Helping to find your voice: A project by Karen Wise on the science of singing

Singing is part of everyday life: from supporting our favourite sports teams with the National Anthem, to soothing children with a lullaby. Yet, while I always burst into ‘Happy Birthday’ when the cake comes out at a party, my grandmother stays mute. It’s sad that she feels unable to engage in such an essential human activity, however she’s not alone.


Staying mute: a political stance or is Jeremy Corbyn too shy to sing?

According to a 2005 study by Cuddy and colleagues around 17% of people define themselves as ‘tone deaf’, whilst researchers Hutchins & Peretz (2010) estimate a fifth of adults are ‘poor pitch singers’. These individuals, and the wider population of self-identified ‘non-singers’, often hold negative beliefs about singing and their own abilities. One cause of such beliefs can be criticism from someone such as a teacher or parent during childhood, but this is not the only source.

My grandmother believes that she “can’t” sing and that singing is an all-or-nothing, innate ability. However music education and development expert Graham Welch (1985) conceptualizes singing as a continuum of skill. A skill requiring the coordination of perception, cognition and movement, that we normally acquire during early childhood, but that can also manifest later in life.

Below is a simplified representation of how singing behavior changes over time, based on data from thousands of children (Welch, 2005).


As we get older we develop greater accuracy over our voices, becoming aware that vocal pitch can be consciously controlled (pitch direction control) and developing the ability to move in the right direction, reproducing the ups and downs in a melody (contour accuracy). Interval accuracy is the ability to make theses ups or downs the right distance apart. At this stage, pitching may be fairly good within a phrase – a line sung in one breath – but not as accurate between phrases, once a breath is taken. By the age of eleven the vast majority of individuals are able to sing a simple song in tune (tonal stability). The green arrow represents the development of vocal use, with the range of notes we can sing accurately increasing as we learn vocal control (Rutkowski, 1990). This is an overall trajectory, and not a series of linear steps, as the same child can produce performances at different places on the continuum depending on the difficulty of the song, the context, etc.

Maybe “non-singers” have difficulties with one or more stages of these processes, however nothing concrete is currently identified as little is known about what occurs developmentally after the age of eleven or the role of training or maturation. One interesting finding was a study by researchers Demorest and Pfordresher (2015) that compared the singing accuracy of primary school children with secondary school children (years 7-9) and university students. They found that whilst children’s skills increased dramatically from 5 years to 13 years of age, university students performed at the level of primary school children, indicating that adults who have stopped singing may regress in their singing skills.

But there is hope: an exploratory intervention study by Numminen and colleagues (2015) found that, given the appropriate supportive singing opportunities such as vocal training, negative beliefs of non-singers can be changed and singing skills can be improved.

This transformation intrigues Dr Karen Wise, a Research Fellow at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. As a psychologist, lecturer, and mezzo-soprano Dr Wise has a particular interest in the psychology of singing, focusing on singing difficulties in untrained and ‘non-singing’ adults. She is currently heading a multi-method, interdisciplinary, intervention project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project, called ‘Finding a voice: The art and science of unlocking the potential of adult non-singers’, is observing the journey of learning to sing in adulthood.


Singing together: over 320 choirs are part of the Rock Choir organisation

Despite the growth in music-making opportunities that are ostensibly for non-singers, such as the un-auditioned choral group Rock Choir, Dr Wise is unsure whether they are as inclusive or as evidence-based as they could be. Although researchers are investigating the role of music for health, she argues that studies have, so far, only focused on interventions for specific groups, overlooking the large population of non-singers, and focusing strongly on outcomes rather than detailed description of interventions. The lack of documentation, systematic research and evidence for effective strategies to support adult singers needs is a glaring gap in research, and is one she hopes to fill.


As a singer and teacher herself, Dr Wise’s perspective is a unique one. Not only does she wish to investigate singing in adulthood from a cognitive psychological perspective but also from that of a vocal pedagogue. Rightly, she has highlighted the gap between the scientific community and that of singing practitioners like teachers and choir leaders. Additionally, there is barely any concrete literature on how singing teachers deal with poor-pitch singers as their strategies have not been systematically investigated or solidified. With her work, Wise hopes to encourage communication between these fields to integrate scientific research with vocal pedagogy, piecing together the relationship between singing skills and other aspects of musicality, whilst developing a greater understanding of what it means to sing.

The 33-month-long project is currently ongoing and structured in two strands. The first is a naturalistic study tracking the progress of 20 non-singing adult participants as they undergo a yearlong practical singing course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama (September 2016 – July 2017). They will receive a combination of individual lessons, group singing sessions and workshops.

The researchers used a broad definition of ‘non-singer’, accepting individuals who avoid singing, self-define as tone-deaf, only sing in the shower, or believe they can’t sing. Following a recruitment drive, an overwhelming 355 initial respondents were whittled down to the final 20 participants (11 women, 9 men aged 23-71). They have a range of musical and singing skill levels as well as different attitudes and self-beliefs.

Dr Wise and her team used several psychometric tools to assess the participants’ baseline skills, including the Gold-MSI – a battery of tests that flexibly assess individuals’ ability to engage with music, involving a self-report questionnaire and tests of melody memory and beat perception – and the Seattle Singing Accuracy Protocol, which is an online 15-20 minute test of singing accuracy and related skills. They also asked about beliefs regarding singing, singing identity and self-perceptions, along with participants’ educational level, their engagement with singing activities over the past year, and aspects of health that may affect singing or listening.

