Tag Archives: music

Does listening to music improve running performance?

Credit: Pixabay.

For many runners, a pair of headphones is more important than the best running gear out there. Listening to your favorite tunes while working out can make training more enjoyable, but beyond the subjective experience, is there any evidence that music can actually help you run more or faster? As a matter of fact, yes.

There are quite a number of studies that support using music to get fired up before and during running. In a 2015 study led by Marcelo Bigliassi, an expert in psychophysiology and neuroscience from Florida International University, 15 well-trained male long-distance runners participated in five experiments. The effects of music on the performance during a 5-km run were assessed in four contexts: pre-run motivational music (110-150 beats per minute); running with slow music (80-100 beats per minute); running with fast music (140-160 beats per minute); post-run calming music (95-110 beats per minute). The participants also ran a 5-km trail with no music, as a control.

The researchers measured pre-run brain activity, arousal, and heart rate variability; perceived effort and completion time during the run, and post-run mood and heart rate viability.

According to the results, listening to “motivational music” before the run aroused the runners, charging them up for the 5-km trail run. During the run itself, the participants who listened to music completed the first two laps faster than those who ran without music. However, the differences in lap times between the two groups greatly decreased with each loop.

That’s consistent with other studies that showed the higher the required intensity of effort, the less effect music has on performance.

“Although some people may experience performance detriments while exercising in the presence of music, the majority of individuals tend to benefit from the use of music during sport- and exercise-related tasks,” Dr. Bigliassi told MetaFact.

In another study conducted by researchers at the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the effect of music listening on running performance and perceived exertion was assessed in a cohort of 28 undergraduate students. The students had to complete a relatively short 2.5-km run either while listening to music or without.

“The results of this study indicate that music listening has a significant effect on running performance during a maximal 1.5-mile run. However, music listening had no significant effect on the rating of perceived exertion at this distance,” the researchers found.

While these results suggest that listening to music doesn’t have an effect on perceived exertion, a recent study conducted at the University of Edinburgh found that music improved training performance when you’re already mentally fatigued. Music may also help when running conditions are difficult. A 2018 study that appeared in the journal Frontiers in Psychology had volunteers run on a treadmill in hot and humid conditions. Those who did so while listening to music ran 67% longer than the non-music control group before they felt exhausted.

“Music listening during sports and exercise is believed to capture attention, distract from fatigue and discomfort, prompt and alter mood states, enhance work output, increase arousal, relieve stress, stimulate rhythmic movement, and evoke a sense of power and produce power-related cognition and behavior,” Edith Van Dyck, an expert in musicology and psychology from Ghent University in Belgium, told MetaFact.

Van Dyck added that music in the same tempo of the exercise or slightly higher rendered the most optimal performance. But since music preference is so subjective, the best workout music is often whatever your favorite playlist happens to be. What’s more, for some, listening to music actually hampers their performance.

According to Dr. Costas Karageorghis, an expert on the effects of music on exercise, at Brunel University, elite athletes have the least to gain from training while listening to music. That’s because they’re, what Karageorghis calls, ‘associators’, meaning they focus inwardly when running. Amateur athletes, on the other hand, are ‘dissociators’ who are more susceptible to external stimuli and distractions, so music can help nudge them when they aren’t feeling motivated.

Perhaps a bit too hyperbolically, Karageorghis says “music is a legal drug for athletes” but “like any drug, if you use it too much, it begins to have less effect.” This is why he recommends saving music for the end of your run, so it acts like a boost, he told The Guardian.

Our brains fire up their ‘prediction engine’ when faced with uncertainty — at least with music

When listening to music, our brains don’t just sit back and relax. Instead, they get hard to work trying to predict the patterns of the song.

Image via Pixabay.

We know from past research that our brains are surprisingly active when we’re listening to music, much more so than would be the case if they were simply processing the sounds. New research shows that the human brain processes music by analyzing what we’ve already heard, and using that to try to predict what’s coming next.

Music to my ears

“The brain is constantly one step ahead and matches expectations to what is about to happen,” said Niels Chr. Hansen, a fellow at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies and one of two lead authors on the paper. “This finding challenges previous assumptions that musical phrases feel finished only after the next phrase has begun.”

“We only know a little about how the brain determines when things start and end. Here, music provides a perfect domain to measure something that is otherwise difficult to measure — namely, uncertainty.”

The study focused on musical phrases, one of the most basic units of music — if notes are treated as equivalent to individual letters, musical phrases would be words that go together. Musical phrases are made up of a sequence of sounds that together form a distinct element within a larger melody. They’re coherent within themselves, meaning that although they are only a part of a larger melody, they do “make sense” so to speak even when played alone.

The team chose this as the basis for their research particularly because of this property. Being coherent by themselves means that our brains can perceive them as music, but they don’t offer any information about what comes after them, because they’re a full sequence in themselves and do not necessarily impact other phrases in the melody, although they can.

What the team wanted to determine was how our brains react to the uncertainty this creates. Our brains like to look for patterns in the world around us (an inclination they developed while trying to keep us alive in the wild). They worked with 38 participants who were asked to listen to Bach chorale melodies, note by note. They were able to pause and restart the music at will by pressing the spacebar on a computer keyboard and were told that they would be tested afterward to check how well they remembered the melodies. This allowed the researchers to use the time participants dwelled on each tone as an indirect measure of their understanding of musical phrasing.

In a second experiment, 31 participants listened to the same musical phrases and were then asked to rate them on how ‘complete’ they sounded. They rated melodies that ended on high-entropy tones (those with higher uncertainty) to be more complete and tended to listen to them more on average.

“We were able to show that people have a tendency to experience high-entropy tones as musical-phrase endings. This is basic research that makes us more aware of how the human brain acquires new knowledge not just from music, but also when it comes to language, movements, or other things that take place over time,” said Haley Kragness, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the paper’s second lead author.

“This study shows that humans harness the statistical properties of the world around them not only to predict what is likely to happen next, but also to parse streams of complex, continuous input into smaller, more manageable segments of information,” adds Hansen.

While studying how our brains interpret music might seem trivial, it feeds into the much wider topic of the mechanisms that allow us to perceive and process the world around us. It might also be valuable for researchers seeking to understand the very foundation of communication between people, as this involves an exchange of information in various forms that our brains may or may not try to interpret and understand in the same ways seen in this study’s participants.

The paper “Predictive Uncertainty Underlies Auditory Boundary Perception” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

“Harmonic surprise”: the secret sauce of chart-topping music

Still from music video for Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars. Credit: Vevo.

Although writing music is first and foremost a creative endeavor, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t compositional formulas that can dramatically increase the odds of a song sticking in people’s ears. The same thing goes for writing, painting, photography, comedy, and cinematography. Coming back to music, a new study has demystified some aspects that make a song popular, showing that harmonic surprise is an important factor in predicting which piece of music will be perceived as pleasurable.

