Music and Wellbeing

Music is a universal experience, and for centuries human beings have engaged with it and wondered at its power. We can now begin to appreciate how musical forms and structures are related to the underlying neurological forms and physiological structures that create them. 

There is a new and burgeoning interest in establishing a biological basis for musical experience. Whilst such pure scientific exploration is facilitated by the remarkable recent development of noninvasive brain mapping, it is driven by a powerful urge to understand the mysteries of music. By mapping the structures of the brain that support music we may gain insight into the roots of personal identity and social relationship as well as into the nature of musicality itself.

Thirty years ago, when Paul Robertson first became fascinated in the relationship of music and brain, any conceptual framework could only be theoretical as there was then virtually no significant research to call upon. However, some understanding of the topic did exist, from the observation of deficits in those who had unfortunately suffered brain lesions, and there was one excellent book edited by Critchley (Music and Brain, 1977) which gave the scientific views current at that time.

There was also a vast resource of Philosophy, Psychology and Musical and Aesthetic theory and, as Paul discovered when he came to make a television series on Music and Science (‘Music and the Mind’ Channel 4, 1996), although mostly unaware of each other, brilliant people were researching different music-related domains. Since then, there has been a rapid growth in understanding of how our brains perceive and produce music, aided greatly by new methods for non-invasively finding our what goes on inside the human skull..

Whilst these technological advances in brain mapping have undoubtedly moved this topic significantly forward, so has our new culture of inter/intra-disciplinary collaboration and exploration and perhaps the one has driven the other.

Mapping Music

In order to understand contemporary research it is helpful to have a sense of what the current technologies make possible and what are their strengths and limitations.

Basic neuro-anatomy and current brain mapping techniques

The human cerebrum has two broadly symmetrical hemispheres, which in some areas have different but complementary functions. It used to be thought that spoken language and words were solely the province of the left hemisphere whilst music and emotion were located and processed only in the right side of the brain. However, contemporary non-invasive brain mapping techniques reveal a far more complex, interconnected and distributed network of brain areas, which include the evolutionarily older brain areas of the cerebellum and brain stem, which come into play in order to comprehend and discriminate musical sounds.

Mapping Blood Flow Response to Brain Activity

PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans use injected radioactive isotopes to measure how blood flow varies within the brain. This technique is silent and can be used to map activity to an accuracy of about 5 mm during a 2 minute period. Because of the possible risks of over-exposure only 12 such scans are recommended in a person’s lifetime.

fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) measures subtle effects on water protons which mark blood oxygenation changes associated with neuronal activity. This technique is very accurate spatially, to about 2 millimeters, and measures reactions over a few seconds, but unfortunately the scanners make loud noises, which presents obvious, though not insuperable, problems in the musical domain.

Both PET and fMRI require a good deal of data analysis because the main interest is in the relatively small differences in brain activity relating to specific stimuli.

Electro-physiological measures

EEG (Electroencephalography) and MEG (Magnetoencephalography) both directly detect electrical brain activity in real time but require massive computation because data analysis and comparison are complex. Neither technique is particularly good at locating where brain activity is taking place, but they are both able to measure precisely when it occurred, and to discriminate responses lasting only a few milliseconds. Because of these technical issues studies usually report averages of data from a number of subjects rather than individual snapshots. (illustrate)

A great deal of fascinating information is generated from studying the exact timings of electrical activity which can also show positive (P) or negative (N) surges. These signals generally occur between 100 milli-seconds (ms) to 600 ms and different types of processing have characteristic profiles.

Much of our best current information comes from the result of combining information from different technical approaches. Irrespective of which approach they favour, the common dedication and passion of all our contributors is to better understand what music is, and why and how we experience it. It is also true to say that everyone working in this field has been touched by music and moved by its mysterious power.

The Science of Music

The relationship between music and mathematics is as long-standing as that of music as language. As Leibniz brilliantly observed, ‘Music is the human mind using mathematics whilst unconscious that it is calculating’.