The researchers will monitor the participant’s progress in a variety of ways including video recording individual and group lessons, asking both participants and teachers to keep diaries and other reflective writing, and conducting interviews. The assessments used to evaluate the participants’ singing abilities prior to the intervention will be repeated at two more time points, during and after the singing course. Wise hopes to find an improvement in singing abilities over the yearlong training course, whether minor or huge. And of great interest are the kinds of changes that take place and how skills develop, as well as how people experience their journey of learning to sing.

Still in development, the second strand of the project is based on evidence of a correlation between auditory imagery, the ability to imagine sounds vividly in the mind’s ear, and singing accuracy (see Pfordresher & Halpern, 2013). It will look at the relationship between singing, auditory imagery, and other cognitive skills through the use of a specially designed app.

And hopefully this research will help adults like my grandmother find their voice.


Authors: Robyn Donnelly & Jen Mair

For more information on Dr. Wise or the project, please visit:



Cuddy, L., Balkwill, L., Peretz, I., and Holden, R.R. (2005). Musical difficulties are rare: A study of ‘tone deafness’ among university students. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, The Neurosciences and Music II: From Perception to Performance 1060: 311–324.

Demorest, S., Pfordresher, P. (2015) Singing Accuracy Development from K-Adult: A Comparative Study. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 32 No. 3. 293-302.

Hutchins, S. and Peretz, I. (2012). A frog in your throat or in your ear: Searching for the causes of poor singing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141(1): 76–97. doi:10.1037/a0025064.

MacDonald, R. A. R. (2013). Music, health, and well-being: A review. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being, 8, 10.3402/qhw.v8i0.20635.

Numminen, A., Lonka, K., Raino, A. P., & Ruismäki, H. (2015). “Singing is no longer forbidden to me – it’s like part of my human dignity has been restored’. Adult non-singers learning to sing: an explorative intervention study. The European Journal of Social and Behavioural Sciences. 12: 1660-1674.

Pfordresher, P.Q., Halpern, A. R. & Greenspon, E.B. (2015). A mechanism for sensorimotor translation in singing: The Multi-Modal Imagery Association (MMIA) model.

Rutkowski, J. (1990). The measurement and evaluation of children’s singing voice development. The Quarterly Journal of Teaching and Learning 1: 81–95.

Welch, G.F. (1985). A schema theory of how children learn to sing in tune. Psychology of Music 13: 3–17.

Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as Communication. In: D. Miell, R. MacDonald, and D.J. Hargreaves (eds), Musical Communication, pp. 239–259. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wise, K.J. (2009). Understanding “tone deafness”: A multi-componential analysis of perception, cognition, singing and self-perceptions in adults reporting musical difficulties. PhD Thesis, Keele University.



Posted in Invited Speaker Series | Leave a comment

Nobody’s perfect – Error monitoring in the performing brain


Gabriela Bury, December 13th 2016

Every time I attempt to order my favourite coffee at Costa, my tongue decides to fail me in every possible way. I often mispronounce my order so bad I end up walking out of the coffee shop carrying a boring Americano instead of my beloved Mocha, too polite to rectify my mistake. As I suffer my coffee tragedy in silence, I can’t help but wonder – why? What went wrong after I carefully planned out what I was going to say?image002

Performing everyday actions like walking, speaking or making basic decisions seems automatic to us. In reality, our brains need to process a great amount of information for us to execute such precise motor and cognitive tasks. We first formulate theintention to perform a certain task, before our brain plans the action and executes it. The brain is then involved in constant monitoring through auditory, tactile and proprioceptive feedback, making sure that the executed behaviour is consistent with what we intended.

Our brains are continuously involved in this complicated loop of processing, sometimes monitoring many loops at the same time, and it is only normal for something to go wrong every now and then. We stumble over our words, our feet get tangled, we perform the wrong action. This feeds back into the loop, signaling to the brain that we’ve made an error.

The ability to monitor our actions and errors is crucial for goal-directed, adaptive behavior in a changing environment. Error-monitoring has been extensively studied in simple choice or reaction-time tasks, which can be easily manipulated to induce mistakes. Mismatch in monitoring can occur when the participant made an actual error, or when the feedback he received on his action was manipulated in a way that did not match his expectations. EEG recordings showed that errors led to more negative activity in the dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex (dACC) of the brain 50 ms after error onset (Error-related negativity, ERN), and feedback errors led to more negative activity in the brain 250 ms after unexpected feedback onset (Feedback ERN; Simon, 2009 ; Nieuwenhuis et al., 2004).


Source : Simon, 2009 and Nieuwenhuis et al., 2004

Although simple choice and time-reaction tasks help study action- and error-monitoring, in real life this process involves many components such as memory retrieval, sensory-motor association, or precise control of motor actions. Something this complex can hardly be represented accurately by repetitively pressing a computer key in a lab, and the study of more complex movement is necessary for a fuller understanding of what happens when we make mistakes. This, unsurprisingly, is when music comes into play.

