Posting in Design
MELBOURNE -- A recent neuroscience study reveals the relationship between our brains and music.
MELBOURNE -- Neil McLachlan says he wants to do for music what Apple did for the personal computer.
For over two decades, the scientist, artist and university professor has worked to increase music participation.
"Only five per cent of people (in the West) who go through tertiary music education end up playing music,” the University of Melbourne associate professor said.
“On the whole, music education has created an elitism around music performance that has caused the normal person to feel that they can’t play,” he said.
McLachlan works in a multidisciplinary team at the university's Music, Mind and Wellbeing (MMW) Center, an initiative that aims to understand the relationship between our brains and music.
"Music is to mental health what sport is to physical health” is a tagline often employed by McLachlan when talking about music education.
McLachlan is now in the process of designing an ensemble of new instruments (four so far have been patented) that he claims anyone (even non-musicians) can play within an hour of starting.
Still in prototype phase, the percussion instruments (bells, drums, gongs etc.) produce clear and harmonious sounds and are designed to be played individually or put together like a whole orchestra.
The new musical instruments are an extension of the remarkable Federation Bells, a giant sound installation featuring 39 upturned bells that are played via computer (MIDI) controlled hammers.
Developed by McLachlan in 2000 for the centenary celebrations of Australia's Federation, the Federation Bells are the first percussion instruments in history to have harmonic overtones.
After achieving this sound design breakthrough, McLachlan started thinking about how much more affordable instruments could be designed.
The engineering design question inevitably led him to a neurobiological question about music: “How do we know what is a good musical sound?"
In 2006, McLachlan teamed up with Associate Professor Sarah Wilson from the School of Psychological Sciences, to carry out neuroscience research into how our brains received and processed sound.
McLachlan and Wilson’s research led then to develop a revolutionary new theory of how the auditory system works. This new theory proposes that animals first recognize the sound sources before processing other features such as the sound’s pitch or location.
"This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view because the most important thing an animal needs to know is whether they can hear predators or preys," McLachlan explained. "It also makes sense from an information processing point of view because we can use prior experience to adapt our hearing to new circumstances."
Since sound recognition involves developing long-term memories for sounds, this theory helps to explain why different individuals can have such different reactions to sound, especially music.
To test this even further, McLachlan conducted a controlled study involving the Indonesian gamelan, a percussion instrument known to sound dissonant to the Western ear.
In the gamelan study, one group of Western musicians who had learnt to play gamelan instruments were asked to find the pitch in those instruments. Another group of Western musicians who had never encountered the gamelan were asked to do the same.
The results revealed that people who played the gamelan could find the pitch of the gamelan instruments very accurately and found it to be quite harmonious, whereas, the Western musicians who were untrained in the gamelan could not.
The study demonstrated that the perception of pitch, harmony, scale and rhythm are learnt within particular musical cultures, which suggests that musical structures are not physically or biologically determined.
“We can recognize sounds because that’s what we have to do in the real world, but to accurately pitch sound requires training,” McLachlan said.
This refined pitch processing is very involved, but according to McLaclan and Wilson, we all have the ability to build up these memories for sound -- neuroscientists refer to this ability as 'brain plasticity.'
The study is a revelation for many people who have long held the belief that there are some people who are simply born with the ability for music.
McLachlan hopes that this new-found insight into our auditory system, along with his new instruments, will increase music participation and make playing music something ordinary people do as regular as exercise.
Photo: Neil McLachlan.
