Volume VI, Issue 1, Winter 1999

Table of Contents

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Lessons of the Music Womb

Why Do We Have Music?

Briefly Noted
Music Alleviates and Hormonal Abnormalities in Depressed Teens
The "Feeling of Knowing Music": Trust your Feelings

Recent Publications of Special Interest

Matters of Opinion
Consider the Source

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Lessons of the Music Womb
Copyright © 1999 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

Young children and even infants are known to have surprisingly complex abilities to perceive and respond to basic components of music. This musical competency, evident long before the development of speech or the ability to play a musical instrument, raises the question of the earliest age at which the nervous system and brain can adequately process, learn and remember music. Increasing evidence suggests that the answer is "well before birth". In short, the womb appears to be the first concert hall.

Toward the latter part of the 19th Century there arose, as never before, a great interest in understanding the mental capabilities of animals. Energized by Darwin’s writings, both scientists and the lay public became fascinated with the animal mind. Anecdotes were gathered and published, usually attesting to an animal's remarkable, one might say unbelievable, powers. One such report concerned two mice in the countryside who found themselves unable to cross a wide stream. They searched about and, finding a dried cow pie, hauled it to the water's edge. Shoving it into the stream, one got in front and paddled while the other sat at the "stern", using its tail to steer safely to the other side, where they disembarked happy and dry. The truth of this tale was "attested" by the fact that the observer was a local clergyman, whose veracity could hardly be denied. However, he did admit to sipping wine during a picnic with his lady friend while they observed the remarkable intelligence of the two field mice.1

It is true that the capabilities of animals have been underestimated. But overestimation is not the appropriate remedy. The corrective is to perform objective and replicable observations of behavior.

Interestingly, the human infant has suffered from the same sort of underestimation as that of animals prior to Darwin's time. In fact, the failure to appreciate the mental capabilities of infants lasted well past the middle of the Twentieth Century. Because they lack speech and spend so much time eating and sleeping, the presumption was that not much cognition was going on inside the infant head. That view has been largely dissipated with the increasing application of objective, replicable measurement of infant behavior, particularly within the last quarter of the Century. One type of competence, previously discussed in these pages (see "The Musical Infant", MRN, 1994, I (1), Spring 1994), concerns the fact that infants have considerable musical abilities. For example, they perceive and remember melodic contour, the pattern of rising and falling pitches in a composition. They also recognize a melody as the same when it is played at very different tempi and can instantly notice changes in rhythm that would distort a composition. For all of these basic aspects of music, infant perception and cognition are generally similar to the ways in which adult listeners process music.

Asking About the Developmental Origins of Music

The discovery of musical abilities in infants raises the question of their time of origin. At what age do these types of abilities first appear? This query is related to the long-standing issue of whether infants remember their birth or even their in utero experiences. In seeking answers, one finds reports that seem no more credible than the story of the mice and their navigational use of dried cow pies. For example, there are collections of anecdotes which claim that people have detailed memories of birth or even in utero experiences. The reliability of these stories has been claimed on the basis either of hypnosis or that similar accounts of the birth are given by parents and children, although the parents claim never to have given children details of their birth. A little girl remembered that her parents argued about her name in the delivery room.2  A little boy delivered by Caesarian section recalled that it was "funny" when the wall of the uterus opened and the light came in.3  If these stories are true, then the newborn is able to understand strained social interactions and the detailed nature of conversations at birth and it also has a fine sense of humor. But as such high level cognitive abilities require months or years of development, these stories smell a bit like the cow pies appropriated by the mice for their cruise. Memories of early childhood are notoriously unreliable. That one can be absolutely certain about an early experience but be absolutely wrong about it is well-established.4

So if we cannot rely upon personal recollections and anecdotal stories, how is it possible to know whether or not the newborn child, or the fetus in particular, has musical competencies? How can we try to find the beginnings of music?

