S2 Episode 17: Making Sense of Music

Sound may be the least understood of the five senses, with music the most mysterious of all. Neuroscientist Nina Kraus of Northwestern University takes us on a tour of how the brain processes music, and explains the lifelong benefits of music education. Find out how music can help offset the effects of poverty, and how concussion distorts the perception of music in the brain. Plus… Why you really should make your child take piano lessons!

Phil Stieg: Hello and welcome to Dr. Nina Kraus, professor of communication sciences, neurobiology and otolaryngology at Northwestern University and director of the Brainvolts Auditory Neuroscience Lab.

She is also the author a new book entitled OF SOUND MIND: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World. Available from MIT Press.

She’s here today to explore with us how music and other sounds are processed in the brain, and how listening to the brain’s response to sound can give us a fascinating new way to understand and diagnose brain health.

Nina. Thank you for being with us today.

Nina Kraus: So glad to be here.

Phil Stieg: So as I was preparing for this, I was just marveling at how hip a job you have. It’s fascinating being able to study music on the brain or music in the brain. What piqued your interest and at what stage in your life did that happen?

Nina Kraus: Oh, I’m the luckiest scientist I got here. I don’t even know quite how, but the stars must have aligned from early on. I grew up in a musical household. I grew up in a household where more than one language was spoken. So I guess sound was I knew that it was important to me. When I went to college, I majored in comparative literature because I knew some languages and I like to read. And then I took some biology and I was hooked.

Phil Stieg: So did you have formal musical training as well, or was it predominantly in literature and languages?

Nina Kraus: I did have I had musical training throughout my life. So, you know, even now I play a couple of instruments, electric guitar, piano, harmonica. I like to sing harmony, but not especially well. I you know, I play these things with great love and great enthusiasm, you know, and I’ve had lessons here and there. I’m married to a musician, so but I never

Phil Stieg: passion and vigor outweigh the talent there is.

Nina Kraus: Oh yeah. Yeah.

Phil Stieg: But I understand there’s an interesting twist behind the story here in terms of you sitting under the piano and your mother played and she was what was she, a concert pianist?

Nina Kraus: Yeah, she was a really good pianist. And she was from Trieste in Italy, which is very close to Venice. And she had studied music, classical music at a conservatory there. And she would play a lot. And I was the fortunate bambina that got to take my little toys. And I like to sit underneath the piano with my things because it sounded so good to be there.

Phil Stieg: I can only imagine…

Nina Kraus: In fact, I have her Steinway now.

Phil Stieg: So why is sound and in particular music so important to the brain?

Nina Kraus: Sound is our under recognized sense, and if you think about sound, you know, that sound consists of ingredients like pitch, timing, timbre. Making sense of sound, engages our cognitive, sensory, motor and reward systems. So it engages how we think, how we feel, how we move. And it brings together information from other senses. And so it engages a lot of brain geography. And it connects us to the world.

Phil Stieg: How are you looking at these things? I mean, you sticking probes in the brains, are you doing functional MRI or what’s your measuring take?

Nina Kraus: Well, the currency of the nervous system is electricity and we measure that electricity directly. So we use scalp electrodes. And I play sounds to people. So, you know, as I’m talking to you now, the neurons in your brain that respond to sound are producing electricity. But we can pick up that electricity and actually capture how your brain is processing sound. When I measure your brain’s response to sound, you know, you can actually hear the sounds that I’m playing to people. And the electricity that I capture is so precise that I can take your brain’s response and play it back. And it will sound like or at least it will resemble the sound that I was playing when I was recording your brain responses.

Phil Stieg: Can you give me an example of that, Nina?

Nina Kraus: Absolutely. So let’s just let’s start with the simplest, which is “DA”….

(plays recording of computer voice saying “DA”)

And the brain’s response to “DA” is this…,

(plays recording of brain response converted to audio signal)

So it’s recognizable. Let’s try funky music. First the sound and then the brain.

(plays funky piano recording)

…So that’s the sound that they were hearing

(plays recording of brain response)

And that’s the brain’s response. So, you know, imagine how much we have to work with. You know, we can make that information and analyze it in terms of all the different ingredients that were in the sound and are now in the brain’s response to the sound. And the important point is that the way we process sound, the way you process sound, the way I process sound is dictated by our lives in sound. S o if you spend a lot of time making music, you are going to change the way in which your brain processes sound for the rest of your life.