What’s more, this preference evolves over time as we become accustomed to certain musicalities. Yesterday’s fresh music can grow old, so common harmonies in popular music need to be constantly shifting to catch the listener by surprise.

To reach this conclusion, researchers at Drexel University, Georgetown University, and Loyola University Chicago looked at all the Billboard hits from 1958 to 2019, analyzing the harmonic content of each song. With each passing decade, the harmonic surprise of the top tunes has been increasing, a phenomenon which the researchers have dubbed “inflationary surprise”.

What to write a top pop song? Be different

Why do we like certain pieces of music and dislike others? One prevailing theory is that music evokes a pleasurable response in the human brain depending on the degree to which a song adheres or deviates from what a listener would expect. When we hear familiar songs that sound good to our ears, the brain stimulates a neural reward. This stimulation can equally occur when we hear certain novel types of songs that don’t necessarily adhere to the sound of what we usually listen to.

This notion explains why there is a great deal of variability in musical preferences or why we label some songs as retro and boring while others are fresh and hot. In other words, musical perception is partly based on cultural knowledge.

It follows that surprise in music is an important factor in predicting the popularity of a musical piece. Quantifying a song’s total amount of surprise is possible by analyzing its distinct components, such as harmonies, melody, rhythm, and timbre.

Music that is more likely to cause a pleasurable reaction to listeners tends to place higher on charts, which is why the researchers led by neuroscientist Scott Miles turned to the Billboard Hot 100 as an approximation of popularity and musical reward for their analysis of harmonic surprise.

Previously, in a different study, the researchers proposed two hypotheses as to how surprise affects musical perception. The Absolute-Surprise Hypothesis states that musical popularity is determined by the overall amount of surprise in a piece, based on the notion that dopamine (the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter) is associated with novelty. The Contrastive-Surprise Hypothesis is not dependent on the total amount of surprise in a song but rather on the contrast between high-surprise and low-surprise sections within a certain song.

In a 2017 study, Miles and colleagues had analyzed the Hot 100 songs, from Bee Gees’ How Deep Is Your Love to Mariah Carey’s We Belong Together, looking for patterns of sounds that may elicit a pleasurable response in the brain. They found that the most popular songs had a high level of harmonic surprise, including the use of rare chords in verse, following by a more conventional, catchy progression in the chorus. Later, the researchers also added other harmonic patterns to their scoring algorithm, including melody, timbre, lyrics, and rhythm, to devise software that can predict if a song will be well received by listeners.

However, this particular study assumed that the “expected” harmony of music was constant over the years across Western popular music — this turned out not to be the case. 

To be successful, a musician needs to be constantly innovating

 Per-song average surprise (in bits), relative to chord distribution of August 1958 to January 1975, of Q1 and Q4 separated into time bins. Error bars represent standard error. Per-song surprise rises faster in Q1 than in Q4. Credit: Frontiers in Neuroscience.

“This assumption, however, may not have been valid; it is entirely possible that the common harmonies which can be reasonably expected to occur in music may change from year to year,” the researchers wrote.

Instead, in this new research, Miles and colleagues went back to the drawing board and devised a more sophisticated model that analyzed how musical perception and preferences evolve over time along with surprising musical content.

They grouped Hot 100 songs into four time “bins” (each spanning about five years of release dates) and calculated the degree of harmonic surprise for each song. This analysis showed that harmonic surprise increases over time and is more pronounced in the most popular hit songs.

“Such dynamic harmonic expectations highlight the interactions between individual listeners and musicians with the culture around them. The Surprise-Inflation Hypothesis raised by the results presented here suggests that the brain’s craving for surprise causes continuous changes in harmonic distributions in popular music. A musician exposed to changes advanced by other musicians must innovate to be successful. It could be that musicians, learning from the success of high-surprise songs from one year, end up producing more high-surprise songs the next year. This could be an explicit strategy to improve on the part of musicians, rather than an implicit change in expectation on the part of the listeners. However, listeners’ preferences change as a result, forcing musicians to incorporate further changes. Hence, the inherent craving for surprise in each of us may push our entire culture in an endless evolution of musical preferences,” the researchers conclude in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Learning music changes how our brains process language, and vice-versa

Language and music seem to go hand-in-hand in the brain, according to new research. The team explains that music-related hobbies boost language skills by influencing how speech is processed in the brain. But flexing your language skills, by learning a new language, for example, also has an impact on how our brains process music, the authors explain.

Image credits Steve Buissinne.

The research, carried out at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences, in cooperation with researchers from the Beijing Normal University (BNU) and the University of Turku, shows that there is a strong neurological link between language acquisition and music processing in humans. Although the findings are somewhat limited due to the participant sample used, the authors are confident that further research will confirm their validity on a global scale.

Eins, Zwei, Polizei

“The results demonstrated that both the music and the language programme had an impact on the neural processing of auditory signals,” says lead author Mari Tervaniemi, a Research Director at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences.

“A possible explanation for the finding is the language background of the children, as understanding Chinese, which is a tonal language, is largely based on the perception of pitch, which potentially equipped the study subjects with the ability to utilise precisely that trait when learning new things. That’s why attending the language training programme facilitated the early neural auditory processes more than the musical training.”

The team worked with Chinese elementary school pupils aged 8-11 whom they monitored, for the duration of one full school year. All of the participants were attending music training courses, or a similar programme to help them learn English. During this time, the authors measured and recorded the children’s brain responses to auditory stimuli, both before and after the conclusion of the school programmes. This was performed using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings; at the start, 120 children were investigated using EEG, with 80 of them being recorded again one year after the programme.

During the music training classes, pupils were taught to sing from both hand signs and sheet music and, obviously, practised singing quite a lot. Language training classes combined exercises for both spoken and written English, as it relied on a different orthography (writing system) compared to Chinese. Both were carried out in one-hour-long sessions twice a week, either after school or during school hours, throughout the school year. Around 20 pupils and two teachers attended these sessions at a time.

All in all, the team reports that pupils who underwent the English training programme showed enhanced processing of musical sounds in their brains, particularly in regards to pitch.

“To our surprise, the language program facilitated the children’s early auditory predictive brain processes significantly more than did the music program. This facilitation was most evident in pitch encoding when the experimental paradigm was musically relevant,” they explain.

The results support the hypothesis that music and language processing are closely related functions in the brain, at least as far as young brains are concerned. The authors explain that both music and language practice help modulate our brain’s ability to perceive sounds since they both rely heavily on sound — but that being said, we can’t yet say for sure whether these two have the exact same effect on the developing brain, or if they would influence it differently.