We have to answer four questions, objectively. First, after conception how long does it take until the fetus can actually hear? Second, do musical sounds from the outside world reach the ears of the fetus? Third, what are the in utero responses to sound, particularly music. Fourth, what are the postnatal effects of in utero musical stimulation?

Prenatal Behavior

Regarding the beginning of hearing, the ear starts to develop only a few weeks after conception. However, the auditory system of the brain really doesn't function well, if at all, before about the 26th week, that is at the beginning of the last trimester of pregnancy. 5  As to the second question, sound does reach the in utero ear, but it is greatly distorted because liquid and tissue surround the fetus. There is relatively little effect on sounds below about middle C on the piano, but an increasing reduction in sound levels with higher notes. As most instruments have harmonics about this frequency, there is a change in timbre. Those instruments having mainly high notes are affected most, such as the trumpet. On the other hand, melody and rhythm are not much altered. In fact, in utero recordings of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony yielded a clearly identifiable sound image.6  Thus, while sounds are greatly altered as they pass from the outside world to the ear of the fetus, there is more than sufficient musical stimulation to be heard in the womb.

What are the responses to music before birth? They consist mainly of body movements and changes in heart rate. Most sounds cause a short-lasting slowing of heart rate, as part of a "What is it?" response. Very loud sounds produce increases in heart rate, often with a startle response.7  Not only do sounds produce movement and changes in heart rate, but also there is evidence of pre-natal learning. Perhaps the simplest form of learning is habituation, which is learning to stop paying attention to repeated sounds that become boring. If a novel stimulus is substituted, infants will respond to it, showing they noticed the change. During the last trimester of pregnancy, the fetus is clearly capable of habituating to a repeated stimulus applied to the mother's abdomen, and also responding again when the stimulus is changed.8

More complex learning can also occur before birth. In one study, the abdomen received a gentle vibratory stimulus that did not itself produce fetal responses; this was followed by a loud sound that did provoke movement. After several paired presentations, the subjects responded to the gentle vibration, showing that they anticipated receiving the loud sound.9  That this basic type of association can be learned before birth suggests considerable capacity of the fetus to acquire information and remember events.

From Womb to Room

This brings us to the fourth question, the postnatal effects of prenatal music. While one cannot determine all of the effects of prenatal music on the fetus, because of the very limited measures of behavior, the assessment of behavior after birth does allow us to draw conclusions about prenatal effects. Two types of postnatal assessments have been made: the rate of behavioral development and the degree of prenatal learning as measured by postnatal memory.

Some studies suggest that prenatal exposure to music facilitates infant development, and thus might one day serve to alleviate or remediate certain developmental delays in some children. Panthuraampthorn and his colleagues enlisted expectant mothers in a stimulation regimen that included music, rocking and patting the abdomen from 28 - 36 weeks of gestational age.10  They stated that large proportions of infants showed early development of the ability to orient toward their mother's voice. However the role of music itself is unclear because of the use of other stimuli and the findings themselves may not be significant due to the lack of a control comparison group. However Blum used a prenatal program (Leonardo 180) consisting of various types of music. He reported facilitated development in orienting to sound, babbling, visual tracking and motor control.11  Although there was no control group lacking music, the author did show that the behaviors exceeded population norms.

LaFuente did include a control group in her study of the effects of music on the rate of postnatal development.12  Beginning the 28th - 30th weeks, mothers played tapes of basic elements of music, progressing over weeks from a three note major chord through more complex chords, for a total of 50-90 hours across subjects. During infancy the music group exhibited significantly more rapid development of many behaviors, including babbling, visual tracking, eye-hand coordination, exploring objects with the mouth, facial imitation, general motor coordination and ability to hold the bottle with both hands.

All of these findings are mutually consistent and certainly point to the potential importance of prenatal music on development. However it must be realized that the results consist mainly of the mothers’ judgements and therefore unconscious bias cannot be absolutely ruled out. Future studies in which a neutral researcher, who does not know whether a child was in the experimental or control group, would solve this problem.