Musicians are indeed ideal candidates for the study of action monitoring. A professional pianist does not only display impressive motor skills; he is also a memory expert able to retrieve very long pieces of melody, and capable of constant monitoring of his performance through auditory feedback. I am no professional pianist, but I like to fool myself into thinking that my 14 years of formal musical training should enable me to play perfectly a piece I know by heart. More often than not, I end up throwing my book of Chopin’s waltzes on the floor and storming off, knowing perfectly well – as every good neuroscientist should – that my lack of work and motivation are not the ones to blame for my repetitive failures. No, the real culprit is, of course, my brain.

In a study by Maidhof and colleagues (2010), auditory feedback was manipulated so as not to match the expectations of professional pianists who were either playing a melody, or simply listening to one. The participants therefore had the perception of making a mistake, as the feedback differed from the expected melody. The same feedback error-related negativity observed in simple tasks was identified in EEG recordings of both groups of participants, pointing towards similar mechanisms underlying the processing of expectancy violations in more complex tasks such as music.

More interesting yet is what happens in the brain when an actual mistake is made during a performance. Both Herrojo Ruiz and Maidhof and colleagues (2009) analysed piano performances and isolated specific types of errors. All notes were played at the same high tempo, however a delay was observed in the onset of wrong notes, and even the keypress velocity decreased when a wrong note was played. Pianists did not just slow down when mistakes were made; they slowed down before they even had the time to press the wrong key and hear their mistake. This happened even when pianists were prevented from receiving auditory feedback and did not hear their mistake. EEG recordings confirmed this by showing a pre-error negative activity increase 100 ms before the erroneous key was played


Source : Maidhof et al., 2009

A further study by the same authors (2013) used motion capture to record the hand movements of pianists while they were performing, blindfolded. This not only gave rise to funky little piano-playing skeleton hand images, but also supplied behavioural information about what happens before error onset (see to see the skeleton hands in action). This provided data about tactile feedback – the feedback the pianist’s brain gets from touching the right or wrong key. This feedback is obtained as the key is touched, not pressed, and is therefore processed before a key is played. The interval between the onset of tactile feedback (key touch) and the key being played (key press) was greater when an error was committed than when the right key was pressed. The analysis of the combined motion capture and EEG data might suggest that tactile feedback could play a part in error detection, but its role still needs further investigation. All that is sure is that pianists slowed down in response to a mistake they did not yet fully commit.


The pianist’s hand before


The pianist’s hand after

How can the brain possibly predict an error before it happens? Some, like Maidhof and his colleagues, say that it is probably due to the brain’s predictive control processes that compare the predicted outcome of an action with the action goal before its actual realisation. Some, like myself, prefer to think that musicians’ brains are basically crystal balls – and will definitely flaunt those superpowers at the next party they attend. All will hopefully agree that studying the neuroscience of music, however cool and artsy it may sound, can actually help us understand a lot more about our brains’ incredible capacities.

This blog was written following Clemens Maidhof’s presentation to Goldsmiths’ Music, Mind and Brain students on 27/10 2016 as part of the ‘Invited Speaker’ series.

For more details on the Music, Mind and Brain MSc, please visit:


Dikman, Z. V., & Allen, J. J. (2000). Error monitoring during reward and avoidance learning in high-and low-socialized individuals. Psychophysiology37(01), 43-54.

Lutz, K., Puorger, R., Cheetham, M., & Jancke, L. (2013). Development of ERN together with an internal model of audio-motor associations. Frontiers in human neuroscience7.

Maidhof, C., Rieger, M., Prinz, W., & Koelsch, S. (2009). Nobody is perfect: ERP effects prior to performance errors in musicians indicate fast monitoring processes. PLoS One4(4), e5032.

Maidhof, C., Vavatzanidis, N., Prinz, W., Rieger, M., & Koelsch, S. (2010). Processing expectancy violations during music performance and perception: an ERP study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience22(10), 2401-2413.

Maidhof, C., Pitkäniemi, A., & Tervaniemi, M. (2013). Predictive error detection in pianists: a combined ERP and motion capture study. Frontiers in human neuroscience7, 587.

Nieuwenhuis, S., Yeung, N., Holroyd, C. B., Schurger, A., & Cohen, J. D. (2004). Sensitivity of electrophysiological activity from medial frontal cortex to utilitarian and performance feedback. Cerebral Cortex14(7), 741-747.

Ruiz, M. H., Jabusch, H. C., & Altenmüller, E. (2009). Detecting wrong notes in advance: neuronal correlates of error monitoring in pianists. Cerebral Cortex19(11), 2625-2639.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mom’s Spaghetti: Demystifying Performance Anxiety


Insights into music performance anxiety and managment with
Prof. Aaron Williamon, Centre for Performance Science

by Darragh Lynch & Georgina Ng

“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy,
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti”

– Eminem (“Lose Yourself”)

It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand how Eminem felt in his lead single to the film “8 Mile” – we’ve all been there (hopefully without the vomit!). Performance anxiety is a state many have experienced in some form, whether for a school presentation, a sports competition, or a concert. It is rife amongst musicians (Langendörfer et al., 2006), having disrupted the careers of seasoned musicians in both popular music, such as Barbra Streisand (Stossel, 2014), and classical music, such as pianist Vladimir Horowitz and soprano Renee Fleming (Wesner, Noyes & Davis, 1990; Hewett, 2014). Given performance anxiety’s debilitating effects, it is unsurprising that researchers such as Prof. Aaron Williamon of the Centre for Performance Science – a partnership between the Royal College of Music and Imperial College London – have endeavoured to discover more about it. Here, we will discuss how Prof. Williamon’s research into performance stress, as presented at Goldsmiths College, University of London, can be drawn upon to help performers – particularly musicians – with this common difficulty.

