Broca’s area processes both music and language at the same time

When you read a book and listen to music, the brain doesn’t keep these two tasks nicely separated. In a new article just out, I show that there is a brain area which is busy with both tasks at the same time (Kunert et al., 2015). This brain area might tell us a lot about what music and language share.


The brain area which you see highlighted in red on this picture is called Broca’s area. Since the 19th century, many people believe it to be ‘the language production part of the brain’. However, a more modern theory proposes that this area is responsible for combining elements (e.g., words) into coherent wholes (e.g., sentences), a task which needs to be solved to understand and produce language (Hagoort, 2013). In my most recent publication, I found evidence that at the same time as combining words into sentences, this area also combines tones into melodies (Kunert et al., 2015).

What did I do with my participants in the MRI scanner?

Take for example the sentence The athlete that noticed the mistresses looked out of the window. Who did the noticing? Was it the mistresses who noticed the athlete or the athlete who noticed the mistresses? In other words, how does noticed combine with the mistresses and the athlete? There is a second version of this sentence which uses the same words in a different way: The athlete that the mistresses noticed looked out of the window. If you are completely confused now, I have achieved my aim of giving you a feeling for what a complicated task language is. Combining words is generally not easy (first version of the sentence) and sometimes really hard (second version of the sentence).

Listening to music can be thought of in similar ways. You have to combine tones or chords in order to hear actual music rather than just a random collection of sounds. It turns out that this is also generally not easy and sometimes really hard. Check out the following two little melodies. The text is just the first example sentence above, translated into Dutch (the fMRI study was carried out in The Netherlands).

If these examples don’t work, see more examples on my personal website here.

Did you notice the somewhat odd tone in the middle of the second example? Some people call this a sour note. The idea is that it is more difficult to combine such a sour note with the other tones in the melody, compared to a more expected note.

So, now we have all the ingedients to compare the combination of words into a sentence (with an easy and a difficult kind of combination) and tones in a melody (with an easy and a difficult kind of combination). My participants heard over 100 examples like the ones above. The experiment was done in an fMRI scanner and we looked at the brain area highlighted in red above: Broca’s area (under your left temple).

What did I find in the brain data?

The height of the bars represents the difference in brain activity signal between the easy and difficult versions of the sentences. As you can see, the bars are generally above zero, i.e. this brain area displays more activity for more difficult sentences (not a significant main effect in this analysis actually). I show three bars because the sentences were sung in three different music versions: easy (‘in-key’), hard (‘out-of-key’), or with an unexpected loud note (‘auditory anomaly’). As you can see the easy version of the melody (left bar) or the one with the unexpected loud note (right bar) hardly lead to an activity difference between easy and difficult sentences. It is the difficult version (middle bar) which does. In other words: when this brain area is trying to make a difficult combination of tones, it suddenly has great trouble with the combination of words in a sentence.

What does it all mean?

This indicates that Broca’s area uses the same resources for music and language. If you overwhelm this area with a difficult music task, there are less resources available for the language task. In a previous blog post, I have argued that behavioural experiments have shown a similar picture (Kunert & Slevc, 2015). This experiment shows that the music-language interactions we see in people’s behaviour might stem from the activity in this brain area.

So, this fMRI study contributes a tiny piece to the puzzle of how the brain deals with the many tasks it has to deal with. Instead of keeping everything nice and separated in different corners of the head, similar tasks appear to get bundled in specialized brain areas. Broca’s area is an interesting case. It is associated with combining a structured series of elements into a coherent whole. This is done across domains like music, language, and (who knows) beyond.

[Update 13/11/2015: added link to personal website.]

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Hagoort P (2013). MUC (Memory, Unification, Control) and beyond. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 23874313

Kunert R, & Slevc LR (2015). A Commentary on: “Neural overlap in processing music and speech”. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9 PMID: 26089792

Kunert R, Willems RM, Casasanto D, Patel AD, & Hagoort P (2015). Music and Language Syntax Interact in Broca’s Area: An fMRI Study. PloS one, 10 (11) PMID: 26536026

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this blog post are not necessarily shared by my co-authors Roel Willems, Daniel Casasan/to, Ani Patel, and Peter Hagoort.

Do music and language share brain resources?

When you listen to some music and when you read a book, does your brain use the same resources? This question goes to the heart of how the brain is organised – does it make a difference between cognitive domains like music and language? In a new commentary I highlight a successful approach which helps to answer this question.

On some isolated island in academia, the tree of knowledge has the form of a brain.

How do we read? What is the brain doing in this picture?