At the same time, the study used a relatively small sample size, and all participants belonged to the same cultural and linguistic background. Whether or not children who are native speakers of other languages would show the same effect is still debatable, and up for future research to determine.

The paper “Improved Auditory Function Caused by Music Versus Foreign Language Training at School Age: Is There a Difference?” has been published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Beware earworms: Listening to catchy music before bedtime may disrupt sleep

Study participants had brain activity and bodily metrics monitored while they tried to sleep after listening to some super catchy tunes. Credit: Robert Rogers/Baylor University.

Michael Scullin kept waking in the middle of the night a song stuck in his head. This nuisance caused him to sleep terribly as no matter how much he tried, the earworm was still burrowing through his brain. But at least something good came out of this ordeal.

Inspired by this experience, Scullin, who is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, set out to investigate if there was any relationship between listening to music and sleep quality.

The brain can still process music even hours after the tune stopped playing

Previously, a survey by psychologists from the University of Sheffield found that many people use music as a sort of sleeping aid. The respondents claimed that listening to music close to or during bedtime helps them sleep better because it blocks external stimuli, induces a mental state conducive to sleep, offers unique properties that stimulate sleep, or simply because it’s become a habit. Overall, 62% of the 651 respondents confirmed that they play music to help themselves sleep.

However, Scullin’s research focuses on a rarely-explored phenomenon related to music known as involuntary musical imagery, or “earworms”. These mental patterns override our normal train of thought, which is replaced with a song or tune that is replayed in one’s mind over and over again. Apparently, Scullin isn’t alone. Many people who have earworms stuck in their heads report trouble sleeping.

“Our brains continue to process music even when none is playing, including apparently while we are asleep,” Scullin said. “Everyone knows that music listening feels good. Adolescents and young adults routinely listen to music near bedtime. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. The more you listen to music, the more likely you are to catch an earworm that won’t go away at bedtime. When that happens, chances are your sleep is going to suffer.”

The research consisted of two parts: a survey and a laboratory experiment. During the survey, 209 participants had to answer questions pertaining to sleep quality, music listening habits, and earworm frequency, as well as how often they reported experiencing an earworm while trying to fall asleep, during the middle of the night, or immediately upon waking in the morning.

People who experience one more earworm per week at night were six times more likely to report poor sleep quality compared to those who rarely experienced earworms.

During the experimental part, 50 participants listened to three catchy pop songs — Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off,’ Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ and Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ — and then had to spend the night at the Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory at Baylor. While they slept, the participants were wired to various instruments that measure brain waves, heart rate, and breathing.

Half of the participants were randomly selected to only listen to the de-lyricized instrumental versions of the pop songs, while the other half listened to the original versions.

This experiment confirmed that those who caught an earworm had greater difficulty sleeping, more nighttime awakenings, and spent more time in light stages of sleep.

“We thought that people would have earworms at bedtime when they were trying to fall asleep, but we certainly didn’t know that people would report regularly waking up from sleep with an earworm. But we saw that in both the survey and experimental study,” Scullin said.

Instrumental music actually triggers twice as many earworms than music with lyrics

Brain scans revealed that those who caught the dastardly earworm had slow oscillations during sleep, a marker of memory reactivation. These telltale oscillations were most active over a region of the primary auditory cortex which is known to be implicated in earworm processing. In other words, the brain scans showed how the earworms were triggering memories of song time and time again.

But the most surprising part was that instrumental music led to the worst sleep quality. You’d think that catchy lyrics are to blame for earworms, but apparently, music with no lyrics leads to twice as many earworms.

“Almost everyone thought music improves their sleep, but we found those who listened to more music slept worse,” Scullin said. “What was really surprising was that instrumental music led to worse sleep quality — instrumental music leads to about twice as many earworms.”

Those most at risk of catching an earworm that threatened to disturb their sleep were individuals with greater music listening habits.

These findings run counter to the notion of music as a sleeping aid, which is embraced by many health organizations that recommend listening to quiet music before bedtime.

Scullin’s research has objectively shown that the brain continues to process music for several hours even after the music itself stops.

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. For some, listening to relaxing music before bedtime may indeed work as a sleep aid. Others, however, may find the experience way too stimulating and stay awake well into the middle of the night because they can’t shed the earworm.

For those who have problems sleeping, Sculling advises moderate music listening — especially before bed.

“If you commonly pair listening to music while being in bed, then you’ll have that association where being in that context might trigger an earworm even when you’re not listening to music, such as when you’re trying to fall asleep,” he said.

They don’t make music like they used to — song lyrics are becoming simpler

From Love Me Do to Despacito, music has sure changed a lot over the years. Some would argue that it’s become better; others would criticize the lack of depth in modern music. But for the most part, music is appreciated subjectively, with few truly objective measures to compare past and present music.

But one such objective measure was recently analyzed in a study by researchers from the US and Canada. They looked at popular American song lyrics over the past six decades, comparing over 14,000 songs. The authors found that indeed, song lyrics have become simpler, and also offer some insights into why this may be happening.

Image credits: Eric Nopanen.

“Music is a human universal,” the researchers explain in their study, and it’s influential to cognition and behavior in ways that are not always clear. Because songs can be so rich in meaning, social scientists have long explored the ways that such lyrics intersect with some fundamental social processes. In the new study, researchers looked at lyric complexity in time and the social trends that could be connected to it.

The way researchers look at how complicated lyrics are is pretty neat. They use a measure called compressibility — the same type of algorithm that can compress your files into .zip or .rar files can also be applied to lyrics. In the same way that some files can be compressed more than others (because it is simpler for the algorithm to compress them), some song lyrics can also be compressed more than others. It’s not a perfect measure, but it’s one of the best we have.

Based on this metric, lyrics for popular songs have become progressively simpler as the years passed.

Image credits: Varnum et al.

There also seems to be a serious incentive to keep lyrics simple: simpler songs tend to do better on the charts, especially when there are more songs available to listen to. In other words, when faced with a multitude of songs, listeners tend to fall back on simpler songs — and with the music industry churning out more songs than ever before, this could help explain why songs are getting simpler.

“Our findings suggest that the answer may have to do with the proliferation of new songs available to consumers. The present work represents one of the first attempts to use big data and time series methods to quantify temporal shifts in information transmission dynamics at the societal level.”

Researchers also looked at other factors that could be connected to lyrical complexity. They looked at things like GDP per capita, unemployment, external threats like climate or war, immigration, and several others — but the correlation to the number of songs appeared to be more dominant.

The team cautions that the findings are not causal: just because there is an apparent connection between two elements doesn’t mean that one is causing the other. These relationships will be further explored by subsequent research.

The study was published in PLoS.

Why we love music so much: it acts on the same reward pathways as good food or alcohol

Credit: Pixabay.