What, exactly, is performance anxiety?

Salmon (1990) defines performance anxiety as:

“The experience of persisting, distressful apprehension about and/or actual impairment of, performance skills in a public context, to a degree unwarranted given the individual’s musical aptitude, training, and level of preparation.”

This unwarranted apprehension manifests in three ways: somatic, behavioural, and cognitive. Somatic symptoms are the physical attributes of anxiety triggered by the “fight or flight” response via the sympathetic nervous system, such as an increase in heart rate, sweating, and shortness of breath, while behavioural symptoms include nervous tics such as fidgeting and pacing. Perhaps most obviously, performance anxiety affects cognitive processes and emotions, creating negative feelings and catastrophic thoughts (“What if my guitar string breaks?!”).

Although performance anxiety may certainly give rise to some rather unpleasant feelings, most people mainly dread it because of its effect on performance. Yerkes and Dodson (1908) first posited the inverted U hypothesis where performance quality increases with somatic anxiety (or arousal) up to an individuals’ threshold, after which performance quality decreases with further increase in somatic anxiety.


Yerkes-Dodson inverted-U hypothesis

Catastrophe theory (Hardy & Parfitt, 1991), as depicted in the rather confusing 3D graph below, further specifies the role of cognitive anxiety by adding it along the z-axis. High levels of cognitive anxiety can further hamper the effects of somatic anxiety on performance — if your heart is already racing and your palms are sweaty, worrying about that tricky violin solo is bound to further affect your performance. On the flip side, a “sweet spot” of optimum performance can be attained with the correct levels of cognitive anxiety and physiological arousal.


Catastrophe Theory

Measurement and findings

Theories are useful, but let’s see some evidence! Prof. Williamon presented several recent studies he was involved with, all of which focused on performance stress in musicians.

In one study, Prof. Williamon and colleagues (2013) measured the heart rate of professional pianist Melvyn Tan during high-stress and low-stress performance situations. In a low-stress situation (a practice room with the research team), the pianist’s heart rate steadily increased — from baseline measures, through pre-performance time, to during the performance. Nothing surprising there. However, in a high-stress situation (the Cheltenham Music Festival), heart rate was found to be much higher at pre-performance time than during the actual high stress performance. Although heart rate is an imperfect measure of physiological reactivity to stress due to individual differences and the variability of music over time (some sections of pieces may be more physically demanding) this research can be commended for its pioneering use of complexity science algorithms in analysing heart rate to account for such artefacts.


Experimental design measuring heartrate (Electroencephalogram; ECG) with Melvyn Tan in Williamon et al. (2013)

Another study by Prof. Williamon (currently unpublished) demonstrated similar results with musicians in both London, England, and Lugano, Switzerland. The complexity science approach mentioned before was used to assess physiological reactivity backstage and during performance in both a high- and low-stress performance situation. In both situations, arousal was higher backstage than during the actual performance. A further study with professional choir singers (Fancourt et al., 2015) found that patterns of change in stress hormones largely mirror those of the earlier cardiovascular research, confirming that the physical states in which musicians are in during performance are quantitatively different than when they are in practise.

How can these findings help musicians with performance anxiety?

Prof. Williamon’s work suggests two main points. Firstly, the difference in anxiety responses in low- and high-stress performance situations highlights the importance of being accustomed to high-stress situations in predicting (and hence effectively managing) any patterns of performance anxiety one may feel. One way is to practise performing – i.e. repeated exposure to high stress situations. In light of this, Prof. Williamon and colleagues (2014) created a performance simulator to recreate high-stress performance situations, complete with audience and stage, to help bridge the gap between practice and performance.


Prof. Williamon’s virtual reality performance simulator

Secondly, with arousal being highest before performance, a good point at which anxiety management techniques can be implemented is the critical pre-performance period. For instance, to ameliorate the anxiety felt while waiting to go onstage, one could use methods that draw upon the relationship between somatic and cognitive anxiety, such as re-appraising one’s symptoms as excitement (Brooks, 2014) or mindfulness meditation.

Certain practices may also help if integrated into one’s lifestyle, such as the Alexander Technique and yoga, both of which focus on reducing muscular and postural stress. Cross-stressor methods may also help — Childs and de Wit (2014) found that regular exercise may improve emotional resilience to stress and anxiety. For musical performance educators, Prof. Williamon notes that it is equally important to be aware of their students’ particular preferences and anxiety patterns in order to advise on suitable solutions. For instance, students won’t practice mindfulness if they personally think it’s a load of nonsense!

The bottom line? Performance anxiety is a common and crippling problem. However, the work of researchers such as Prof. Williamon offers hope for those of us aiming to overcome it: not only can we understand more about how, when, and why performance anxiety occurs, but we also discover empirical ways of confronting our own personal variation of it. This can only be a good thing — after all, the show must go on!