Apr 3, 2012
Your blogs stuff is purely enough for me personally. http://singaporepianolessons.org
A splendid summary of Neil McLachlan's research. Kudos to correspondent Lieu Pham. An indepth interview with Neil about the physics of sound and his possibly disruptive theory is available at Up Close -- the research talk show -- http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au/episode/203-how-we-respond-music-cultural-construct-or-hardwired-brain
The expression "tone deaf" is very commonly used when it really does not apply. Tone deafness is very rare, and is not accurate for describing people who have never been trained to carry a tune, or to hear the melody correctly. Yes, there are prodigies. Yes, there are savants. Some people learn things faster than everyone else. Even prodigies and savants have to practice properly. They are just seemingly better at it. Recent studies of "practice" in various disciplines have shown that HOW one practices affects outcomes more than amount of practice or "natural" talent. The more accurate assessment may be that some people stumble upon proper practice techniques, or have a more innate sense of how to practice. Constantly correcting what went wrong is the key to improvement, in music, sports, and other "talent" disciplines. People who are seemingly "OCD" will often tend to do this. That said, before recorded music abounded, a far greater proportion of Western people played instruments and sang. "Now, that's entertainment!"
Thanks for the comments everyone -- it's been great to read the various points-of-view. As the writer, I've only scratched the surface of a very complex topic -- so I appreciate the feedback, links and comments...keep them coming! For further insight, check out the links provided by Neil McLachlan above or read his article in The Melbourne Review titled "New Music and the Brain": http://www.melbournereview.com.au/read/73/ Thanks again for reading! Lieu
Music is either what we are or it's learned. The difference is something that can't really be explained. I never call music a hobby but instead simply what I am. I'm cursed with perfect pitch so I can sit down at my grand piano and play a commercial jingle I heard on TV or play Mozart. We can learn anything but the total musician must begin with genes if you're asking me. Everyone can enjoy it, but few really become it. Now of course with what some call music these days, I'm sure my opinion won't be appreciated by all. Hitting a cooking pan isn't music. Sitting with piano, harp - whatever you're drawn too and playing music masters created hundreds of years ago is a baseline - starting point. People like me who've spent decades studying the masters are never masters since once we know we'll never master everything. I can say we know not only what the rules of music are, but how we can break them the proper way. The other stuff is just noise.
Great article! Another direct route to playing music would be the Applachain Mountain Dulcimer. With some effort, it can be learned at a basic but ear pleasing level quickly. Carson City Dulcimer and Friends
Back when I was a lass, very few had "portable" radios or the mule to haul them around on and so when we gathered outdoors or on the porch we "made music" ourselves. I came home one day and found several on the porch playing various noise makers and was put to work as the drummer. I found several items with different tones and proceeded to count out the beat for the harmonicas, banjos and gitars in use. We made enough noise for the neighbor with the Jew's Harp to join us and he ran down the street to see if we could play on the piano teacher's porch. She said sure so we carried our saws (for twang) and all the rest of our catch-as-catch-can equipment and she banged away on the piano. It was a glorious night.
Thanks everyone for the lively discussion. Let me pick up on a couple of points. Absolute pitch and tone deafness are the extreme ends of a scale of individual differences in processing pitch. Recent research has located physical differences in the brains of people that display these behaviors. They are likely inherited to some extent but require the right environmental conditions to become fully expressed. Our models of the neural processing of sound suggests that these brain differences influence how we recognize and categorize sounds, and then use this information to process pitch. I think for most of us musical talent just comes down to the motivation to learn combined with good dexterity. This motivation can be created in many ways and must be maintained by continuing sense of achievement. Remember also that not all music requires pitch, and not all people with absolute pitch are great musicians. I am concerned with re/creating music traditions in which people can play together without feeling they have to be the best, because with a global recording industry these expectations are impossible to achieve and simply destroy the motivation to learn. If you are interested in following up on the research behind all this have a look at the following sites: http://sites.google.com/site/mclachlansound/home http://cmmw.unimelb.edu.au/ http://www.ampsociety.org.au/seminars.php
When I was a kid, I played the viola for five years -- quite horribly. I enjoyed making music (which is why I kept at it), but I could never get the notes right. I could never really tune the viola, and tests I took later in my adolescence showed that I was functionally tone death. I can't even sing a song without being out of tune. I'm sure that a lot of people have latent musical talent that they never develop, but genetics still plays a big part of it. The kids in my father's family were fathered by the same man but had two different mothers because the first mother died. All the children from the first mother have very little musical talent (I'm from this line), while the kids from the second mother all had musical talent.