Phil Stieg: Do professional musicians versus, you know, the hack like me, who every now and again plays the piano, engage different parts of the brain when they hear music or think about music or speak or is it the same in both brains?

Nina Kraus: Largely the same. It’s a matter of degree, it’s a matter of precision. But it’s very nice that that we can you know, this is not making music is not an elite activity. Everyone can make it. And, you know, the idea is really to make it and to make it consistently. And we’re not talking about listening to music. We’re talking about making it.

Phil Stieg: And that’s the important thing, though. This is something that everybody can do and it’s beneficial to their overall brain development in their brain health. Agreed?

Nina Kraus: Agreed.

Phil Stieg: So does listening to music have the same impact on the brain as playing music?

Nina Kraus: I like to say that watching spectator sports is not going to build up your muscles. And, you know, certainly with respect to sound processing in the brain, you know, I mean, clearly listening to music in the moment will affect your mood in the moment. But in terms of really creating these fundamental changes in how your brain automatically responds to sound, this is something that you need to actively engage in.

Phil Stieg: Many mothers and fathers force their kids to start playing some musical instrument. Is that beneficial? If you played it for a couple of years as a child and then you stop? Is there still a long-term benefit to doing that?

Nina Kraus: Yes, there is a long-term benefit. Not only that, it benefits you throughout your life. When I talk to audiences, you know, I would ask people how many of you play a musical instrument sometime in your life? A lot of people raise their hands. And how many of you are playing now? And, you know, not that many, So we have looked at older adults who have had a history of making music, you know, in school for four or five years – so this was 40 years ago. And we see they can make sense of sound. They can hear speech and noise better, which is actually one of the things that that gets harder as we get older. Because once your brain has made these sound to meaning connections, it will continue to make those connections throughout your life. So it’s a beautiful investment.

This Is Your Brain: The Guided Tour – Making Sense of Music

Phil Stieg: I find it fascinating that you’ve clearly demonstrated that listening or playing music and learning music has an overall impact on your language skills, your reading skills, your math skills, your communication skills. Do we have any good ideas of how and why that happens?

Nina Kraus: Making sense of sound, engages our cognitive, sensory, motor and reward system. So these large parts of our of our brain functions. Music is the jackpot because to play music, you really are engaging your motor system, your other senses, how you feel. And you have to think. You have to pay attention. You have to remember. These are wonderful skills that require tremendous precision. If you are playing a musical instrument, you are strengthening these skills that are important for many, many things that you do in life.

Phil Stieg: So tell me what you and your colleagues in Los Angeles did with this Harmony Project. It’s fast. It’s a fascinating story.

Nina Kraus: Well, what we did was we measured sound processing and a number of academic in children year after year. So we began with elementary school kids starting in second grade and we followed them for three years. So we and we had matched groups at the beginning. We had the kids who went through music and the kids who did not. And then we can look at the impact of musical experience over the years. And I have to tell you that after one year of music making, we looked at sound processing the brain again with scalp electrodes, with our way that really enables us to capture sound processing with tremendous precision. And we found after a year that there were no changes in the kids who played music. It was only after two years. And I think this is, again, a really important lesson for parents and for social policy, that it’s not a quick fix. It’s not taking a pill. It’s not having one music lesson. You really you know, you have to work at things.

Phil Stieg: What’s really fascinating to me, however, is the fact that you did this in in groups that were socioeconomically deprived, and you found specific things when you compared them to control groups. Can you expand on that?

Nina Kraus: What we were able to find is that, you know, first of all, there is a signature of poverty, if you will, where sound processing in the brain is actually reduced. We divided the kids based on their mom’s education. So same school, same classroom, same teachers. And we found that the kids whose mom had less education, these are kids who sound processing in the brain was diminished for certain key ingredients that are important for language. And we also found that they had excessively noisy brains. You know, you can imagine to them, think of the noise like the static on a radio. If you have this static going on, it’s really hard to pull out the signal. So given the signature of poverty, would music education partially offset this? And the answer is yes. And it offset it by strengthening sound processing in the brain.

Phil Stieg: So tell us tell us specifically what you did. I mean, you just somebody walked in there and said, OK, we’re going to start playing the Tonette for a couple of years and see what happens there?

