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The Musical Brain of Savant, Derek Paravicini

April 3rd, 2015 · music and the brain

Derek Paravicini of London, England, is an amazing musical savant.  He has been followed by doctors and therapists of all kinds since he was born 3 months prematurely over 31 years ago!  He was fortunate to be born into a well-to-do family, who were able to give him every possible advantage. When he was three years old, his parents took him to visit a School for Blind Children in London, and there he happened to hear a piano lesson in progress.  Derek rushed to the sound of the piano and literally pushed the teacher off the bench and started to play the piano with "karate chops," as the teacher described it."mhCH1M Listen as his father and his "piano teacher for life" talk about Derek and the amazing life he has.  It is an inspiring story of a little boy who might have had a very limited life had not the miracle of music taken hold of him!  Enjoy!

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Can Music Rewire the Brain?

March 1st, 2015 · how the brain works, music and the brain

It seems that rewiring the brain is a very popular idea these days!  Over my past decade as a private practice psychotherapist and music medicine practitioner, I've read all the research on how positive affirmations can rewire the brain and I've seen this happen so many times.  We know that the messages we are given my parents, teachers, and caregivers are the messages that we tend to give ourselves as adults.  If those messages were excessively critical or negative, we tend to be overly critical and negative with ourselves.  Doing short but frequent positive statements, such as "I am a good person," "I'm doing the best I can at all times," and "I deserve to be happy," can slowly but surely begin to change the negative thinking, anxiety and depression and actually re-program the brain. BUT, can music do this as well?  According to panel discussion, chaired by renowned music therapist, Concetta Tomaino, RMT-BC, it certainly can!  Tomaino is Executive Director/Co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and Senior Vice President of Music Therapy Services at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services  and a leader in the field of neurologic music therapy.  In the course of this panel discussion, recent research finding were presented and the consensus was that it certainly is possible and actually it happens all the time when musicians practice things over and over. In an article that appeared on the website: "Scientists have found that the brains of professional musicians are physiologically different from the brains of other people, and they got that way mostly because of practice, practice, practice. Training "turbo hands" They can move fast, seemingly faster than humanly possible. For instance, when classical pianist Anna Fedorova plays the popular Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff, her fingers and hands will sometimes move so fast they almost cannot be seen. Meanwhile, all ten fingers are hitting every particular key in just the right way and she has all the 26,000 or so notes memorized. Now in her early 20s, she has been practicing the piano since the age of five. Some musicians can play more than one melody at a time. Vladimir Horowitz, as an encore, would often play a piano version of John Phillip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever march, ending with his left hand doing the melody and his right hand, in seemingly impossible counterpoint, doing what is usually the piccolo part, an entirely different melody. It is not just classical pianists who can exhibit opposing or unrelated motions simultaneously. So can jazz musicians like Keith Jarrett, and violinists such as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Her right hand does the bowing while her left hand modifies the sound of the strings, an entirely different motion, and she can do it at lightning speed. And if it looks as though they are in a trance or autopilot when they are performing, they probably are. How did they get to be able to do that? Yes, practice. Repurposing the hands Repetition of movement helps both the ability to move faster and precisely as well as the multitasking involved in playing some instruments. Musicians are, in a way, fighting nature. The default position of the human hand is holding a rock, not bowing a violin, said Alan Hugh David Watson, a reader in biosciences at Cardiff Univ. in Wales. For one thing, the ability to move with almost superhuman speed is a bit of an optical illusion, Watson said. The musicians surely are going fast, but their fingers are not moving very far, a centimeter or two for the violin, he said. He also said that while piano beginners put a great deal of pressure on the fingers, with practice pianists learn to use only the minimum amount needed for each note, an economy of energy, making it easier for the hands to fly across the keys. It is "absolutely possible" to teach people to move quite fast, said Sharon Levy, who teaches at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. "It's a combination of natural ability, practice and good teaching." It also is possible to train musicians to play two voices simultaneously. In fact, some music was written just to teach children how to do it, including Johann Sebastian Bach's Inventions. The Three-Part Inventions are more complicated than the Two-Part, and those get more complicated as they go on. Bach was the master of the fugue, where one melodic idea, or voice, on one hand is followed by the same idea on the other, only later, like a round. "People can learn to play counterpoint, though they vary in skills," Levy said. “For pianists this is basic. We don't start off with a Bach fugue, of course." Bach even has inversions, with one hand doing one thing and the other the exact opposite. Some people come at it more naturally than others, she said. Nature or nurture? With practice, musicians can eventually perform on autopilot, a trance, or meditation. They are not thinking of what they are playing. "That would screw things up," Watson said. They enter a different realm, and if you sit close enough you can see them do it. Some, like Salerno-Sonnenberg, make inadvertent grimaces while playing. The best example may be the late Glenn Gould, a master of Bach who was clearly in another world when he played, crouched over the keyboard, his mouth moving as he was talking to the keys, gently urging them on. He can occasionally be heard to grunt on his recordings. Jarrett moans and vocalizes as well. Many musicians play with their eyes closed and still never get a wrong note. Watson once saw a woman violinist's neck glow bright red when she played, a condition he called "pre-orgasmic." What is crucial, Watson said, is the kind of practice. Folklore among musicians is that you need 10,000 hours of practice to excel, but Watson said how you practice is more important than how long. It has to be intense and the player single-minded. You are essentially programming your brain to train the muscle memory. You have to play perfectly in practice so the brain knows only one way to play the piece and you don't have to make decisions while you play. "It is incredibly tiring," Watson said. Many break up practice sessions into small pieces and there is scientific evidence that catnaps between sessions actually help imprint the music. "It is clear that sophisticated motor skills are developed only at the expense of a great deal of time and effort," he said. The famous cellist Pablo Casals was once asked why, at the age of 93, he still practiced three hours a day. "I'm beginning to see some improvement," he said."    

