Volume VII, Issue 3, Fall 2000

Table of Contents

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What the Brain Tells us About Music: Amazing Facts and Astounding Implication Revealed

To The Point
Brains Tell Us That We Are All Musical
Social Studies Curriculum Involving Music Yields Intellectual and Social Benefits
Music’s Emotional Messages Are Understood Cross-Culturally
Music Improves Vocabulary Development

Matters of Opinion
Music Research: A Broad View

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“If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to … listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use.”

Charles Darwin

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What the Brain Tells us About Music: Amazing Facts and Astounding Implication Revealed
Copyright © 2000 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.


Newspaper headline writers, those obscure cubicle dwellers within the maelstrom of the pressroom, no longer write florid tag lines for stories. This practice, whose purpose was to draw a potential reader into the story, probably reached its peak around the turn of the century, that is the turn of the 19th to the 20th century.


“Astounding Revelations — Equine Genius Taps Answers,
Surpasses Eight Year Old Child in Ability to Answer Numerical Queries”

The titillating title tells us the main point — a “calculating” horse. We want to know more. The following tag line tells us we are dealing with a high level of mathematical intelligence, better than an eight year old! It also tells us how the horse gives answers, by tapping a hoof. Finally, we are told just how important it all is, indeed, how we should react — “Astounding Revelations”.

Personally, I miss the enthusiastic over-the-top tag line, headline material generally being so dull nowadays. And TV news further chops away at the fun and information. The story above would be announced on the 6 o’clock news as “Horse Adds: News at Eleven!” As it turned out, when some “nasty” scientists got into the act, the horse, nick-named “Clever Hans”, couldn’t do arithmetic. It was picking up unconscious signals, like slight changes in tensing of facial muscles, from its owner (who was better than an eight year old at arithmetic). But that’s beside the point. It is still a good headline and a great tag line.

My fondness for good tag lines surfaces at the head of this article on brain and music. Do I really mean that from studies on the brain and music we get “Amazing Facts and Astounding Implications Revealed”. Well, that depends on what you consider “amazing” and “astounding”. I think that findings outside of the public’s imagination a few years ago, perhaps even today, are “amazing”. The “astounding implications” part is something that readers can decide for themselves.

The findings and implications that I’m including in this essay are part of the larger picture that is emerging from music research. This is, “Music is More Important Than We Think”. This conclusion is really what has led me to a deep interest in music research and, in fact, is the common theme that binds all of the issues of MRN.

The present article is particularly timely because MENC, the Music Educators National Conference, the largest (by far) professional organization for music educators, has just published a special issue of the Music Educators Journal (MEJ) on “Music and the Brain” (see Matters of Opinion in this issue of MRN). This itself would have been astounding not so long ago, for there has been a traditional divide between music education and behavioral neuroscience, the field that deals with brain and behavior.

As we consider some “amazing facts”, let’s not overlook Darwin’s lament near the end of his creative career. He believes that his intellect would have benefited from a greater involvement in music. Whatever the effects might have been on him, Darwin, the supreme scientific genius of biology and human heritage, believed music to be important for brain function. And it is, but in many ways that neither Darwin nor most people could imagine.

We Don’t Know What We Know — The Need for the Brain to Tell Us What We Know

To begin with, why should we take the title of this essay seriously? Why should we need the brain to tell us anything about music? Music is music! We can observe music behavior in others and reflect on our own experiences. If we have a question about music, shouldn’t we be able to arrive at an answer just by observing others and thinking about what we know? For example, if we want to know how many people are “musical”, why can’t we just count the number of people who learn to play an instrument? If we want to know why a professional violinist is starting to have trouble fingering, a colleague or master teacher just needs to look at his technique and correct it.

The main reasons why observing others and thinking about our own experiences are inadequate is that we really don’t know what we know. To be more precise, we know a great deal that we have no awareness of knowing. Much of our experience is not really directly accessible to our own thoughts and reflections. In short, the brain is set up to use many, perhaps most, of our experiences without “allowing” them to gain access to our consciousness. This mass of information is stored within us, yet is invisible to our own awareness.