Lastly, we take up the issue of whether there is prenatal learning of music. Although few studies have been performed, they agree not only that music can be learned in utero but that it can also be remembered after birth. For example, one study reported that one-week-old infants prefer the lullaby sung by their mothers during pregnancy. Another investigation found that the prenatal lullaby had a greater soothing effect than a control song. There is also a report that maternal involvement in a prenatal music program increases bonding between mothers and their infants, although the basis for this effect is presently obscure.13

In a related but more extensive investigation, Peter Hepper of Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, studied prenatal and postnatal responses to music, specifically the theme tunes of popular television shows viewed by their mothers.14  It was estimated that the mothers in the TV group watched a show, the "Neighbors", 360 times during pregnancy. When tested 2-4 days after birth, the music group of infants showed a significant decrease in heart rate to the theme song from the show compared to a control group. To determine if the music learning was highly specific, a follow-up experiment used a different piece of music to which the mothers and fetuses had never been exposed. The neonates did not respond to this song. Moreover, another group exhibited no responses to the song played backwards. Both results demonstrate that fetal learning of and memory for music are extremely specific.

To determine the gestational age of learning, Hepper first studied fetuses near term, 36-37 weeks of age. Repeated exposure to the selected piece of music resulted in subsequent in utero movement responses to that composition, compared to controls. However, no such learning could be found in fetuses of 29-30 weeks gestational age. Here then, we have very direct evidence of the origin of prenatal musical learning. Recall that the auditory system starts to be functional at about week 26. Thus, it seems clear that the ability to learn and remember music requires much additional development, at least beyond week 30.

In conclusion, study of the developmental origins of human mental and behavioral capabilities and in the prenatal environment within which they emerge is growing rapidly. This essay concerns music only. Systematic and objective investigations point increasingly to an important role for music in human prenatal development. As with all emerging areas of investigation, these initial studies can only hint at the wealth of information yet to be uncovered. Similarly, the overall implications of the unexpectedly early origins of musical competence can only be dimly glimpsed at this early stage of inquiry. But among these are reappraisals of human nature, grandiose as that may seem. We do need to fully know ourselves, but we don't yet.

-- N. M. Weinberger

1.  Romanes, G.J. (1885). Animal Intelligence, New York: Appleton, pg. 364.

2.  Chamberlain, D.B. (1988). The mind of the newborn:Increasing evidence of competence. In: Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Medicine, Fedor-Freybergh, P. and Vogel, M.L.V. Parthenon Publishing, Park Ridge, NJ, pp. 5-22.

3.  Laibow, R.E. (1986). Birth recall:A clinical report. Pre-and Peri-Natal Psychology, 1:78-81.

4.  DuBreuil, S.C., Garry, M., & Loftus, E.F. (1998). Tales from the crib: Age regression and the creation of unlikely memories. IN: Truth in memory. S.J. Lynn, K.M. McConkey, et al (Eds), The Guilford Press, New York, NY, pp. 137-160. Loftus, E.F. (1997). Memories for a past that never was. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 6:60-65.

5.  Starr, A., Amlie, R.N., & Martin, W.H. et al. (1977). Development of auditory function in newborn infants revealed by auditory brainstem potentials. Pediatrics, 30:831-839. Werner, L.A. & Marean, G.C. (1996). Human Auditory Development. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.

6.  Abrams, R.M., Griffiths, K., & Huang, X. et al. (1998). Fetal music perception: The role of sound transmission. Music Perception. 15:307-317.

7.  Lecanuet, J.-P. Granier-Deferre, C., & Busnel, M.-C. (1988). Fetal cardiac and motor responses to octave-band noises as a function of cerebral frequency, intensity and heart rate variability. Early Human Development, 18:81-93.

8.  Leader, L.R., Baillie, P., & Martin, B. et al. (1982). The assessment and significance of habituation to a repeated stimulus by the human fetus. Early Human Development, 7:211-219.

9.  Spelt, David K. (1948). The conditioning of the human fetus in utero. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 38:338-347.