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Music and the Brain of an Alzheimer’s Patient

January 30th, 2015 · how the brain works, music and alzheimer, music and the brain

The brain of the patient with Alzheimer's disease is affected in a manner that has been described as being filled with tangled, plaque-laden dendrites.  Although, I believe that we are closer to a cure than ever before, it still stands to be a major disease with us aging baby boomers. Research is being conducted in universities and hospitals around the world and there are many new possible correlations between life-style issues and later development of Alzheimer's disease.  Dietetic links, environmental links, emotional links; all are being looked at under the microscope and considered as something could possibly lead to a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. So how does music positively affect the brain of the Alzheimer's patient?  Here are five ways that a recent article on put forth:
  • 1. Music evokes emotions that bring memories. Music can evoke emotion in even the most advanced of Alzheimer’s patients. NeurologistOliver Sacks says that, “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory… it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.” By pairing music with every day activities, patients can develop a rhythm that helps them to the recall the memory of that activity, improving cognitive ability over time.
  • 2. Musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in dementia patients. Linda Maguire, lead author on the study wrote, “Musical aptitude and music appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in patients with Alzheimer’s.” Because these two abilities remain long after other abilities have passed, music is an excellent way to reach beyond the disease and reach the person.
  • 3. Music can bring emotional and physical closeness. In the later stages of dementia, patients often lose the ability to share emotions with caregivers. Through music, as long as they are ambulatory, they can often dance. Dancing can lead to hugs, kisses and touching which brings security and memories.
  • 4. Singing is engaging. The singing sessions in the study engaged more than just the brain and the area related to singing. As singing activated the left side of the brain, listening to music sparked activity in the right and watching the class activated visual areas of the brain. With so much of the brain being stimulated, the patients were exercising more mind power than usual.
  • 5. Music can shift mood, manage stress and stimulate positive interactions. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has an entire web page dedicated to music therapy in Alzheimer’s patients. They say that, “When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function and coordinate motor movements.” This is because music requires little to no mental processing, so singing music does not require the cognitive function that is not present in most dementia patients.
  • For more information about this, see

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Music benefits the brain in so many ways!

September 30th, 2014 · how the brain works, music and the brain

We all know that music makes us feel great!  Pretty much everyone on the planet has some kind of music that they really, really like and that they respond to immediately!  And the good news is, the music that you like, and respond to, and choose over and over, is the very music that is going to be best for YOUR brain. There is no doctor or health professional or clinical musicologist that can tell you what music will be best for your brain.  We might be able to suggest some things, based on you symptoms, age, and background, but YOU will always know what music is best for you! Studies that have just come out this year (2014) have shown yet again, that music powerfully fosters brain plasticity, provides an alternative educational tool, and can treat learning disabilities.  Knowing this, getting involved in some kind of music making is so important for you.  Can't carry a tune in a bucket?  Pick up a hand drum or a tambourine or a shaker of some kind.  Do you love to sing?  There are church choirs, civic choirs, and local music theaters widely available.  Love to play your old clarinet, trumpet or violin?  There are orchestras and bands available in your town or the next one over that would love to have you!  Or do you play guitar or piano?  Start a garage band or just get together with friends and enjoy the fun of jamming for a few hours. Medscape is a great resource for articles and research on music and the brain.  Enjoy this one!

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What one, natural, phenomenon can calm anxiety, improve mood and help learning?

