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Photo: National Institutes of Health via AP
Soprano Renee Fleming looks at a brain scan with NIH neuroscientist David Jangraw after singing in the MRI machine.

To help scientists understand how music helps patients heal, notable musicians like opera’s Renee Fleming are getting brain scans.

Lauran Neergaard writes at the Associated Press, “Music increasingly is becoming a part of patient care — although it’s still pretty unusual to see roving performers captivating entire wards, like at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital one fall morning.

“ ‘It takes them away for just a few minutes to some other place where they don’t have to think about what’s going on,’ said cellist Martha Vance after playing for a patient isolated to avoid spreading infection.

“The challenge: Harnessing music to do more than comfort the sick. Now, moving beyond programs like Georgetown’s, the National Institutes of Health is bringing together musicians, music therapists and neuroscientists to tap into the brain’s circuitry and figure out how.

“ ‘The brain is able to compensate for other deficits sometimes by using music to communicate,’ said NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, a geneticist who also plays a mean guitar.

“To turn that ability into a successful therapy, ‘it would be a really good thing to know which parts of the brain are still intact to be called into action. To know the circuits well enough to know the backup plan,’ Collins added. …

“ ‘The water is wide, I cannot cross over,’ well-known soprano Renee Fleming belted out, not from a concert stage but from inside an MRI machine at the NIH campus.

“The opera star — who partnered with Collins to start the Sound Health initiative — spent two hours in the scanner to help researchers tease out what brain activity is key for singing. How? First Fleming spoke the lyrics. Then she sang them. Finally, she imagined singing them.

“ ‘We’re trying to understand the brain not just so we can address mental disorders or diseases or injuries, but also so we can understand what happens when a brain’s working right and what happens when it’s performing at a really high level,’ said NIH researcher David Jangraw, who shared the MRI data with The Associated Press.

“To Jangraw’s surprise, several brain regions were more active when Fleming imagined singing than when she actually sang, including the brain’s emotion center and areas involved with motion and vision. One theory: it took more mental effort to keep track of where she was in the song, and to maintain its emotion, without auditory feedback.”

Read how the new insights are being used to study Alzzheimer’s patients and others here.

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Photo: The Guardian
Silicon Valley companies are sprouting a cappella groups with sui generis names.

I know that some people don’t like barbershop quartets and their stylized singing, but I have always gotten a kick out of them, whether they are harmonizing over traditional songs like “Ain’t She Sweet” to benefit the New Shoreham fire department or adapting contemporary pop songs like those you can hear at All A Capella on WERS.

Singing in harmony without instruments does not have to be hidebound. And it’s cropping up in strange places.

As Olivia Solon writes at the Guardian, “What’s the first thing that comes into your head when you think of Silicon Valley? … It’s probably not an a cappella Destiny’s Child mash-up where the opening lyrics of Bootylicious have been altered to include the names of technology companies.

“ ‘Apple, can you handle this? Twitter, can you handle this? Facebook, can you handle this? I don’t think you can handle this.’

“Techapella is an annual Christmas concert where the in-house a cappella teams from all of the major technology companies showcase their singing capabilities.

“Software engineers, data scientists, accountants, marketers and sales reps from across Silicon Valley’s fiercely competitive technology industry have over the last few years formed groups including Facebook’s the Vocal Network, Googapella, Twitter’s Songbirds, LinkedIn’s InTune and Apple’s Keynotes. The groups meet each week in boardrooms and music rooms on their respective campuses to prepare for a dramatic end-of-year crescendo: two public concerts held in celebrated music halls in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“ ‘I didn’t expect us to have an a cappella group, let alone everyone in Silicon Valley,’ said Remy DeCausemaker, open source program manager at Twitter and beatboxer in the Songbirds. …

“ ‘People don’t usually equate hardcore engineering and the arts. It’s very cool to see brilliant technical people one moment solving database scalability problems and the next moment saying: “I think you’re half a step flat on this note here.” ‘ …

“Deke Sharon, the ‘father’ of modern a cappella and this year’s Techapella emcee [says,] ‘There’s no better way to connect to other people and create something wonderful than to get together with others and sing.’

“Allie Polubiec, a front end engineer at Facebook and soloist in the Vocal Network, agrees. ‘It’s physically exhausting working at a computer day in day out. I need time to rest and stretch other muscles,’ she said.

“ ‘Singing is just good for you. Psychologically, there’s something very cathartic about using your voice and expressing your inner joy,’ added Rico Rodriguez, a software engineer at LinkedIn. …

“Techapella diverges from pop culture tropes insofar as it’s resolutely not a competition, with the exception of a friendly beatbox battle during the show’s interlude.

“ ‘My entire tenure has been more defined by a cappella than the work that I do. It was the thing that kept me at Google for as long as it did and it was the thing that keeps me at LinkedIn,’ said Rodriguez. ‘So really, I’m just a singer – and I code as a side job.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. I really liked the video there.

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Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Trumpeter Miles Davis, circa 1959. He once said, ‘”There are no wrong notes in jazz. It’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”‘ A small study suggests that jazz and classical music have different effects on the brain.

