Tag Archives: research

How to practice effectively [video]

This is a short video from TED Talk on how to practice more effectively. It includes some useful tips & really interesting information based on what we know about the brain & how we learn tasks.

This ties-in with my previous blogs on rehearsal & my own (admittedly rather limited) research on music and the human brain [see previous posts]. Let me know what you think!

If the above video doesn’t work, here’s a link so you can access the short TED Talk video on YouTube.

Enjoy! xx

What’s your biggest guitar issue?


This is a call for submissions!

One aim of my blog is to offer guitar & music-related advice and for the next few posts, I’d like to pass the power in dictating the topic of discussion to YOU. So tell me: what is the is the biggest issue you face in learning the guitar?

I’m happy to examine any relevant queries which have been bugging you. They could be technical (finger tapping, getting the right tone out of an amp), or more vague (who do you feel the best guitarists to listen to when learning Afro-Cuban jazz, etc). You might want to ask about bass guitar, ukulele or band performance/management in general. Feel free!

You can message me here, leave a comment in this post, or drop me a DM/tweet via my Twitter account: @tim_guitarist.

I look forward to hearing from you & talking your queries over the next few weeks!

Tim x

Mundane Science Fiction – taking fantasy out of the future


Picture courtesy of Quora.com

Ok, so I’m a music writer first and foremost. The vast majority of my posts deal with (in no particular order):

  • The positive effects of music on overall wellbeing
  • Music therapy & community music articles of interest
  • Updates on my writing & recording work, focusing on new projects
  • Thoughts & discussions on the wider world of music, in all its beautiful and varied forms


I do, on occasion, venture away from music and enter the wider world, focusing on my other favourite subjects: history, politics, travel and of course, books.

Like most people who write, I’ve tried my hand at fiction. I’ve started around five or six ideas for stories, only three of which were long enough to become novels. Two of these were science fiction. My love of sci-fi comes from a childhood spent reading the greats such as Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Banks and many, many more. Anyone who states that the genre isn’t proper literature has most likely not read the right books. The imagination required to conjure up these worlds and peoples goes fast beyond the standard writing advice of ‘writing what you know’.

Critics of sci-fi do have one valid gripe: in all of the grandiose settings and fantastical elements of the genre, characterisation can sometimes suffer. It is certainly true that only the very best sci-fi combines the huge space-opera backdrop with the human elements of character-driven plot lines. In that regard, can too much imagination be a bad thing?

Enter the relatively new sub-genre of mundane science fiction, a term first coined by Geoff Ryman and others in 2004. Those of you who follow my music blogs will no doubt be aware I have a dislike of genres and labelling. Good music is good music – shouldn’t the same be true for fiction? Well, perhaps with a focus on characters and more believable conflicts, it can.

The best way to achieve this? Remove the supernova-sized set pieces; the spaceships travelling at light speed; aliens from other worlds; time travel; in fact, anything considered to be outside of our current understanding of physics and the universe as we perceive it.

The Guardian newspaper wrote an excellent piece in 2008 introducing readers to the genre, which I happened upon recently which you can read here. This article and the original blog by SFGenics explain mundane sci-fi so much better than I can, but the basics involve a lack of the ‘fantastical’ elements mentioned previously, focusing instead on human stories and character-driven plot/conflict.

Interestingly, I have noticed that most of the books considered part of this movement (if you want to call it that) are set in the present day, near or approaching future. There is almost no likelihood of seeing a mundane sci-fi novel taking place in the year 30,212 A.D. because who knows what the world will look like then, and how could such ignorance be presented as mundane?

Another noteworthy feature is a focus the dwindling resources of this planet. In forcing themselves to look inwards, rather than to the stars, many mundane sci-fi writers imagine a future where food is scare, or climate change has irreparably damaged our ecosystem. Their stories focus on how these environmental perils being either fought against, or survived through by the protagonists.

In the full ‘mundane manifesto’ blog, which you can read here, a few classic works are included, including ‘Do Androids dream Of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick, which became the classic movie Blade Runner, and ‘1984’ by George Orwell. These two contrasting examples of a near dystopian future should tell you that even without the wider galaxy to play with, there is plenty of interesting topics to be mined here on Earth.

