Music, synchronization, and teamwork

My husband and I happened to be in Minneapolis a month ago just as the Minnesota Orchestra was beginning its 2019-2020 season, and we went to the opening concert.   The concert, with music by Rautavaara, Grieg, Carter, and Elgar, opened with The Star-Spangled Banner, and all 1800 people in the audience immediately rose to their feet and began singing.  Minnesota has a strong choral tradition, everyone sang at full voice, and the sound of those 1800 voices nearly lifted  me off my feet.  It was an emotional experience, and even though I didn’t know anyone there, the singing together of the national anthem made me feel part of a larger community.  And, in fact, studies show that people who make music together are more likely to cooperate and feel more connected as a group.

The business world has long been aware of  “connectedness through music” and has used string quartets as examples of “self-management teams.”  Many string quartets supplement their musical performance schedules with presentations to companies and organizations exploring teamwork, problem solving, reliability, trust, discipline, and flexibility within the quartet as an example of how an excellent small team works.  You hear the result of that group “connectedness” in the music as they perform.  Success depends on an extraordinary level of teamwork. Continue reading

Musicians are not “the athletes of small muscles”

Musicians are often compared to athletes because, like athletes, we practice a lot, we use repetitive motions, and we’re often performing or playing under stress.  Unfortunately, within the past few years, the comparison with athletes has led to referring to musicians as “the athletes of small muscles.”   I don’t know where this phrase originated, but we need to stop using it.  Not only is the phrase somewhat dismissive of musicians, it simply isn’t accurate.  Continue reading

I got rhythm, I got music. . . I got READING

Why study music, cont.

George and Ira Gershwin wrote the famous “I Got Rhythm, I Got Music” in 1930.  Little did they know that, over 80 years later, a neuroscientist named Nina Kraus and her colleagues at the Auditory Neuroscience lab (Brainvolts) at Northwestern University would show a connection between rhythm, music — and reading.  Before we get to the reading part, let’s digress for a few moments and talk about synchronization and rhythm.

Timing and rhythm

Most of us are able to keep time to a beat.  We dance to music, we clap to a beat, we tap our fingers to a catchy tune – even if we’re hearing it in our mind. Synchronizing to a beat is about timing – matching your beat at the exact point in time to the sound of someone else’s beat or to a musical beat.  One must precisely match a sound (auditory) with a movement (motor).

Even infants love to move to music.  They hear music and their entire bodies begin  to move. Infants can’t synchronize exactly because they don’t yet have the muscle control to match the auditory signal, but the twins below are clearly hearing the beat and their bodies want to move to it.  The impetus to move to music is universal.  Continue reading

Are musicians better at identifying emotional cues in others?

Why study music: part IVa

About ten years ago, I was startled by a headline that, in essence, said if you wanted a spouse or friend who picked up your most subtle emotional cues, find a musician.  Intrigued, I tracked down the research behind the article and discovered the work of Dr. Nina Kraus, Director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab (Brainvolts) at Northwestern University.

The Lab was already known at that time for its work on the neurobiology of music and speech perception (see previous post).  This particular study found that, not only were musicians better able to process the emotion in sound than non-musicians, but the ability was directly related to the number of years of experience of the musician and the age at which he/she began to study. Continue reading

Music and speech: Why study music, part IV

Our lives in sound

Our lives are filled with sound.  On average, Americans listen to music for more than 32 hours a week (Nielsen 2017 study).  We spend hours in conversation with co-workers, friends and families.  We hear the everyday sounds of traffic, appliances in our homes, television, athletic events, pets, and a great deal more.  We never think about what our brains do with all of that – sometimes competing – auditory information. 

But according to Dr. Nina Kraus,  Director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab (Brainvolts) at Northwestern University, making sense of sound is one of the most computationally complex tasks we ask our brains to do.  Not only is there a staggering amount of information to process (something on the order of  9 million bits of data per second1), we have to process information in microseconds in order to respond if necessary.  Continue reading

Music and prehistoric cave art

Lascaux Cave

A few weeks ago, my husband and I visited Lascaux Cave, a well-known Paleolithic cave in southwestern France.  Many of you have seen illustrations like the one below –  one of about 600 cave paintings at Lascaux with another 1400 or so engravings dating to somewhere between 17,000 and 15,000 BCE.

Lascaux Cave painting, France

Actually one cannot enter the real Lascaux Cave, which was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.  Discovered in 1940, it was opened to the public in 1948, but the 1200 visitors/day produced carbon dioxide, heat, humidity and contaminants that began to visibly damage the paintings.  So it was closed to the public in 1963.  The only people now allowed in the original cave are technicians/scientists who monitor the preservation of the site.

One can visit Lascaux II, opened in 1983, an exact replica of three of the halls of the cave.  Or you can choose Lascaux IV, a high-tech digital, multimedia site that opened in 2016.  We chose Lascaux II – wanting a more “authentic” experience. Continue reading