MUSIC AND THE BRAIN – Brain for conductors (4)

Aurelio Porfiri


  • Subtracting positive events

This is another delicate point. How to manage achievement in performing groups? How to manage a successful concert, a good recording, the improvement in some peculiar and painful technical difficulties? Certainly to emphasize “positive reinforcement” is important and makes sense. According to recent research (Koo M., Algoe S. B., Wilson T. D., Gilbert T. D. 2008), But also is important to point out what will be the situation if the achievement was not reached. Indeed this is a really interesting finding:

“We believe that our studies are the first empirical demonstration of what can be called the “George Bailey effect”: people who wrote about how positive life events may have not occurred reported improved affective states, whereas people who wrote about how positive events did occur, simply described positive events, or did not think about positive events did not report improved affective states”.

How to apply this to our choirs and orchestras? Consider what will be their situation if a certain improvement was not achieved, if a certain situation that now is perceived as positive but did happen in the past, or if a certain change that is considered positive by everyone did not happen. So, it is very important to focus on positive achievement but not only using positive reinforcement because this can be sometimes dangerous if not used properly. Not only consider the presence of positive events, for immediate emotional reward but also clarify that this achievement could be absent from their own performing life. “We are now at this point, what would happen if we were not able to reach this level?” Let them answer themselves.  This is extremely interesting and delicate at some time when we are dealing with adolescents, probably the most troublesome group of performers or singers that a conductor has to face. Adolescents are very complicated for the reason already mentioned. So how to reinforce their confidence without making them too proud? Not an easy question to answer.

  • Performing together

A probably not surprising finding suggests also that singing or playing (or dancing together) increase the loyalty and bonding of the member of a group (Wiltermuth S.S., Heath C. 2009):

“Taken together these studies suggest that acting in synchrony with others can lead people to cooperate with group members. While the studies do not eliminate the possibility that muscular bonding and collective effervescence may, under the right condition, strengthen the effects of synchrony on cooperation, our results show that synchronous action need not entail muscular bonding or instill collective effervescence to create a willingness to cooperate. Our result suggests that cultural practices involving synchrony (e.g., music, dance, and marching) may enable groups to mitigate the free-rider problem and more successfully coordinate in taking potentially costly social action”.

This hypothesis only confirms what was always believed and practiced about music: music makes people belong. In this regard, we should be able to manage the social relationships among members. The researcher (Dr. Wiltermuth) confirm to me by email that the experiment involves singing in unison, considering also men and woman singing the same melody as unison (even if we know that in reality, they sing on a distance of octave).


  • Universal appreciation of three basic music emotions

Usually, especially with choral conductors, we have found that there is a certain resistance to perform pieces from different cultures with the excuse that everyone has to defend their own culture. Certainly, the love for your own culture is a value that has to be acknowledged and defended. Nevertheless to assume that people from different cultures cannot get the right mood of particular pieces is not consistent with actual research. Indeed a group from Max Planck Institute in Lipsia (Fritz T., Jentschke S., Gosselin N., Sammler D., Peretz I., Turner R., Friederici A. D., Koelsch S. 2009) have used an African tribe called Mafa and coming from Cameroun that has no previous contact with our musical civilization. They discover that they can still recognize very well when in the music was expressed happiness, sadness and fear. This is a sort of proof that in music we have a sort of universal beauty that can be detected also from people belonging to different civilizations.  I am not sure if this value of recognition is only belonging to western music or it is pertaining also to other music cultures.


  • Baumeister R. F. (1984). Choking under pressure: Self-consciousness and paradoxical effects of incentives on skillful performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 610-620.
  • Beilock S.L, Carr T.H. (2001). On the Fragility of Skilled Performance: What Governs Choking Under Pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology. 130 (4), 701-725.
  • Boerner S., Freiherr Von Streit C., (2007). Promoting Orchestral Performance: The Interplay Between Musicians’ Mood and a Conductor Leadership Style. Psychology of Music, 13, 1, 135-146.
  • Brown J.L., Pollitt E. (1996). Malnutrition, Poverty and Intellectual Development.  Scientific American, 38-43.
  • Cousins N. (1989). Head First: The Biology of Hope. New York: NAL/Dutton.
  • Fenker D. B., Frey J.U., Schuetze H., Heipertz D., Heinze H., Duzel E. (2008). Novel Scenes Improve Recollection and Recall of Words. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 20, 7, 1250-1265.
  • Fritz T., Jentschke S., Gosselin N., Sammler D., Peretz I., Turner R., Friederici A. D., Koelsch S. (2009). Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music. Current Biology. 19 (7), 573-576
  • Goldin-Meadow S., Wagner Cook S., Mitchell Z.A. (2009). Gesturing Gives Children New Ideas About Math. Psychological Science. 20, 3.
  • Jack R. E., Blais C., Scheepers C., Schyns P. G., Caldara R.(2009). Cultural Confusions Show that Facial Expression Are nor Universal. Current Biology. 19, 18, 1543-1548.
  • Koo M., Algoe S. B., Wilson T. D., Gilbert T. D. (2008). It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improve People’s Affective States , Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 95 (5), 1217-1224.
  • Loui P., Alsop D., Schlaug G. (2009). Tone Deafness. A New Disconnection Syndrome? The Journal of Neuroscience. 29 (33); 10215-10220.
  • Marzoli D., Tommasi L. (2009). Side Biases in Humans (Homo Sapiens): Three Ecological Studies in Hemispheric Asymmetries. Naturwissenschaften. 96, 1099-1106.
  • Mehta R., Zhu R. (2009). Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Science. 323, 5918, 1226-1229.
  • Oberman M. L., Winkielman P., Rachamandran S. V. (2008). Face to Face: Blocking Facial Mimicry can Selectively Impair Recognition of Emotional Expressions. Social Neuroscience. 2 (3-4), 167-178.
  • Pollitt E., Leibel R. L., Greenfield D. (1981). Brief Stress, Fasting and Cognition in Children. The American Journal  of Clinical Nutrition. 34, 1526-1533.
  • Ralph A., Spezio M. (2006). Role of the Amygdala in Processing Visual Social Stymuli. Progress in Brain Research. 156, 363-378
  • Stel, M. (1998). The Social Functions of Mimicry.  On the Consequences and Qualifiers of Facial Imitation.  Thesis Radbound University Nijmengen
  • Stel, M., van Knippenberg A. (2008). The Role of Facial Mimicry in the Recognition of Affect.  Psychological Science. 19, 984-985.
  • Stickgold R. (1998). Sleep: Off Line Memory Reprocessing. Trends in Cognitive Science. 2(12), 484-492.

Wiltermuth S.S., Heath C.