When reading the following sentence, check carefully when you are surprised at what you are reading:

After | the trial | the attorney | advised | the defendant | was | likely | to commit | more crimes.

I bet it was on the segment was. You probably thought that the defendant was advised, rather than that someone else was advised about the defendant. Once you read the word was you need to reinterpret what you have just read. In 2009 Bob Slevc and colleagues found out that background music can change your reading of this kind of sentences. If you hear a chord which is harmonically unexpected, you have even more trouble with the reinterpretation of the sentence on reading was.

Why does music influence language?

Why would an unexpected chord be problematic for reading surprising sentences? The most straight-forward explanation is that unexpected chords are odd. So they draw your attention. To test this simple explanation, Slevc tried out an unexpected instrument playing the chord in a harmonically expected way. No effect on reading. Apparently, not just any odd chord changes your reading. The musical oddity has to stem from the harmony of the chord. Why this is the case, is a matter of debate between scientists. What this experiment makes clear though, is that music can influence language via shared resources which have something to do with harmony processing.

Why ignore the fact that music influences language?

None of this was mention in a recent review by Isabelle Peretz and colleagues on this topic. They looked at where in the brain music and language show activations, as revealed in MRI brain scanners. This is just one way to find out whether music and language share brain resources. They concluded that ‘the question of overlap between music and speech processing must still be considered as an open question’. Peretz call for ‘converging evidence from several methodologies’ but fail to mention the evidence from non-MRI methodologies.1

Sure one has to focus on something, but it annoys me that people tend focus on methods (especially fancy expensive methods like MRI scanners), rather than answers (especially answers from elegant but cheap research into human behaviour like reading). So I decided to write a commentary together with Bob Slevc. We list no less than ten studies which used a similar approach to the one outlined above. Why ignore these results?

If only Peretz and colleagues had truly looked at ‘converging evidence from several methodologies’. They would have asked themselves why music sometimes influences language and why it sometimes does not. The debate is in full swing and already beyond the previous question of whether music and language share brain resources. Instead, researchers ask what kind of resources are shared.

So, yes, music and language appear to share some brain resources. Perhaps this is not easily visible in MRI brain scanners. Looking at how people read with chord sequences played in the background is how one can show this.

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Kunert, R., & Slevc, L.R. (2015). A commentary on “Neural overlap in processing music and speech” (Peretz et al., 2015) Frontiers in Human Neuroscience : doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00330

Peretz I, Vuvan D, Lagrois MÉ, & Armony JL (2015). Neural overlap in processing music and speech. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 370 (1664) PMID: 25646513

Slevc LR, Rosenberg JC, & Patel AD (2009). Making psycholinguistics musical: self-paced reading time evidence for shared processing of linguistic and musical syntax. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 16 (2), 374-81 PMID: 19293110
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1 Except for one ECoG study.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this blog post are not necessarily shared by Bob Slevc.

The real reason why new pop music is so incredibly bad

You have probably heard that Pink Floyd recently published their new album Endless River. Will this bring back the wonderful world of good music after the endless awfulness of the popular music scene in the last 20 years or so? Is good music, as we know it from the 60s and 70s, back for good? The reasons behind the alleged endless awfulness of pop music these days suggest otherwise. We shouldn’t be throwing stones at new music but instead at our inability to like it.

Pink Floyd 1973

When we were young we learned to appreciate Pink Floyd.

Daniel Levitin was asked at a recent music psychology conference in Toronto why old music is amazing and new music is awful. He believed that modern record companies are there to make money. In the olden days, on the other hand, they were there to make music and ready to hold on to musicians which needed time to become successful. More interestingly, he reminded the public that many modern kidz would totally disagree with the implication that modern music is awful. How can it be that new music is liked by young people if so much of it is often regarded as quite bad?

Everything changes for the better after a few repetitions

The answer to the mystery has nothing to do with flaws in modern music but instead with our brain. When adults hear new music they often hate it at first. After repeated listening they tend to find it more and more beautiful. For example, Marcia Johnson and colleagues (1985) played Korean melodies to American participants and found that hearing a new melody led to low liking ratings, a melody heard once before to higher ratings and even more exposure to higher than higher ratings. Even Korsakoff patients – who could hardly remember having heard individual melodies before – showed this effect, i.e. without them realising it they probably never forget melodies.

This so-called mere exposure effect is all that matters to me: a robust, medium-strong, generally applicable, evolutionarily plausible effect (Bornstein, 1989). You can do what you like, it applies to all sorts of stimuli. However, there is one interesting exception here. Young people do not show the mere exposure effect, no relationship between ‘repeat the stimulus’ and ‘give good feeling’ (Bornstein, 1989). As a result, adults need a lot more patience before they like a new song as much as young people do. No wonder adults are only satisfied with the songs they already know from their youth in the 60s and 70s. Probably, when looking at the music scene in 2050 the current generation will equally hate it and wish the Spice Girls back (notice the gradual rise of 90’s parties already).