Continue reading

Posted in Invited Speaker Series | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Psychoneuroimmunology of Music

“Every Illness is a Musical Problem, The Healing, a Musical Solution”

Cast your mind back thousands of years, and try to imagine living in pre-historic times. Your goal in life is to stay alive by hunting for food. Your survival instinct, known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, becomes activated when faced with an immediate danger, such as a wild beast. Adrenaline courses through your body, keeping your heart rate stable and temporarily shutting down your immune system. Miraculously, you overcome the threat and find your way back to safety. At this point, your body halts the release of adrenaline, instead focusing on the production of cortisol, which will re-activate your physiological systems and allow you to revert to normal functioning. Of course, whilst the likelihood of a stressful confrontation with a feral beast is slim in the modern world, humans are still faced with a vast array of experiences and situations which can be stressful through both acute and chronic pathways. The effects of stress are as relevant today as to our ancient ancestors, and the strategies available for regulation, prevention and treatment of stress are plentiful and creative. We have come leaps and bounds in our understanding of psychoneuroimmunology, (the field seeking to explore the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease), but, of particular interest to students on the MSc Music, Mind & Brain (MMB) programme, is the relatively unexplored question: is there an inherent potential for music to act as such a healing power for the mind and body?

Despite continuous attempts throughout history, answering this question still remains a challenge. For example, the ancient Greeks believed that music was a type of magic that could vanquish evil spirits that caused illness, whilst the Mycenaean god Pajawo (2000 BC) believed that holy songs could cure disease (Fancourt, 2013). Given the advances of modern technology, it comes as no surprise that research on music and health is starting to grow rapidly within the scientific community. Nowadays, research has investigated the potential of musical treatments using cell counts, brain scans and psychological assessments. As one of the pioneering researchers in this field, Dr. Daisy Fancourt offered her insight into whether music can change our immune systems to the MMB research group at Goldsmiths, University of London on January 14th 2016.

When dealing with such a new area, Fancourt highlighted how important the concepts of consistency and replication are in designing and conducting good-quality research. In collaboration with colleagues, she proposed a new model, which can account more comprehensively for the different ways by which people are affected by music. These include musical components (e.g. rhythm and timbre), getting actively involved in music making and listening, bonding with others over music, and, developing that all-important personal tie to music (See fig. 1 from Fancourt et al., 2014).

Psychoneuroimmunology Model

Figure 1: A model of the system interactions involved in the psychoneuroimmunological response to music (Fancourt, Ockelford & Belai, 2014)

Furthermore, Fancourt suggested that each of these engagement mechanisms affect our physiology through different pathways. This has been demonstrated by Fancourt and her colleagues by examining change within identified biomarkers (specific cells, proteins, or hormones) in response to a musical intervention. In particular, her work has documented the responses of such biomarkers to group drumming and choral singing, with populations of mental health service users, professional singers, and cancer patients respectively. She has examined a change in stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) and sex hormones (testosterone and progesterone), along with other proteins called cytokines (involved in immune function) as a function of the musical interventions that have been delivered (Fancourt et al., 2016).

Inevitably, some of Fancourt’s work has attracted high-profile attention from outlets such as The Times, The Guardian and Classic FM including her study on the impact of singing on the endocrine system in low versus high stress situations (Fancourt, Aufegger & Williamon, 2015).

Classic fm article

Figure 2. Eric Whitacre and music as stress relief (Classic FM, March 2015).

Teaming up with composer Eric Whitacre, Fancourt and her colleagues collected saliva samples and psychological data from a group of professional singers on two consecutive evenings. On the first evening, they took part in an ordinary rehearsal (low-stress situation), but on the second, they performed a live concert to an audience of 610 people (high-stress situation). The comparative results showed a significant decrease in the stress hormones, cortisol and cortisone, across the low-stress condition, suggesting that singing in itself is a stress-reducing activity. However, the same stress hormones significantly increased across the high-stress condition, which highlighted that despite consistently being exposed to performance situations, professional singers have a preserved and important ‘fight or flight’ response, akin to that of our predecessors. This was the first study to show that singing can directly affect stress responses, and that this set of responses change depending on the performance conditions.

Given this, the evidence for music as a tool for potential health promotion has gained an increasing impetus. Fancourt then talked of how her research has also investigated the effectiveness of music in the physiological treatment of mental health. This work focused on observing a group of mental health service-users’ inflammatory responses (cytokine proteins) before and after a group-drumming intervention (Fancourt et al., 2015).

Rhythm for Life 435x290

Figure 3. Group drumming interventions

Previous research on depression has demonstrated that psychological symptoms are consistently accompanied by an excess of inflammation in the body. In an attempt to reduce both affected avenues, many alternative intervention programmes such as yoga or mindfulness have been developed, but Fancourt’s work with her colleagues has pioneered music in this domain. Taking the form of a control trial, service users were assigned to either group drumming or a different social activity for six weeks, in which saliva samples were collected pre- and post-sessions. For the first time, Fancourt and colleagues showed that a music-based intervention such as group drumming could enhance immunity and decrease stress over individual sessions, in addition to reducing inflammatory activity (i.e., cytokine activation) associated with poorer immune function. These results aligned nicely with reported improvements in scores on measures of depression, well-being and social resilience; again demonstrating the strong link between mind and body. Fancourt’s future work (in press) will expand upon this exciting finding by demonstrating the durable nature of this effect by following up service users’ physiological and psychological responses up to three months after their initial participation.