August 26th, 2014 · how the brain works, music and the brain

You know the answer to this one:  it's music!!  It's the one thing that, although pleasurable, is not JUST pleasurable.  Think about it:  looking at beautiful art, eating delicious food, and smelling glorious smells are wonderful, and they MAY decrease anxiety or improve your mood...but do they help you with studying, learning and focusing? And within the art form of music, there is endless variety.  You probably have your favorite type or types of music that you listen to when you want to relax or chill for awhile.  But if you want to use music for a very specific purpose, such as increasing focus while you do an important intellectual task, or to improve your memory for a specific set of information, such as saying the alphabet in the correct sequence, you need to know where to look to find the information you need! The article below would be a good source for that and was written in 2014.   Enjoy, and be sure to let me know if you have any questions I can answer for you! MUSIC and MOOD
Music’s beneficial effects on mental health have been known for thousands of years. Ancient philosophers from Plato to Confucius and the kings of Israel sang the praises of music and used it to help soothe stress. Military bands use music to build confidence and courage. Sporting events provide music to rouse enthusiasm. Schoolchildren use music to memorize their ABCs. Shopping malls play music to entice consumers and keep them in the store. Dentists play music to help calm nervous patients. Modern research supports conventional wisdom that music benefits mood and confidence. Because of our unique experiences, we develop different musical tastes and preferences. Despite these differences, there are some common responses to music. Babies love lullabies. Maternal singing is particularly soothing, regardless of a mom’s formal musical talents or training. Certain kinds of music make almost everyone feel worse, even when someone says she enjoys it; in a study of 144 adults and teenagers who listened to 4 different kinds of music, grunge music led to significant increases in hostility, sadness, tension, and fatigue across the entire group, even in the teenagers who said they liked it. In another study, college students reported that pop, rock, oldies, and classical music helped them feel happier and more optimistic, friendly, relaxed, and calm.

Music, Attention, and Learning

Everyone who has learned their ABCs knows that it is easier to memorize a list if it is set to music. Scientific research supports common experience that pairing music with rhythm and pitch enhances learning and recall. Music helps children and adolescents with attention problems in several ways. First, it can be used as a reward for desired behavior. For example, for paying attention to homework for 10 minutes, a child can be rewarded with the opportunity to listen to music for 5 minutes. Second, it can be used to help enhance attention to “boring” academic tasks such as memorization, using songs, rhythms, and dance or movement to enhance the interest of the lists to be memorized. Instrumental baroque music is great for improving attention and reasoning. For students, playing background music is not distracting. Third, musical cues can be used to help organize activities – one kind of music for one activity (studying), another for a different activity (eating), and a third kind for heading to bed. Fourth, studies show that calming music can promote pro-social behavior and decrease impulsive behavior.

Music and Anxiety

Many people find familiar music comforting and calming. In fact, music is so effective in reducing anxiety, it is often used in dental, preoperative, and radiation therapy settings to help patients cope with their worries about procedures. Music helps decrease anxiety in the elderly, new mothers, and children too. Music’s ability to banish worries is illustrated in the Rogers and Hammerstein lyrics, “Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect And whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect I’m afraid… And every single time, the happiness in the tune convinces me that I’m not afraid.” Any kind of relaxing, calming music can contribute to calmer moods. Calming music can be combined with cognitive therapy to lower anxiety even more effectively than conventional therapy alone. Some studies suggest that specially designed music, such as music that includes tones that intentionally induce binaural beats to put brain waves into relaxed delta or theta rhythms, can help improve symptoms in anxious patients even more than music without these tones; listening to this music without other distractions (not while driving, cooking, talking, or reading) promotes the best benefits.

Music and Moods

An analysis of 5 studies on music for depression concluded that music therapy is not only acceptable for depressed patients, but it actually helps improve their moods. Music has proven useful in helping patients with serious medical illnesses such as cancer, burns, and multiple sclerosis who are also depressed. If it can help in these situations, it may be able to help you and your loved ones experience more positive moods.

Music and Sleep

Many people listen to soothing music to help them fall asleep. This practice is supported by studies in a variety of settings. Just don’t try listening to lively dance music or rousing marches before you aim to fall asleep. Conversely, if you’re trying to wake up in the morning, go for the fast-tempo music rather than lullabies.

Music and Stress

Since ancient times, it has been known that certain kinds of music can help soothe away stress. Calming background music can significantly decrease irritability and promote calm in elderly nursing home patients with dementia. Music, widely chosen, lowers stress hormone levels. On the other hand, every parent of a teenager knows that certain kinds of music, particularly at high volumes, can induce stress. Knowing that certain kinds of music can alleviate stress is one thing; being mindful in choosing what kind of music to listen to is another. Choose your musical intake as carefully as you choose your food and friends.
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Mental Health, Naturally: The Family Guide to Holistic Care for a Healthy Mind and Body (Copyright © 2010 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.

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