I listened to it –> I like it

So, when it comes to an allegedly awful present and great past, ask yourself: how deep is your love for the old music itself rather than its repeated listening? Listen repeatedly to any of a million love songs and you will end up appreciating it. Personally, I give new music a chance and sometimes it manages to relight my fire. Concerning Endless River, if it’s not love at first sight, do not worry. The new Pink Floyd album sure is good (depending on how many times you listen to it).

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Bornstein, R. (1989). Exposure and affect: Overview and meta-analysis of research, 1968-1987. Psychological Bulletin, 106 (2), 265-289 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.106.2.265

Johnson MK, Kim JK, & Risse G (1985). Do alcoholic Korsakoff’s syndrome patients acquire affective reactions? Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition, 11 (1), 22-36 PMID: 3156951
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Figure: By PinkFloyd1973.jpg: TimDuncan derivative work: Mr. Frank (PinkFloyd1973.jpg) [CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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PS: Yes, I did hide 29 Take That song titles in this blog post. Be careful, you might like 90’s pop music a little bit more due to this exposure.






Play music and you’ll see more


Check out the video. It is a short demonstration of the so-called attentional blink. Whenever you try to spot the two letters in the rapid sequence you’ll miss the second one. This effect is so robust that generations of Psychology undergraduates learned about it. And then came music and changed everything.

Test your own attentional blink

Did you see the R in the video? Probably you did, but did you see the C? The full sequence starts at 0:48, the R occurs at 0:50 and the sequence ends at 0:53. As far as I can see each letter is presented for about 130 milliseconds (a typical rate for this sort of experiment).


Judging by the youtube comments, of those who did the task properly (14 comments when I checked), only 65% saw the C. This is remarkably close to the average performance during an attentional blink (around 60% or so).

Where does the attentional blink come from?

The idea is that when the C is presented it cannot enter attention because attention is busy with the R. Another theory states that you immediately forget that you’ve seen the C. The R is less vulnerable to rapid forgetting.

What does music do with our attention?

In 2005 Christian Olivers and Sander Nieuwenhuis reported that they could simply abolish this widely known effect by playing a rhythmic tune in the background (unfortunately no more details are given). Try it out yourself. Switch on the radio and play a song with a strong beat. Now try the video again. Can you see both the R and the C? The 16 people in the music condition of Olivers and Nieuwenhuis could. Music actually let them see things which without music were invisible.

It is a bit mysterious why music would have such an effect. The article only speculates that it has something to do with music inducing a more ‘diffuse’ state of mind, greater arousal, or positive mood. I think the answer lies somewhere else. Music, especially songs with a strong beat, change how we perceive the world. On the beat (i.e. when most people would clap to the beat) one pays more attention than off the beat. What music might have done to participants is to restructure attention. Once the R occurs, it is no longer able to dominate attention because people are following the rhythmic attentional structure.

Behind my explanation is the so-called dynamic attending theory. Unfortunately, Olivers and Nieuwenhuis appear not to be familiar with it. Perhaps it is time to include some music cognition lessons in psychology undergraduate classes. After all, a bit of music let’s you see things which otherwise remain hidden to you.


Jones, M., & Boltz, M. (1989). Dynamic attending and responses to time. Psychological Review, 96 (3), 459-491 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.96.3.459

Large, E., & Jones, M. (1999). The dynamics of attending: How people track time-varying events. Psychological Review, 106 (1), 119-159 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.106.1.119

Olivers, C., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2005). The Beneficial Effect of Concurrent Task-Irrelevant Mental Activity on Temporal Attention Psychological Science, 16 (4), 265-269 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01526.x

Everything you always wanted to know about language but were too afraid to ask

MPI Nijmegen

The MPI in Nijmegen: the origin of answers to your questions.

The Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen has started a great initiative which tries nothing less than answer all your questions about language. How does it work?

1) Go to this website:
2) See whether your question has already been answered
3) If not, scroll to the bottom and ask a question yourself.
The answers are not provided by just anybody but by language researchers themselves. Before they are put on the web they get checked by another researcher and they get translated into German, Dutch and English. It’s a huge enterprise, to be sure..
As an employee of the Max Planck Institute I’ve had my own go at answering a few questions:
How does manipulating through language work?
Is it true that people who are good in music can learn a language sooner?
How do gender articles affect cognition?
.What do think of my answers? What questions would you like to see answered?