Pacific Standard loves these small-scale studies because they are fun and interesting. But as a retiree from an organization dominated by economists, I feel compelled to remind you that larger studies are needed.

Now for the fun. Tom Jacobs writes at Pacific Standard, “Can creativity be taught? Not directly, perhaps. But if such a curriculum exists, it would train one’s brain to regard unforeseen occurrences as potential springboards, rather than disturbing anomalies.

“Fortunately, there is at least one type of specialized training that shapes neural activity in precisely that way. …

“In a new, small-scale study, a Wesleyan University research team led by Psyche Loui and Emily Przysinda report the brains of jazz musicians are uniquely attuned to surprising sounds. Electronic monitoring revealed these players have ‘markedly different neural sensitivity to unexpected musical stimuli,’ the researchers write.

“These musicians are trained not only to anticipate unpredictable turns, but also to engage with them in a positive, creative way. That dynamic reflex stimulates creative thinking.

“The study in … Brain and Cognition featured 36 students from Wesleyan University and the Hartt School of Music. Twelve were studying jazz (including improvisation), 12 classical music, and the final 12 were non-musicians. …

“The participants completed a short version of a well-known creative thinking test, in which they were given six open-ended prompts such as ‘List all the uses you can think of for a paper clip’ in three minutes. They were scored on both the number of items they came up with, and their originality (that is, how often each answer was also given by other students). …

“The young musical improvisers were uniquely receptive to unexpected sounds. …

” ‘The improvisatory and experimental nature of jazz training can encourage musicians to take notes and chords that are out of place, and use them as a pivot to transition to new tonal and musical ideas,’ Loui and her colleagues write. ‘This could lead to the increased cognitive flexibility in jazz musicians.’ …

“It’s possible that people who decide to learn an instrument have brains that are pre-wired in a certain way, but previous research suggests that’s unlikely. Loui plans to study that issue, as well as whether other types of artistic training — say, improvisational theater — will yield similar results.”

More here.

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Photo: AP
Hurricane Marie, as seen from the International Space Station last year.

To understand more about how tropical storms evolve and become hurricanes, two Penn State professors from very different fields are joining forces.

Mark Ballora, professor of music technology, and Jenni Evans, professor of meteorology, report on their research at the Conversation.

“During the 2017 hurricane season, major storms in the North Atlantic devastated communities in and around Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico and the wider Caribbean. The destruction shows how important it is to understand and communicate the serious threats that these storms pose. …

“Since 2014, we have been working together to sonify the dynamics of tropical storms. In other words, we turn environmental data into music. …

“Most of us are familiar with data visualization: charts, graphs, maps and animations that represent complex series of numbers. Sonification is an emerging field that creates graphs with sound.

“As a simple example, a sonified graph might consist of a rising and falling melody, instead of a rising and falling line on a page.

“Sonification offers a few benefits over traditional data visualization. One is accessibility: People with visual or cognitive disabilities may be better able to engage with sound-based media.

“Sonification is also good for discovery. Our eyes are good at detecting static properties, like color, size and texture. But our ears are better at sensing properties that change and fluctuate. Qualities such as pitch or rhythm may change very subtly, but still be sensed quite easily. The ears are also better than the eyes at following multiple patterns simultaneously, which is what we do when we appreciate the interlocking parts in a complex piece of music. …

“We distilled the changing characteristics of a hurricane into four features measured every six hours: air pressure, latitude, longitude and asymmetry, a measure of the pattern of the winds blowing around the storm’s center. …

“In our recordings, air pressure is conveyed by a swirling, windy sound reflecting pressure changes. More intense hurricanes have lower values of air pressure at sea level. The winds near the ground are also stronger in intense storms.

“As pressure lowers, the speed of the swirling in our sonic recordings increases, the volume increases and the windy sound becomes brighter.

“The longitude of the storm center is reflected in stereo pan, the position of a sound source between the left and right speaker channels.

“Latitude is reflected in the pitch of the swirling sound, as well as in a higher, pulsing sound. As a storm moves away from the equator toward one of the poles, the pitch drops to reflect the drop in temperatures outside the tropics.

“A more circular storm is typically more intense. Symmetry values are reflected in the brightness of a low, underlying sound. When the storm has an oblong or oval shape, the sound is brighter.

“So far, we have sonified 11 storms, as well as mapped global storm activity from the year 2005. …

“Even for experts in meteorology, it can be easier to get a sense of interrelated storm dynamics by hearing them as simultaneous musical parts than by relying on graphics alone. For example, while a storm’s shape is typically tied to air pressure, there are times when storms change shape without changing in air pressure. While this difference can be difficult to see in a visual graph, it’s easily heard in the sonified data.”

More here.

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singing

Photo: Teachingtimes.com
Could these faces lifted in song be any sweeter?

I was tired of “Deck the Halls,” “Jingle Bells,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” before I got through Thanksgiving this year. Maybe you felt the same. Why is it so rare to hear carols like “I Wonder as I Wander,” the haunting “Minuit, Chrétiens,” or authentic Gospel music at this season?

