Texas Tech University

Music and the Mind: Texas Tech Researchers Collaborate to Study Music Learning

Karen Michael

June 11, 2019

(VIDEO) Music, engineering and psychology come together in this study, which uses MRI brain imaging to look at how people learn music.

Two musicians, an electrical engineer, and a cognitive psychologist walked into a lab: It's not the start of a joke, but of an experiment into what happens in the brain when musicians and non-musicians learn a musical task.

Texas Tech University researchers from three fields banded together to study how both musicians and non-musicians learn music through the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain imaging.

Testing music learning in two ways

Carla Cash is associate professor of piano and piano pedagogy in the School of Music, which is part of the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts. Cash taught research subjects to use a small keyboard while they were inside of an fMRI machine. Over and over, the participants were asked to repeat five-key press sequences that are made up of five different notes on the keyboard, while researchers looked at how accurately and quickly they learned and performed.

Carla Cash
Carla Cash

"We're beginning to see that musicians or experts have quicker activation, or more activation, in the cerebellum than non-musicians," Cash said. "This is really interesting, because we know from previous literature that the cerebellum is implicated in motor learning, and it's implicated in motor-memory consolidation, which is the process by which new memories are then transferred into long-term memories."

Fellow musician Gregory Brookes, an assistant professor of voice, taught the human research subjects three 30-second songs by allowing them to listen to the music over headsets and see the words on a screen. One song was in English, one song was in gibberish, and one song was in solfége, the do-re-mi method. Brookes said this allowed researchers to evaluate how students learn a song while singing in a language they understand versus singing in a language they do not understand.

Brookes said when he teaches a voice student in the School of Music, he makes sure they have full translations of operas that are written in foreign languages. They are asked to correctly pronounce the language.

Gregory Brookes
Gregory Brookes

"What they really want to do in the end is just sing their aria or sing their song," Brookes said. "In a lot of ways, they're learning these foreign language pieces as though they are gibberish."

He wanted to find out how much harder it is to learn music in gibberish, and how language interacts with music. What researchers found is that learning a song made up of nonsensical words is "massively harder" than learning a piece in English. Brookes said many people learned an English song after about five times of hearing it, although they were given nine tries. But with the gibberish song, the subjects had usually learned only four words after nine listens.

"So the gibberish is massively harder, and that shows how important meaning is in our language," Brookes said. "It's not just the sounds of the language, but it's the meaning that we attach to the sounds that helps us to remember the words."

Brookes said the fMRI showed that the error detection centers of the brain would light up for students who made mistakes in the English song. It may have taken them a while to figure out what the mistake was, he said, but they were instantly aware that they had made a mistake. But he said those who were singing gibberish never even realized they were making mistakes.

Researchers also were able to see how well students learned when they had a good night's sleep before coming in – or if they did not sleep well. And they were able to compare students who had achieved an expert level of musicianship against those who did not.

Special tool needed

Before test subjects could ever play a note for Cash's part of the study, a special keyboard had to be built. Because no magnetic parts can be taken into the fMRI, Changzhi Li, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, part of the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, was tasked with developing a keyboard that could be used in the fMRI.

"An fMRI is wonderful, but it also has very strict limitations," Li said.

Changzhi Li
Changzhi Li

The end result was a cardboard keyboard with no circuit boards or metal wires. The keyboard itself does not make sounds, Li said, but is plastic and has optical fibers. Outside of the room, an LED source picks up the lights of the keyboard.

Cash called Li's development of the keyboard one of the best things to come out of the funding for the research.

"We now have this apparatus, this fMRI-safe keyboard, and we're one of probably just a handful of universities in the nation that has that available to them," Cash said, noting that the keyboard is already being used in a new study. "It's really a great addition to our research facility."

Collaboration makes the project possible

The two music professors both expressed some initial hesitance about participating in the interdisciplinary research, describing it as both intimidating and exciting.

"As a musician, I'm an artist," Brookes said. "I don't think of myself as a scientist. But I'm learning to think of myself as a researcher. By doing the interdisciplinary research, we are able to look at questions we wouldn't be able to ask without the colleagues we have brought into the group.

"I bring to the table my expertise in singing and vocal training, and that allows us to look at how people learn to sing, and it allows us to look at a question that any one of us on our own wouldn't be able to ask. If you get over your fear of not being smart enough, not being adequate, for these intelligent people you're working with, if you get over your fear, then you can start answering some really cool questions that you just can't do on your own."

His colleague, Cash, said the duo really most needed to understand that they didn't have to understand everything.

"What we realized is that each of us was bringing our own expertise to the table, which really allowed for wonderful collaboration and growth within the team," Cash said.

Li said he noticed that the collaborating researchers had really different ideas about research and perspectives on each other's work. In his effort to build the keyboard that could be used in the fMRI, he said he and his engineering team built what they thought was a wonderful keyboard. But the highly tuned ears of the musicians could tell them there was a delay in the mechanism between the touch and the sound produced as a result.

"We were so surprised, because for us, there is no delay," Li said. "But for music experts, they can tell the delay."

Tyler Davis
Tyler Davis

Tyler Davis, an assistant professor and cognitive psychologist in the Department of Psychological Sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences, said the key for interdisciplinary researchers is to know that no one person really knows the entire research project.

"It's only altogether that you can move forward on the project," Davis said. "I would not have been able to do any of this stuff on my own, so the fun thing about those collaborative projects is they really open your mind up to what's possible through teamwork."

What's the impact?

Davis said researchers hope to use some of the information gained to design better music therapy. He noted that sometimes stroke survivors can learn to sing to regain their vocal abilities.

He said it was interesting that the way the musical training is structured can affect experts and novices differently.

"Expert musicians seem to consolidate the sequences better based on early rest in the studies," Davis said, meaning that those expert musicians who are given a break early during learning can get the most out of their lessons.

Music involves several parts of the brain, Davis said, including the visual, auditory and motor cortexes.

"When they're concentrating, you'll see a lot of stuff in the prefrontal cortex as well," Davis said. "The key brain regions that we find are involved in acquiring new music are the basal ganglia and the cerebellum, which seem to be engaged in how people acquire the new music in these tests."

Future research

Davis said researchers found a lot of high-quality data from study participants, including differences in sleep.

"Now we have a really good idea of how basic individual differences in sleep, mental health, and music skill performance relate to how the brain processes and learns music," Davis said. "We're going to be able to use that for a long time to support future studies.

Brookes said the researchers would like to get a better sense of the difference between experts and novices, but also to get a sense of how elderly people learn music as well. Researchers also would like to learn more about how learning music can affect well-being in general.