For Paul this exploration (and our whole current musical science) was based upon this strange human urge to comprehend events and phenomena, including the most subjective human experience, as mathematical form. As we know, the curious intermingling of music and mathematics, and the scores and symbolic notational systems we use in Western music, are no more than alternative algorithmic ciphers. Music is after all entirely constructed from pitches and rhythms which can be mathematically expressed as variations in sound vibrations over time.

If we accept the truth of this, then for many of us it is irresistible to seek to discover not only the algebra of the musical construct but of the creative imagination, emotion and ‘ineffable’ beauty of musical inspiration as well. While this might be considered heady stuff, Paul suspected this impulse underlies many of these scientists’ painstaking research.

Is there a ‘science’ of meaning or of the emotions? Are these sorties into the musical hinterland the beginning of such a new science? Could such ‘objective’ explorations demystify music? Or, as many musicians seem to fear, explain away the ‘magic’ of music? Paul didn’t believe that many (if any) of our contributors thought this either desirable or possible–any more than learning to play scales ‘explains away’ the beauty of inspired music, itself constructed of scale combinations.

The great Russion neuropsychiatrist Luria spoke of his belief in the evolution of a new ‘Poetic Science’. Perhaps we are seeing this emerging in music and brain studies As a species, we have been practicing and refining our musical impulses or ‘instinct’ for thousands of years (at least 30,000 years judging from early bone flutes). Ancient civilizations, including the Chinese, Indian and Greeks, studied the physics of sound, analyzed the mathematics of the harmonic series in order to construct scales and integrated these theories into their aesthetics and (often) religious world views.

Since music plays so fundamental a part of our personal, social and cultural condition Paul found himself asking whether our musical constructs are actually also such ‘maps’ – if we could just decode them. If this is true then the insights of music-makers would have as great a contribution to the science of mind and consciousness as can the brain scientists.

In this context, Mendelssohn’s profound remark that, ‘Music is too precise to express in Words’ raises a number of questions. Is music a language? Is it the foundation of all language? Is music the auditory distillation of the gestures and pre-linguistic signals of communication and therefore a proto – or universal language? Does music carry meaning or do we create a sense of meaning from it because it is essentially ‘semantic’? or is it somehow a ‘language’ of the emotions? Might we be better understand our musical experience as a combination of embodied ‘feelings’, cognition and affect? If so, how are they joined? How can we experience some or all of these at any one time in music? Is music especially mysterious and potentially ‘meaningful’ because of its temporal structuring? and so on…

Representative MMST Events:

The Musical Brain

‘Mapping the Musical Brain’

Listen to Radio 4’s ‘Leading Edge’ programme ‘The Musical brain’.

Oxford conference hosted by Green, Templeton College, Oxford – September 17th and 18th 2009 and The Wellcome Trust, London – September 19th Prof. Paul Robertson, conference Curator Prof. Robert Turner, scientific advisor.

Representative MMST Health & Wellbeing Events:

September 17th and 18th  ‘The Musical Brain

Private conference in Oxford hosted by Green, Templeton College.

September 19th ‘Mapping the Musical Brain

Wellcome Trust, London

Curated by Professor Paul Robertson



SATURDAY 19 SEPTEMBER, 11.00–17.00


Join leading musicians, neuroscientists, psychologists and gifted young performers to explore music and science, autism, infancy and more. You will also be able to participate.

Wellcome Trust press release

Wellcome Collection

Saturday 19 September 2009, 11.00 – 17.00


A unique free event at Wellcome Collection this September will invite the public to share their curiosity about the power of music with some of the world’s leading authorities on researching the relationship between music and the brain.

Mapping the Musical Brain unites musicians, neuroscientists and psychologists as well as gifted young performers to explore the science of music, music and autism, music in infancy and more.  The day includes a series of musical events and performances designed to provoke discussion, debate and participation between audience and experts, each of whom are keen to share their insights with a broader public.


