My alarm goes off at 6am most mornings. I adopted this unfortunate habit some years ago when I discovered I do my best thinking early, with a hot drink and still. My biological sensibilities remain supremely offended by this. (Describing me as a “disgruntled” early riser would not be far from the truth.) Still, among the things that must be thought at 6am, there are a select few which have me in front of my laptop, ready-to-go by 6:20am. As you might have deduced, music neuroscience is one of these.
Aside from its apparent wakefulness properties, music neuroscience is also my favourite thing to talk about. Unchecked, I more “launch” myself about it. I fire up. For this reason, I tread carefully when asked about my research. Tread carefully because, let’s face it, what bright-eyed PhD student does not think, like with evangelistic fervour does not think, that the sun shines out of thesis baby’s profoundly stimulating, theoretically superior, and immediately relevant backside?
If you know a PhD student, you just smiled. I know you did.
I am biased. Of course I am. But I would prefer for that bias not to be the kindling of my social demise. As such, I accept that I will encounter the well-that-all-sounds-a-bit-fluffy's, and the but-why-does-that-actually-matter?'s. Boohoo-ing happens. People are entitled to be wrong. What I have difficulty stomaching, however, is ambivalence. Nothing, in my opinion, is more toxic to the progress of music neuroscience than a blank stare and a shoulder shrug. We are not ambivalent about cancer research, for example, so we fund the hell out of it. And whilst comparing music neuroscience to cancer research would be a bit misguided and a lot dumb, I do think it is worth considering the impact attitude has on how fiercely we pursue knowledge of something. When a cause establishes a compelling profile, when we fire up about it, cogs turn, engines hum, knowledge gets done.
So, in case you did not leap out of bed at 6am this morning, fuelled by your passion for music neuroscience, let’s have a chat about why you should:
Music neuroscience is inclusive.
With few exceptions, the capacity to appreciate music is as far-reaching as the human condition. Music transcends cultures, socioeconomic status, generations, millennia. That we might tap our foot and grin as a song begins to play, may be the only thing I have in common with you, your grandmother, and the guy sitting next to me on the tram. But to what do we owe this thing that eclipses just about every known divide?
The superb music-processing power of our noggins, of course.
Consider that, not unlike learning to speak, you required no special training to learn that music was music. Moreover, by music just being there, you came to learn when it sounded "right” and when it sounded "weird", or, put another way, what music conforms to your culture’s “musical lexicon” (knowledge of what sounds should be combined and when to constitute music). Indeed, children as young as 6 are able to accurately identify harmonic “mistakes” slipped into a musical passage. Even adults with no musical training show a sophisticated capacity for this mistake detection. In a study by Harvard researchers, for example, non-musician adults were exposed to a completely foreign musical grammar (music that sounded super weird) for 25-30 minutes. After this very short time, not only were they able to successfully recognise melodies that conformed to the new grammar, but they were able to detect even slight grammatical “violations”, just like the kids.
Investigating how music is processed in the brain, then, is inclusive. It speaks not only to the experience of a small subpopulation (as is often the case with neuroscience research), but to my experience as much as yours.
Bright-eyed, idealistic student that I am, though, I think we can take the inclusivity argument a step further. I think we can argue that music neuroscience teaches us about what it is to be human.
Bold claim. Yes, indeed. But consider that, with very few exceptions, animals are utterly indifferent to music. Rats, for example, must be plied with cocaine for them to choose music over silence! Birds "sing", though, yes? Well, no. Even the most sophisticated of birdsongs do not to meet the basic constraints of music composition. This was the conclusion of Marcelo Araya-Salas, a scientist who spent weeks researching nightingale wrens in the rainforests of Costa Rica. His theory on why we mistake birdsong as music? Anthropomorphism: our tendency to interpret animal behaviour in the context of our own human experience. Kind of like when we assume Dog rolls in the nearest, freshest-looking pile of poop post-bath because, well, he's a jerk. Obviously. (Marcelo, quietly, might argue that Dog just wants to smell like poop.) Indeed, it seems that birds hear birdsong more like humans hear speech, rather than like humans hear music.
So, music might be uniquely “ours’”. The why of this, though, remains a muddy matter, particularly for evolution theorists. This dilemma, I think, was most beautifully summarised by Darwin:
There is this thing, then, that only we perceive, and yet we cannot be sure why. I believe music neuroscience research deserves our attention for this reason; that not only is it inclusive, but it allows us to confront the stuff that is singular, the very stuff by which we diagnose our humanity.
We use music neuroscience research to understand how music helps people.
At this moment, all around the world, music is being used as medicine.
We know that daily music listening improves attention, language, and memory, as well as mood, following middle cerebral artery stroke. Singing therapy assists individuals with aphasia and language disorders to speak more fluently. Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease walk more freely when they listen to music. Music listening even benefits individuals with dementia. A research group in France, for example, found that when individuals with dementia of the Alzheimer's type listened to self-selected music compared to silence, they recalled autographical memories in more detail, faster, and with more emotional content.
Music is not a magic bullet, however. It does not work for everyone.
