Brains alive with sound of music

What's going on in musicians' heads? Collaborative research aims to find out. Matthew Reisz reports

May 27, 2010

Musical improvisation and neuroscience may seem strange partners for a seminar.

But Henrik Jensen, project leader of the Complexity and Interdisciplinary Research Centre (CIRC) at Imperial College London, argued that it was natural to combine scholars from different disciplines to study the human brain.

He was speaking at a session titled "Complexity and Networks - Neuroscience" at Imperial last week, which was organised to inaugurate two research projects.

One, led by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, will use electroencephalography to explore what is going on in the brains of musicians as they play. The other will bring together the CIRC with the universities of the Balearic Islands, Coimbra and Maastricht to track the brain imprints from creative processes and the sensation of beauty.

Some of the key researchers came to Imperial to present their findings. The presentations began with music from concert pianist David Dolan, professor of piano, chamber music and classical improvisation at Guildhall, who embarked on a game of musical ping-pong with flautist Matthew Featherstone. Such improvisations, he said, illustrated "the tension between structures, freedom and spontaneity".

Most of us respond to music in intense and individual ways, the conference heard. A respondent in one research project discussed at the event said that, when listening to a piece by George Frederick Handel, "the beauty and the depth I feel is boundless. It is as if places within me that have grown stiff ... soften and take part in the music."

John Sloboda, visiting research Fellow at Guildhall, explored how such responses could be studied scientifically. His research has shown that goosebumps and tears are "reliable accompaniments of specific pieces of music" and that there are "clear structural similarities between pieces that generate such feelings".

Most of us are born with an ability to appreciate music, but Lauren Stewart, senior lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, presented the results of research into "congenital amusia", whose sufferers cannot recognise octave equivalence or dissonance.

She described one subject, a nun who has to sing plainsong every day, who had no idea what people meant when they said: "I've got a tune going round in my head."

Dr Stewart is looking to isolate a genetic basis for the condition.

Even more practically relevant was the research of Rainer Goebel, professor of psychology at the University of Maastricht, on the ability of subjects to modify their own mental states by watching their brain scans live on screen.

The results indicate that the technique could be useful for treating phobias, training people to be more empathetic and helping those with "locked-in syndrome" who are otherwise unable to communicate with the outside world, he said.

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