10.  Panthuraamphorn, C., Dookchitra, D., & Sanmaneechai, M. (1998). The Outcome of fetal response and learning to prenatal stimuli. Unpublished manuscript. I am indebted to Dr. Panthuraamphorn for making available his unpublished paper.

11.  Blum, T. (1998). Human proto-development: Very early auditory stimulation. International Journal Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Medicine, 10:447-466.

12.  LaFuente, M.J., Grifol, R., & Segarra, J. et al. (1997). Effects of the Firstart method of prenatal stimulation on psychomotor development: The first six months. Pre and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 11:151-162. (Group differences in breast feeding have not been ruled -out as contributory).

13.  Satt, B.J. (1984). An investigation into the acoustical induction of intrauterine learning. Dissertation Abstracts, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, California School of Professional Psychology. Polverini-Rey, R.A. (1993). Intraterine musical learning: The soothing effect on newborns of a lullaby learned prenatally. Dissertation Abstracts, Unpublished doctoral dissertation. California School of Professional Psychology. Shaw, D. (1991). Intrauterine musical learning: A study of its effects on mother-infant bonding. Dissertation Abstracts, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, California School of Professional Psychology.

One must exercise some caution in the interpretation of studies for which all of the details are not known. This is the case with the three unpublished dissertations listed above. The original and complete doctoral theses were unavailable at the time of writing.

14. Hepper, P. G. (1991). An examination of fetal learning before and after birth, The Irish Journal of Psychology, 12:95-107.

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Why Do We Have Music?
Copyright © 1999 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

Music is universal. All cultures have music. Why? The field of Biomusicology suggests that music is an evolutionary spin-off from patterns of sexual selection. In particular, males who "made music" together may have attracted females, who chose music-makers as mates. Thus, we may have music because males that were musical were more likely to reproduce than males that were not. In short, we have music because to be human is to be musical.

Why does music exist? This most basic of all questions has been an enduring puzzle. In contrast, if we ask why we eat, the answer is simple … "to live". But music? The answer is not so clear at all. We can list things that music does for us, and its many functions. One example is that we use music to change our moods. Another is that we express ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, through music. That we have it allows us to use it. But listing the uses of music still doesn’t explain why we have music.

Professor Bjorn Merkur of The Institute for Biomusicology, Mid Sweden University, has formulated an interesting, and in many ways compelling, explanation of the origins of music.1  In order to fully appreciate the nature and scope of Dr. Merker’s ideas, it will be necessary for the reader to consult his original article, which will be published this Fall in an exciting new book entitled The Origins of Music. I will attempt to provide a summary that is sufficiently detailed for present purposes, because I have selected Dr. Merkur's work not only for its own value but as a companion piece to the longer preceding essay on the origins of music within the individual ("Lessons of the Music Womb"). Together, the two essays concern music's origins.

We begin with Darwin's stunning insight that traits and behaviors, which contribute to successful reproduction, will survive in evolution whereas those which do not are likely to fall by the wayside. So the question is, "Is music one of those valuable capabilities?" Dr. Merkur answers in the affirmative. To seek the evolutionary origins of a human capacity, we cannot examine human fossils because behavior doesn't fossilize. However, we can look at our closest living relatives among the non-human animals, because traits we share with them are likely to have been held by our common ancestors, predecessors of our species Homo sapiens and of our closest relatives, in this case chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes. Dr. Merkur points out several relevant aspects of chimpanzee society and behavior.

First, they live in groups. Second, the groups stake out a fairly specific territory. Third, the territories of different groups are usually adjacent. Fourth, a stranger wandering into the wrong territory is likely to be attacked and perhaps severely injured. Fifth, given adequate territory for each group, it is in everyone's interest not to provoke aggression by straying into the wrong area. Sixth, in chimpanzee habitat, one cannot count on knowing the exact boundaries by sight so it is better to know where the members of the strange group are. Seventh, again because of the dense vegetation, one can't count on seeing the neighbors. Eighth, chimpanzees can locate another group by listening for their vocalizations. So, to this point, vocalizations serve to keep potentially warring bands from stumbling into each other.

