ESCOM day 4 | Developmental issues

The double-bill of keynotes in the morning of the 4th day consisted of Minna Huotilainen’s and Gary MacPherson’s talks.

Minna Huotilainen: Young Children as Individual Musicians: A Neuroscientific Approach

Minna Huotilainen of the Helsinki-side of our Finnish Centre of Excellence presented methods and data of their studies on music perception in babies and toddlers. This research aims at mapping the development of music perception abilities by using neuroscientific methods, mostly EEG, and the event-related potentials (ERP) paradigm.

Studying brain responses of babies or toddlers is challenging, but potentially rewarding. Mapping how music-related processes develop in the maturing brain can tell us a lot about how the brain works and how music works in the brain. One of the difficulties is that for ERP-studies (that allow us to study time-locked brain responses to specific stimuli) is that for a good signal- to noise -ratio, the trials tend to get very long, especially if you want to test several features at once.

The idea here is to present repetitions of the standard stimulus, for instance a short melody, and then “oddballs”, melodies where a feature has been changed, or one aspect of the original violated – rhythm, melody, timbre, tuning etc. Then, brain responses to these changed stimuli are compared to the response to the standard, and so we can see which changes the brain is sensitive to. To test all these features, the experiment would be very long, but luckily the neuroscientists in Helsinki, led by prof Näätänen, have developed a multi-feature paradigm that is ideal for this purpose. In this paradigm, the stimulus (that the participant does not attend to, BTW, but it is presented in the background so that brains do the work without conscious efforts) is constructed to contain all these “violations” at a sequence, one at the time. So every iteration has a “violation” in one feature, but is “standard” with regards to the other features being tested. This means that the experiment can be much shorter, and that even younger kids can do it.

The result could probably be summarised in that babies have impressive capabilities for discriminating musical features. The group has compared those who like to sing at music playschool with those who tend not to be active singers, and also have constructed a study where 10-12 year old children who have music as their hobby were compared with a matched group who have other hobbies but don’t do music. This study showed benefits of musical training to attentive and perceptual tasks, compared to other non-musical hobbies. The differences were evident in for instance a language-related task of naming objects. The music-group responded faster and made fewer mistakes. At age 11, there were also differences in their ERP-responses to these stimuli, which were not there at the onset of training.

Minna Huotilainen also presented her theory on why music is so important in the first years of development. It is known that at that age the cortex is pretty much a work in progress, with very little connections between different parts of this part of brain. For the development of these cortico-cortical connections, it has been suggested that information input from the deeper areas of the brain is vital. Music is very good in activating those deeper parts, and perhaps this stimulation is beneficial for the development of connections in the cortex. She also speculated that the activity we measure in EEG or MEG from small childrens’ brains is actually originally activation of these deeper areas, projected through the cortex. This talk was full of very, very interesting stuff.

Gary MacPherson Music in our lives – Rethinking musical development, ability and identity

The second keynote was in the theme of music education, and given by professor Gary MacPherson, of University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. His talk focused on motivation and its components in various stages of development. A good illustration of what music educators face every day was the clip from South Park, where the boys play Guitar Hero obsessively, because it is a game and very cool, but think that a real guitar is “gay”, and are not at all interested.

Another theme that has interested music education researchers is analysis of musical practice – especially the ration between effort and time versus the results. This has been shown to be a factor in how kids give up music, and it is also interesting how practice strategies differ. This theme was discussed in more detail in some other talks and posters in this conference.

MacPherson has been studying a young pianist, a child prodigy called Tiffany Poon. Again, what can we learn about one unusual case (think of Snowball) is perhaps debatable, but at least seeing a truly exceptional talent will make us rethink the rules and boundaries of human ability.

Conference dinner

Since so many people were expected to leave the conference on the final day, the conference dinner/farewell party was  scheduled for Saturday evening. Buses took the participants from their hotels to the venue, restaurant Rantasipi, Laajavuori. In addition to the dinner in good company, there were performances by Sinuhe, the Middle-Eastern/North African/Asian/eclectic band that is led by Pekka Toivanen from the Jyväskylä Music Department. There was also a short kantele concert and singing together. It was a nice party and the venue worked very well for this.  There was this conference-fatique setting in in the evening, but we had one more day to go…

2 thoughts on “ESCOM day 4 | Developmental issues

  1. Hope you might urge your colleague Minna Huotilainen to share her paper delivered at this conference. Going to her site and searching google scholar comes up with material from 2007 or earlier. Assuming she may have more current info to share along with her excellent earlier work. Will the conference have a publication (on- or off line) offering multiple or all papers?

    Thank you for your coverage of this event.

    Sue Dohety

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