Music is literally the most universally popular thing among people. Humans have been fashioning ancient musical instruments such as flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory as far back as 43,000 years ago, long before we invented agriculture. Scientists have always been fascinated with why humans seem to be so drawn to music. Many studies have probed this question, and thanks to recent developments in neuroscience, we’re nearing a complete picture.

Previously, neuroimaging studies that scanned the brains of participants while they listened to music found that the brain’s reward circuits responded similarly to when we experience other pleasurable stimuli such as food, money, or alcohol.

But in a new study, researchers at McGill University took things a step further, showing there’s a causal link between the brain’s reward circuit and the way we experience music.

“Prior studies had shown a correlation between brain activity in a structure called the striatum and the experience of musical pleasure. But that does not demonstrate that one causes the other, just that they are correlated. In the present paper we show that when you stimulate the brain with excitation or inhibition you change the response of the striatum up or down, and that in turn causes people to experience more or less pleasure to music,” Robert Zatorre, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University and senior author of the new study, told ZME Science.

Zatorre and colleagues recruited volunteers who had to listen to pop songs while their brain activity was being measured with fMRI. Right before the scanning commenced, the volunteers’ reward circuit was either excited or inhibited using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a harmless procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain.

When the reward circuit was excited prior to the music listening session, the participants reported more pleasure. Conversely, when the reward circuit was inhibited, people reported less pleasure out of listening to music.

And for those who had their reward circuits light up when music was blasting, the pleasure they feel may be on par with that of eating good food or drinking alcohol. Particularly, pleasure induced by music was mediated by activity in the nucleus accumbens, a key brain region of the reward circuit.

“If we look at how much the reward system is stimulated by music vs other stimuli, we find it is in a similar range in terms of percent activity change for instance. And if we look at measures like how much time, effort, and money people are willing to spend on music, it seems commensurate with other stimuli like food or alcohol,” Zatorre said.

These findings are important in the context of previous research. In another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017, Zatorre and colleagues used fMRI scans to measure participants’ brain response to music. This study found that the brain’s auditory and reward regions are closely coupled and, resulting in joy and pleasure — well, at least for most people.

There’s a tiny fraction of the population, maybe 3%-5% of all people, who have musical anhedonia, meaning they get no pleasure out of music, finding it boring instead. The new study published by Zatorre and colleagues confirmed these findings, showing that those with the greatest differences in reported pleasure also showed the greatest difference in synchronized activity between auditory and reward regions. 

Greater induced pleasure differences were associated with increased synchronized activity between auditory and reward regions. Credit: Mas-Herrero et al., JNeurosci 2021.

“It sort of closes the loop from previous research, because previously we and others had shown that music activates the reward system, and that brain stimulation changes pleasure responses, so we still had to demonstrate that brain stimulation changes the striatum activity, which in turn changes the way we experience the music,” Zatorre said.

The scientists aren’t stopping here. They have plans to follow up using the same techniques on people with poor regulation of the reward system, such as those with disorders of mood or motivation, to see if they might benefit from music therapy in any way. 

The findings appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Listen to a 17,000-year-old musical instrument made from a seashell

Credit: Science Advances.

In 1931, archaeologists stumbled upon a 17,000-year-old conch shell in a richly decorated cave in the Pyrenees. For more than eight decades, the ancient artifact had been gathering dust in the storeroom of a French museum until it was re-examined by researchers. They found that the shell was drilled purposefully to turn the shell into a musical instrument. Remarkably, they even managed to play near-perfect instruments out of the horn, showing that it still works after all these years.

Hunter-gatherers of musical notes

Originally, the shell belonged to some living organism, perhaps a sea snail called Charonia lampas, judging from its characteristics. It measures 31 centimeters in length and 18 centimeters in width.

Initially, when excavators found the shell in the Marsoulas cave, which was adorned with all sorts of marvelous prehistoric art, they thought it must have served a ceremonial purpose as a fancy drinking cup.

In reality, the conch shell is a lot more interesting than meets the eye. When scientists at the French National Centre for Scientific Research re-analyzed the artifact, they identified deliberate modifications that enabled the production of sounds with musical pitch. Besides holes drilled at certain intervals, the artisan also removed the apex of the shell, as well as the outermost lip of the shell, enabling a player to insert their hands to modulate the sound.

The Charonia shell bears the traces of important modifications of human origin. Credit: Science Advances.

Essentially, the modified conch shell is a musical horn, the oldest known instrument of its type. Only bone flutes have been retrieved from an earlier date.

The Sound of an 18,000-year-old Conch Shell Instrument.

When the researchers realized the shell’s true purpose, they enlisted a trained horn player to offer some feedback. The musician was able to play three clear notes, very close to C, D, and C#.

“We already know that prehistoric people transformed many shells into portable ornaments and that they thus attributed substantial corporal symbolism to them. This seashell horn, with its unique sonority, both deep and strong with an enduring reverberation, sheds light on a musical dimension until now unknown in the context of Upper Paleolithic societies,” the authors wrote in the journal Science Advances.

The inner part of the conch is decorated with red pigment of the same kind as that used on the fingerprint artworks on the walls of the cave. This means that the hunter-gather musician who originally used the conch must have also participated in the painting of the images on the walls — making this perhaps the earliest combination of music and illustrative art in history. 

Want to help endangered birds? This music album could be the place to start

An international group of electronic musicians and composers is sampling the sounds of endangered birds as a way to save these lyrical creatures and raise awareness about the challenges these birds are facing.

The artists just published a new album in which they combine their own beats with the sounds of the birds, donating all the profits to conservation efforts.

The cover of the new album

“A Guide to Birdsong” was started in 2015 by Robin Perkins, a 33-year old composer, DJ, and producer from England. He wanted to take “the songs of endangered birds and challenging musicians to make a piece of music from them,” trying to “marry the worlds of activism of conservation, birdsong and electronic music,” he said.

Perkins worked with a group of artists from each of the endangered or threatened birds’ homelands to build their own songs around the birds’ songs. Electronic music allows artists to do that in a special way, he said.

The first album was focused on South America and raised more than $15,000 for two bird conservation charities.

“The beautiful thing about electronic music is that it opens up this whole toolbox of things that you couldn’t otherwise do, right?” Perkins said in a statement. “So you can take a sample of a bird song and do 5 million things to it. You can turn it into an instrument itself. You can reverse it, you can add effects, you can sample it.”

Following the initial success, Perkins just published a second album featuring birds from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. He invited musicians from around the region, asking for the tracks to include a birdsong from a bird in the range of “near threatened” to “critically endangered.” The 10-track album includes sounds of a wide array of creatures, including the black catbird, bearded screech owl, and the thick-billed parrot. The tracks were done by diverse artists like Garifuna Collective from Belize, Di Laif from Guatemala, Tamara Montenegro from Nicaragua, and many more.

Montenegro chose Nicaragua’s national bird, the turquoise-browed motmot, also known as Guardabarranco. The bird is threatened by loss of habitat primarily due to deforestation. “As a child, I would see this bird freely flying around and meeting his partner in my backyard for sunsets,” she said in a statement, explaining her choice.

The profits collected from the new album will go towards three initiatives that are focused on birds and the conservation of them in Central America and the Caribbean. This includes educating young people about birds, building aviaries to help ones that are injured, promoting birding, and training local guides.

Lisa Sorensen, head of Birds Caribbean, one of the organizations set to benefit from the sales of the album, said in a statement: “We’re envisioning that funding from this project will help us advance on building the supply and the demand for sustainable bird and nature tourism.”

High unemployment makes song lyrics angrier — but not sadder or anxious

Music helps us estimate how healthy a country’s economy is, a new study surprisingly reveals. More to the point, national unemployment rates can predict the negative emotional content in lyrics in a country’s songs.

Image via Pixabay.

Songs have a very powerful emotional component, and past research has shown that people tend to listen to tunes that match their current moods or preoccupations. Starting from that chain of thought, a new paper aimed to find if music can be used to estimate the socioeconomic health of a community (in this case, a country).

The team worked with popular song lyrics from the US and Germany and report that unemployment rates predicted feelings of anger portrayed in songs in both countries.

Rage against the economy

“This study aimed to examine how sentiments in top songs coincide with changes in national unemployment rate. In particular, we focused on three common negative emotions (i.e., anxiety, sadness, and anger) expressed in lyrics,” the researchers say.

For the study, the team used a text analysis program called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) to trawl through the lyrics of the top 10 most popular songs in the US and Germany between 1980 and 2017. Songs with no lyrics were removed from the analysis.

The final sample of US songs included 370 lyrics (149,660 words) while the German sample totaled 366 lyrics (120,076 words). From there, the team used the LIWC to estimate emotional content in three categories: anger, sadness, and anxiety. They also looked at how word frequency denoting each emotion compared to unemployment rates in each country at the time these songs were written.

At first, the team writes, there seems to be no discernible link between unemployment rates and such negative emotional content in music. However, after controlling for other. elements that impact individuals’ economic prospects, especially ones that tie into inflation (GDP per capita, housing prices, inflation, and population density), the unemployment rate showed itself to be a “significant predictor” of anger content in US lyrics, they report.

German lyrics fared similarly: there was no immediate discernable link between unemployment and sadness or anger. After controlling for the same indicators, however, it was a good predictor of anger in lyrics.

As to why this dynamic forms, the authors have two theories. The first one is that socioeconomic factors can impact the emotional state, and thus behavior, of consumers. High rates of unemployment can nurture feelings of stress and anger, and consumers might favor songs that reflect such a state, driving them up in the charts. The second theory is that such factors impact artists and composers who transpose their feelings of stress and anger into their work.

The explanation could, of course, lie somewhere in the middle of these tho theories.

One interesting tidbit of these findings is that sadness or anxiety didn’t seem to change in response to employment rate — suggesting that anger is the primary public response to poor economic prospects.

“This is consistent with preliminary research illustrating that unemployment can lead to various affective responses, but the central emotional response is anger when the adversity is attributed to external causes,” the paper reads.

One of the study’s most obvious limitations is that it only looked at the lyrical component of songs, ignoring the musical frame around them. This frame could alter the emotional message being conveyed by the songs. It also focused on two countries in the Western world. Thus, it is unclear whether dramatically different cultures would show the same response.

In the future, the authors plan to control for “melodic attributes” in songs as well, in order to better gauge their emotional content.

The paper “Unemployment Rate Predicts Anger in Popular Music Lyrics: Evidence From Top 10 Songs in the United States and Germany From 1980 to 2017” has been published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media.

Wildfires can change the songs birds sing

Wildfires seem to alter the songs of birds living in affected forests, a new paper suggests.

The study focused on Hermit Warblers, a small songbird native to North and Central America. These birds woo their mates with songs following formulas and patterns, unlike the ones they use to defend territory — these are more complex and creative. Oftentimes, there is a song formula that becomes dominant within certain populations or geographic areas.

Hermit Warbler (Dendroica occidentalis).
Image via Wikimedia.

Researchers recorded over a thousand of their songs in California from 2009 to 2014. They report finding over 35 regional dialects in song formulas, and that wildfires and other disturbances have a significant effect on the way these birds sing their songs in the short term by mixing populations together.

Environmental artists

“Our surveys suggest that song dialects arose in sub-populations specialized to different forest types,” said the paper’s lead author, Brett Furnas. “Over the longer term, fire caused some birds to flee and created a vacuum for other birds to fill. The net result is that some areas now have birds singing more than one dialect resulting in a complex diversity of songs throughout California.”

The species is immediately — and negatively — impacted by disturbances such as wildfires or elective timber harvests, according to the authors. However, they do ultimately fare well under the effects of such events, due to changes in forest structure and an increased influx of pollinating insects (food).

The authors proposed that birdsong can help us understand how biodiversity is maintained in certain environments. These birds learn songs through imitation, and with time this creates song variants that are characteristic of individual areas.

The study recorded the formulaic songs from 1,588 males across 101 study sites in the state between 2009 and 2014, providing the first comprehensive mapping of Hermit Warbler songs throughout California. Each song fit one of 35 dialects.

Song dialects tended to be isolated to different forest types. Local song diversity, meanwhile, increased with the amount of local fires. Using data from ten study areas revisited in 2019, the researchers also showed that song structure had begun to change since the initial visits 5-10 years earlier, with locations that saw wildfires between visits showing the greatest increase in diversity.

The paper, “Wildfires and Mass Effects of Dispersal Disrupt the Local Uniformity of Type I Songs of Hermit Warblers in California,” has been published in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

What’s the link between music, pleasure, and emotion?

A bad day can be made better with the right jam, and a boring commute is that much more enjoyable with your favorite tune in the background. But why does music have such a powerful impact on us? And why do we like it so much?

Image via Pixabay.

We know that music has a special significance to humanity, as it’s popped up (either independently or through a cultural exchange) in virtually every society in history. We experience that special significance daily when we put our headphones on or relax after work with a nice record.

Back in 2001, researchers at the McGill University in Montreal used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show that people listening to music showed activity in the limbic and paralimbic brain areas, which are related to the reward system. This reward system doles out dopamine, which makes us feel pleasure, as a reward for sex, good food, and so on. Addictive drugs also work by coaxing the production and release of dopamine in the brain.

That being said…

We don’t really know why, to be honest

But we do have a number of theories.