Thibodeau, P., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016782

Asaridou, S., & McQueen, J. (2013). Speech and music shape the listening brain: evidence for shared domain-general mechanisms Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00321

Segel, E., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Grammar in Art Frontiers in Psychology, 1 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00244

Music training boosts IQ

There are more and more brain training companies popping up which promise the same deal: improved intelligence. While there are doubts about their results, another sort of brain training has existed since the beginning of humanity: music. The evidence for its effectiveness is surprisingly strong.


Music Lesson, 1936

Brain training in the 1930’s.

Over the years, researchers have noticed that people who have taken music lessons are better on a wide range of seemingly unconnected tasks. Just look at this impressive list:


Mathematics (across many different tasks; Vaughn, 2000)
Reading (understanding a written text; Corrigall & Trainor, 2011)
Simon task (quickly overcoming an easy, intuitive response in order to do a task right; Bialystok & DePape, 2009)
Digit Span (repeating a long list of random digits; Schellenberg, 2011)
Simple Reaction Time (pressing a button as soon as possible; Hughes & Franz, 2007)


None of these tasks has anything to do with music classes. What is it that makes music lessons correlate with them? It could just be the socio-economic background: the more well-off or well-educated the parents the better the education of their children, including their music education (e.g., Corrigall et al., 2013). However, one can adjust for these differences with statistical tricks and the general picture is that the family background cannot fully explain the advantage musically trained children have on all sorts of tasks (e.g., Corrigall & Trainor, 2011; Schellenberg, 2011). If not family background, then what is underlying the music children advantage?


Füssli: Liegende Nackte und Klavierspielerin

Brain training in the 18th century. I am referring to the left lady.

Another contender is a common factor making some people good on all sorts of seemingly unrelated tasks and other people bad on nearly any task. This factor is called ‘g’ or general intelligence. An indeed, people who have enjoyed a musical education score higher on intelligence tests than people who did not. This has been shown across the globe: North America (Schellenberg, 2011), Europe (Roden et al., 2013), Asia (Ho et al., 2003†). The consistency across age groups is also impressive: 6-11 year olds (Schellenberg, 2006), 9-12 year olds (Schellenberg, 2011), 16-25 year-olds (Schellenberg, 2006). So, what holds these tasks and music education together is general intelligence. But that just opens up the next question: what causes this association between general intelligence and music lessons?
Music lessons cause higher intelligence
The most exciting possibility would be if music lessons actually caused higher intelligence. In order to make such a claim one needs to take a bunch of people and randomly assign them to either music lessons or some comparable activity. This random assignment ensures that any previous differences between music and non-music children will be equally distributed across groups. Random chance assignment at the beginning of the experiment ensures that any group differences at the end must be due to the whether children took music lessons during the experiment or not. Glenn Schellenberg did exactly this experiment with over 100 six-year-olds in Toronto (2004). Over a period of one year the children who learned to play the keyboard or to sing increased their IQ by 7 points. Children who were given drama lessons instead or simply no extra-curricular activity only increased by 4 points (likely because they started school in that year). A similar study which recently came out of Iran by Kaviani and colleagues (2013) replicates this finding. After only three months of group music lessons, the six-year-old music children increased their IQ by five points while children who were not assigned to music lessons only improved by one point. Across studies music lessons boost IQ.
It is worth reiterating how impressive this effect is. It has been found across three different music teaching approaches (standard keyboard lessons, Kodály voice lessons, Orff method). It has been replicated with two different sorts of intelligence tests (Wechsler and Stanford-Binet) as well as most of their subscales. It even came up despite the cultural differences between testing countries (Canada, Iran).
The take-home message couldn’t be any clearer. Music lessons are associated with intelligence not just because clever or well-off people take music lessons. A musical education itself makes you better across many tasks generally and on IQ tests specifically. No other ‘brain training’ has such a strong evidence base. Music is the best brain training we have.


Eros and a youth

Ancient Greek brain training. I am referring to the gentleman on the right.