Neil McLachlan says he wants to do for music what Apple did for the personal computer. ???Only five per cent of people (in the West) who go through tertiary music education end up playing music.." At 5%, it sounds like he's just about done for music what Apple did for the personal computer. BTW, I agree with EddieTG, Tina Colada, and wmpryor. Steve Vai practiced guitar dilligently and deliberately for 12 hours a day. Eric Johnson did so for 8-10 hours a day. You could follow their exact same practice regimine and still not be as good, or able to play as well.
When he was a young boy, it was amazing to watch my son sit down at a piano one day and transpose favorite Christmas songs from one key to another to another, improvisationally. It was effortless, and with no great thought. He had learned the various musical keys by that point, but no one taught him to transpose the music in that manner. Many people with perfect pitch never learn to read a note of music, because it is too easy to simply recall the music and then fake the reading. Some people with perfect pitch find it hard to perform with an orchestra, because they can be visibly irritated when surrounded by instruments that at any one time are not in perfect tune. People with perfect pitch sometimes have an affinity for math due to its logical structure of discrete numerical steps. We are not talking about idiot savants. A person with perfect pitch hears the world differently but functions normally in any social setting and shows no brain impairment of any kind. When my son was a toddler, we took him to a fireworks show on the 4th of July, While other children including my daughter enjoyed it, the explosions seemed to cause my son to experience an unusual amount of pain in his ears. That was long before we really understood the existence and possibility of perfect pitch. To a parents of a child with perfect pitch, you will never convince them that the talent is not an inborn biological trait. After becoming intimately familiar with the actions of a growing child with perfect pitch, then it becomes easier to spot others with the same natural gift, even when no music has ever been taught to them. It is not so easy to spot a person who has simply undergone rigorous musical training.
This report ignores the neurological basis of perfect pitch. After hard work, some people can learn a highly refined relative pitch, but it greatly differs from perfect pitch, which is estimated to be found in 1 in 10,000 people. My son showed raw musical skill before he could walk. At age two, he could sing an entire Broadway tune in the perfect pitch for any key chosen. By age four, his perfect pitch was obvious though he had been taught nothing. By age five he could perfectly reproduce a short song on the piano after only hearing it once, and sometimes made some subtle improvisational improvements. By age six, he could be blindfolded, and accurately identify the note and octave for any note, as well as any two and three note combinations played simultaneously, whether harmonic or dissonant. By age eight he was singing without accompaniment in Crumb's Voices of Ancient Children, which required the young boy to pick notes out of the air, and singing perfectly a boy soprano's part in an opera. Like most people with perfect pitch, memorization of music was effortless and he found it very easy to recall music as needed, and can now perform an hour long recital of various classical piano works from memory. Today he holds a Bachelor's Degree in piano performance. The raw talent was never coached into him.
I have a good friend who once learned to play a couple tunes acceptably on a guitar despite being quite tone deaf. That's where he stopped, 'cause there just wasn't any fun in it for him. On the other hand, I have a friend who has tried to play a variety of instruments for decades and still no one wants to hear him. He's only moderately tone deaf, but severely rhythm impaired. He almost manages to sound OK playing the saw, (Think the theremin part in the Star Trek theme) but anything you expect an exact pitch or good rhythm, run away! I guess the second guy above is the exception to the rule. . .
It is wonderful to ponder the "tones" of our culture...and opening and introducing the minds of all people to new sounds could be wonderful, especially for children. But most people are driven emotionally to the musical language that is bombarding them in the culture they live in, and this is becoming frightening in the world at large. I agree that mental health can be soothed by a daily musical practice, and as a professional musician, I find I am left with wonderful peace after doing certain kinds of gigs. But just last night I was dining at a restaurant that had a Karaoke show going on with painfully tone deaf singers. I hated to sound arrogant to my dining friends, but it was a horrible thing to witness...so my point here is, you can try and teach music to people with the best of intentions to enhance their lives, but please lets be realistic that many musicians are "born" with talent. Music education is a great thing, and I encourage people to listen to all kinds of music, but I really am not for encouraging people to believe they can be something that they never will be, ie musicians... But I am all for the expansion of "listening"!!! So hats off to McLachlan!
