Leigh VanHandel

Why are phrases four bars long?

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

I have a question I can’t seem to find the answer to: why do musicians tend to favour four-measure-long phrases?

I can’t speak for non-Western music, but four-bar phrases seem to exist in almost all Western popular music and the majority of music from the common practice period. I’ve been thinking about irregular phrase lengths in popular music, but I realized I don’t know why the tendency towards four bar phrases exists in the first place. Aside from just following the musicians before us and writing what we’re used to hearing, is there a psychological or musical reasoning for this?


Hi L.!

This is a really good question, and is one that theorists have been considering for centuries. Four bar phrases (or depending on tempo, 2 or 8 bar phrases) are very common in Western tonal music, but there’s no real reason why these duple groupings of measures seem to be privileged. Various theorists and music philosophers throughout history tried coming up with all kinds of rationalizations, but none of them really made sense; some argued that it was based on the duple nature of the human heartbeat, or the bilateral symmetry of the human body, and that was the reason for the “natural” use of duple groupings. Those were all predicated on the assumption that there’s an innate preference in human beings for duple organization and for symmetry; there’s evidence in favor of our preference for symmetry in general, but evidence of a duple preference is more mixed and gets complicated by the fact that (as you mention) a lot of music we hear has a duple organization so it’s hard to know if music is written that way because we prefer it that way, or if we prefer it that way because so much of it is written that way.

Using four measure phrases creates a sense of regularity or structure at a different level than that of the meter; if we consistently hear four measure phrases it creates a larger pattern where we start to expect some kind of cadence or closure. In his book Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music, William Rothstein refers to this as phrase rhythm, and describes many ways in which composers can alter phrase rhythm for musical purposes. If you’re used to hearing four measure phrases, and suddenly there’s one that’s shorter or longer, it draws your attention to it and disrupts the regularity at the phrase level.

There are definitely musical traditions where these aren’t the norm. In fact, Western composers would often write irregular phrase lengths when trying to evoke some kind of a non-Western “other” in their music; the fourth movement of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor. Op. 25 is called the Rondo alla Zingarese, or what would have been known then as “in Gypsy style.” (That term is problematic, and today we refer to that culture as “Romani” instead.) To evoke the dramatic character of traditional Romani violin music, Brahms included phrases that were only three measures in length, creating a perceptual quickening of the phrase rhythm, or how often we hear a complete phrase completed.

Another possible reason is that depending on tempo, a group of four measures probably falls within the window of time that we can remember, and perceive the phrase as connected as a musical idea; we can remember the beginning, middle, and end of the phrase and melody and feel as though we’ve heard a complete thought. This might be why at slower tempos we sometimes see two measure phrases instead of four measure phrases — if the tempo is slow, a four measure phrase will take longer, which may exceed our ability to remember and interpret the musical thought as one unit.

I hope that helps!


How playing music affects the developing brain

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Hello Leigh VanHandel, I’m Leilany [ ], a student in high school and for my college English course, we were assigned to write a synthesis essay on a researchable topic and ask an interviewee to answer a few questions. The topic I chose was based on How Playing Music Affects the Developing Brain and its effects on learning and concentration.  Could you please answer the questions below it would really help with my essay?

1. From all the research that has been made and reviewed do you think music does indeed have a great effect on a child’s developing mind?
2. From what you’ve seen would it make you want to introduce a child of your own to music in hopes of giving them a boost in their learning skills?
3. Would you personally want to learn an instrument because of the benefits found in many research studies?
4. Do you think offering more musical classes in schools would improve the students learning abilities like improving test scores and graduation rates? 
5. Do you think musical activities and learning to play instruments be offered to elders in hopes of similar brain activity and changes that happen in children?

Thank you for your time,

I finally got a moment to answer your questions, and my responses are below. My guess is that these weren’t the responses you were expecting, but if you ask a scientist questions, you’re going to get the best answer that the current science can provide, even if the answer isn’t what you want to hear!

1.    From all the research that has been made and reviewed do you think music does indeed have a great effect on a child’s developing mind? 

I think there’s no question that music has an effect on the mind, whether it’s of a child or an adult. The critical part of the question is whether the effect is systematic and consistent; does it affect all people similarly, or are its effects stronger in some people than in others (and the followup question that is why, and what makes the effects stronger in some people?). 

The other part of the question is, what are the effects? Engaging in music is going to increase musical knowledge and ability, for sure, but I think the question you’re asking is whether engaging with music creates what’s called a “far transfer” to other, nonmusical cognitive abilities/processes/skills. 