To cite only one example, every one of the thousands of muscles throughout our bodies continually sends information to our brains that gives the exact amount of stretch or contraction on it at any one moment. Try to make all of this conscious now; we can’t. We can sense when a muscle is injured or over-stressed; the pain information can reach awareness but not the other information.

As for music, our auditory system is able to organize streams of sound into the specific perceptions that we experience consciously. So we can be aware of the trumpet tooting, the drum beating, or any of an uncountable number of musical sounds. But, although our perceptions are experienced so easily and immediately to us, they are possible only because of the previous unconscious workings of the auditory system. A prime example is that the auditory system “automatically” takes the cacophony of stimuli reaching our ears and groups it into meaningful chunks that we experience as coherent music. Dr. Diana Deutsch of the University of California, San Diego, has been a major contributor to psychological studies of this process. We quote one example. “When a sequence of tones is presented at a rapid tempo, and the tones are drawn from two different pitch ranges, the listener perceives two melodic lines in parallel, one corresponding to the higher tones and the other to the lower ones.” That is, the brain groups tones that are closer in pitch, and so we perceive e.g., a melody in the treble and another melody (which we may call harmony) in the bass. Automatic, unconscious grouping of tones also takes place for other musical building blocks, e.g., tempo, timbre. The brain also groups sounds, tending to fuse them together, according to place in space. This is the basis for seating the same instruments together in an orchestra. Moreover, “expectation” is a powerful grouping force; if a note seems to complete a musical phrase, it is “assigned” to that phrase, even when it may not be closest in pitch, etc.

So we know from psychological studies that much of our knowledge in music is unconscious or “implicit”. What can the brain tell us? Two sorts of things.

First, it can tell us how it all works… what goes on in the brain to make both the conscious and the unconscious processes in music, whether listening, composing or performing. That’s simply because the brain is the cause of both behavior and of our conscious awareness, thoughts, perceptions and the like. Also, when things go wrong, the brain can tell us what has gone wrong and potentially how to fix it. As we will see, the violinist with fingering problems falls into this class.

Second, but probably more important, the brain can tell us what our actual musical capabilities are, even those which may never surface either in behavior or in consciousness. Why is this important? Because to understand the importance and potential of music in human life, we have to first understand human musical capabilities. The popular belief on this subject is that a fraction of people are “musical”, are born with “talent”; the rest are essentially musical clods, destined to fail if they try to learn a musical instrument.

You Don’t Have To Be A Musician To Have A Musical Brain: All Brains Have Complex, Unconscious Musical Processes

If you ask a randomly selected person on the street if he or she is “musical”, you will probably get a negative answer, unless she or he is a singer, dancer or plays a musical instrument. In many cases, even those who play an instrument are likely to tell you that they are not really “musical” but work at playing anyway.

Now for an “amazing fact” with “astounding implications”. Nonmusicians are musical. In a recent study, Stefan Koelsch and co-workers at the Max Planck Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the University of Leipzig, Germany, recorded the brain’s electrical response to various chords. They studied people who had absolutely no musical education or training. Subjects heard sequences of chords which infrequently contained a chord that did not fit their sound expectations. So the first point is that people with no musical training nonetheless automatically and unconsciously set-up certain expectations of which chords “fit” in a sequence and which don’t fit. This unconscious expectancy, which they could not consciously talk about, was established by playing a set of chords that were appropriate for a certain key. Since any individual chord always belongs to several keys, the subjects were unconsciously “extracting” a “tonal center” (i.e., the key of the chord sequence) by comparing musical relations among the several chords. When a sequence of chords all belonged to the same key, the brains showed no special response. But when one of the chords did not fit the key that was implied (and unconsciously abstracted by the non-musicians), then it produced a particular brain potential, which essentially was equal to “this chord doesn’t fit the key”. This occurred although the subjects had no musical training, did not know about keys, about the belongingness of chords to keys, etc.

