple Affect Adjective Check List, and the Wessman-Ricks Elation and Depression Scale (1). The music and videos were previously assigned to positive or negative mood category by experts. The authors found that music, but not videos, had a major effect of the mood scores; music that was a positive produced increased positive moods and vice versa for sad music. Thus, the mood of a piece of music tends to induce the same mood in the listener.

Our experience is really just the sum of our memories. And it turns out that what we remember depends on the relation between music and language. For example, T. Taniguchi of Kyoto University studied the accuracy of memory for words, according to the type of music present (2). He played either happy or sad music while subjects in different groups studied words that referred to personality traits either in a positive or negative manner. When tested later for word memory, performance was strongly affected by the type of music present. Positive words were better remembered in heard during happy music, while recall was better for negative words that were heard during sad music. Thus, congruency between music-induced mood and the affective meaning of language enhances memory compared to incongruency. So what we remember can depend on background music.

A similar outcome was found by Chastain, Seibert, and Ferraro (3). Additionally, they discovered that music which induced various moods had the effect of narrowing attention, so that subjects were more likely to attend to words that matched the mood of the music. This affect on attention might help explain why mood congruent words are better remembered.

Upon reflection, these findings might not seem surprising because we all will admit that memory is fallible (particularly the accuracy of other people's memories!). But even if hindsight is always so accurate, many would find it difficult to accept that their own perceptions are subject to the same type of musical influences. However, evidence attests to this as well. In a study of art and music, Stratton and Zalanowski of Pennsylvania State University presented paintings together with music, each of which were either depressing in mood or had positive affect, as judged independently by experts (4). Subjects later rated the mood of the paintings and the music. The authors found that the type of music induced a mood rating that was the same as the experts. This in itself is not astounding. However, they also found that paintings were categorized according to the type of music present, but not vice versa. Thus, depressing paintings were judged to be depressing when accompanied by sad music, but judged to be positive when accompanied by happy music; the complementary findings were obtained when positive paintings were presented with positive or sad music, respectively. Therefore, the way we experience an apparently objective visual scene is not so objective at all. The mood induced by current music refers not only to the music but to what we see.

This powerful effect of music is not restricted to language and our perceptions of inanimate objects like paintings. Rather, it extends to interpersonal interactions. In a particularly interesting experiment, Bouhuys, Bloem and Groothuis asked whether music affects our actual perceptions of the facial expression of emotions of other people (5). First, subjects listened to either depressing or elating music. Later, they viewed faces that displayed either positive, negative or neutral emotions. (The type of emotion was agreed upon independently by a panel of judges.) They then were asked to rate the mood of the faces. Music had a powerful effect. For example, after listening to depressing music, subjects judged neutral faces to more express rejection/sadness and less invitation/happiness, despite the fact that such emotions were actually not present in those faces.

Taken together, these important finding should give us great pause as we think about the "real" world and our "objectivity". Although we do not yet understand why music has such powerful effects, it is now clear that music can color our transactions with the world. Moods induced by music alter our attention, perception and memory and in so doing affect our judgments about the mental and emotional states of others. Our thinking and our behavior are colored by music, which seems to have direct and unconscious access to the brain substrates of much if not all of our individual lives.


(1) Lewis, L.M., Dember, W. N., Scheff, B. K. and Radenhausen, R. A. (1995) Can experimentally induced mood affect optimism and pessimism scores? Curr. Psychol.: Devel., Learn., Person., Social., 14, 29-41.

(2) Taniguchi, T. (1991) {Mood congruent effects by music on word recognition ] {Japanese lang.], 1991, Shinrigaku Kenkyu, 62, 88-95.

(3) Chastain, G., Seibert, P.S., and Ferraro, F. R. (1995) Mood and lexical access of positive, negative, and neutral words. J. General Psychol., 122, 137-157.

(4) Stratton, V.N. and Zalanowski, A.H. (1989) The effects of music and paintings on mood. J. Music Ther., 26, 30-41.

(5) Bouhuys, A. L., Bloem, G. M. and Groothuis, T.G.G. (1995) Induction of depressed and elated mood by music influences the perception of facial emotional expresssionis in healhy subjects. J. Affect. Disorders, 33, 215-226.

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Matters of Opinion
Copyright © 1996 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

Pre-teens: A Musical Time Slot?

My grandson Chris wanted some music for his 12th birthday. His parents gave him a boom box with a CD player and he wanted some CDs. He didn't specify the type of music but some months previously, he had told his mother, my daughter Amy, that he liked some classical music. Well so do I, and the opportunity to "push" a little classical his way was irresistible. I bought him three CDs that each contained selections from major classical composers, up through the late 19th Century. I asked Chris to listen to compositions twice if possible and then let me know what he liked or didn't like. I assumed he would just tell me something such as "Beethoven is cool but lose the Vivaldi", or words to that effect. Instead, he gave me a neatly printed piece of paper. I reproduce his list here.

