How music enhances our brain capacity

Learning and playing music is not only enjoyable, sociable, and expressive — it also develops our brains. A quick and fun summary of how this works can be viewed in a short animated video from TED-Ed-Lessons.

The video discusses neuroscientific research from the past few decades, which has revealed connections between activities and brain activity in real time. Scientists have found that each activity seems to have a corresponding location of the brain, where those efforts are processed.

Listening to music, however, appears to fire up multiple areas across the brain simultaneously, and even more brain activity among those who actually play music. The process of playing music results in intricate, complex, and incredibly fast signals in all parts of the brain, especially, auditory, motor, and visual centers. Regular musical practice appears to strengthen those brain functions, allowing musicians to apply them to all sorts of activities.

In particular, playing and practicing music increases  Continue reading How music enhances our brain capacity

About Auld Lang Syne (the tune)

New Year’s Eve is coming up, and the most popular song of the night will be Auld Lang Syne.  Did you know that the usual melody used for “Auld Lang Syne” song was not the original melody?  Below is the sheet music for both.

If you’d like to hear the song as originally intended by Robert Burns over 200 years ago, click here to open a new window and listen to it as sung by Mairi Campbell of The Cast.

Burns collected the song, which was already old at the time, and added some of his own words to it, to make it the song we know now. The melody we’re used to singing (click here to hear Dougie Maclean sing it) was apparently selected by George Thomson, an editor who included Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne” in his A Select Collection of Scottish Airs in 1799 after Burns died. It must have been a popular melody at the time, but Burns regarded it as “mediocre.”

Some say the “new” melody was composed by an Englishman named William Shield for an opera called “Rosina,” which was performed on New Year’s Eve 1782 in London. According to the score, he was attempting to imitate Scottish-style melody.

But others say that Shield was himself quoting an older Scottish melody which shows up in a number of 17th and 18th century Scottish tunes such as “Miller’s Wedding,” “Lasses of the Ferry” and a few others. One tune I think is closest is a strathspey called “Sir Alexander Don’s Strathspey,” but it’s hard to say when it was written because it wasn’t published until after 1815 in the Beauties of Niel Gow.

Whatever the history, the tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne at New Year’s is honored round the world, and a melody honored by so many people for so long means more now than it did when it was new. So while we can enjoy the beauty of the melody Burns selected, it’s hard not to appreciate a group of friends singing the song as we know it, locking arms and welcoming the new year.

Below is sheet music for both versions.  Have a good New Year’s!


Joining in a Session

In the last article we talked about hosting a multi-level session.  Let’s take a look at how to participate in a session, however it’s being hosted.  If it is a multi-level session of the type I described in the last article, it’s no problem for you to participate.  All you’ll really want to have ready is some tune that you like and know how to start, so that when it’s time for you to jump in, you know what to do.  You might want to have two tunes in mind, in case one of them was recently played already.  You’ll be able to start it at the tempo you like.

The most important trick to starting a tune at a session is to make its rhythm clear.  Even if people know the tune, they can’t join in with you until they figure out what kind of tune it is — jig, reel, strathspey, air, waltz.  For others to know, you have to know, and convey, the rhythm.  Regardless of your level as a player, you can certainly choose a reliable session tune for yourself, and know the type of tune, the title, and the key.  True, many session players don’t know these things, but if you just have a tune or two ready to pitch in to the group, it’s not so hard to look up and remember a few things about it.  It can help accompanists if you call out the key, and helps melody players to know the name of the tune if they ask afterwards.

To play with good rhythm depends on knowing the beat notes.  All you really must do to feel comfortable starting a tune at a session is

Continue reading Joining in a Session

Hosting a fun Multi-level Session

[Interrupting our troubleshooting articles — there will be a couple more articles about the left hand later — first, let’s take a look this month at hosting and playing in sessions.]

Most fiddling is very sociable — playing with others in a session, at a ceilidh, for dancers, providing support for a community function such as a wedding or funeral.  Even in the extreme situation such as an intense fiddle competition, you’re judged primarily on whether your spirit and sense of the tradition is convincing, and the audience is with you, not agin’ ya.