Providing scientific evidence supporting not only the effectiveness of music in achieving health outcomes, but sustaining these changes over time is something that could revolutionise modern approaches to healthcare, in terms of wellbeing promotion and alternative medicinal treatments. Fancourt is continuing to explore an array of such possibilities, as evident from her current involvement in research projects such as Music & Motherhood, which assesses the impact of creative interventions such as singing on the symptoms of postnatal depression, and Sing With Us, which will assess the effectiveness of choral singing as an intervention for cancer patients and their carers. Both studies will employ both psychological and physiological measures to further explore the fascinating relationship between mind, body and music; an enigma that has forever intrigued us as a species.

By Jessica Akkermans, Fiona Brien & Sarah Collin


Fancourt, D. (2013) Medicine musica: the eighteenth-century rationalization of music and medicine. Hektoen International Journal. Retrieved from:

Fancourt, D., Ockelford, A., Belai, A. (2014). The psychoneuroimmunological effects of music: a systematic review and a new model. Brain Behav Immun 36: 15–26.

Fancourt, D. (2015). An Introduction to the Psychoneuroimmunology of Music: History, Future Collaboration and a Research Agenda. Psychology of Music: 1-15.

Fancourt, D., Aufegger, L., and Williamon, A. (2015). Low-stress and high-stress singing have contrasting effects on glucocorticoid response. Front. Psychol. 6:1242. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01242

Fancourt, D., Perkins, R., Ascenso, S., Atkins, L., Kilfeather, S., Carvalho, L., Steptoe, A., & Williamon, A. (2015). Group Drumming Modulates Cytokine Response in Mental Health Services Users: A Preliminary Study. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 85(1), 53-55.

Fancourt, D., Williamon, A., Carvalho, L. A., Steptoe, A., Dow, R., & Lewis, I. (2016). Singing modulates mood, stress, cortisol, cytokine and neuropeptide activity in cancer patients and carers. ecancermedicalscience, 10.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Music and Language Learning

Quite frankly, the number of time that I have started, and failed, to learn a second language is embarrassing. Despite my best intentions, I can never seem to stick with it for longer than a couple of weeks at most. One of the main reasons for my constant failure is my perceived lack of progress. Words that I had spent a few days mastering would suddenly disappear from my mind as I would stare blankly at my computer screen trying to remember the German word for ‘fruit’. I’m sure I’m not alone in my failed endeavours. Thankfully, the work done by Vicky Williamson could provide you and I with the tools necessary to finally succeed in becoming bilingual. And the key to success might just lie in music.

Ask a student how they study for exams, and more than a few will tell you that they like to have music on in the background. They claim that it can help them focus on the task at hand. For others, the presence of music is a distractor, making it almost impossible to concentrate on anything else other than the melody that is playing. Previous work by Thompson et al in 2001 demonstrated that listening to music can relieve boredom and fatigue, and was even able to show that the Mozart Effect (an idea based off the 1993 study by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky that showed that listening to Mozart increased spatial-reasoning skills on a task. This idea was widely misinterpreted that listening to Mozart could help increase IQ) was an artefact of music increasing arousal and mood.  Therefore, music in a general sense can helps us perform better in tasks. But is that all there is to it? The research would suggest that there is a slightly more complex interaction between music and language.

Williamson argues that there is a shared overlap in memory processes between music and language, and it is this that can allow music to enhance our learning of another tongue.  Functional magnetic imaging studies (fMRI) have shown that, in comparable memory tasks for both, there is a similar overlap in brain regions that are activated (Koelsch et al, 2009). Additionally, a study by Ho et al in 2003 was able to show that musical training can improve verbal memory in children. Those who were studying music had better verbal memory than those not and, a year later, those who continued studying music had a better verbal memory than either those who had never learnt, or those who had given up learning. There was no effect of musical training on visual memory, suggesting that there is a special relationship between music and language that could possibly be exploited when it comes to teaching yourself another language.

Having established that there is a relationship between the two, the question then becomes whether there is an overlap in terms of rehearsal or encoding of information. In an experiment by Schaal et al, 2015, participants were given transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in the supramarginal gyrus during the encoding stage and retention stage of a pitch memory task. TMS emits a magnetic pulse that induces activity within the underlying neurons. The supramarginal gyrus is traditionally associated with language perception and processing. Therefore, if stimulation of this area results in a change in a pitch memory task, it would suggest that the two domains are linked. They were able to show that TMS during the retention stage led to an increase in reaction time when compared to controls, whilst there was no effect ton reaction time in the encoding condition. Therefore, there seems to be an overlap in rehearsal between music and language.

Whilst this is highly interesting, and it is useful to know about the relationship between these two domains, I’m still not closer to knowing what I can do to actually learn a language. Thankfully, an experiment by Kang and Williamson in 2012 might just be able to help. They theorised that simple instrumental music would help people in learning a second language, and employed the use of ‘earworms’, an audio CD where learning a language it set to background music. Taking the two most bought CDs (Arabic and Mandarin), they tested 32 participants learning one of the languages for two weeks, spending about 30 minutes each day on learning. Some would be learning with music in the background, and others would learn without music. They were tested on their ability to recall from their native language to the language that they were learning, and their ability to translate from the learnt language to their first language. Additionally, they were rated on their ability to pronounce the new words that they had been learning by native speakers on a scale of 1-9 and asked to keep a diary about their enjoyment and achievement when learning.  Interestingly, there was no effect of music when it came to learning Arabic. Both recall and translation stayed roughly the same between the two groups, and there was no improvement in pronunciation.  However, when it came to learning Mandarin, music did play an important role; those who learnt with music in the background had better recall and translation abilities compared to those learning without music. Nevertheless, there was still no effect on pronunciation.