To finish off, I’ll return to music an anecdote from Peter Gabriel. When working on one of his classic albums, he instructed the drummer not to play cymbals for the entire recording sessions. Effectively, he forbade cymbals from the entire album. While some might balk at such a draconian measure and say it’s a fast way to ruin his music, the end results were quite surprising. Forced out of his usual default playing patterns and styles, the drummer at these recording sessions had to entirely rethink his drum kit. Approaching it in this fresh manner brought out rhythms he would have never dreamt up otherwise.

As well as this, I have previously written on the amazing results pulled off by the late record producer George Martin in a previous blog post. Martin had severe limitations on the equipment he was using, but with The betakes, created the most technically astonishing music, certainly for their time. Some might use that example of ‘rooming the safety net’, but to me, it stands as proof that sometimes creativity works better within limitations. As I said earlier, what applies to music can also apply to fiction. Sometimes to ‘think outside of the box’, one has to be in a box to start with!

So what do you think? Get in touch and let me know!

Ukulele Problems: Tuning

Ukulele beach(pic courtesy of ukulelemusichawaii.com)

So you’ve bought your first ukulele & learned a few chords. But now you’ve noticed that it’s gone out of tune. No matter, you have a tuner, you tune up. Done. But after a pretty short time, it’s out of tune again. Why?

I get this query a lot from my new ukulele students. Just as they are getting started with their first steps into music-making on this instrument, they become frustrated with it’s apparent lack of tuning stability.

New ukuleles come with new strings, which haven’t been ‘played in’. Just like a new set of strings of a guitar, they need to be ‘stretched’. As ukulele strings are made from nylon, which is a very flexible material, this is even more apparent.

The quickest way to to this is following these basic steps:

  1. Tune your ukulele
  2. Take a hold of the strings & gently pull them up, away from the fingerboard, repeating across a few different parts of the string (see an example video here)
  3. Re-tune the ukulele
  4. Repeat steps 2 & 3 until re-tuning is no longer required

Hey presto! problem solved! Your ukulele should now not only remain stable after playing, but also hold it’d tuning better when travelling (though extreme changes in temperature will still cause the strings to expand and contract).

The video included via hyper link in point 2, above (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=px0ds0T3ric) is one of many available online to help you better visualise what I mean by stretching the strings. It’s not as difficult as you might think!

Other things to remain mindful of:

While stretching the strings is by far the most common solution to fixing a consistently out of tune uke, you may still notice occasional tuning issues. Perhaps simple, mostly open chords sound correct, but those with three or four fretted notes, or barre chords, have one or two out of tune strings when played. More perplexing, this can happen when the open strings are still correctly tuned up.

The problem? In this case, it’s intonation.

Provided you have a decent instrument, where the frets are set up and spaced correctly (watch out for the false economy of the bottom range ‘budget models’), then this can easily be fixed by paying close attention to how you fret the notes. You may find, on new or more interestingly shaped chords, that you are pressing down too hard on certain strings, pushing that note slightly out of tune with the rest of the chord. Some positions might require you to stretch or bend a finger in a way which means it is not sitting behind the fret as per the standard method. This too, can be fixed with a little bit of practise, and a small amount of mindfulness. Happy Uke-ing!

Music & Wellbeing (Part 6): Music Therapy & Educational Wellbeing

Music and educational wellbeing

So far, we have investigated the value of music in physical and mental wellbeing. As previously discussed, a better education leads to greater feelings of wellbeing, particularly in later stages of life (Merriam & Kee, 2014). With that in mind, if we are to consider the value of music on our physical and mental wellbeing, we must also discern its role in our education.

There have been recent arguments for the evaluation of wellbeing in the school system, examining what good practice is already in place, and also discussing ways to implement further measures (Aggleton, Dennison & Warwick, 2010). A recent study by McFerran & Rickson (2014) also highlighted the positive effect of music and music therapy in educational wellbeing. Both of the above studies allude to the wider benefits in the community and later on in the child’s life, once they reach adulthood. In this chapter, I aim to examine current thinking on the effects of music on improvements in children’s learning.