However, although there are social forces at work to keep bands of chimpanzees separate, there is at least one force that brings two groups in contact, the essential need for cross-breeding. In-breeding within a group would lead to its ultimate demise due to the concentration of maladaptive genes. Hemophilia, the inability to readily stop bleeding after an injury, is one such hallmark of inbreeding, well established among European royal families.2  To cross-breed, a chimp must leave its group and be accepted into a rival group.

In chimpanzee society it is the female, not the male, who leaves and seeks mates among strangers. This behavior, technically termed "female exogeny" is not limited to chimpanzees but in fact is found within human societies, specifically in hunting and gathering societies. (The latter seem to me to live in a manner more similar to our ancestors than to contemporary industrialized society.)

How does the female find the males in the new band? A single male vocalizing may not be heard at the distances involved. But a group of males that vocalize synchronously, that is at the same time in roughly the same place, will be heard. In a sense, males "singing" in a chorus, can attract females. And male chimpanzees perform this group behavior. Therefore, when the female finds the singers, she is far more likely to mate with one of them than with a lone chimp off at a distance that, "singing alone", will be undiscovered and therefore non-reproductive. In short, the evolutionary advantage to singing together is that the males’ chances of reproducing are far greater than otherwise. Hence, there is an evolutionary pressure for social chorusing.

The female plays a critical role in the process. She, after all, makes the final decision as to the choice of mate. This is "sexual selection" pure and simple.

In summary, Dr. Merkur's thesis is that the musical ability and musical behavior of Homo sapiens originally evolved as an advantageous reproductive strategy in the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees. So an answer to the question "Why do we have music?" seems to be that "We have music because to be human is to have music … it is an essential part of human nature."

-- N. M. Weinberger

1.  Merkur, B. (in press). Synchronous chorusing and human origins. In: The Origins of Music. N.L. Wallin, B. Merker, & S. Brown (Eds.), MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass. I am indebted to Dr. Merkur for kindly providing me an advanced copy of his chapter. Publication of the volume is scheduled for Fall, 1999.

2.  As I recall, the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas, married his cousin Alexandra; their son Alexis, suffered from hemophilia and was in ill health until his untimely demise at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918.

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Briefly Noted
Copyright © 1999 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

Music Alleviates Brain and Hormonal Abnormalities in Depressed Teens -- Chronic depression is accompanied by an increased state of activation of the right frontal lobe of the brain. Tiffany Field of the University of Miami School of Medicine and her team of colleagues asked whether or not music could reduce depressed mood, reverse the brainwave state in depression and reduce stress hormones. They reported in the journal Adolescence (1998, 33, pgs. 109-116) that after listening to about twenty minutes of rock music, depressed 14-19 year old females reported no change in the level of their depressed mood. However, compared to a control group, which relaxed for the same amount of time, the music did change their brainwave state and their stress hormones. Right frontal lobe activation was decreased and the secretion of cortisol, a stress hormone, was reduced, both toward normal values. Therefore, music may be able to reverse brain and hormonal states in depression even without mood changes. It is possible that the physiological changes are necessary for alleviation of psychological depression but that in this case music did not produce effects that were sufficiently great to also affect mood. Follow-up studies are eagerly anticipated.

The "Feeling of Knowing Music": Trust your Feelings -- Memory is a complex and subtle set of processes. Often, we cannot directly remember the name or melody of a piece of music, yet we may experience a sense of familiarity when we hear it. A group of researchers has for the first time addressed the question of how accurate is our "feeling of knowing" (FOK) music (Peynircioglu et al, "Name or hum that tune: Feeling of knowing for music", Memory & Cognition, 1998, vol. 26, pgs. 1131-1137). College students first were given titles and asked to recall the melodies of those compositions. If they couldn't do so, they were then asked to rate their own FOK. Later, the music was actually played and subjects had to determine whether or not they recognized the pieces. Although subjects could not recall certain melodies during the first part of the experiment, their feelings of knowing predicted their ability to recognize the music when it was played; the greater the FOK, the better the recognition. This study demonstrates that FOK are a valid source of information about apparently forgotten music, emphasizing the fact that much of musical knowledge is not directly available to awareness.