“Near transfer” is when a skill you’ve learned transfers easily to something that’s very related. Imagine if you practice throwing a beanbag into a hoop on the ground in front of you and you get really good at it; if you then use a slightly different beanbag or move the hoop a little further away from you, it’s a slightly different task but the things you’ve learned in practicing the first skill will definitely help with the second. Now imagine you’ve gotten so good at that skill that you try throwing a basketball at a basketball hoop that’s ten feet off the ground. That’s a much different skill and the things you learned in the first skill probably won’t help all that much. If the first skill DID help with the very different skill, though, that would be called “far transfer.” So engaging in music is likely to help with musical knowledge and understanding (because that’s near transfer), but does it help with things like reading or math (far transfer)? 

This was the problem with things like the “Mozart Effect” studies – researchers played music for students, and then tested them on things like spatial tasks or math tasks, and claimed they found an effect where if they played Mozart, people performed better on the spatial or math tasks. This led to a popular misconception that listening to music made you smarter, and a whole industry sprung up of recordings of “music for babies” or “study music” that was supposed to make you smarter just by listening to it. It’s a great story, and it’s one that a lot of people wanted to believe in – wouldn’t it be nice if we could just listen to music and make ourselves smarter? – but it’s not really true. The effect was incredibly inconsistent, and researchers only found that effect if they tested people immediately after listening to the music; if they tested them even a short time later, there was no effect or benefit from listening to the music. What was likely happening is that there was a temporary stimulating effect from listening to the music, which led people to perform slightly better on the unrelated task when they were tested immediately after listening. 

There’s been a lot of research on whether engaging with music (including playing it) has a far transfer effect, and the results are quite mixed; some studies claim they have found a strong positive result, and others claim they have found no evidence that music engagement results in far transfer. There’s a lot of potential confounds (things that might affect the results), in studies like this – you have to consider general intelligence measures, socio-economic status (instruments and music lessons cost money!), and personality factors. Young children who are able to engage with music probably come from a higher socio-economic background, which means they also may have access to a wider variety of other learning opportunities and materials than someone from a less fortunate socio-economic background. Saying that music was the thing that caused additional intellectual development ignores all of the other factors that the high socio-economic child may have had access to – better schools, more books, more leisure time to read, more educationally oriented toys, more access to sports, more access to tutors, etc. 

In general, the most current research shows that music does have an effect on the brain, but that effect most likely does not engage in far transfer to other cognitive skills. That’s not the story we want to hear, but that’s what the current research shows.  

2.    From what you’ve seen would it make you want to introduce a child of your own to music in hopes of giving them a boost in their learning skills? 

I would want to introduce a child to music in order to give them the opportunity to see if they enjoy it and if they’re good at it – but I would want to do that with a wide variety of experiences  for my child! And I wouldn’t make them do music if they weren’t interested in it; even if there were documented brain benefits to music, if you force someone to do something they don’t want to do, and they’re not enjoying it, they probably aren’t going to gain much benefit from it.   

3.    Would you personally want to learn an instrument because of the benefits found in many research studies? 

This is a bit of an unfair question – I already know how to play several instruments, so if I was to learn another instrument it would be because I wanted to learn that instrument, not because of any perceived brain benefits (which, as above, probably don’t exist). Hypothetically, if I didn’t play an instrument and I knew the results of the studies, it wouldn’t move me to start playing an instrument because the science tells me it doesn’t help. But if I wanted to play an instrument, I would start whether or not I thought I would get general cognitive benefits, because I would get musical benefits from learning it, and I would also get the enjoyment of learning to play the instrument and making music in general.  

4.   Do you think offering more musical classes in schools would improve the students learning abilities like improving test scores and graduation rates?  

Consider a school that has the capability of offering many music classes and has students who are interested and able to take the classes; that school is probably better funded than other schools, which means the school population is probably of a higher socio-economic status (since school funding tends to come from taxes collected from those who live around the school). It’s true that schools that serve higher socio-economic status students tend to have higher test scores and graduation rates than schools that serve lower socio-economic students –  but is that because they have music programs, or is that because the higher socio-economic students have more academic support throughout their lifetime, more access to educational resources in general, are less likely to have to work to support their families, and so on? Again, it’s really hard to say that music classes affect test scores and graduation rates when there’s so many other factors tied up into those things.  

There may be a correlation between schools that offer music courses and schools that have high test scores or graduation rates, but there’s no way you can say that the music classes cause those things. There’s a famous line in psychology, “correlation does not imply causation” – in other words, just because two things are related in some way doesn’t mean one causes the other. For example, say you notice that sales of ice cream are increasing, and sales of sunglasses are also increasing. Is one of those causing the other, or is it that both are increasing because of a third factor – sunny, hot weather? Schools that offer music classes may very well have higher test scores and higher graduation rates, but there are so many other reasons that may be.    

5.     Do you think musical activities and learning to play instruments be offered to elders in hopes of similar brain activity and changes that happen in children?