Enter music neuroscience! Surely it follows that, by improving our understanding of how music is processed in the brain, we enhance our capacity to know which people will benefit from music, and why. We also position ourselves to fine tune how we administer music. That is, we make it possible to make music more effective, more targeted, more potent; we make it possible to know what dosage of music works best, for which people, and at what stage in their illness.
Why would we not hone our knowledge of how music works as medicine? It is, after all, how pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs. They discover a compound that does a thing, they work out how that compound does that thing, then they get to work creating new compounds that do that thing more effectively, for more people, and with fewer side effects. The reason I think we have neglected this process with music? Because music does not have side effects.
I think it is worth pausing on that point. Why, indeed, would we invest in finessing a treatment that, for all intents and purposes, is completely harmless when administered to just about anyone? Well, because it is not a money maker, is an obvious first answer. (Drugs are big business, in case you were unaware.) But then, consider this: nausea, dizziness, reduced sexual desire or difficulty reaching orgasm/inability to maintain an erection, drowsiness, insomnia, weight grain or loss, headache. These are all frequently reported side effects of medications routinely prescribed by GPs for treatment of depression and anxiety; our “first line of defence” medications. Here, I will interject that I am an avid believer in taking one’s carefully prescribed and regularly reviewed medication. To downplay or denounce the benefits of drugs would, quite frankly, be a bit mad. But I am also a believer in treatment options. Particularly treatment options that do not layer discomfort and distress upon already suffering individuals. Dignity, then, I think is a fine and compelling reason to finesse our understanding of music as medicine.
And yet, I do not think it a stretch to imagine that, one day, we will be using music, not only as medicine, but as a diagnostic tool. Did you know that, when we play individuals with depression their favourite song, brain circuitry that is sensitive to reward responds differently compared to the same brain circuitry in individuals without depression? This tells us that individuals with conditions that change brain chemistry may be differentiated by how they process and experience music.
Granted, depression is not always diagnostically challenging (individuals can often tell us if they feel hopeless, empty, and have lost pleasure in their daily activities, for example). But what of neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementias? The signs and symptoms of such conditions, particularly in their early stages, can be so ambiguous that individuals require comprehensive assessment from highly specialised Clinical Neuropsychologists (waiting lists for whom are lengthy and funding inadequate). Consider, however, that individuals with frontotemporal dementia appear less skilled at identifying emotions in music compared to individuals with dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. Could music help us differentiate these dementias in their early stages? You know, do something even those fancy donut scanners are not particularly good at? The answer is far from a resounding no.
By investing in music neuroscience research, we are making a statement.
Agitation is a common symptom of dementia. So are apathy and withdrawal. When aged care facilities introduce music therapy programs, often, they observe residents become less agitated. Residents also become more engaged with those around them, experience more positive emotions, and have greater access to the thoughts and memories that make them who they are. Music, then, not only alleviates symptoms of distress, it adds quality to life.
Put another way, rather than simply swatting at the bad bits, music makes us more ourselves. This cannot be said, for instance, for antipsychotic medications used to treat agitation in late-stage dementia. Such medications, whilst effective at decreasing agitated states, often worsen symptoms such as apathy and withdrawal. What does this say about us as a society that, when faced with distressed and vulnerable individuals, our first priority is to manage their behaviour over maximise their quality of life? It speaks something of pragmatism, unfortunately. But what does it say about us that, when presented with equally pragmatic alternatives, we favour treatment that is generic and impersonal to treatment that requires we get to know a person and her story?
I have met some wonderful geriatricians in my travels. Kind and considered, good human beings. But even the most carefully prescribed drug is still a drug. Developed in a lab by a company who never knew the human being sitting before you. Psychotropic drugs neither capture nor inject any of what it is like to be young, in love, reckless, free. Music does that, though. Three minutes of carefully prescribed music will thrust you back in time. And for less than the cost of a pill, I would argue. Consider, for example, that a Spotify subscription ($11.99) costs less than the monthly cost of antidepressant medication ($15.50). An iPod shuffle is a one-off cost of $75. And Music Therapists? Well, I cannot imagine we pay our Music Therapists more than we pay our Doctors.
I think the true "cost" here is not one of dollars. The cost of using music as medicine is the care it demands we take of each another. It requires we invest time and compassion, well beyond that required to write out a prescription. Music as medicine asks that we lean toward suffering, not pull away from it. In this way, I think music neuroscience research is an opportunity to make a statement; by investing in its progress, we get to clarify what it is we value as a society. Things like connection, courage, dignity, patience, flexibility, and kindness. Really good things, no? And it would be arrogant of us to assume that, by embracing these values, we impact only those in a position to be "helped". Nope, nope, nope. Helpers, brace yourselves. You are in for a big ol' dose of reciprocal warm and fuzzies. Administering music as medicine is its own reward.
It is at this point that I concede my 6am music neuroscience pyjama parties do not look like they will be trending (and when I put it like that, fair call). What I do hope, though, is that when somebody shrugs their shoulders at music neuroscience, you now have some fuel to fire up. Either fire up, or bath their dog and watch it go straight for the pile of poop.