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Recent Publications of Special Interest *

Music Perception, Cognition and Behavior

Music instruction is positively related to verbal memory.

Chan, A.S., Ho, Y-C. & Cheung, M-C. (1998). Music training improves verbal memory. Nature, 396:128.

           Summary: This study examined the relationship between verbal memory abilities and the amount of music education in sixty female college students. Each subject learned a verbally presented list of words and was later tested for the number of words correctly recalled. Students who had received musical training before twelve years of age remembered significantly more words than those who did not. The findings are consistent with the idea that musical training improves other cognitive abilities.

Music influences the perception of art

Limbert, W. M.,& Polzella, D.J. (1998). Effects of music on the perception of paintings. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 16:33-39.

           Summary: Music is known to influence behavior in many ways. This study asked whether it alters the way people perceive and judge paintings. Seventy-two female or male undergraduate students viewed paintings in three different circumstances: no music, with music that matched the painting and with music that did not match. The matching situation increased the intensity of aesthetic response to the paintings. Impressionistic music made all paintings seem more beautiful. This study shows that even the interpretation of art is subject to the influence of music.


Lyrics and tunes are processed independently in the brain.

Besson, M., Faieta, F., Peretz, I., & Bonnel, A.-M. et al. (1998). Singing in the brain: Independence of lyrics and tunes. Psychological Science, 9:494-498.

           Summary: According to the authors, vocal music is the oldest and still most popular form of music, perhaps because it is a combination of the two highest-level skills, speech and music. This experiment asked whether the brain has separate systems or a single system for processing lyrics and tunes while we listen to songs. Responses of the brain were recorded while musicians listened to songs either with or without accompanying music. The results showed that different regions of the brain were involved in listening to the two types of stimuli. Therefore, music and language within accompanied song are processed in parallel in the brain, although our experience is of a single unified perception. This shows that musical experience is not limited to a single "musical center" in the brain but rather that it can encompass several parts of the brain simultaneously.

The right hemisphere is used by musicians to solve musical problems.

Vollmer-Haase, J., Finke, K., Hartje, W., & Bulla-Hellwig, M. (1998). Hemispheric dominance in the processing of J. S. Bach fugues: A transcranial Doppler sonography (TCD) study with musicians. Neuropsychologia, 36:857-867.

           Summary: Listening to music involves both the left and right hemispheres of the brain in most people but it has been thought that skilled musicians rely on the left, language hemisphere. This idea was tested by recording blood flow to the brain while musicians listened to highly complex music, fugues by J.S. Bach. During a task to recognize various fugal themes, there was a highly significant increase in blood flow to the right hemisphere. Therefore, even skilled musicians use their right hemisphere for sophisticated mental processing of melodic contour. The findings suggest that for at least some musical problems, musicians' brains operate on principles similar to those of non-musicians.


Music promotes physiological and behavioral relaxation in neonates.

Kaminski, J., Hall, W. (1996). The effect of soothing music on neonatal behavioral states in the hospital newborn nursery. Neonatal Network, 15:45-54.

           Summary: Noxious noise levels in the nursery can interfere with neonatal efforts to achieve physiological and behavioral homeostasis. This study determined if music could facilitate homeostasis. Twenty normal term neonates were monitored for the number of high arousal behavioral states and state changes during a control and an experimental period during which soothing, lyrical music was played. There was a significant decrease in arousal states during music. The results suggest that soothing music may be a feasible intervention to help newborns demonstrate fewer high arousal states and less state lability.


*  To improve readability, each selection includes a brief statement of the findings. Also, instead of including published abstracts ver batim, summaries have been written in less technical terms. Occasional editorial notes are provided to help readers evaluate the reported findings.

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Matters of Opinion
Copyright © 1999 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.