The act of participating in musical activities, or playing musical instrument, is seen by many to be of great importance to children’s development (Scripp, Ulibarri, & Flax, 2013; Swanwick, 1988, 1994;). As well as teaching self-discipline and providing feelings of achievement, it acts as ‘a powerful therapy for all sorts of childhood conditions. It develops body, brain and soul in balance’ (Ben-Tovim, 1979, pp. 15-16). Music has been considered to share many similarities with language throughout our history (Thaut, 2005, p. 171). It has long been used as a method of communicating new ideas and concepts to children in a classroom environment (Welch, 2005, p. 254; Barrett, 2005). The use of music in teaching pre-school children acts as both an ‘aid in language development while promoting musical development at the same time’ (Wiggins, 2007, p. 55). Recent studies, such as those carried out by Rickard et al (2010) noticed significant improvements in the verbal memory of primary school children who had spent time studying and playing music.

Such improvements, however, stop a little short of the now famous ‘Mozart effect’. This term is derived from an experiment in which students who listened to at least ten minutes of Mozart’s music performed better in special awareness tests (Rauscher, Shaw & Ky, 1993, quoted in North & Hargreaves, 2008, p. 346). The popularity of these studies allowing the idea that certain genres of music can increase intelligence has since filtered into popular assumption. However, the theory that listening to music increases intelligence quotient (IQ), excluding any other factors or stimuli, is in itself a ‘massive oversimplification and overgeneralisation of the original scientific findings’ (North & Hargreaves, 2008, p. 346). I agree that there are too many additional factors to be considered when taking into account music as stimulation for learning. I find it unreasonable to rely on an almost magical ‘Mozart Effect’ for better results in a classroom environment. I believe music needs to be employed intelligently as a communicative and participative tool in teaching practice. Student engagement will be increased through activities they regard as ‘fun’ and consequently topics can be digested more effectively. In my opinion, the musical method should stimulate creativity in the children, and better equip them for future learning in other subjects (Scripp, Ulibarri, & Flax, 2013).

While Wiggins (2007) conducted her research in the United States of America, there is an emerging global consensus to collaborate her view surrounding music as an effective tool in teaching. A similar study undertaken in Australia investigated the effects of shared music activities in pre-school children at ages 2-3 years old. The researchers then successfully linked these to a positive range of skills by the time the subjects reached ages 4-5 years old. The children demonstrated higher abilities in ‘vocabulary, numeracy, attentional and emotional regulation, and prosocial skills’. (Williams et al, 2015). The children in these tests proved to be more developed in terms of numeracy, literacy and prosocial skills, than children who had not partaken in shared music activities at a young age; more, even, than children who had participated in shared reading activities at the same age as part of the same research (Williams et al, 2015). This builds upon previous research in Germany, which suggests the level of skills such as numeracy in children may be largely down to the home environment of the child, not to mention other factors such as the educational level of the mother (Anders et al, 2012). Williams et al (2015) use the studies of Anders et al (2012) as one of the bases for their own research. While the German studies are not music-specific, they do not preclude the theories on which the Australian study was conducted. Similar investigations on older children by Hille & Schupp (2015) demonstrated not only an improvement in school performance, but greater conscientiousness and improved social awareness.

So what about children with special educational needs? ‘Special educational needs’ (SEN) is a term which encompasses a wide variety of physical and mental circumstances which might impede learning, experienced both within and outside of the educational system. In the classroom environment, examples of SEN include children with speech, sight or hearing impairments, dyslexia, dyspraxia, delayed cognition, Down’s syndrome and those on the Autistic spectrum (ASD). Studies carried out by Dieringer & Porretta (2013) have shown that the use of music during lessons improves concentration in children on the autistic spectrum. The data returned by their research showed significantly less propensity on the child’s part to diverge into off-task behaviours. They showed higher levels of concentration when music was used as part of the learning process. They reasoned that ‘music can act as an extra auditory stimulus providing additional environmental structure, thus prompting children with ASD to stay on task.’ (Dieringer & Porretta, 2013, p. 8). Dieringer & Porretta (2013) also conclude that looking into this area of study further could lead to improvements in other aspects of life for children with ASD, not least enhanced inclusiveness with other children.