This is amazing because the brain tells us that it is calculating complex musical relationships, setting up musical expectations, and detecting violations of these expectations, even if the brain’s “owner” doesn’t “know” it, has done nothing consciously, has put forth no effort, and in fact isn’t aware that this is going on inside his or her head. Why do I think that these implications are astounding? Well, the findings show that non-musicians are highly musical, implying that the normal human brain is a musical brain. How else can one explain these complex, unconscious musical computations and expectations? So, everyone has the brain equipment to “do” music. Further, the facts strongly suggest that music is part of normal human nature. The authors consider it possible that this unconscious ability to automatically analyze music and set up expectancies, which are based on rules of Western tonal music, could be biological, i.e., that the basic elements of Western tonal music might be built into the human brain. This may seem ethnocentric but it should be testable scientifically. An alternative is that exposure to Western tonal music early in life is responsible for this remarkable capability. A next step could be to determine the age after birth when the brain starts to perform its amazing and astounding unconscious musical work.

Playing a Musical Instrument Reshapes Your Brain

Moving from the “listening” side of the brain to its “performance” machinery, we come upon the amazing fact that playing a musical instrument reshapes the brain. This doesn’t mean it actually changes the overall shape of the brain but rather that coordinated use of the fingers can alter the brain’s ability to distinguish touch input from different fingers on the same hand. To appreciate this fact, and its astounding implications, we need to understand how the brain normally processes touch (tactile) input from the skin. Briefly, different parts of the body surface send information to different parts of the somatosensory system, which is concerned with touch. Adjacent places on the skin project their information to adjacent places in the brain, resulting in a “map” of the body inside the brain. One can find a “map” of the hand and its individual digits, with neighboring brain cells receiving information from neighboring fingers.

This organization means that when using adjacent fingers in a highly coordinated or simultaneous fashion, as in playing the guitar, clarinet, violin or piano, adjacent brain cells are receiving simultaneous stimulation and are activated together. Brains apparently have a rule about togetherness, which is something like “Cells that are active together become more closely connected”. An amazing fact is that this can lead to more cells being “recruited” to the task, so that the brain area that processes information from a violinist’s left hand becomes larger.

However, there is a flip side to this situation. In some cases, estimated to be about 15%, long term, repetitive practice can lead to the loss of control of individual finger movements, to a greater or lesser degree. This condition, termed “focal hand dystonia” has been studied in the brains of musicians who play the guitar, piano, oboe, flute and clarinet and suffer from this condition. The amazing fact here, unwelcome though it may be, is that the brain no longer maintains separate fingers in the map of the affected hand. Rather, cells that once responded mainly to input from one finger now respond equally to input from adjacent fingers, those that were used together over extended practice sessions. In this case, playing music is remodeling the brain in a negative way. Fortunately, therapies based on the brain findings are being developed.

One “astounding” implication is that a person can “grow”, i.e., increase brain regions by musical practice, shaping your own brain according to what you do. Another is that we can now understand why “Practice Makes Perfect”. Practice makes it easier for involved brain cells to work more efficiently together. That is, practice helps make “perfect” because it links relevant brain cells together. Another implication is that perhaps too much practice is hazardous to the brain. Thus, simply doing more practice can be beneficial up to a point, but thereafter it might need to be assessed carefully for any signs of dystonia. Alternatively, therapeutic hand exercises combined with instrumental practice might make an individual “immune” to dystonia. This remains to be determined.

Concluding Comments

What the brain is beginning to tell us about music may not seem as truly amazing as a horse that performs mathematical reasoning. However, what it tells us has the compensation of being true.

Views and decisions about music rest on several basic beliefs. Among these are that only a minority of people are “musical” and that for those who are so endowed, the more practice, the better. As music research moves forward, we learn more about ourselves and about the place of music in human life. While brain research in music is still in its formative stages, it is already clear that the brain can tell us many things that could otherwise not be known. When long-held beliefs are examined by the laser beam of science, we find that we can see music in a new light. The brain tells us that we are all musical, that our nature is to unconsciously make musical sense of sound. The brain tells us that the very act of performing music changes our brains, and therefore changes in a deeper sense the individuals we are. These are amazing facts with astounding implications and yet only a beginning. The brain has much to teach us. The marriage of music with brain research and modern technologies speaks loudly. We need only to listen.

— N. M. Weinberger

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To The Point
Copyright © 2000 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.