Bialystok E, & Depape AM (2009). Musical expertise, bilingualism, and executive functioning. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 35 (2), 565-74 PMID: 19331508

Corrigall KA, Schellenberg EG, & Misura NM (2013). Music training, cognition, and personality. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 23641225

Corrigall, KA, & Trainor, LJ (2011). Associations Between Length of Music Training and Reading Skills in Children Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal,, 29 (2), 147-155 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2011.29.2.147

Ho YC, Cheung MC, & Chan AS (2003). Music training improves verbal but not visual memory: cross-sectional and longitudinal explorations in children. Neuropsychology, 17 (3), 439-50 PMID: 12959510

Hughes CM, & Franz EA (2007). Experience-dependent effects in unimanual and bimanual reaction time tasks in musicians. Journal of motor behavior, 39 (1), 3-8 PMID: 17251166

Kaviani H, Mirbaha H, Pournaseh M, & Sagan O (2013). Can music lessons increase the performance of preschool children in IQ tests? Cognitive processing PMID: 23793255

Roden, I, Grube, D, Bongard, S, & Kreutz, G (2013). Does music training enhance working memory performance? Findings from a quasi-experimental longitudinal study Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735612471239

Schellenberg EG (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological science, 15 (8), 511-4 PMID: 15270994

Schellenberg, EG (2006). Long-Term Positive Associations Between Music Lessons and IQ Journal of Educational Psychology, 98 (2), 457-468 DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.98.2.457

Schellenberg EG (2011). Examining the association between music lessons and intelligence. British journal of psychology, 102 (3), 283-302 PMID: 21751987

Vaughn, K (2000). Music and Mathematics: Modest Support for the Oft-Claimed Relationship Journal of Aesthetic Education,, 34 (3/4), 149-166 DOI: 10.2307/3333641



† Effect only marginally significant (0.05<p<0.1)



1) By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Johann Heinrich Füssli: Liegende Nackte und Klavierspielerin, via Wikimedia Commons

3) attributed to the Penthesilea Painter, between circa 460 and circa 450 BC, via Wikimedia Commons

The biological basis of orchestra seating

Many cultural conventions appear like the result of historical accidents. The QWERTY – keyboard is a typical example: the technical requirements of early typewriters still determine the computer keyboard that I write this text on, even though by now technical advances would allow for a far more efficient design. Some culturally accepted oddities, however, appear to reflect the biological requirements of human beings. The way musicians are seated in an orchestra is one such case, but the listener is, surprisingly, not the beneficiary.

When one goes to a concert one typically sees a seating somewhat like the one below: strings in the front, then woodwinds further back, then brass. What is less obvious is that, in general, higher pitched instruments are seated on the left and lower pitched instruments on the right. The strings show this pattern perfectly: from left to right one sees violins, violas, cellos and then basses. Choirs show the same pattern: higher voices (soprano and tenor) stand left of the lower voices (alt and basses). Why is that?


orchestra; seating arrangement; Nijmegen; Nijmegen studenten orkest

An orchestra I have personally performed with.

It turns out that this is not a historical accident but instead a biological requirement. Diana Deutsch has used a series of audio illusions which all showed a curious pattern: when you present two series of tones each to one ear, you have the illusion that the high tones are being played to your right ear and the low ones to the left ear. In case you don’t believe me, listen to this illustration of Deutsch’s scale illusion:
Apparently, there is a right ear advantage for high tones. So, seating the higher instruments on the left side (as seen on the photo) makes complete sense as this way musicians on stage tend to hear higher tones coming from their right. However, from the point of view of the audience this is actually a really bad idea as their right ear advantage is not taken into account. It turns out that orchestra seating arrangements are not favouring the hearing of the audience or the conductor but instead the musicians!
The right ear advantage for high tones is even mirrored in musicians’ brains. We know that the right ear projects mostly to the left auditory cortex and vice versa for the left ear. So, one would expect that people who play high instruments have trained their right ear / left auditory cortex the most when they practiced their craft. These training effects should be mirrored in differences in cortex size. This would mean that people sitting on the left in an orchestra have bigger left auditory cortices. In a fascinating article Schneider and colleagues showed that by and large this is the case: professional musicians who play high instruments or instruments with a sharp attack (e.g., percussionists, piano players) tend to have greater left auditory cortices than right auditory cortices. Their figure says is all.
Schneider; orchestra; seating; brain; Heschl's gyrus; primary auditory cortex; cortical size

How the brains are seated in an orchestra.

The orchestra seating arrangement mirrors not only the listening biases of most human ears but on top of that the brain differences between musicians. By and large, the orchestra is organised according to biological principles. Thus, not all cultural conventions – like the seemingly arbitrary seating arrangement of orchestras – have their roots in historical accidents. Cultural oddities are sometimes merely down to biology.