Why would music affect Mandarin but not Arabic? This is difficult to answer. Reviewers for the paper claimed that, as Mandarin is a tonal language, music could have more of an influence. However, Williamson argues that, if this was the case, there also should have been a difference in pronunciation. For now, this will have to remain a mystery until further work is done.

Will I finally be able to master another language after years of trying by using music? The work done by Williamson suggests that this is certainly a possibility, although it does seem that music is better suited for helping us learn a more tonal language. Maybe it’s time for me to switch from trying to learn German to learning Mandarin.

Yǔ gǎnxiè Dr Williamson.


David Budd



Ho, Y., Cheung, M., Chan, A. (2003). Music training improves verbal but not visual memory: Cross-sectional and longitudinal explorations in children. Neuropsychology, 17(3), 439-450.

Kang, J., Williamson, V. (2014) Background music can aid second language learning. Psychology of Music. 42(5), 728-747

Koelsch, S., K. Schulze, D. Sammler, et al. 2009. Functional architecture of verbal and tonal working memory: an FMRI study. Hum. Brain Mapp, 30, 859– 873.

Rauscher, F.H. , Shaw, G.L. & Ky, K.N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

Schaal, N., Williamson, V.,  Kelly, M., Muggleton, N., Bannisy, M. (2015). Time-specific involvement of the left SMG during the retention of musical pitches. Cortex, 64, 310–317

Thompson, W., Schellenberg, E., Husain, G. (2001).  Arousal, Mood, and The Mozart Effect. Psychological Science, 12(3), 248-251.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Did Marilyn Actually Sing in Tune?

Reporting on a talk by Pauline Larrouy-Maestri from the Max Plank Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany, with an academic background in psychology, speech therapy, music, and pedagogy, 12th November 2015


May 1962 Birthday Salute to the President. Marilyn Monroe sings “Happy Birthday”. New York, New York, Madison Square Garden. Please credit “Cecil Stoughton, White House/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston”.

Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to American president John F. Kennedy

Did Marilyn actually sing in tune? Sounds simple, but according to Pauline Larrouy-Maestri there are many factors that contribute to our perception of whether a singer is ‘in tune’ or ‘out of tune’. In a talk given to the Music Mind and Brain class, she explained that although we can perceive very small deviations in mistuning, this does not always hamper our enjoyment of a performance. Even operatic singers don’t always sing in tune. When Larrouy-Maestri, Magis and Morsomme (2014a) objectively measured it. They showed that their singing voice can deviate up to 100 cents from a target tone, which is way more than we would usually find acceptable in a different type of singer; but somehow it can still sound ok to the listener! As bizarre as this sounds, this is because the fundamental frequency is only one factor amongst other aspects such as shimmer, jitter, vibrato, tempo or timbre (Larrouy-Maestri, Magis and Morsomme, 2014b) in their singing performance.


Trained operatic singer ‘Brunnhilde’ from Wagner’s opera Die Walkure

Focusing on performances of occasional singers (i.e. without specific vocal training), Pauline Larrouy-Maestri, Lévêque, Schön, Giovanni, and Morsomme (2013) started a series of experiments to see what aspects of singing lead listeners to hear incorrect intonation. In one of their earliest experiments in 2013, 166 sung performances of happy birthday were analyzed in terms of error using computer softwares (Larrouy-Maestri & Morsomme, 2014) and then by eighteen judges with musical expertise. They then compared the judges ratings to errors identified objectively by the computer software, and confirmed that deviation from target intervals, was subjectively considered as an error by the listeners. More recently, they replicated this study with laymen, i.e., judges without any formal training in music and found a similar pattern of results (Larrouy-Maestri, Magis, Grabenhorst, & Morsomme, 2015). These studies confirm that the more an interval is deviated, the more the performance will be perceived as out of tune. But if this is so, where does out of tune singing end and in tune singing begin? Continue reading

Posted in Invited Speaker Series, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?”

Rhythm in speech and music

May I have your attention please?”


Do you remember back in 2000, when Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, tried to find out who “The Real Slim Shady” was? You might have known immediately that he was referring to his alter ego, but would you have considered yourself a Slim Shady? If so, you were right.

In their latest series of experiments, published in the journals Proceedings of the Royal Society B and Hearing Research, Manon Grube of the University of Newcastle (UK) and her team have found out it is actually not only rappers who need an understanding of rhythm in their language, we all do.

While talking, people put together sequences of rhythmic and melodic patterns to convey their intentions. If the rhythm was “wrong” in some way, the message can easily be misunderstood (Imagine Marshall Mathers asking for your attention in this way: “Ma-y-I-ha-ve-you-r-at-ten-tion-plea-se?”). This may be why many rappers tend to carry a strong sense of time, not only when spitting bars with a good flow, but also when plainly speaking.