Back in his 1956 book Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology, philosopher and composer Leonard Meyer proposed that the emotional response we get from music is related to our expectations. He built on previous theories (the belief-desire–intention model) that the formation of emotion is dependent on our desires. The inability to satisfy some desire would create feelings of frustration or anger but, if we do get what we want, we get nice feelings as a reward. Delayed gratification also makes an appearance here: the greater the split between frustration and when we actually get what we want, the better we will feel once we get it, the theory goes.

In Meyer’s view, because music works with patterns, the human brain subconsciously tries to predict what the next note or groups of notes will be. If it’s right, it gives itself a shot of dopamine as a reward. If it’s not, it will try harder, and get a higher shot of dopamine once it eventually succeeds. In other words, simply having an expectation of how the song should go makes it elicit emotions in our brain, regardless of whether that expectation proves to be right or not.

It’s a nice theory, but it’s very hard to test. The main issue with it is that music can be so diverse that there are virtually endless ways to create and/or go against expectations, so it’s not exactly clear what we should test for. A song can rise or fall quickly, and we may expect a rising song to continue to rise — but it can’t do that indefinitely. We know jarring dissonances are unpleasant, but there also seems to be a cultural factor in play here: what was top of the charts two thousand years ago may sound completely horrendous today. You can listen so some reconstructions of ancient music here and here.

Expectations are in large part driven by how a particular piece we’re listening to has evolved so far, how it compares to similar songs, and how it fits in with all the music we’ve listened to so far. We all have our own subconscious understanding of what music ‘should be’ and it is to a large degree driven by our culture. This is why jazz, a melting pot of musical genres and methods, first sounds a bit off to those unacquainted with it.

Music also seems to have a physiological effect on humans. Past research has shown that our heartbeats and breathing patterns will accelerate to match the beat of a fast-paced track “independent of individual preference”, i.e. regardless of whether we ‘like’ the song. It’s possible that our brains interpret this arousal as excitement through a process called brainwave entertainment.

One other possibility is that music activates the regions of the brain that govern and process speech. As we’re very vocal and very social beasts, we’re used to conveying emotion via speech. In this view, music acts as a specific type of speech and as such can be a vehicle for transmitting emotion. Because we have the tendency to mirror the emotions of others, the song would end up making us ‘feel something’.

Music is a very rich playground — it may very well prove to be infinite. Our enjoyment of it also hinges on a very large number of very subjective factors, further complicating attempts to quantify the experience.

From a scientific point of view, it’s very interesting to ask why music sends chills down our spine. From a personal point of view, however, I’m just very thankful that it can.

Can a song be universal? Apparently so, according to science

Music is universal. We have all thought that at some point, with one song causing similar reactions in different people, making us want to dance, sign or even generating a sense of love. Now, science has taken us one step closer to what makes some sound progressions so universal.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

A group of researchers looked at research in ethnomusicology from 315 cultures and a collection of song recordings from different countries. They did a cross-cultural analysis to understand the similarities and differences and found that the structures and melodic elements of songs are the same worldwide.

The study, published in Science, took quite a bit of work. The team had to go through archives, libraries, and private collections, compiling a massive database of songs to carry out their comparison. They called the database “Natural History of Song”, formed by 118 songs from 86 different cultures of 30 different regions.

“We are so used to being able to find any piece of music that we like on the internet,” said psychologist Samuel Mehr of The Music Lab at Harvard University. “But there are thousands and thousands of recordings buried in archives that are not accessible online. We didn’t know what we would find.”

The team worked with an ethnographic database of 315 cultures and looked for mentions of a song. All cultures had their specific music style described. More than 5,000 descriptions of songs from 60 cultures in 30 regions were included in the database — a painstaking task.

The researchers took detailed notes about the songs such as their length, the moment of the day when it was sung, the number of singers, the pitch range, the tempo, and many other structural details. They used a set of tools to help their tasks such as machine summaries, listener ratings, and expert transcriptions.

Based on their findings, the team argues that music can be tied to specific cognitive and affective faculties. These include language, as all societies use words in songs, motor control, as everybody dances across the world, auditory analysis, as every music system as tone signatures, and aesthetics, as melodies and rhythms, are balanced.

“Lullabies and dance songs are ubiquitous and they are also highly stereotyped,” said evolutionary biologist Manvir Singh of Harvard University. “For me, dance songs and lullabies tend to define the space of what music can be. They do very different things with features that are almost the opposite of each other.”

This isn’t the first time the researchers looked at this topic. In the past, they discovered that listeners were able to identify when a song was a lullaby, even not having heard the song before. Now, the new research appears to support those findings.

There was some variation between the songs, the team found. Some songs are of course more formal, while others are more religious and other more rousing. The variation increased between songs in a specific culture. This means that our brains could be able to understand music on a universal level, the team argued.

“The music of a society is not a fixed inventory of cultural behaviors, but rather the product of underlying psychological faculties that make certain kinds of sound feel appropriate to certain social and emotional circumstances,” the researchers concluded in the paper.

Your brain only needs 0.1 to 0.3 seconds to recognize a familiar song

It only takes your brain a fraction of a second to recognize a familiar song, new research reports.

Image credits Miguel Á. Padriñán.

Researchers at the UCL Ear Institute, perhaps taking inspiration from game shows such as ‘Name That Tune’, wanted to find out just how fast our brains can respond to familiar music. It’s pretty fast.

As fast as sound

The team worked with an experimental group consisting of five men and five women. Each of them had provided the team with a list of five songs that were familiar to them. The team then picked one of these songs, matched it to a tune that was similar in terms of tempo, melody, harmony, vocals, and instrumentation (but which was unfamiliar to the participant).

Each participant was then asked to listen to 100 snippets, each lasting less than a second, of the familiar and the unfamiliar song in random order. The researchers monitored each participant using electro-encephalography (EEG) imaging, which records electrical activity in the brain, and pupillometry, a technique that measures pupil diameter as a measure of arousal.

The team explains that familiarity is a multifaceted concept and that, for their study, they instructed participants explicitly to select songs that evoke positive feelings and memories. This means that part of what the team studied here is recognisability, and partly emotional engagement and affect.

It took participants’ brains about 100 milliseconds (0.1 seconds) to recognize a familiar song after first hearing it; the average recognition time was between 100ms and 300ms, the team explains. Recognition of a song was judged based on rapid pupil dilation (likely caused by increased arousal associated with the familiar sound) and cortical activation related to memory retrieval.

A control group consisting of international students — who were unfamiliar with all the songs — used in the trial didn’t show either of these signs of recognition.

“Our results demonstrate that recognition of familiar music happens remarkably quickly,” says Professor Maria Chait, senior author of the study.

“These findings point to very fast temporal circuitry and are consistent with the deep hold that highly familiar pieces of music have on our memory.”