While Dieringer and Porretta (2013) demonstrate in their study that off-task behaviours are reduced when music is used, they argue that further research needs to be conducted into whether or not ‘improved performance or learning actually took place’ (2013, p. 9). However, similar research by Gerrity (2013) focused specifically on improved learning in children with autism during music lessons. The findings of this research conclude that improvements in musical ability and understanding did in fact occur.

What is interesting about the studies carried out by Gerrity (2013), and those undertaken by Dieringer & Porretta (2013) is that they both focus on children with varying levels of autism inside the regular public school system. However, research by (Sandiford, Mainess, & Daher, 2013) has shown how music is of enormous help to teachers in specialist schools for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), including the most severe cases of autism. My caveat to this would be that such improvements depend on a number of interlinking circumstances. This is similar to the findings of Anders et al (2012). These include, amongst other factors; teaching style; available resources (learning support and funding, for example); environment (at home and school); and parental support.


Anders, Y., Rossbach, H., Weinert, S., Ebert, S., Kuger, S., Lehrl, S., Von Maurice, J. (2012) ‘Home and preschool learning environments and their relations to the development of early numeracy skills’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 27, pp. 231–244. Available From http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.08.003.

Barrett, M. (2005) ‘Musical communication and children’s communities of musical practice’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D. (eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 261-280.

Ben-Tovim, A. (1979) Children and music. Great Britain: A. & C. Black Ltd.

Dieringer, S. & Porretta, D. (2013) ‘Using music to decrease off-task behaviours in young children with autism spectrum disorders’, Palaestra, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 7-9.

Dennison, C., Warwick, I. & Aggleton, P. (2010) ‘Evaluating health and well-being in schools’, in Aggleton, P., Dennison, C. & Warwick, I. (eds.) Promoting health and well-being through schools. United States & Canada: Routledge.

Gerrity, K. (2013) ‘Conditions that facilitate music learning among students with special needs: a mixed-methods inquiry’, Journal of research in music education, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 144-159. Available from: 10.1177/0022429413485428.

Hille, A., & Schupp, J. (2015) ‘How learning a musical instrument affects the development of skills’, Economics of Education Review, Vol. 44, pp. 56-82. Available from: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2014.10.007.

McFerran, K. & Rickson, D. (2014) ‘Community music therapy in schools: Realigning with the needs of contemporary students, staff and systems.’ International Journal of Community Music, Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 75. Available from: 10.1386/ijcm.7.1.75_1.

Merriam, S., & Kee, Y. (2014) ‘Promoting Community Wellbeing: The Case for Lifelong Learning for Older Adults’, Adult Education Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2, pp. 128-144. Available from: 10.1177/0741713613513633.

Rickard, N., Vasquez, J., Murphy, F., Gill, A., & Toukhsati, S. (2010) ‘Benefits of a Classroom Based Instrumental Music Program on Verbal Memory of Primary School Children: A Longitudinal Study’, Australian Journal of Music Education, No. 1, pp. 36-47.

North, A. & Hargreaves, D. (2008) The social and applied psychology of music. United States: Oxford University Press.

Sandiford, G., Mainess, K., & Daher, N. (2013) ‘A Pilot Study on the Efficacy of Melodic Based Communication Therapy for Eliciting Speech in Nonverbal Children with Autism’, Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1298-1307. Available from: 10.1007/s10803-012-1672-z.

Scripp, L., Ulibarri, D., & Flax, R. (2013) ‘Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of Talent: Creating Music Education Policy that Advances Music’s Essential Contribution to Twenty-First-Century Teaching and Learning’, Arts Education Policy Review, Vol. 114, No. 2, pp. 54-102. Available from: 10.1080/10632913.2013.769825.