Deutsch, D. (1999). Grouping Mechanisms in Music The Psychology of Music, Second Edition, 299-348 DOI: 10.1016/B978-012213564-4/50010-X

Schneider P, Sluming V, Roberts N, Bleeck S, & Rupp A (2005). Structural, functional, and perceptual differences in Heschl’s gyrus and musical instrument preference. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1060, 387-94 PMID: 16597790



1) Nederlands: Symfonieorkest Nijmegen in de grote zaal van de Vereeniging, The SON photo library, via wikimedia

2) as found in Schneider et al., 2005, p. 392

When to switch on background music

Some things of our daily lives have become so common, we hardly notice them anymore. Background music is one such thing. Whether you are in a supermarket, a gym or a molecular biology laboratory, you can constantly hear it. More than that, even in quiet environments like the office or the library people get out their mp3-players and play background music. Is this a form of boosting one’s productivity or are people enjoying music at the cost of getting things done? Research on the effect of background music can give an answer.

A German research team led by Juliane Kämpfe did a meta-analysis of nearly 100 studies on this topic. It turns out that certain tasks benefit from background music. They are noticeably mindless tasks: mundane behaviours like eating or driving as well as sports. Below you can hear how Arnold Schwarzenegger uses this finding to great effect.



Music also has a positive effect on mood regulation like controlling your nervousness before a job interview. (I have discussed similar stuff before when looking into why people willingly listen to sad music.)
However, music can also have a detrimental effect. It can draw your attention away from the things you should be focussing on. As a result a negative influence tends to be seen in situations which require concentration: memorising and text understanding. In other words: don’t play it in a university library as these students did.



So far, so unsurprising. However, one positive effect stands out from the picture I painted above. The German meta-analysis mentions a curious, positive effect of music on simple math tests. This is in line with a recent study by Avila and colleagues who found a positive effect of music on logical reasoning. Could it be that the negative effect of background music on concentration tasks is found because these tasks are nearly always language based? Music and language have been claimed to share a lot of mental resources. This special link between the two modalities could perhaps explain the negative effect. It is too early to tell, but there may be a set of intellectual tasks which benefit from music: the abstract, mathematical or logical ones.
The conclusion is clear. If you want to get things done, choose carefully whether music will aid you or hold you back. Think Arnie or Gangnam Style.

Avila, C., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2012). The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts Psychology of Music, 40 (1), 84-93 DOI: 10.1177/0305735611422672

Kampfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2011). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis Psychology of Music, 39 (4), 424-448 DOI: 10.1177/0305735610376261

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The mysterious appeal of too loud music

Felix Baumgartner jumps

What would your next step have been?

At 39km above planet earth, would you have made Felix Baumgartner’s step off the platform? It was very dangerous, no doubt. But is this the reason why you wouldn’t have? People engage in many dangerous things. And I am not talking about skydiving. I mean the ordinary, every day kind of danger. Surely, some dangers can hardly be avoided, say road traffic (which is the leading cause of death for people in my age group). For others there is no obvious non-dangerous equivalent. But what if there was an activity with no practical value, which could easily be carried out without danger, but which nonetheless millions of people worldwide engage in? Listening to too loud music is such an activity.

Is this an exaggeration? Surely, if loud music was really dangerous, people would avoid it. Make no mistake, the scientific consensus clearly lays out the danger. Round about half the people exposed to music professionally show some hearing loss. Researchers have found worrying hearing impairments in classical musicians, rock/pop musicians, and music bar tenders. And the danger is not limited to professionals. The majority of rock concert attendees experience temporary auditory problems such as tinnitus or being hard of hearing. You are actually a daredevil when you listen to too loud music.
But this behaviour is not limited to your typical daredevil characters à la Felix Baumgartner. People flock to very loud concerts. Even toddlers prefer fast and loud music over slow and quiet music. Perhaps the clearest example for loudness’s paradoxical appeal is the band Sun 0))). Their music is without discernible rhythm, harmony or melody. Pure loudness. And still, they are successful. Hear for yourself:
The Sun 0))) concert is a good example of the mysterious attraction of too loud music but it may also offer clues for understanding why people subject themselves to it. Actually, not just this band’s concerts are too loud. Most concerts are. And so are night clubs. This is not the place to go to for a quiet night out. This is where you want energy, fun and excitement. It turns out that this is exactly what loud music is associated with. An Australian research team led by Roger Dean showed that the perceived arousal of music – whether a classical piece or Sun 0))) like noise – followed its loudness profile. Sweet melody or not, when people go out they want energetic music. And this music happens to be loud.

Beyond going out – why listen to too loud music when sitting still?