Most of us see music as art, entertainment, a hobby, and not much beyond that. However, the team says that understanding how our brains recognize familiar tunes can help us devise therapeutic interventions for patients that may otherwise be beyond our help. For example, dementia patients seem to have well-preserved memories of music, even if their memory is otherwise faulty — understanding what makes music different in this case can help us pinpoint the causes of dementia.

Some limitations of the study include this bleed-through between recognizability and emotional engagement, manual selection of the songs due to technological limitations, and the use of a single ‘familiar’ song per subject; this latter one likely limited the demands on the memory processes studied, they explain.

The paper “Rapid Brain Responses to Familiar vs. Unfamiliar Music – an EEG and Pupillometry study” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The link between the music you listen to and your personality isn’t exactly clear

The study did uncover some modest links between certain entertainment preferences and problematic tendencies such as negative emotionality. Nevertheless, researchers said the links aren’t strong enough to diagnose people based simply on the music and movies they like. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Back in 1950, British psychologist Raymond Cattell, suggested that people’s entertainment preferences may be linked to personality difficulties. Later, in the early 2000s, Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling published a few influential studies linking contemporary models of normal personality traits to music interests.

Following their steps, Pavel S. Blagov, an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College and the corresponding author, wanted to use that knowledge to predict links between entertainment preferences and recent models of maladaptive personality or unhealthy traits.

“These are the kinds of traits that clinical psychologists and psychiatrists might measure to describe long-standing difficulties in people’s usual ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and relating to others,” Blagov said.

Baglov and the researching team surveyed 379 Americans (ages 18 to 65 years) regarding their musical preferences, movie interests, personality traits, and psychopathic tendencies. They were able to uncover several relationships even after accounting for sex and aged differences.

“In general, some maladaptive traits appear to be linked to the kinds of music and movies people enjoy, but it is important to remember that the links are relatively weak. For example, people who tend to be unusually introverted or withdrawn do not seem to enjoy the kinds of stimulating, upbeat music played at social gatherings,” Baglov said.

The study showed that people who are prone to strangeness, oddity, or eccentricity in their thinking report enjoying a wide variety of music and movies, as do people who describe themselves as unusually fearless and dominant. These findings parallel results from the literature on normal personality traits.

No support was found for the notion that people who enjoy intense/rebellious music (heavy metal, punk, alternative rock, hip-hop, rap, and rave) show maladaptive personality tendencies, despite it had been suggested in previous literature. This can be liked to those genres becoming more accepted, researchers said.

“These findings do not mean that finding out what music and movies a person likes will readily allow us to guess how withdrawn, eccentric, fearless/dominant, or hostile the person is. They may exist at the population level, but they should not be used to ‘analyze’ individuals,” Blagov noted.

Researchers noted that despite their findings it’s still unclear how well the results apply to other countries and cultures — or even subcultures within the United States. The results are also correlational, preventing the researchers from making determinations about cause-and-effect.

“There isn’t enough research yet to explain the mechanisms, or the reasons why some normal and maladaptive traits are linked to entertainment preferences,” Blagov said.

“For example, do withdraw and unusually introverted people veer away from upbeat music because they also shun social gatherings, or because the music is overstimulating to them in an unpleasant kind of way?”

Music ‘flows’ in the opposite direction when we play it in our heads

Music has a tremendous effect on the brain. We know from studies that music can change the way we perceive time, reduce seizures, make you a better communicator, boost the immune system, evoke memories, assist in repairing brain damage, and even help Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients cope with their disorders.

In a new study involving male and female epilepsy patients, researchers have uncovered new insights about how music interacts with different cognitive processes.

Musical information flowed from sensory to frontal regions during listening and from frontal to sensory regions during recall. Credit: Ding et al., JNeurosci (2019).

Previously, researchers determined that music activates various brain regions, primarily on the right side. Now, writing in the journal JNeurosci, Ding et al. have recorded electrical activity directly from the surface of the brain via electrodes while participants were listening to famous pieces of music.

Some of the tracks included Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and Richard Wagner’s “Wedding March.” 

When they listened to the music and then continued playing the melody in one’s head, the participants activated a network of overlapping brain regions.

What was interesting was that the musical content traveled in opposite directions during these two processes: from sensory to frontal regions during listening and from frontal and sensory regions during the recall.

This is just the latest in a string of studies showing the complex interplay between music and the brain. For instance, we now know that a variety of networks in the brain, including areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity, are activated when listening to music.

Music can be used to estimate political ideology to an “accuracy of 70%”, researchers say

Do you like Pharrell’s “Happy”? Then you’re probably a conservative.

If you’ve ever tried to argue with a stranger on the Internet about politics (or with your family at Thanksgiving dinner), you’re well aware that it’s a recipe for disaster: political ideology is often so deeply rooted that it feels hard-wired into our DNA. Political ideology strongly influences our views on things like economics and social policies, but could it also have far-reaching influences on things we aren’t even aware of? The Fox Lab at New York University believes the answer is yes.

Their theory?

“Ideology fundamentally alters how we perceive a neutral stimulus, such as music,” said Caroline Myers, who presented her research at the 2018 Society for Neuroscience Meeting.

To examine the influence of political ideology on musical preference, participants self-reported their political ideology as liberal, conservative, or center, and then listened to clips from 192 songs. For each song clip, they would rate how familiar they were with the song and then how much they liked or disliked it. These songs included the top 2 songs each year from the Billboard Top 40, iconic songs across certain genres, and a selection of more obscure music. Participants additionally ranked how often they believed they listened to certain genres of music — which led to some surprising findings.

For example, 60% of individuals who identified as liberals said that they listen to R&B music, and yet they weren’t any more familiar with these songs than any other group — and they actually liked R&B songs less than their conservative counterparts. Liberals also stated they listen to jazz but were not any more familiar with jazz music than the other groups.

They also looked at individual song preference across the various ideologies. Some did not showcase any major differences, with classical music being the least divisive of all the musical genres. The most polarizing song, however, was “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Conservatives love it, while liberals hate it. And there’s actually evidence of this in the real world — just two weeks ago, Pharrell issued President Donald Trump a cease and desist order for using the song at one of his rallies.

While we can use this information to create a kick-ass playlist for our like-minded friends, is there any evidence that we can guess an individual’s political ideology purely based on musical taste? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

“We were able to estimate individual’s ideological leanings to an accuracy of 70%,” said Myers.

Myers is currently working on addressing the limitations of her study such as the limited number of conservative participants due to heavy on-campus recruiting for the study. However, the results are still striking, and quite concerning, from a personal data standpoint. It goes to show that, even if we’re not actively posting personal details on social media, companies may still have other means to gain insight into our personal preferences – and we might not even be aware of it.

High school students who study music perform better at math, English, and science

Credit: Pixabay.