Swanwick, K. (1988). Music, mind, and education. USA & Canada: Routledge.

Thaut, M. (2005) ‘Rhythm, human temporality, and brain function’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D. (Eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 171-191.

Welch, G. (2005) ‘Singing as communication’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D.J. (eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 239-259.

Wiggins, D. (2007) ‘Pre-K Music and the Emergent Reader: Promoting Literacy in a Music-Enhanced Environment’, Early Childhood Education Journal, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 55-64. Available from: 10.1007/s10643-007-0167-6.

Williams, K., Barrett, M., Welch, G., Abad, V., & Broughton, M. (2015) ‘Associations between early shared music activities in the home and later child outcomes: Findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 31, pp. 113-124. Available from: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.01.004.

Music & Wellbeing (Part 5): Music & Pain Relief

Music & pain relief

So far, we have examined the positive effects of music on our wellbeing, both physically and mentally. However, if music can indeed make us ‘feel better’, is there any scope for its application towards pain relief? As well as being beneficial, can music be medicinal? There is historical evidence of music playing a role in treating disorders as early as ancient Egyptian times, circa 4,000 B.C. (Thompson, 2015). An additional benefit to the use of music is its lack of invasiveness, compared to other forms of treatment:

Music is perhaps unrivalled by any other form of human expression in the range of its defining characteristics, from its melody and rhythm to its emotional and social nature. The treatments that take advantage of these attributes are rewarding, motivating, accessible and inexpensive, and basically free of side effects, too. The attractive quality of music also encourages patients to continue therapy over many weeks and months, improving the chance of lasting gains (Thompson, 2015)

Rather than being a physical experience alone, pain is a ‘biopsychosocial experience’ (Gregory, 2014, p. 27) which exists in the mind as much as the body: ‘It is affected by psychological and social factors, such as the site and nature of the injury, personality, age, gender, anxiety, understanding and cultural factors’ (Godfrey, 2005, quoted in Gregory, 2014, p. 24).  In previous studies on chronic pain, it has been noted that patients who concentrated on other tasks or activities experienced less pain (Löfgren & Norrbrink, 2012, p. 2146). Since many sections of the brain are activated when listening to music (Levitin, 2006, pp. 270-271), it stands to reason that the use of music could be highly effective as a distraction from pain, reducing or cancelling-out pain signals.

A clinical study by Mitchell et al (2007) supported the idea of music as a means of distraction from chronic pain, if not a complete remedy to pain altogether:

Music listening, and in particular listening to our own preferred music, may provide an emotionally engaging distraction capable of reducing both the sensation of pain itself and the accompanying negative affective experience (Mitchell et al, 2007, p. 37)

Mitchell et al’s (2007) study paints a highly optimistic picture for the application of music as an effective means of distraction. In particular, they noted that the patients in their study who place a higher value on music, and listen to it more frequently, responded that they were ‘enjoying life more, having more energy and ability to perform activities, and feeling depressed and in need of medical treatment less often’ (Mitchell et al, 2007, p. 37).

Another study by Silvestrini et al (2011) produced similarly interesting findings:

The present study was designed to test the pain-reducing effects of pleasant music compared to silence, unpleasant music, and to an auditory attention task. Results partially confirmed our hypotheses. Compared to the silence and the unpleasant music, pleasant music had a significant effect on the pain ratings and pain tolerance to the cold pressor test but not on the NFR. This finding suggests that the auditory stimuli used in this study, and more particularly pleasant music, did not produce any central descendent analgesic effect on spinal nociception, which would have resulted in lower NFR. In contrast, music had a significant effect on the NRS, the sensory and the affective thresholds, and on the pain tolerance to the cold pressor test compared to silence and to the unpleasant musical stimulations, and these results are consistent with previous studies showing pain-reducing effect of music on reported pain experience (Silvestrini et al, 2011, p. 268)

Silvestrini et al’s (2011) report suggests that the areas of the brain responsible for processing pain signals are the same as the areas for analysing music we hear. This is mainly because our brains utilize several different areas and functions when listening to music. These include the areas which process movement: the Cerebellum; a combination of Cortexes (Prefrontal, Motor, Sensory, Auditory and Visual); and the areas which process emotions: the Amygdala and Nucleus Accumbens. (Levitin, 2006, pp. 270-271).