However, such an explanation can only be part of the answer. We have all seen the person on the bus with his headphones in or were annoyed by the colleague on the next desk with his music choice permeating the office through his headphones. These people are not out dancing. They look pretty low energy, if anything. And still they put their hearing at risk.
Neil Todd and Frederick Cody from the University of Manchester may offer a solution to the puzzle. They found that loud tones not only activate our sense of hearing but also our sense of balance. This happens because the nice distinction between these two modalities does not work for a structure in the ear called the saccule. It responds to head movements as well as rather low sounds. Through this structure muscles automatically react, explaining why deaf people’s muscles can nonetheless react to loud clicks whereas vestibularly impaired people’s can’t. Todd and Cody found the saccule to start reacting around the so called ‘rock’n’roll’-threshold of 105 dB. Is it just a coincidence that the beat of club music is typically in the tonal range and at the loudness level of the saccule? Could it be that the enjoyment of too loud music works through the same mechanism as the pleasure derived from baby swings, roller coasters and head banging? If so, the fun of skydiving and too loud music listening may have more in common than generally thought.
The inner ear: vestibular system (balance), auditory system (hearing) and the saccule (balance and hearing)

Yellow: Hearing. Brown: Balance. The saccule is neither.

The greatest mystery surrounding too loud music, though, are not people seeking it in quiet environments such as the bus or the office. The strangest thing is the appeal of too loud environments even when one plugs the ears. It has become more and more common to go to rock concerts with ear plugs. The obvious question is why people don’t just refrain from going to rock concerts all together and wait until concert organisers realise that they overdid it with the decibel levels.

Seeking intimacy through loudness

The final piece of the puzzle could be an idea exemplified in research done by Russo and colleagues from Ryerson University. They found that ordinary people could successfully distinguish piano, cello and trombone tones which they never heard but instead only felt on their backs. Even deaf people were able to do this. This research suggests that, yet again, the involvement of a second modality explains too loud music seeking. Hearing and vision are often grouped together because they reveal distant information. Smell, taste and touch, on the other hand, are intimate sensations only available when directly interacting with an object or person. If someone sees or hears your fiancé(e) you may not mind. But imagine if someone tried to touch or even taste him/her? There is something intimate about touch and perhaps we seek this intimacy when trying to immerse ourselves in music. Incidentally, this is also what was advertised as the novelty of Felix Baumgartner’s jump. For the first time someone can say what it felt like to break the sound barrier. Previously, people only knew what it sounded and looked like. Somehow, this was not enough. We are curious about what he will report because we attach so much importance to the immediacy of touch. For ‘touching’ music, we need loud music as our skin is a poor substitute for the sensitive ears. Through the sense of touch music can cease to be felt at a distance and, instead, become a much more personal full body experience.
Has the mystery been solved? It seems as if modern psychology offers a range of explanations for why a perfectly avoidable but harmful activity is pursued by millions of people. Loud music offers a level of energy, fun and intimacy which soft music just can’t match. If you listen to too loud music, you have more in common with daredevils like Baumgartner than you thought.

Dean, R.T., Bailes, F., & Schubert, E. (2011). Acoustic intensity causes perceived changes in arousal levels in music: an experimental investigation. PloS one, 6 (4) PMID: 21533095

Lamont, A. (2003). Toddlers’ musical preferences: musical preference and musical memory in the early years. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999, 518-9 PMID: 14681176

Russo, F.A., Ammirante, P., & Fels, D.I. (2012). Vibrotactile discrimination of musical timbre. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 38 (4), 822-6 PMID: 22708743

Todd, N.P. McAngus, & Cody, F.W. (2000). Vestibular responses to loud dance music: A physiological basis of the ‘rock and roll threshold’? Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 107 (1), 496-500 DOI: 10.1121/1.428317

Zhao, F., Manchaiah, VK., French, D., & Price, S.M. (2010). Music exposure and hearing disorders: an overview. International journal of audiology, 49 (1), 54-64 PMID: 20001447



1) Photograph by: Felix Baumgartner, Twitter via the Vancouver Sun

2) The Vestibular System by Thomas Haslwanter via Wikimedia




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Extreme neural adaptation – how musical ability is lost through focal dystonia

‘There was a question of not having a purpose in life. Just floundering’.

Leon Fleischer was a true musical prodigy. By the age of sixteen he performed with the New York Philharmonic. He was called ‘the pianist find of the century’. Suddenly, in 1964, he lost control over his right hand. His fingers would simply curl up. The end of his career.