The most common belief about music is that only a small minority of people are “musical”, mainly musicians. This belief allows people to give up too easily when learning to play an instrument, or even to not attempt to learn how to play. However, research has shown that most of our capabilities are not even known to us. They occur in the brain at an unconscious level, so although someone may sincerely believe that they have no musical ability, they cannot really know. Recent brain research has revealed that non-musicians actually are highly musical; they just don’t know it.

Stefan Koelsch and his co-workers in Leipzig, Germany, studied adults who had no musical education and had never attempted to play a musical instrument. They were given a series of chords, which infrequently contained a chord that did not fit the key implied by the chord sequence. The subjects did not know about chords or key structures. However their brains really did! When all the chords belonged to the same key, their brains showed no special response. But when one of the chords did not fit the key that was implied and unconsciously abstracted in their brains, it produced a particular brain potential, which essentially was equal to “This chord doesn’t fit the key”. The brain response occurred although the subjects had no musical training, did not know about keys, about the belongingness of chords to keys, etc.

Thus, the brain seems to make musical sense out of sounds, but at an automatic and unconscious level. Therefore, all people are basically “musical”, although they don’t “know” it. [source: What the Brain Tells Us About Music: Amazing Facts and Astounding Implications Revealed, MRN, Fall 2000]

Many studies of music in the school curriculum focus on potential improvements in scholastic subjects, neglecting other important aspects of personal and social development. Roberta Konrad of UCLA has found both types of benefits in the same classroom setting. Seventh and eighth grade students in Los Angeles were involved in a social studies curriculum involving music and other arts. Compared to control classes having standard curricula, she found higher achievement grades in history, and also significant increases in positive social behaviors, including helping and sharing, increases in empathy for others, and beneficial attitudes including reduced prejudice and racism. Teachers also found that students were less aggressive. Thus music integrated into 7th and 8th grade social studies is now linked to both better subject performance and better social behaviors and attitudes. [source: Konrad, R.R. (2000), Empathy, Arts and Social Studies, Dissertation Abs.: Human. & Soc. Sci., 60, pg 2352]

Music is highly powerful in communicating emotions and setting moods. However, it is generally believed that this capability is learned within each culture. To test this assumption, Laura-Lee Balkwill and William Forde Thompson presented Western culture listeners with various excerpts of music they had never heard, specifically from Hindustani ragas. The subjects were asked to rate the emotions expressed in each selection: joy, sadness, anger and peace. The authors found that the Western listerners were highly sensitive to emotional messages, despite the fact that they were completely unfamiliar with this type of music. The findings suggest that music’s power to communicate specific emotions is not merely cultural but reflects more basic human processes. [source: Balkwill, L-L and Thompson, W.F., (1999), A Cross-Cultural Investigationi of the Perception of Emotion in Music, Music Perception, 17, pg. 43-64]

Four groups of children aged six to nine years, who were experiencing reading difficulties, participated in a program involving listening to music. There were improvements in learning new words. The findings suggest that music may be an effective learning medium for aspects of language development, especially for students with reading problems. [source: Bygrave, P.L. (1995-1996). Development of receptive vocabulary skills through exposure to music. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education no. 127, Winter, pg. 28-34]

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Matters of Opinion
Copyright © 2000 Norman M. Weinberger
and the Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.


Music Research: A Broad View

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.

The September 2000 issue of the Music Educators Journal (MEJ) provides a special focus on the brain and music, composed of five articles. The first is by Donald Hodges, “Implications of Music and Brain Reseaerch”, followed by Donna Brink Fox, “Music and the Baby’s Brain: Early Experiences”, then “EEG Studies with Young Children” by John W. flohr, Daniel C. Miller and Roger deBeus, followed by “Does Music Make You Smarter” by Steven M. DeMorest and Steven J. Morrison. The final article is a “virtual panel” in which Donald Hodges and four well-known music researchers (Andrea Halpern, Larry Parsons, Ralph Spintge and Sandra Trehub) discuss various issues.

I was asked to provide an overview of these articles, published as “Point Counterpoint” in the issue. The following comments are taken from that column.