One of the best ways to get comfortable with fiddling as a participatory and sociable activity is through sessions.  Let’s talk here about hosting a good session, and next time about how a player can fit in to any session.

The ideal session is a repeat event with a fairly consistent group of players that get to know each other and their repertoire.  But every session, even such an “ideal” group, has to deal with players with different levels and experiences.

Here are some ideas for hosting a successful and fun multi-level session.

Continue reading Hosting a fun Multi-level Session

Music & Arts in the Real World

music-brainLearning how to play music, and making music, have benefits that are well recognized by science and society.   We know how important music is to us all, but it’s nice to see this sense backed up by research.  Science has shown that learning to play music improves brain functions, and creates additional neural pathways that may prevent or slow down the effects of conditions such as dementia, Alzheimers, — or even “senior moments!”  For more details, take a look at our article called “Shoring Up Your Brain with Music” — just select “Feb 2016” from the archives at the bottom of the column at the left of this page.

Learning music from a teacher or at a music camp can yield tremendous benefits mentally, physically and socially.  Learning online, as with, when you don’t have a teacher who can help you with the information or style of music or teaching you are looking for, can yield the same benefits as live lessons because it requires mindfulness and gives you an opportunity to work at your own pace.  On, the live workshops, as well as subscription to tune or video groups with reasonable but limited timelines, give you a push to stay engaged and make progress.  I have two mottos that are relevant here — One is “you don’t get good at this, you just get better!”  The other:  “The more you play, the better you get; but the more mindfully you play, the faster you get better.”

What’s strange, when we musicmakers look around us, is the disconnect in society about music and the arts, when it comes to support for arts education, careers, and organizations.  Sometimes we have to fend off this disconnect and keep in mind how much it means to us all to learn and listen to music.  Why do educators and policymakers so often take music and the arts for granted, when all evidence shows them to be indispensable?

musicworldMost people can hardly last five minutes without listening to music; music pervades advertising, television, radio, internet, performance, and ritual whether secular or religious.  By contrast, people can go years without personal interaction with lawyers, corporate leaders, soldiers, even doctors.  Artists design packaging and presentation for every product manufactured; writers are responsible for screenplays, monologues, content of newspapers or news shows, speeches, ad copy, and books, both fiction and nonfiction.  In the U.S., leaving aside hobbyists and part-time workers, there are 2 million full-time jobs in the arts, more than there are doctors, lawyers, and about the same numbers as in the military — and they earn higher than the median income.

Yet the average presumption in schools and the media is that students majoring in English or the arts are impractical dreamers!  The governor of Florida, for example, pulled money away from liberal arts to fund subjects that “create jobs.”

Here is a smattering of information that may help us connect the dots: Continue reading Music & Arts in the Real World

What’s in a fiddle style?

The magic of a fiddle tune is not in the notes, but in the feeling, the cultural need, the “style” that produced the tune and uses the tune for listening, dancing, marching, or other community functions.  Even in classical music, where many musicians play all their music with the same sound, the pieces come from different eras, different cultures, and sound better when the musician draws upon those characteristics.  Some classical musicians specialize in renaissance music, or baroque music using original instruments, or German romantic, or American modern, etc., and may play these types of music quite differently.palette

Fiddle music is local music from around the world, and has not only noticeably different styles from one country to another, but usually is played differently from region to region, or even from village to village.  Some local styles are built entirely on the playing of a well-respected fiddler.
I once heard a concert by a group that presented an eclectic mix of folk tunes from around the world.  When the group got around to some of the tunes and styles I knew best, it became clear that while all the melodies were interesting, they were all played the same way, because that group was not knowledgeable about the many styles they were drawing tunes from.

To those who know a style, it is truly moving to hear a great player from that tradition.  It can be entertaining and impressive, but not moving, to hear someone get all the notes of the tunes but miss out on the soul of the style.  There’s a song that says it best:  no matter how amazing the player, “it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.”