                         Chris' List

Piece                                                         Rating

1. Mozart: Serenade in G Major,                                 7
   K. 525 "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik"

2. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4                             3
   in G Major, BWV 1049

3. Beethoven: Symphony No. 7                                    5
   in A Major        

4. Mozart: Symphony No. 25                                      6
   in G Minor 

5. Brahms: Hungarian Dances                                     5

That's it. Perhaps another list will be forthcoming as the CDs contained other pieces. Anyway, during a brief conversation, Chris essentially said that the ratings just indicated how much he liked a piece overall.

This list raised many questions, none of which have been yet discussed with Chris. Such as, "Why doesn't Chris like the Bach? How did Brahms' Hungarian Dances get the same rating as Beethoven's Seventh? Why did he make numerical ratings at all? What is the highest possible score? If it is not a "7", then how much does he like the Mozart serenade ? Does he think that none of the pieces were terribly great or is he just leaving "room at the top", the way skating judges operate? " Etc., etc.

But then I realized that all of this is really beside the point. The point almost overlooked is that the list was totally unexpected. I was astounded by it. Obviously, it reflects a great deal of effort and thought, e.g., the fine distinctions of a single rating point, etc. I simply didn't expect such a high level of listening and judgment. Why did I have "lower" expectations? The answer, I think, is that I made the cardinal error of those who would instruct and teach others ... I underestimated "my student". Setting unrealistic high expectations is a problem of which I am aware, mainly because students are quick to tell me about it. But expectations that are too low ... an equally poor attitude on my part. This is an error I will try not to repeat.

But more than a lesson for me, I would like to think that there is a larger issue, that of "listening readiness". We all know about reading an math readiness in younger children. Learning is best when the student is developmentally ready for the particular type of material. Clearly, Chris was ready to listen, to listen carefully, to consider what he has heard, and to make a judgment reflecting his experiences and preferences at this particular time. This is not a simple question of the ability to pick out compositional elements, such as melody, tempo, type of instrumentation, etc. Rather, Chris' ratings seem to reflect a more advanced type of listening, one in which the Gestalt, rather than the individual components, may be paramount. I don't yet know that for certain, but that is the way my family, friends and I tend to listen, not that we can't dissect what we hear, but rather than an overall judgment of a composition is not based on the sum of judgments about its components.

Are pre-teens in general "ready" to listen in a Gestalt manner? My minimal sample of one says "yes!". At what age range does this type of "listening readiness" made its appearance? What factors and experience contribute to our ability to just appreciate a musical composition, to encompass its internal logic and "togetherness"? Are the pre-teen years particularly good ages to introduce children to long, complex compositions (like all of the pieces on the list, except for the Brahms dances, which are each brief). Perusal of the published research literature indicates that these and similar questions have not been much addressed. More research is needed.

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Briefly Noted
Copyright © 1996 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

More Brain, Better Fingering? It has long been conjectured that the greater the amount of brain tissue devoted to a task, the better the ability to perform the task. Evidence consistent with this view has recently been reported by Elbert and co-workers, reporting in Science (1995, 270, 305-307). Their study, "Increased cortical representation of the fingers of the left hand in string players", used a type of brain scan, Magnetic Source Imaging, to measure the amount of cerebral cortex that receives stimulation from the fingers of the left hand. They found that the cortical representation of the digits of the left hand of string players was larger than that in controls. No such differences were observed for the representations of the right hand digits. The amount of cortical reorganization in the representation of the fingering digits was greater the younger the age at which the person had begun to play. Thus, it seems that the representation of different parts of the body in the primary somatosensory cortex of humans depends on use and changes to conform to the current needs and experiences of the individual. Still unknown is whether a larger allocation of brain tissue is needed for or results in better performance of the left hand.

Does music compensate for unmet emotional needs of musicians? In a study that is likely to generate some controversy, Babbage and Valentine determined the relationship between the capacity for interpersonal intimacy and musical competence. Writing in the British Journal of Medical Psychology (1995, 68, 269-277), the authors reported significant differences between musicians and psychology students, who completed a musical preference scale and questionnaires about measures of personal relationships and the capacity for intimacy. They found that the degree of musical responsiveness was significantly related to a blocked capacity for intimacy in music students but these measures were non-significantly related in psychology students. Babbage and Valentine point out that the results for music students are consistent with the Freudian hypothesis of sublimation. A certain note of caution is required in the interpretation of these findings. First, a correlation was reported and, as we have explained in previous issues of MRN, that does not prove a cause-effect relationship. Second, psychology students may not be the best "control" group because of their special knowledge of the subject under investigation, with the result of a possible bias in the way that they answered the questionnaires. It will be interesting to see the result of additional studies.