Your story on musical ability is interesting but it certainly does not explain why savants (or sometimes called idiot savants) seem to have musical talent without the benefit of learning. I read a story about a man who suffered brain damage and when he went home he discovered he could play the piano without ever taking a single lesson. Some people seem to be born with talent that appears not to be related to a learning experience other than that devised within themselves - and their learning curve is usually very short.
I found it interesting that the pitch of the Indonesian gamelan could be done by those who are familiar with the instrument but not by a musically adept person outside of that group. There are many similar cultural instruments that don't have a universal appreciation of the sounds they produce. The modern idea of musical octaves was an ancient Greece discovery; other cultures use a different scale with different notes that do not translate too well into the octave system. Another thing that I find interesting is how we apparently process sound, we hear location before we hear tone and pitch. This is similar to how we see, the first thing we see is motion, followed by lines, shapes, shading and finally color.
I find that, while I can do the well-tempered scale (try to tune an autoharp or piano without it), I naturally gravitate to the harmonic scale, i.e., my initial tune is harmonic and then I have to modify it for well-tempered. I play a number of string instruments, including upright bass and violin, which has taught me pretty fair tone descrimination across the scale. There may be an element of learning, but I think that there is a large part of "what sounds right" in it as well. Either way, getting people more involved in participatory music can't hurt.
Prof Neil McLachlan is revealing something fundamental; it is that we are all in the family of life that itself is born of music [proportionality]. 'Accurately pitching sounds' is learning the game of stepping in-tune and in-time on the roads that lead to and from this structure. http://www.gci.org.uk/music.html http://www.theaftermatter.com/2012/01/what-is-music.html
With a highly developed and trained ear you understandably are very discriminatory in what you classify as music. Your air is pretty rarified! Most of us have a more basic appreciation for music. Just because you can discriminate between what is amazingly creatively sophisticated doesn't mean that the basic rhythms and tones of music don't exist.
You say "...music is either what we are or it's learned." I heartily disagree! It is both. As I cited before, nature and nurture are parents. Everyone has one in one manner or another, few people have both. Regarding your definition of music: I respect that is true *for you*. For others, be they aboriginal or uneducated, what they do with sound in a coordinated fashion is their kind of music and can transport them as effectively as Mozart may you. We, in our highly vaunted formal-education-bias culture need to take care to avoid dismissing those with radically different concepts, while opening our ears to hear where in the "noise" music exists.
I agree in general with EddieTG. Some people in my family could play the piano by ear, and with no other training. I, however, was given classical piano training and still can't play a thing by ear.
Good point. Both the genetic nature and the nurturing of that nature enhance and benefit the person. We live in a culture that tends to ignore both which is why public education is America is abysmal.
You do sound arrogant! Not because you did not like the way tone deaf Karaoke singers sounded, but because you don't acknowledge that anyone can become a musician with training. I've been around too many vocal choral classes in school to not notice the progress over time from the worst of the tone deaf!
Both your comment, Tina, and Code Curmudgeon's make me think that had those people you witnessed been in a rich early childhood environment the missing rhythm and tone sense could have been born within them. Up till about the age of 5-7, humans have a much higher number of neuronal connections, that by the age of 7 the body dissolves those that are not in use. If this is accurate, it likely points to two things: 1) addresses why it is more difficult to learn a musical instrument as an adult 2) the vital importance of early childhood environment....what I call richness.
Metaphysician - Dunno but you might enjoy this: - http://www.gci.org.uk/animations/vibrating-strings.swf Its near-as-dammit well tempered as its pre-recorded. However, as you suggest, as a string-player, there's a lot of leeway for 'positioning' inside this framework when you're playing live.