One of the studies (Grube et al., 2012) showed how closely related the phonological skill you need to speak is to the ability to process short sequences of rhythmic patterns. 238 eleven-year-olds from a school in Newcastle were given standard language & intelligence tests and had their pitch and rhythm perception tested. Specifically, the ability to perceive isochrony violations in short sequences reveals a link between rhythm perception and speech processing, where anisochrony detection is the ability to notice when something is ‘just’ out of time (‘off-beat’). In short, if you are better at detecting whether something is just off-beat, then you will likely be better at processing language and even at producing speech. In a follow-up study (Grube et al. 2014), to test whether this was true for people with atypical development, 28 students with dyslexic traits from the same school underwent the same procedure and the results were not replicated, meaning it was only the case for typically developing children.

In a further study of 24 undergraduates (2013), Grube et al. found that the rhythm perception for longer, more complex ‘roughly regular’ sequences played a role in language processing, specifically in reading. This differed from the 11 year-olds, for whom the perception for shorter rhythmic sequences was more important. In their present work at TU Berlin, Grube and colleagues are tracing the neural time signature of the processing of more complex sequences with a ‘pseudo-rhythmic’ beat similar to that of speech.

And every single person is a Slim Shady lurking”

If so, where is this rhythm processing taking place?

2In preceding studies on these aspects of rhythm perception, Grube and colleagues showed evidence, using techniques varying from transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (Grube et al., 2010; Teki et al., 2011), that specific brain areas play a differential role in processing different kinds of timing mechanisms. Teki et al. (2011) measured the perception of rhythmic timing in the human brain using fMRI and found what is shown in the picture (in grey yellow and green). When participants focused on the absolute duration of a series of time intervals, the cerebellum and inferior olive (marked yellow in the picture), was activated. However, when participants perceived time intervals compared to a regular beat, the putamen and the neocortex (green), were activated. In most recent work, Grube et al. (in prep.) investigated which brain structures supports rhythm processing and its relationship with speech and language skill during adolescent development. Using structural MRI on 42 participants, their initial results suggest that parts of the cerebellum are specific for rhythm, whilst an area around the left intra-parietal sulcus supports the relationship with language.

So won’t the real Slim Shady please stand up […]?”

What can impairments tell us about these regions?

jpgThe cerebellum is one part of the brain that is involved largely in motor control. In 2010, Grube et al. found that patients with cerebellar degeneration showed a significant deficit in duration-, but not beat-based timing, supporting the existence of functionally distinct aspects of rhythm processing. The basal ganglia, a structure consisting of many nuclei including the putamen, controls our voluntary motor movements and is involved in learning and emotion processes. In 2014, Cope et al. found that patients with basal ganglia disease showed deficiencies in both duration- and beat-based tasks. This finding provides evidence for some functional link, i.e. a differential involvement of both types of perceptual timing (Teki et al., 2012) as opposed to the clear function divide suggested by Teki et al. (2011). Consistent with this, Launay et al. (2014) found that participants with dysrhythmia showed an opposite dissociation; an impairment in beat-, but not duration-based timing. In conclusion, these findings provide evidence for a more complex model of rhythm processing in humans than has been previously proposed.

This research is still very much in its early stages, and a fantastic insight into the way we understand ourselves, our faculties of action and perception and the role for timing in them. Further examination will need to be conducted in order to reveal just how the basal ganglia and cerebellum and cortex interact in rhythm perception and speech production. The finding that a strong sense of rhythm can affect our propensity for language is bound to lead on to many interesting investigations in the future. With this in mind Eminem seems to be right in saying:

Guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us […] let’s all stand up.”

Written by: Natalie Kohler, Sarah Charles & Connor Higgins, based on a lecture given by Dr. Manon Grube (Thursday 29th October, 2015)


Eminem (2000). The Real Slim Shady. The Marshall Mathers LP, Aftermath Entertainment.

Cope, T. E., Grube, M., Singh, B., Burn, D. J. & Griffiths, T. D. (2014). The basal ganglia in perceptual timing: Timing performance in Multiple System Atrophy and Huntington’s disease. Neuropsychologia, 52, 73-81.

Grube, M., Cooper, F. E., Chinnery, P. F. & Griffiths, T. D. (2010). Dissociation of duration-based and beat-based auditory timing in cerebellar degeneration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(25), 11597-11601.

Grube, M., Cooper, F. E. & Griffiths, T. D. (2013). Auditory temporal-regularity processing correlates with language and literacy skill in early adulthood. Cognitive neuroscience, 4(3-4), 225-230.

Grube, M., Kumar, S., Cooper, F. E., Turton, S. & Griffiths, T. D. (2012). Auditory sequence analysis and phonological skill. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 279(1746), 4496-4504.

Launay, J., Grube, M., & Stewart, L. (2014). Dysrhythmia: a specific congenital rhythm perception deficit. Frontiers in psychology, 5.

Teki S., Grube M., Griffiths T.D.. (2012) A unified model of time perception accounts for both duration-based and beat-based timing mechanisms. Front Integr Neurosci 5, 90.

Teki, S., Grube, M., Kumar, S. & Griffiths, T. D. (2011). Distinct neural substrates of duration-based and beat-based auditory timing. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(10), 3805-3812.

Picture 1: (viewed: November 16, 2015).

Picture 2: Teki, S., Grube, M., Kumar, S. & Griffiths, T. D. (2011). Distinct neural substrates of duration-based and beat-based auditory timing. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(10), 3810.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment