Can computers help reduce stage-fright? What connects insects and jazz? Can people hallucinate music? Is music an anaesthetic?

These and other questions were addressed during a remarkable event staged by the New London Orchestra, directed by Ronald Corp, in conjunction with University College London at The UCL Bloomsbury in April 2003. Interweaving lectures, discussions and recitals, the Music and the Mind festival explored how the brain perceives, produces and appreciates music.

The festival aimed to use music and visual art as a way of increasing and broadening people’s appreciation and understanding of scientific research into the workings of the human brain.

It also explored how children with disabilities like deafness, blindness and autism experience and make music, and looked at how music can benefit them by promoting self-expression and creativity.

Professor Robert Turner discussed whether our experience of music is wholly cultural and learned, or whether there are aspects that are innate. It is clearly prehistoric: archaeologists have found the remains of 30,000-year-old flutes. Tests have also shown that babies as young as four months show a preference for consonant, rather than dissonant, sounds, and the ability to discriminate consonance and dissonance has even been found in rats and starlings.

Turner gave a fascinating overview of brain research relating to music, with images of brain activity produced by functional magnetic resonance imaging - fMRI - showing which parts of the brain are involved in different musical tasks.

Professor Paul Robertson, violinist with the Medici Quartet, considered music's relation to language and the many ways in which research in the psychology of music connects brain processes with our experience. He outlined the work of Ralf Spintge, a German anaesthetist, who uses music to control pain without any sedative drugs.

Robertson's discussion of how the ancient Greeks formalised sound frequencies into patterns was perhaps less convincing, as he tried, in a bout of numerology, to link musical scales with conventions like the seven days of the week and the seven deadly sins.

An open debate, chaired by Baroness Greenfield, addressed the question, "Musical Talent: Nature or Nurture". Steve Jones, a brain scientist at UCL, suggested that our ability to recognize melodies implied a universal harmonic sense, while Professor John Sloboda, a psychologist renowned for his work on music, cautioned that we should be wary of using the term "talent" as if it were culturally neutral.

Daniel Glaser, a cognitive scientist at UCL, looked forward to musicians' knowledge increasingly being fed into scientific research, and suggested that our inherited brain structures may tend to make atonal music relatively unpalatable to those not steeped in it.

Sloboda's lecture on "Music and Emotion" was a highlight of the festival, looking at the peaks, thrills and emotional shifts of musical experience. One alarming conclusion of research in this area was that the life-changing peak experiences that would tend to forge a child's long-term involvement with music were least likely to occur while being scrutinized by a teacher in a music lesson.

If, as musicians, we hope and believe that "music does you good", we may be pleased to hear that this is borne out by psychological research. There is no space here to go into the mechanisms for this, but those interested should seek out Sloboda's books and papers. He himself, however, urged us not to buy his new book! Instead he suggested people give their money to a scheme to re-establish a ballet school in Iraq.

Dr Tim Griffiths, a cognitive neurologist from Newcastle University, discussed musical experience after brain impairment, including cases of "too little" music - amusia - and "too much" - musical hallucinations. Hearing music in your head, without being able to control the experience, is a maddening condition that may often afflict deaf people and caused Robert Schumann untold suffering.

Brain scans show that the same areas of the cortex are involved as in normal musical perception, so that it even "looks" as if the person is listening to music. There need not be any delusion involved, just the unbidden perception of music, which in some cases may persist through the night. The condition is related to the more familiar one of tinnitus, where buzzy pitches and melodies may be perceived.

A far more common psychological problem for musicians is of course "stage fright", or performance anxiety. Professor John Gruzelier of Imperial College London talked about ways of overcoming the condition, which a recent study suggested affected a quarter of US musicians. Apart from beta-blockers, treatments include cognitive behaviour therapy and Alexander technique, which, though it seems to provide subjective benefit, has not shown objective enhancements in studies focussing on performance factors. A study in which people trained in Alexander technique watched videos of performers who may or may not have had that treatment were unable to distinguish the two cases.

A new technique showing great promise is neurofeedback, which allows subjects to view their own brain activity on a computer screen and thus regulate it. Studies indicate substantially greater improvements with neurofeedback than with other treatments, and there are no known side effects.

Neurofeedback's applications range from epilepsy to addiction. Researchers from Imperial College are now studying whether it can benefit children suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Showing how science can directly influence music, physicist and musician Tim Blackwell presented his intriguing Swarm Music computer programme, an improvisation and composition system inspired by the behaviour of insect swarms. Saxophonist Tim Whitehead and vocalist Kathleen Willison then performed a collective improvisation with Swarm Music as the interactive third partner.

This fascinating festival was the first in an annual series of research-based collaborations with UCL, and musicians are recommended to catch the next one.

For further information, contact Dr Julian Knight, General Manager, New London Orchestra, 4 Lower Belgrave Street, London SW1W 0LJ.

Telephone: 020 7823 5523, email:, web-site:

This article is reproduced by kind permission of Musician magazine, the journal of Britain's Musicians' Union, and was published in the June 2003 issue.



Paul Taylor 2003