Does this mean music is a distraction? Pain acts as a signal in the brain, alerting the conscious mind of something which may be an ‘issue’ or problem. This is a survival-trait ingrained in us through our evolution. Like music, ‘the areas of the brain involved in pain experience and behaviour are very extensive’ (Melzack, 1996, p.134). However, some studies, such as those by Fabbro & Crescentini (2014), indicate that once we are aware of these ‘issues’ with the body, manifested as pain we experience in the affected area, it is possible to cancel out the signal. We can, in effect, ‘switch off’ pain, depending on the individuals attitudes to pain.

This might go some way to explain the variance in results found by Silvestrini et al (2011) and Mitchell et al (2007). Both seemed to find generally positive results when studying the effect of listening to music in relation to experience of pain. However, both reports clearly show mixed results amongst their test groups. Other research, while demonstrating an overall positive effect of music in medicinal use (Hargreaves & North, 2008, p. 301), met with similarly varied outcomes depending on the subject’s gender and age:

With regard to sex, music was less effective for males than it was for females. With regard to age, children responded more positively to music than did adults and infants (Standley, 1995, quoted in Hargreaves & North, 2008, p. 302)

This runs in accordance with the findings of Fabbro & Crescentini (2014), which stated that different people apply varying levels of importance and focus to the pain they experience. What one individual might experience as mild pain, another could feel something altogether more debilitating; the change in pain experience is determined mainly by the “expectations” of the patient’ (Fabbro & Crescentini, 2014, p. 545). Gregory (2014) agrees with this view. As we have already seen, pain is ‘an individual experience and the effectiveness of interventions can vary between individuals’ (Gregory, 2014, p. 24). Therefore, their ability to focus on music instead of the brain’s pain signals will be compromised. Giving focus to anything our minds have deemed important for our attention means the brain is devoting less processing energy to listening to the music. This renders as null the positive effect music can have on our experience of pain, because ‘even if you’re only paying attention to one other factor, our capacity to focus on the music may have already been cut in half’. (Green, 1986, p. 68)

It is especially interesting that both studies yielded more positive results when the participants were listening not only to pleasant music, but to music they preferred (Mitchell et al, 2007, p.37). Levitin (2006, pp. 231) states that we often make our preferred musical choices during our early teenage years, and we attach a level of emotional importance to this music. Therefore, music’s ability to have a reductive effect on pain must be, in part, the mental act of processing these positive emotional feelings when listening to music we enjoy.



Fabbro, F., & Crescentini, C. (2014) ‘Review: Facing the experience of pain: A neuropsychological perspective’, Physics of Life Reviews, Vol. 11, pp. 540-552. Available from: 10.1016/j.plrev.2013.12.010.

Green, B. (1986) The inner game of music. United States: Pan Books.

Gregory, J. (2014) ‘Dealing with acute and chronic pain: part two – management’, Journal of Community Nursing, Vol. 28, No. 5, pp. 24-29.

Levitin, D. (2006). This is your brain on music: understanding a human obsession. Great Britain: Atlantic Books.

Löfgren, M., & Norrbrink, C. (2012) ”But I know what works’ – patients’ experience of spinal cord injury neuropathic pain management’, Disability & Rehabilitation, Vol. 34, No. 25, pp. 2139-2147.

Melzack, R. (1996) ‘Gate control theory: on the evolution of pain concepts’, Pain Forum, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 128-138.

Mitchell, L., MacDonald, R., Knussen, C. & Serpell, M. (2007) ‘A survey investigation of the effects of music listening on chronic pain’, Psychology of Music. Vol. 35 (1), pp. 37-57.

North, A. & Hargreaves, D. (2008) The social and applied psychology of music. United States: Oxford University Press.