High school students who took at least one instrumental music course in their regular curriculum had a better academic track record than those who didn’t take any musical education. The findings suggest that skills learned in instrumental music may be transferred more broadly to other study activities at school.

“Learning to play a musical instrument and playing in an ensemble is very demanding,” said the study’s co-investigator Martin Guhn, an assistant professor at the University of British Colombia’s school of population and public health. “A student has to learn to read music notation, develop eye-hand-mind coordination, develop keen listening skills, develop team skills for playing in an ensemble and develop discipline to practice. All those learning experiences, and more, play a role in enhancing the learner’s cognitive capacities, executive functions, motivation to learn in school, and self-efficacy.”

When schools are on a tight budget, one of the first budget cuts is to music programs. The reasoning is that students who devote time to music are likely to underperform at math, science, English, and other more practical disciplines. But new research from the University of British Columbia (UBC) says otherwise.

In their new study, the team led by Peter Gouzouasis, an education professor at UBC, analyzed data on more than 112,000 high school students who finished their senior year between 2012 and 2015. The participants included in the study completed at least one standardized exam for math, science, and English. The researchers also had rich demographic information at their disposal, including gender, ethnicity, neighborhood socioeconomic status, and prior learning in numeracy and literacy skills.

According to the findings, those who took a music course or became involved in a school-related musical activity, such as a concert band, conservatory piano, orchestra, jazz band, concert choir, or vocal jazz, scored significantly better on math, science and English exams than their non-musical peers. As measured by their exam grades, the musical students were about one academic year ahead of their non-music peers.

“Our research proved this belief wrong and found the more the students engage with music, the better they do in those subjects,” said Gouzouasis. “The students who learned to play a musical instrument in elementary and continued playing in high school not only score significantly higher, but were about one academic year ahead of their non-music peers with regard to their English, mathematics and science skills, as measured by their exam grades, regardless of their socioeconomic background, ethnicity, prior learning in mathematics and English, and gender.”

The relationship between music education and academic achievement was mediated by whether or not a student took courses in instrumental music rather than vocal music. As an increasing amount of schools have emphasized numeracy and literacy in favor of music, the researchers hope that these findings serve as a wakeup call for school administrators.

“Often, resources for music education—including the hiring of trained, specialized music educators, and band and stringed instruments—are cut or not available in elementary and secondary schools so that they could focus on math, science and English,” said Gouzouasis. “The irony is that music education—multiple years of high-quality instrumental learning and playing in a band or orchestra or singing in a choir at an advanced level—can be the very thing that improves all-around academic achievement and an ideal way to have students learn more holistically in schools.”

The study appeared in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Credit: KylaCaresWP, Flickr.

Humans and monkeys respond differently to music and speech

Credit: KylaCaresWP, Flickr.

Credit: KylaCaresWP, Flickr.

Speech and music contain harmonic frequencies which we perceive to have “pitch”. The capacity to differentiate pitch from noise (sound that lacks pitch) is considered to be an intrinsic human quality — but how unique is this ability? A new study suggests that although humans and macaque monkeys share a similar visual cortex, there are important differences in the auditory cortex which processes sound.

Sam Norman-Haignere and colleagues at Columbia University measured cortical responses to both natural and synthetic harmonic tones and noise in human subjects and macaque monkeys. These sounds also included recorded macaque vocalizations that were pitched in post-production.

During one experiment involving four human participants and three macaque monkeys, the researchers noticed strong responses to harmonic tones in humans and virtually no response in the monkeys. In another experiment that studied the brain responses of six humans and five monkeys to natural and modified macaque vocalizations, the researchers found that the human brain performs stronger selectivity for harmonic vocalizations. Meanwhile, the macaques seem to lack the capacity to discern the pitched version.

The team of researchers concludes that the auditory cortical organization differs between human and macaques. These differences are likely driven by human’s propensity for speech and music.

Pitch allows us to convey mood or emphasis when speaking. For instance, read these sentences aloud:

  • I never said she stole my money.
  • never said she stole my money.
  • I never said she stole my money.

Each of the sentences above carries a different meaning due to the emphasis on certain words through pitch change. Previously, a study published in the journal Neuron involving epilepsy patients narrowed down the brain region responsible for pitch and its variations — the dorsal laryngeal motor cortex. Such studies are particularly useful to sufferers of aprosodia, a neurological condition that some researchers have described as “a disruption in the expression or comprehension of the changes in pitch, loudness, rate, or rhythm that convey a speaker’s emotional intent.”

High and low pitches are created by the vibration of vocal cords, which are controlled by tension in the folds that comes from flexing muscles, causing a faster vibration.

“We speculate that the greater sensitivity of the human cortex to harmonic tones is driven in development or evolution by the demands imposed by speech and music perception,” the authors concluded in the journal Nature.

Why depressed people listen to more sad music

It’s not because they want to maintain their low mood, as some have claimed, but rather because they find it calming, or even uplifting.

Image via DoD.

We all know just how much of an impact music can have on our mood. We put a jumpy playlist to go with our workout, a soothing song when we have a cup of tea, and sadder tunes when we’re feeling down. We also use music to purge ourselves of negative emotions — Thank you next, anyone? The ancient Greeks had a word for this: catharsis. Catharsis is the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. Something similar might be happening when depressed people listen to sad music: counterintuitively, it might give them relief from feelings of sadness and help them purge some of their negative emotions.

A few years ago, a provocative study found that people suffering from depression are much more likely to listen to sad music — which was interpreted by some as a way of seeking to maintain negative feelings. However, a new study challenges that idea, suggesting that depressed people are not seeking to perpetuate negativity, but rather feel better after listening to sad music.

The study had 38 female undergrads diagnosed with depression and 38 non-depressed female undergrad controls listen to music. The first part was consistent with previous findings — depressed people being more likely to opt for sad music. But unlike previous works, researchers also asked the volunteers why they made the choices they did. The majority of people with depression said that the music makes them feel more calm and relaxed. Lastly, researchers asked participants to listen to their choice of songs a second time, and asked participants how it made them feel. Critically, when they listened to the songs a second time, participants reported feeling more happiness and less sadness.

“In the replication music task, major depressive disorder (MDD) people were more likely to choose sad music,” researchers write. “However, inconsistent with any motivation to upregulate sadness, people with MDD reported that they chose sad music because it was low in energy levels (e.g., relaxing). The strong appeal of sad music to people with MDD may be related to its calming effects rather than any desire to increase or maintain sad feelings.”

The study was unable to explain why exactly people find sad music more relaxing and why it makes them happier. Intuitively, it makes sense to listen to something that’s in tune with your feelings — kind of like having a comforting friend that empathizes with you — but the exact mechanism remains unknown for now. At any rate, the idea that depressed people are trying to maintain negative feelings just took a serious blow.

The study “Why do depressed people prefer sad music?” has been published in APA Psych.