Consider the Source

The following opinions about music are intended to provoke thought, encourage discussion and sometimes even argument, but ultimately to energize and enlarge conceptions and inquiry about music.

This issue of MRN focuses on musical beginnings of two sorts -- the beginning of musical competence in the individual ("Lessons of the Music Womb") and the beginning of musical competence in our species ("Why Do We Have Music?"). These essays reflect a growing body of evidence that music has deep biological roots. Nonetheless, a great deal more research is needed. Investigation of the origins of music, both in the individual and in our species, is still scant.

In contrast to this relatively early stage of knowledge about the origins of music, the ways of asking and answering questions about music and behavior are well known. There are tried and true methods of obtaining reliable information. But reactions to statements or claims generally ignore them. My goal in this column is to provide a guide or reminder about evaluating sources of claims. But first, one needs to have an inquiring attitude. Unfortunately, when confronted with a story or report, people too often have one of the first three reactions.

Most people react in different ways in different circumstances. And that is to be expected. But I find it troubling that the last option, healthy skepticism, is getting short shrift these days. This approach does demand more thought and effort than naive acceptance, surrender to confusion, or summary rejection. But it has the benefit of pushing for the truth.

Having adopted this stance, which is really just an inquiring attitude, the next step is to consider the source of the claim. This is neither time consuming nor very effortful. Let's consider three sources of claims.

The lowest source of information is the anecdote, an individual recounting of an experience. Anecdotes may be quite reasonable ("I once attended a World Series game" … true in my case), only remotely possible ("I once saw Elvis at a World Series game), or downright impossible ("Last year I saw Elvis…"). But anecdotes simply cannot get one very far along the path to general truths, because of their individual nature and also because the same person had the experience and tells the story; this opens up the possibility of bias, exaggeration, mis-memory, etc.

Clinical case reports are better. Here, a trained clinician recounts the details of one or a few particularly interesting, and probably rare, medical or behavioral cases. The quantum increase in the value of clinical cases comes from the fact that there is an independent observer who is well trained in making relevant observations and gathering data. As case studies accumulate across time and geography, they form a substantial base of reliable information. For example, cases of brain damage form much of the basis for attempts to determine which parts of the brain are essential for the perception of melody.

Experiments in which groups of individuals are studied provide yet a higher degree of confidence that the findings can help form the basis for general laws that are applicable to and valid for other groups. Also, proper control groups are needed to determine if a treatment actually causes an effect vs. the effect happening by chance. For example, the effects of music presented during the prenatal period can be properly assessed only by comparing the music group to an appropriate control group, one that was the same in every way except for receiving music. Finally, the findings need to be published in a scientific journal after independent evaluation by other scientists so that they can be available for scrutiny.

Coming back to healthy skepticism, beware of the anecdote; have more confidence in clinical reports and particularly controlled studies. This advice is particularly timely, in fact it has been elicited by the plethora of popular self-help books and CDs on music and behavior. Books and articles, which indiscriminately mix reports of anecdotes, clinical reports and controlled studies, demand particular caution. Authors ought to have the obligation, if not the ability, to discriminate the sources of information and to alert the readership accordingly. Even when one consults footnotes in books, supposed objective studies often turn out never to have been subjected to independent evaluation and publication. The claimant's "Emperor's New Clothes" often turn out to be woven of gossamer strands of anecdote. Moreover, enumerating claims willy-nilly misleads the trusting reader who, adopting to some extent the stance of naïve acceptance, believes that, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, "If it's in a book, it must be true."

One way of approaching this general problem of credibility, and the promise of fast and easy answers to complex questions of music and behavior, is to realize that when we readily accept dubious claims, we are allocating part of our brain to the claimant. Brain territory being precious, we are well advised to surrender it with caution. There is also a positive side to the stance of healthy skepticism. Every time we attempt to penetrate the thicket of claims, we are exercising our mental faculties, developing our intellects and probably making it easier next time to ask, "Now tell me again, how do we know that frogs cause warts?"

-- N. M. Weinberger


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