Thursday 23 January 2020

Slaves to the rhythm - how music therapy can benefit everybody

Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jessica Grahn is studying how rhythm and music may be processed in the brains of those who have dysfunction in movement areas, such as Parkinson's disease. However, she believes music therapy can benefit everybody

Music cognition and perception is a fast growing field of study, with some looking at interventions using rhythm for individuals with autism spectrum disorders
Music cognition and perception is a fast growing field of study, with some looking at interventions using rhythm for individuals with autism spectrum disorders
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jessica Grahn
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

We all know people who have what seems like an innate sense of rhythm. They can keep time on the dance floor, tap out beats on their laps and find their flow with relative ease when they're playing sports.

Similarly, we all know people who are rhythmically challenged. They struggle to clap along during sing-songs and they can't seem to catch the beat of even the simplest of musical patterns.

Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jessica Grahn, who specialises in the study of rhythm, has examined the abilities of both sets of people as part of her research, but what she finds especially interesting is the space in between.

The individual differences in rhythm perception are fascinating, she says. As for the idea that you've either got it or you don't? It couldn't be further from the truth.

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Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jessica Grahn
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jessica Grahn

"We've done a lot of measuring individual differences and they're vast," says Grahn, who was a speaker at the global Undergraduate Awards which took place in Dublin last month. "And the thing that we don't see, for example, is a group of people who are terrible and then everyone else has some sort of normal distribution around a reasonable level of performance.

"What we see is the whole gamut from terrible to amazing, all the way through. So whenever you see that, it does imply that there are multiple contributors to whatever it is that you're measuring."

As part of their research, Dr Grahn and her team ask participants to listen to a rhythm and tap it back. It sounds like a simple experiment but the results often leave them with more questions than answers.

"We'll get people coming into our lab saying, 'I have terrible rhythm' or 'My wife says I have two left feet'. And then we test them and they're completely fine. They're not amazing but they're not terrible.

"Conversely, we'll get trained musicians in - particularly musicians who spend a lot of time reading from sheet music - who actually don't do well with rhythm on its own."

Other participants display intriguing capabilities. "The cool thing is, if people can feel the beat in a rhythm, that gives them a huge amount of flexibility in the way they tap that back."

And whether they tap it back faster or slower, they still recognise the beat. "They don't produce the time interval accurately in the absolute sense," she explains, "but they preserve the proportions.

"That's actually indicative of something they were able to do, which is understand what the rate was but speed it up and speed it up accurately across the whole rhythm. That's a feature, not a bug, but you have to code it as an error."

What about the participants who play with micro-timing - the intentional time deviations that characterise jazz and funk music?

"This is one of the conundrums of musical rhythm," says Grahn, who has degrees in Neuroscience and Piano Performance from Northwestern University, as well as a PhD from Cambridge, England, in the Neuroscience of Music.

"We notate in this very strict, perfectly metronomic way but it's rarely performed that way. And often the rhythms we find most engaging are a little bit irregular. But not just randomly irregular - because that just sounds like bad rhythm. They are done very strategically and that creates a feel."

The trouble, of course, is that this 'feel' would look like an error in a study where rhythm is measured like clockwork.

As part of her research, Grahn conducts brain scanning studies examining how different motor areas in the brain respond to different types of rhythm. And she's particularly interested in how rhythm and music may be processed in the brains of those who have dysfunction in movement areas, such as Parkinson's disease.

We've known for decades that music therapy can help some Parkinson's patients lengthen their strides and move faster as they walk. "You play music with a steady beat or a metronome and people with certain movement disorders find that that really helps their walking," explains Grahn. "It doesn't reverse the disease, of course - it's not a treatment in that regard - but it gives some people some sense of control over their care, which is empowering and important."

Unfortunately, we don't know how exactly it works, she explains. "Is it that it's a steady beat? Is it because you like it and you feel more aroused and you walk more quickly and fluidly? There's this whole lack of standardisation which means we're not able to apply it as widely as we'd like, and what I'd really like is to get a better understanding of how the brain is doing this for different individuals.

"Music is still so mysterious in so many ways," she adds, "and what I'd really like is for people to say, what is music doing for me, and doing in my life?"

Music cognition and perception is a fast growing field of study, says Grahn, as she explains some of the work her peers are doing.

One group is interested in the idea of using music to synchronise behaviour in groups. Another wonders if ageing people fall out of tempo with the world around them.

"If I say to you tap your finger at a comfortable rate, you'll pick a pace and that pace tends to get slower as you get older. And things that are presented to you at roughly that rate you are a little better at processing.

"I've a colleague who's got a whole theory that one of the problems with ageing is that you become mismatched with the pace of the world around you because the pace of the world around you has adapted to younger and more middle-aged people."

Others are looking at interventions using rhythm for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

For her own part, Grahn, who has played piano since the age of five, believes that rhythm can be taught - and the benefits, she says, are manifold.

"But it's hard," she adds, "because the way music is taught in our culture is very performer/consumer, so you are allowed to make music if you're good at it, but if I'm not very good at it I should not inflict my music on you.

"It's a bit like things like céilí dancing and a lot of participatory music cultures which are still in existence today but are dwindling compared to the role they used to have - where you just grew up with it. It was something everyone did and some people found it easier and some people found it harder.

"But in our culture, it's difficult to study because from an early age people are told, 'oh, you should just mime'. And then they just disengage, because they are told 'you're not one of the performers - don't participate'.

"The real shame about this performer/consumer divide with music," she adds, "is that we've done the same with dance. When you look at the way the culture was when music evolved, dance was part of it. [Music] wasn't for quietly appreciating - it was to move to."

Grahn says she'd like to see more outlets where novices can experience the positive benefits of playing musical instruments.

"It's healthy because it builds social connections," she says. 'It keeps you engaged and it's like doing anything that takes your mind off other stuff - you can't do music without thinking about it. It really takes people out of the moment in that you can't be multi-tasking on your phone at the same time."

But what about those who don't have the time or money to take up an instrument? How can they experience the benefits of music therapy?

"One of the areas where music therapy has the most research is in emotion regulation - and the cool thing about it is it's pretty individual, which means you don't have to listen to a recipe. Some people find that negative music can enhance the mood state because it allows catharsis and then it allows them to move past it. When you feel it intensely, you can let it go. And then other people say, 'OK, I'm in a funk, I don't want to be in a funk, what do I enjoy - what can I listen to?'

"So I think it's worth curating a playlist for yourself because there is so much evidence that it works."

* The Undergraduate Awards is the world's largest international awards programme for undergraduates with a mission to recognise innovation and critical thinking within the students' coursework. For more on Jessica's work, see

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