The five articles that comprise this Special Issue provide an exceptionally useful compendium of current research on music, the brain and behavior. They also reflect some current tensions. For example, Donna Fox calls for an “integrated delivery system” for early music education, that includes shared responsibility among music educators, funding sponsors, parents, early childhood educators and research scientists. However, Steven Demorest and Steven Morrison, in challenging selected reports of collateral benefits of music education, focus on negative aspects of relationships between researchers and music educators. Similar tensions are discernable in the reaction of the “Virtual Panel” to the slogan “Music Makes You Smarter”.

I would like to suggest how the various points of view and concerns can be reconciled by adopting a broader perspective, one that focuses on music as it relates to the basic cognitive and emotional systems that are the foundations of thought, feeling and behavior. But first, it will help to consider some of the points made in the several articles.

In “Music and the Baby Brain”, Donna Fox presents a persuasive argument for introducing music early in life. She further emphasizes the importance of “active” interactions vs. passive experiences in having lasting effects on brain and behavior. I am in complete agreement but would amplify this point by noting that passive exposure to music, even at a very early age, can engage a type of information storage generally termed “implicit memory”. General musical architectures can be acquired to a considerable extent by mere exposure, as the brain tries to make sense out of the stream of sounds encountered by an infant, be they musical, linguistic or others. These implicit memory structures form a necessary basis for more active engagement with music, which can start with toddlers in pre-school. Therefore, a reasonable amount of background music, presented playfully with infants during waking hours and alone at bedtime, may not only set a mood but likely provides early musical experience that will later be beneficial for more directed, active engagement with music.

Drs. Demorest and Morrison have selected narrow grounds for their critique on extramusical effects of music. The original “Mozart Effect”, i.e., a 10 minute improvement in a spatial-temporal task, is largely if not entirely irrelevant for music education, whether or not substantiated or ultimately rejected. It strains credulity that a transient experience of any sort would have long lasting effects; the authors, Shaw and Rauscher, never thought so. So the “Mozart Effect” serves in this article as a means of warning music educators about music scientists, sometimes in the guise of arguing that advocacy of music education should never include findings of beneficial effects of music on cognition. What is missing from this extreme point of view is not that music should be taught for its intrinsic benefits, which has universal agreement, but rather the relevance of music for the overall development of children.

I suggest that we broaden our approach to music, the brain and behavior by focusing on the fundamental systems that underlie all thought, emotion and action. As Don Hodges emphasized in his article, music is likely processed in a distributed manner throughout the brain, by neural modules that perform specific functions. It follows that the various modules are engaged according to task demands. For example, in learning to play a musical instrument, at least the following brain systems and processes are engaged — [a] sensory and perceptual: auditory, visual, tactile, kinesthetic, [b] cognitive: symbolic, score reading, [c] planning, [d] motor actions: fine muscle and gross muscle coordination, [e] emotional/motivational, [f] learning, [g] memory. [h] feedback and evaluation of music produced, and then the entire process repeats, virtually every few seconds.

Moreover, these systems must be continually integrated in extremely complex ways, some operating in parallel, some sequentially. Furthermore, the production of music involves nuances that require “on-line” interactions of brain modules, such as accomplishing a particular phrasing to realize a specific emotional effect, all the while maintaining coordination with other members of an ensemble. Finally, fundamental psychological processes, mental competencies and attitudes toward learning are involved. These include processes that certainly are of general applicability in life, such as creative thinking, problem solving, mentally constructing solutions and plans, and organizing thought, feeling and knowledge into action.

We can all certainly agree that we know too little, both about music and about how the brain accomplishes all of these essential functions. We can all agree that we need a great deal of research, over an extended period of time. We should certainly agree that music education and study is unique and brings its own intrinsic merits and benefits.

I now suggest that we agree that music education does not take place in a neural or psychological vacuum. While music study, listening, composition, improvisation and performance from a score all may engage unique combinations of brain modules or systems, these systems have not evolved just in case music developed in human culture. These systems, and their constituent brain cells, are not necessarily quiescent until “used” by music. In fact, “unused” neurons tend to lose their synaptic connections and wither. Therefore, we all need to work together, to meet on the common ground of the integrating and developing brains of our children and grandchildren. We need to elevate our discourse to focus on how music engages their brains rather than to draw disciplinary boundaries where none exist in the brain. We owe the next generations our best combined efforts.

— N. M. Weinberger

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