Today I decided to correct that loss a little with YouTube music that should not make anyone feel like running and hiding. I’d love it if you would share your favorite seasonal music with other readers in the Comments.

Above, the Choir of Kings College sings “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Next we have the Cambridge Singers with “I Wonder as I Wander.”

Finally, whatever one’s faith or feelings about religion, who can resist the voice of Harry Belafonte with his honeyed Jamaican diction? (Note where the person typing the lyrics wrote “the” instead of what he really said, which is so much more charming.)

 

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Photo: Jason Rosewell
No one’s singing is hopeless, says a Toronto voice teacher.

I know many people who say they can’t sing, but a teacher in Toronto begs to differ. Anyone can sing, she says. People just need a little help.

Anya Wassenberg writes at Ludwig van Toronto, ” ‘I’m tone deaf. I can’t sing.’ It’s usually accompanied by a smile or laugh, but the message is both clear and absolute. And wrong.

“Lorna MacDonald is Professor of Voice Studies and Vocal Pedagogy at the University of Toronto, and she puts it even more strongly. ‘That’s a blatant lie.’

“Of all creative endeavours, singing is perhaps the most poorly understood. To the chagrin of vocal teachers everywhere, singing is the one pursuit where you will be told, you can’t sing, so don’t bother. Parents will readily pony up the resources for acting lessons, or soccer, but when it comes to the ability to sing, many people are still under the impression that it’s something magical – you either have it, or you don’t. …

“Sean Hutchins is the Director of Research at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. His lab looks into how music affects the mind, and how the mind affects music, in essence. …

“He points out that in older generations, in particular, the sole emphasis was on performance. When school children who couldn’t naturally hit the right notes, rather than training them, they would simply be told to mouth the words, and not sing at all. ‘There’s no better way to make sure someone is bad at something than to tell them they can’t do it.’ …

“Lorna MacDonald cites breath, posture, and vowels as the essential elements that are integral to vocal training for anyone. ‘It’s very much a physical process,’ she explains. ‘Our larynx isn’t necessarily made to create those beautiful sounds, any more than our legs were designed to kick soccer balls.’ …

“[MacDonald] suggests that thinking about what styles and genres you’d like to sing, and your ultimate goals as a singer are a good place to start. ‘It’s so important that it comes from a place of communication — not to be famous.’ …

“In reality, people with congenital amusia, or the innate inability to hear pitch properly, form a very small percentage of the population. The study of amusia is still quite recent, but estimates put it at no more than 1.5 to 4 percent. …

“In essence, amusia testing looks for evidence of faulty pitch perception. That’s the difference. Someone with clinical amusia actually can’t hear variations in pitch. …

“In extreme cases, a little delusional thinking can help. Florence Foster Jenkins was a Manhattan heiress in the early 1920s to 1940s who dreamed of being an opera singer, and was somehow entirely convinced of her talent. There are a smattering of Youtube videos that attest to the fact that she was, let’s say, entirely lacking in training. Still, she went on to become a cult favourite of the NYC music scene. …

“So why sing, in the end? Professor MacDonald puts it best. ‘You contribute beauty to the world,’ she says.” And pleasure to yourself, I’d add.

More here, at Ludwig van Toronto.

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On September 20, Moby took part in #giveahome 2017 – a day of secret shows in homes around the world in solidarity with refugees. It was organized by Amnesty International and Sofar Sounds. Watch here, http://on.moby.com/2gUdSuL.

Many artistic people are sensitive to the struggles of the disenfranchised. That’s why as many as 1,000 musicians answered a call from Amnesty International to contribute their talents in support of refugees this past September.

Writes Amnesty, “Across more than 200 cities in 60 countries, musicians, artists, activists and local communities came together in a statement of support for the world’s refugees.

“Give a Home, a collaboration between Amnesty International and Sofar Sounds, saw living rooms across the globe play host to more than 300 special performances from some of the world’s leading musicians. …

“From the thousands of Rohingya currently fleeing Myanmar, to the desperate situation faced by those escaping conflicts in Syria and South Sudan, the world is in the grip of its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. The global refugee population now stands at more than 22 million people.

“ ‘As the Secretary General I travel a lot and meet a lot of different people. But one person I have never met is a refugee who wanted to be a refugee. By definition, a refugee is a person fleeing a desperate situation of conflict or persecution. They are some of the most vulnerable people in the world,’ said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. …

“Of those 22.5 million, almost all are hosted outside the wealthiest nations, with just ten of the world’s 193 countries hosting more than half its refugees.

“ ‘While it’s a huge number, refugees represent only 0.3% of the world’s population. When we look at it that way, it seems crazy to me that we can’t find a home for all of them,’ said Salil Shetty. …

“Amnesty International’s research shows that four in five people around the world are open to welcoming refugees, while a recent attitudes survey by the World Economic Forum show that a huge 85% of young people in the US would welcome refugees.” More at Amnesty, here.

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