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Recent Publications of Special Interest

Children and Education

Lynch, M.P., Short, L.B., Chua, R Contributions of experience to the development of musical processing in infancy. Developmental Psychobiology, 1995. v28:377-398.

           Abstract: Full-term infants' performance in detection of melodic alterations appeared to be influenced by perceptual experience from 6 months to 1 year of age, and an experiment with infants born prematurely supported the hypothesis that experience affects music processing in infancy. These findings suggest parallel developmental tendencies in the perception of music and speech that may reflect general acquisition of perceptual abilities for processing of complex auditory patterns. This acquisition may contribute to the cultural enfranchisement of infants through perceptual experience.

Music Perception, Cognition and Behavior

Barongan, C. Hall, G. C. N. The influence of misogynous rap music on sexual aggression against women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1995, v19:195-207.

           Abstract: Investigated the effects of cognitive distortions concerning women on sexually aggressive behavior. 54 male college students listened either to misogynous or to neutral rap music. Subjects then viewed neutral, sexual-violent, and assaultive film vignettes and chose 1 to show to a female confederate. Among subjects in the misogynous music condition, 30% showed the assaultive vignette and 70% showed the neutral vignette. In the neutral music condition, 7% showed the sexual-violent or assaultive vignette and 93% showed the neutral vignette. Although confederates did not react, subjects who showed the sexual-violent or assaultive stimuli perceived that the confederate was more upset and uncomfortable viewing these stimuli than did subjects who showed the neutral vignette. Findings suggest that misogynous music facilitates sexually aggressive behavior and support the relationship between cognitive distortions and sexual aggression.


Auzou, P., Eustache, F., Etevenon, P., Platel, H., Rioux, P., Lambert, J., Lechevalier, B., Zarifian, E., Baron, J.C. Topographic EEG activations during timbre and pitch discrimination tasks using musical sounds. Neuropsychologia, 1995, v33:25-37.

           Abstract: Successive auditory stimulation sequences were presented binaurally to 18 young normal volunteers. Five conditions were investigated: two reference tasks, assumed to involve passive listening to couples of musical sounds, and three discrimination tasks, one dealing with pitch, and two with timbre (either with or without the attack). A symmetrical montage of 16 EEG channels was recorded for each subject across the different conditions. Two quantitative parameters of EEG activity were compared among the different sequences within five distinct frequency bands. As compared to a rest (no stimulation) condition, both passive listening conditions led to changes in primary auditory cortex areas. Both discrimination tasks for pitch and timbre led to right hemisphere EEG changes, organized in two poles: an anterior one and a posterior one. These results are interpreted in terms of a network including the right temporal neocortex and the right frontal lobe to maintain the acoustical information in an auditory working memory necessary to carry out the discrimination task

Janata, P. ERP measures assay the degree of expectancy violation of harmonic contexts in music. J. Cognitive Neurosci., 1995, v7:153-164.

           Abstract: Studied expectancy violations of a highly constrained musical context. 23 students with experience in playing a musical instrument were presented with a chord sequence (I, IV, V) that generated a strong expectancy for a specific final chord. The sequence was completed with a best-possible or expected (tonic), harmonically plausible (minor), or harmonically implausible (dissonant) resolution. Subjects determined whether it was the best-possible resolution, and in half of the trials made their decision known with an overt response. Several event-related brain potential (ERP) waveform components showed differences among resolution types, response conditions, and electrode locations. Among the affected components were 2 subclasses of the P300, a wave that occurs about 0.3 sec. after a stimulus. Results suggest that frequency and time-domain analyses of the brain's electrical activity may provide a means for assaying the magnitude of perceived violations and fulfillment's of expectancies in harmonic structure.


Moreno, J.J. Ethnomusic therapy: An interdisciplinary approach to music and healing. Arts in Psychotherapy, 1995, v22:329-338.

           Abstract: Discusses the role of music in shamanic practice, the history and applications of Western music therapy, the contributions of ethnomusicology to healing ritual practices, and the potential for adapting music-healing practices into modern music therapy and medical interventions. Cross-cultural research on music and healing (e.g., possession trance) is presented, and a new discipline of ethnomusic therapy is proposed that would integrate the disciplines of ethnomusicology, music therapy, medical anthropology, and medicine. This discipline would integrate the understanding of the relationships between ritual, music, and the health care-related belief system; observations of patient behavior; the eliciting and recording of patients' subjective responses; and the measurement of physiological parameters and general medical progress.


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