Silvestrini, N., Piguet, V., Cedraschi, C. & Zentner, M. (2011) ‘Music and auditory distraction reduce pain: emotional or attentional effects?’ Music and Medicine. Vol 3 (4), pp. 264-270.

Thompson, W. (2015) ‘The Healine [sic] Power of Music’, Scientific American Mind, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 32-41.

Music & Wellbeing (Part 2). I feel good: Music and feelings of pleasure

Continuing this blog’s mini-series on the the value of music in our wellbeing, today’s post examines how & why we feel pleasure upon hearing music.

As always, all shares, tweets & reblogs are welcome, and comments gratefully received. See you again soon xx

I feel good: Music and feelings of pleasure

A number of studies on the human brain have noticed our ability to differentiate between ‘noise’ and ‘music’. Listening to music uses the same areas of the brain as when processing speech. (Schön et al, 2010). Music also activates sections of the brain responsible for pleasurable feeling (Salimpoor et al, 2015), known colloquially as the ‘reward centres’ of the brain (Icahn School of Medicine, 2015). Salimpoor et al’s (2015) report confirmed:

Not only is dopamine released when desirable sound events are heard, but also suggest that musical events leading up to peak pleasure moments may generate a sense of anticipation and lead to dopamine release when individuals listen to familiar music (Salimpoor et al, 2015)

Levitin goes on to explain activity in the cerebellum during his studies:

In my laboratory we found strong activations in the cerebellum when we asked people to listen to music, but not when we asked them to listen to noise. The cerebellum appears to be involved in tracking the beat. And the cerebellum has shown up in our studies in another context: when we ask people to listen to music they like versus music they don’t like, or familiar music versus unfamiliar music (Levitin, 2006, pp. 174-175)

Is timing the key difference between what makes the sounds we hear ‘noise’ and ‘music’? Schaffer (1977) reasons that the modern human, having grown up in an industrialised world, has what he refers to as ‘lo-fi hearing’. In effect, we are tuning out all of the everyday noise our environment bombards out ears with on a daily basis. A person from a time before the growth of large cities and the industrial revolution had higher definition hearing. This may also be in part due to our earlier need to rely on bird and animal calls as a means of hunting for food or for our own safety – in both cases, essential to our survival:

It can be argued that the survival of our ancient ancestors depended on their ability to detect patterns in sounds, derive meaning from them, and adjust their behaviour [sic] accordingly (Juslin, 2013)

Furthermore, Keil (1994, p. 97) refers to the social aspect of music utilised by our ancestors, stating that everyone would have been a full participant in music rituals staged by early civilisations. These participatory rituals promoted a greater interconnectedness with nature, society and an ‘ever deeper and more satisfying knowledge of who we are’ (Keil, 1994, p. 98).

Kania (2013) discusses the ‘aesthetic’ definition of music put forward by Jerrold Levinson (1990), who asserts that music is a collection of sounds, deliberately organised, with the aim of ‘eliciting a certain kind of heightened experience’ (Kania, 2013, p. 639). However, Kania believes music is more than this, finding one hole in Levinson’s argument in particular:

If you think, however, that a lullaby sung to put a baby to sleep is an example of music, then it is a counterexample to this definition, since the singer intends precisely the opposite of active engagement on the baby’s part (Kania, 2013, p. 639).

The research of Salimpoor et al (2011) found that ‘Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving’ and that during their tests, ‘we found endogenous dopamine release in the striatum at peak emotional arousal during music listening’. This illustrates the positive effect music has on the human mind’s neural pathways, resulting in a general feeling of wellbeing (Salimoor et al, 2011). However I argue that such studies don’t take into account the huge array of external factors our brains process at the same time as listening to music. Previous existing research also states the need to consider external factors and the wider social context of the subjects (Anders et al, 2012;North & Hargreaves, 2008; Mitchell et al, 2007), or, as Kieran (2013) puts it:

The pleasures afforded by sport, coffee drinking and good conversation are not wholly specifiable independently of the nature of the objects or activity involved…So too with good art generally. (Kieran, 2013, p. 290)


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