Nina Kraus: Right. So all the music programs, you know, were taught by music educators, by music teachers. They had about five hours of music a week. And they had a mentoring program where they had some of the older kids teaching some of the younger kids. And, you know, over these years, each child engaged in, you know, say four to five hours of some some kind of music making in this school setting. It was just something that they did every day. I n Los Angeles, this was an after-school program. And so it was a way of keeping the kids off the street.

Phil Stieg: Well, that’s the other point I wanted to bring up, is that you started this in areas where gangs were prominent. And so you’re really working with children that are growing up in a challenging environment, and with that you were still able to show these remarkably positive effects.

Nina Kraus: You know, ordinarily there is the “achievement gap”. Maybe first graders might start out relatively similarly if you compare kids of different socioeconomic backgrounds. As the years go on in school, the reading scores between the high income and the low-income kids — that gap gets larger and larger. And we were able to show over time is that if you started with kids who were pretty similar over time, the kids who did not have music, that achievement gap continued and the kids who had music were able to maintain their age-appropriate reading levels.

Phil Stieg: Given the fact that we know that children’s brains are more modifiable, more plastic than yours and mine in our ripe age, why do you think it’s two years? I mean, you said you mentioned it earlier. One year doesn’t do it. It takes to. What do you think’s going on?

Nina Kraus: Well, we don’t want a brain that is going to change every second in fundamental ways. You know, we’re really talking about fundamental ways in which our brain responds to sensory information around us. And, you know, it’s not going to change willy-nilly. It’s going to change over time and through experience. What we can show is that the actual processing of sound changes. So, again, we’re measuring the physiology. You know, when you’re looking at tracks or you’re looking at MRI, you’re looking at blood flow, and it’s an indirect measure of neural activity. We are looking at how does your brain respond neurally to sound right now and how will it respond a year from now?

Phil Stieg: So you’ve been doing this for a few years. Something must have surprised you. What’s the biggest surprise?

Nina Kraus: Um, you know, I think it is more of a realization of the tremendous connection that sound has with so many different parts of our lives and the fact that, you know, we live in this this visually dominated world and sound is invisible. And yet it has an enormous impact on who we are and how we engage with the world. And that’s really under recognized.

Phil Stieg: I work with the New York Giants, I’m interested in concussion, and certainly we don’t really have a good way of measuring it. I know you’ve done some work with concussion and sound. Well, what have you found interesting there?

Nina Kraus: So we’re doing this this project. It’s an NIH five-year funded project that where we follow our Division one athletes at Northwestern … the males, the females, all the different sports, And we measure their brain responses at the beginning of the season and at the end of the season. First of all, you might wonder, you know, what does sound processing in the brain even have to do with athletics? Well, if you think about what the brain has to do to make sense of sound, making sense of sound is one of the hardest jobs that we ask our brain to do. And if you get hit in the head, it stands to reason that this very precise system is going to be disrupted. When an athlete sustains a concussion, there is a particular signature that we can we get from the brain’s response immediately following a concussion .

Phil Stieg: Do we have an example where you’ve applied this with an athlete?

Nina Kraus: Yeah. So I’d like you to hear first Amazing Grace, just the sound
(music example)
And now, I would like to like to play for you, a healthy brain responds to those sounds.
(brain recording)
Now, hear a brain, that has sustained concussion.
(distorted brain recording)

Phil Stieg: From my perspective, it sounded incredibly distorted, which would be, in my mind, consistent with the changing of the firing of the neurons.

Nina Kraus: Actually, we also can see sometimes a legacy of concussion that even after the athlete has recovered by other means, we can still see that athletes with a history of concussion still have a diminished processing of sound.

Phil Stieg: It’s clear to me after this conversation that music is good for you. So I’m a parent and I have a child that is atonal, hates music that can’t keep the beat. What do I do to help them?

Nina Kraus: You know, music is something to be enjoyed. And it really is not about how good you are. And, you know, we know a lot of people who can’t carry a tune. And, you know, the guy who is off the beat when you know you’re at a dance party or a concert. But they’re loving it. And I think we really have to stop thinking of music an elite activity at all or that you have to be really good at it. You know, music has been around with us for years and years and years and years and years. It’s been part of being human. I just would say that music really is a part of being human and that any that engaging with music throughout one’s life is something that a parent should foster.

Phil Stieg: Dr. Nina Kraus, it’s been an enchanting time talking with you about the impact of music in the brain. I look forward to the release of your new book – Of Sound Mind; How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World. Thank you so much for being with us.

Nina Kraus: You’re so welcome. Thank you.