Professor Paul Robertson curator of the event and Director of the Music Mind Spirit Trust comments: “For centuries humanity has created music whilst wondering at its mysterious power. By revealing the underlying neurobiological structures of music this event shows how current brain studies can offer entirely new insights into both the personal and social aspects of the Musical experience.”

Lisa Jamieson, Wellcome Collection’s Events Manager comments:


“This lively, topical event will shed light on why scientists are so excited by the possibilities of studying music and its effect on the human brain and will satisfy those curious to understand better the power of music. I encourage anyone with an interest in music and the mind to come along.”

Mapping the Brain Programme

Saturday 19 September

11.00 – 17.00

Paul Robertson Curator of the event Visiting Professor of Music and Medicine, Peninsula Medical School
Robert Turner, Scientific Advisor to the event, Director, Department of Neurophysics, Max Planck Institute, Leipzig.
David Aldridge, Editor Music and Medicine
Tim Griffiths, Professor of Cognitive Neurology, Newcastle University
Pam Heaton, Psychologist, Goldsmiths, University of London
Stefan Koelsch, Department of Psychology, University of Sussex
Medici Trio: Paul Robertson, violin; Anthony Lewis, cello; Mikhail Kazakevich, piano
Lawrence Parsons, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Sheffield
Chika Robertson, Joint CEO, Music Mind Spirit Trust
Colwyn Trevarthen, Emeritus Professor of Child Psychology, University of Edinburgh
Jonathan Willcocks, international composer and conductor
Robert Zatorre, neuropsychologist, University of McGill, Montréal

Welcome and introduction from Paul Robertson

The brain science of music

An overview by Robert Zatorre, University of McGill, Montréal

Music, performance and the musician’s brain

Performance by the Medici Piano Trio (Paul Robertson, violin; Mikhail Kazakevich, piano and Anthony Lewis, cello). Programme to include: Shostakovich Piano Trio no 2 opus 67.

The musicians will be joined by Robert Zatorre and Stefan Koelsch, Univeristy of Sussex for a discussion. The session invites us to consider such issues as: the meaning and ‘language’ of music, musical performance and communication, ensemble, empathy, rythmicity and entrainment, the relationship between notation and embodiment, gesture and affect.

Music making and autism

In this session musicians with Autism Spectrum will perform and discuss their musical experience with Pam Heaton from Goldsmiths. The session will offer a new perspective upon the nature of the musical experience, as well as an intimate and detailed insight into the particular and challenging qualities of the autistic mind and the way it interfaces with music. Tim Griffiths of Newcastle University will join the panel to explain how neurological damage can affect the musical areas of the brain and explore the science of hearing as well as feeling music. Includes audience Q&A

Music in infancy

A discussion with psychologist Colwyn Trevarthen, neuroscientist Lawrence Parsons and Robert Turner of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. The subjects to cover include: the hearing foetus; mother/infant communication; and a child’s first foray into musical learning.

Music as Therapy

Presentation of a selection of short film clips by David Aldridge of music as therapy

In addition to the presentation sessions above there will be workshops throughout the afternoon which are suitable for all ages and abilities:

Song Trees (13.15 – 14.00, 15.00 – 15.45, 16.45 – 17.00)

Created by Chika Robertson as part of the Music Mind Spirit Trust, this innovative music project brings children and families together to rediscover, learn and then perform music drawn from family member’s earliest musical memories. The session is facilitated by internationally renowned composer and conductor Jonathan Willcocks and is an opportunity to sing songs and share memories whilst creating family and community spirit through the celebration of music.

The event also invites us to enquire into the uniquely precocious formation of musical response, relationship and integrity, and further reflect upon the lifelong influences that such early music experience has upon our later health and wellbeing.


The Song Trees workshops are open to all ages and abilities and no booking is required.

The programme was arranged by Paul Robertson with scientific advice from Robert Turner



Media Contact: Mike Findlay
Senior Media Officer (Wellcome Collection)

T:           020 7611 8612
E:           [email protected]