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The science behind songs

Scientists are figuring out that music and movement go hand-in-hand


Joseph Brean, National Post Published: Friday, December 07, 2007

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Read more of Dr. Laurel Trainor's research on her Web site Find out more about the work of Oliver Sacks' on his official Web site

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Glenn Lowson for National Post Pianist and professor Rena Sharon and violinist Sonia Vizante perform at Hamilton's McMaster University at a Music and Mind Workshop.

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While hiking alone up a Scandinavian mountain in 1974, the famous neuroscientist Oliver Sacks took a nasty fall and ripped off the quadriceps tendon of his left leg, doing nerve damage and leaving himself in a predicament: get down the mountain before dark using only his arms, or die of exposure. And so he sat down, pointed his legs uphill, and started to "row."

"At first I found this difficult and awkward," he writes in his latest book, Musicophilia, a collection of clinical anecdotes about music and the brain. "But soon I fell into a rhythm, accompanied by a sort of marching or rowing song (sometimes the Volga Boatmen's Song), with a strong heave on each beat. "Before this I had muscled myself along; now, with the beat, I was musicked along. Without this synchronization of music and movement, the auditory with the motor, I could never have made my way down the mountain." Rescuers eventually found him, but he probably saved his own life by discovering what any toe-tapper, head-bopper or steering-wheel finger-drummer already knows, that music and movement co-exist in human experience, each improving the other. Just as the flailing arms of a conductor can harness the performance of an orchestra, so can a single drummer direct the leg movements of thousands of marching soldiers. It is the reason the top American track and field authority this year banned earphones from all its events, not just for safety, but to prevent racers from gaining a competitive edge. Even Dr. Sacks himself could not walk again until he tried to do so in time to a violin concerto by Mendelssohn. But neuroscience has been slow to probe these phenomena. Sound, in today's academic science, is not as sexy as sight, and so modern researchers know plenty about the physical reflexes that keep our vision steady and in focus, but relatively little about how we can pick out a tune from the booming, buzzing world. They know still less about why we like it. Now, however, thanks especially to research at McMaster University in Hamilton, scientists are learning the full extent to which music and movement animate and give form to each other. They are learning that where one is compromised, the other suffers. They are finding that people prefer music in a tempo similar to their natural walking speed. They have shown that when people bounce their head to a beat, it changes how they hear a piece of music. And they are moving ever closer to demonstrating that the

they hear a piece of music. And they are moving ever closer to demonstrating that the human capacity for music is an evolutionary offshoot of physical movement. "Evolutionarily, movement was there first. So the question is whether music relied on that previous ability as it came into existence," said Laurel Trainor, head of the Auditory Development Lab at McMaster, and director of the school's Institute for Music and the Mind. Two forthcoming papers she presented at a conference last week make this point. They aim to show that the vestibular system - a set of organs and nerves in the inner ear that controls balance and the sense of up, down and movement in general - is fundamentally linked to the auditory system. "People think of music as being based in the auditory system, and certainly it is," said Prof. Trainor, who is also principal flute in Symphony Hamilton. "But in fact the way we experience the world is as an integration of senses ... To really understand what's going on in music, we need to look at these multi-sensory processes." To do so, her staff rigged up a spring-loaded bed that could be bounced to a beat with a subject - recruited, as ever, from undergraduate psychology classes - lying on top. Then they made a recording of a musically ambiguous six-beat drum pattern. Just like the optical illusion in which a drawing of a white vase on a black background suddenly looks like two black faces in profile, this drum beat could be heard as either a three-beat waltz or a two-beat march, but not both at the same time. The theory was that by bouncing the subjects to one or the other beat, the researchers could bias their interpretation of this auditory illusion. Sure enough, the subjects who were bounced on every third beat tended to hear the drumbeat as a waltz, by a factor of four-to-one, and those bounced every second beat heard a march. But because the entire body had been moved, it was unclear where this effect was located. Bouncing just the subjects' legs gave no bias, but bouncing just the head gave the same effect as bouncing the whole body. The next step was to see if the mere illusion of bouncing was sufficient. The vestibular nerve, which relays the sense of motion to the brain, is near the skin's surface behind the ear. Giving it an electric shock can make people feel they are moving, and shocking it in a rhythmic pattern can make people feel they are swaying, as if to a beat. "So now we've taken out, in effect, the entire motor system," Prof. Trainor told the conference. And the results were just as predicted, nearly identical to the full-bed bouncing, proving that a person's interpretation of musical rhythm can be biased by the mere sensation of movement. Of 16 subjects, there was only one who showed no effect at all, a young man with results a full three standard deviations from the norm. "Everyone, I think, knows someone who is not a good dancer," Prof. Trainor said. This subject "might have a problem with musical rhythm."

The scientific study of music can make some people uncomfortable. It sometimes elicits what David Huron, a Canadian professor at Ohio State University's School of Music, calls epistephobia, the fear of knowledge, or more particularly, the fear of the aesthetic disappointment at seeing the magic of a symphony or the thrill of a jazz improvisation cut down to size by lab-coated boffins. At the conference, Rena Sharon, a concert pianist and professor of Collaborative Piano Studies at the University of British Columbia, addressed this fear, and recalled her youthful arrogance at thinking music was the only true human language, and that as a performer she need not bother learning anything else. "How I wish I learned the physics to animate the expanded mystery," she said, before launching into a performance of Brahms' epic Sonata, opus 78, leaning and swaying to the music, giving it shape. National Post

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