The illness which befell Leon Fleischer and about 1% of his fellow musicians is called focal dystonia, the loss of control over muscles involved in a highly trained task. It is a career breaker coming out of the blue. An investigation into the underlying neural problems leads on a journey into the brain’s muscle control circuitry and its ability to learn.
Primary Motor Cortex, M1
The human brain’s motor system which controls muscle movement is well understood. When one stimulates areas in the precentral sulcus (see Figure) one can observe muscle movements. I actually once saw my own finger move when this area was magnetically stimulated. Because the role of this brain area in muscle control is so well understood, it is simply called the primary motor cortex, or M1 for short.
The organisation within the primary motor cortex is such as described in the Figure: inside the brain the leg muscles are controlled, going to the side come hand areas and eventually facial muscles. Localisation of function (where in the brain is x?) doesn’t get much better.
motor cortex

The motor cortex, called: homunculus.

Motor learning is nothing else than changing the brain in order to better perform a task. Roughly, one learns when an intended outcome and sensory feedback about the actual outcome disagree. Focal dystonia is probably an example of how the brain’s ability to learn can be pushed too far. This illness messes up the localisation of function in one of the most clearly organised brain areas.
For example, the primary motor cortex’s finger areas are usually nicely aligned. However, when dystonia affects a finger, its brain area moves away from its allocated place. Furthermore, the amount of brain tissue which only controls the dystonic finger is reduced, likely because adjacent fingers take over some of the finger’s area (Burman et al., 2009). Thus, ineffective control over muscles because of a subtle disorganisation of motor control areas could be the brain basis for focal dystonia.
On the other hand, rather than the outcome of learning – motor control area changes – the process of learning could also be the reason for the illness. Sensory feedback from the fingers arrives on the other side of the ridge that separates the frontal part of the brain (which includes the motor cortex) and the back part beginning with the so called parietal cortex. The area responding to touch is called the somatosensory cortex and – as can be seen in the Figure in blue – it is also very well organised.
Elbert and colleagues (1998) found that dystonic musician’s digit areas were unusually tightly packed. Their MEG study thus shares some of the findings with Burman et al.’s fMRI study. Apparently, movement execution is disorganised, but also feedback is to some degree jumbled up. The brain seems to have lost some of its nice organisation in areas related to dystonic impairments.

Subcortical differences in sufferers of primary focal dystonia. The eyes would be on the left.

Lastly, a recent meta-analysis by Zheng and colleagues (2012) adds two more things to this picture. The aforementioned activation abnormalities in sensorimotor areas are mirrored in unusual structural features. Furthermore, areas deep inside the brain related to motor planning and movement initiation also show such structural abnormalities.
Focal dystonia seems to affect all sorts of parts of the brain’s sensori-motor system both in terms of brain structure and how the structure is used. Which of these effects actually cause the illness and which are just consequences cannot be said based on these findings. Still, the unusual mappings in the motor and the somatosensory cortices together with deep brain abnormalities are an indication that the brains of dystonic musicians may have adapted too much to the demands of professional instrument playing. Neither the brain’s control over the body’s muscles is good enough anymore nor the feedback from the fingers.
There is still no reliable cure for focal dystonia. Some people treat the symptoms with botox to the affected muscles. Otherwise, retraining of the brain’s sensorimotor areas away from the maladaptation is currently being tried.
How did Leon Fleischer deal with focal dystonia? He had to change his involvement with music to one-armed piano pieces, conducting, and music teaching. Later, surgery and some treatment of the symptoms improved his condition. He is by no means cured. Still, he can finally play the piano again with both hands. As you can hear and see in the Academy Award nominated documentary Two Hands, his performance sounds wonderful, but look closely at his right hand’s fingers.
This is what a breakdown in brain organisation looks like.


Burman, D.D., Lie-Nemeth, T., Brandfonbrener, A.G., Parisi, T., & Meyer, J.R. (2009). Altered Finger Representations in Sensorimotor Cortex of Musicians with Focal Dystonia: Precentral Cortex Brain Imaging and Behavior, 3, 10-23 DOI: 10.1007/s11682-008-9046-z
Elbert, T., Candia, V., Altenmüller, E., Rau, H., Sterr, A., Rockstroh, B., Pantev, C., & Taub, E. (1998). Alteration of digital representations in somatosensory cortex in focal hand dystonia. Neuroreport, 9 (16), 3571-3575 PMID: 9858362
Zheng, ZZ., Pan, PL., Wang, W., & Shang, HF. (2012). Neural network of primary focal dystonia by an anatomic likelihood estimation meta-analysis of gray matter abnormalities Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 316, 51-55 DOI: 10.1016/j.jns.2012.01.032


1) By 3D brain data is from Anatomography. (3D brain data is from Anatomography.) [CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp (, via Wikimedia Commons
2) By Maquesta via Wikimedia Commons
3) Found in Zheng et al. (2012, p. 53)




[update 15/8/2014 11:00 new Figure 2 as old one was deleted from wikimedia commons]