How do you learn a fiddle style?  Like anything else, what you learn depends on what you become aware of.  The more you are aware of, the more you hear, and the more chance you have of incorporating that awareness in your playing.  If you want to find out what “that swing” is, you need to listen to really good players from the tradition, and try to get a sense of what they are trying to do.  What is it that moves those who care about that kind of music?

The best goal is to learn a style from within, rather than Continue reading What’s in a fiddle style?

You Won’t Believe the Music Out There

Expose yourself to as many styles of music as possible.  Step out of the box and check out the rich music available to us, fiddle music from around the world.

Every style of playing music embraces players of top quality.  Find them or recordings of them online or in a CD shop.  Nowadays media companies try to control what most people hear in order to sell lots of their own product.  They know that people like what they hear the most.
Too often we are skeptical about a whole type of music without really listening to it, or without listening to good practitioners of that style.  For example, many people cringe when they think of bagpipes, because there are very few top quality players of the instrument.  There are only 30 Grade 1 pipe bands in the whole world, and only three in the U.S.  This gives an idea of how few top players there are.  Think too, about music you might feel you’re very familiar with.  Have you taken care to listen to some of the best musicians in that style?  Below is a list of many fiddle styles you might want to tap into.

Continue reading You Won’t Believe the Music Out There

Playing Music is Healing

Music heals.  It is widely used in therapy, it soothes the moods of people round the world, and the act of playing music generates endorphins that make a player feel better.

Music therapy has been used for many years for its multi-sensory expression.  Studies about neurological development support its use to draw out feelings and concerns of patients.  It was found to be particularly effective with traumatized children after World War II.  Therapists use many methods to work with people, including moving to music, listening, playing on instruments, body percussion, singing, and songwriting.
In the 1930s, my mother studied piano from a man named Moissaye Boguslawski, who had grand notions of what music could do to heal people.  He believed, ahead of his times, that music could cure antisocial behavior and treat memory loss.  A prominent concert pianist with various symphonies, he insisted on playing regular piano concerts at the Cook County Hospital for the Insane, a place in Chicago commonly called Dunning, which doubled as an insane asylum and a poorhouse.  Boguslawski was convinced that music had healing effects on people suffering in that institution.

Continue reading Playing Music is Healing

Shoring Up Your Brain with Music!

Science tells us that learning and playing music develops our brains in ways that no other activity does.  Regardless of how good you get at your instrument, your brain is getting a lot out of it!musicbrain

For a quick and fun summary of the neurological benefits of music, take a look at this short animated video from TED.  It was written by Anita Collins, who has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Music Education.  More about this little video below.

There’s also an interesting online resource about the latest brain research as it’s related to music.  You can find it on Facebook at this link.  One project noted there reveals that MIT researchers just published findings that certain neurons in our brains are tuned in specifically to processing the sound of music, suggesting that music may have played an important role in the evolution of the human nervous system.  Taken together with the finding of musical instruments from as far back as 70,000 years ago, it’s clear that music is essential to human society.  (Note: another interesting online article about the brain and music can be found here.)

The short video from TED that’s linked above is based on neuroscientific research from the past few decades.  Scientists have been exploring, in real time, the correlation between things we do and activity in different parts of the brain.

Continue reading Shoring Up Your Brain with Music!

Auld Lang Syne, the song and strathspey

Happy New Year!

Did you know that the usual melody for that “Auld Lang Syne” song we often sing New Year’s Eve was not the original melody for the song?

If you’d like to hear the song as originally intended by the songwriter/poet Robert Burns when he published it over 200 years ago, listen to the beautiful version sung by Mairi Campbell.  Her duo with Dave Francis is The Cast, which sang this version for the movie Sex and the City.

Here’s the original melody:

auldlangsyne1Burns collected the song, which was already old at the time, and added some of his own words to it, to create the song we know now.  The melody we’re used to singing Continue reading Auld Lang Syne, the song and strathspey