As with children, there’s evidence that musical activities and learning to play instruments provides a benefit to some older folks, but there isn’t any evidence that it helps or reverses the effects of aging. Again, it would be so wonderful if it did, since the effects of aging are so challenging for both those who are aging and their loved ones. I think that older folks should absolutely be given the opportunity to engage in music and learn to play instruments if it’s something that appeals to them and that they enjoy, and they may enjoy short-term but I’m skeptical that doing so would lead to any long-term cognitive benefits.

Overall, saying that music is important because it makes us smarter is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it diminishes the importance of music for its own sake! If our society thinks the most important thing about music is whether it makes us better at math, that says a lot about what we value, and I’d argue that it’s important to value music for what it does do – it gives us pleasure; it evokes feelings and memories, both happy and sad; and it makes us feel more connected to people, especially if we’re playing music with others.

I’m guessing these weren’t the responses you were expecting, but that’s where the science is right now.


Music and Focus, Part 2

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

Dr. VanHandel,

My name is Michelle, and I am currently a high school senior enrolled in a college English class. I am working on a research paper focusing on the effects of music on productive studying/working.

Your website is really helpful, thank you so much! I really appreciate how you bundle up all of your questions into one website, and I’m sure others appreciate it as well.

I do have one more question that I could not find on your website. Does listening to music while studying worsen retention of information?


Hi Michelle,

There’s actually conflicting studies about that! Some studies claim that if you listen to music while you’re studying, and you listen to the same music while you’re taking a test, that you’ll recall the information better; other studies haven’t found that effect. Others claim that listening to music, especially music with lyrics, will make retention of information worse. So there isn’t a consensus about this. What we do know is that it likely depends on the type of music you’re listening to and whether it’s music you like or not. 

A while back there were a number of studies that claimed that listening to Mozart made you smarter; people went way overboard with that study and started selling CDs that parents could play to babies to make them smarter. This was known as the “Mozart effect,” and was debunked as researchers showed that other music could also have this effect, and that it was very short-lived. It’s not about music making you smarter, it’s about music having a short term arousal effect, and that can heighten certain types of mental processing. But in order for music to have that arousal effect, it has to be music you like, or a musical genre you like.

If listening to music does worsen retention of information, it’s likely because of the effects I mentioned in the other questions on the website — it may be competing with other cognitive processes and drawing resources away from the processes that are trying to learn and retain information. 

Hope that helps! 


Music and Focus

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

Hello, my name is Matthew. I am a student enrolled in a high school English class and have been assigned a research paper on the following topic: When completing homework as a student or repetitive tasks in the workplace, does music help people complete tasks more efficiently or does it hinder their ability to focus? One requirement of this assignment is an email interview. Would you be able to answer the following questions?

1. Does music increase the ability to focus on repetitive or boring tasks?

2. What are some other benefits of listening to music while studying or working?

3. Are there certain types of music that are more beneficial for studying than others?

4. Are there any negative effects of listening to music while studying or working?

5. If you had the option of studying or working with or without music, which would you choose and why?

Hi Matthew! I’ve answered your questions below; let me know if you need more detail on any of these answers.

1. Does music increase the ability to focus on repetitive or boring tasks?

There is some evidence that that’s the case — if a task is repetitive or boring, our brains lose interest in the task and look for other things to focus on; there’s where mind wandering or daydreaming comes from. If you’re listening to music, it gives your brain something else to pay attention to instead of the repetitive task, and that can actually help you stay more focused.

Interestingly, music generally improves simple task performance, but it can also depend on whether you like external stimulation or not. People who identify as extroverts do better with noise and volume than people who identify as introverts; an introvert might choose different music, or might choose not to listen to music at all, even during a repetitive or boring task. 
And if you tend not to listen to music much, you will do better on a task when there’s silence compared to music, and vice versa — if you do listen to music a lot, you’ll do better on a task when there IS music, so a lot of it is about your preferences and your usual routine.

2. What are some other benefits of listening to music while studying or working?

Listening to music you like (and that isn’t competing with your task) can place you in a state of mental arousal, which can help you work or process information. And some studies have shown that if you listen to music when you’re studying for a test, and listen to the same music when you’re taking a test, it might improve performance slightly (although other studies contradict this!). 

Uptempo music can help you feel more energetic, which might help you with studying or working. There used to be a national music subscription service for workplaces called Muzak, which was intended to be a curated music playlist that was designed to manipulate worker behavior. They would carefully create music playlists that were designed to ramp workers up in the morning to a productive period, and then wind down as the workers were preparing for lunch, and then do the same thing in the afternoon. Originally, Muzak was made entirely of instrumental re-recordings of popular songs or classical pieces, so they were able to control every aspect of each piece and each playlist, and there were no words to interfere with workers’ tasks. 

3. Are there certain types of music that are more beneficial for studying than others?

The best music to listen to is music that you find enjoyable, but not distracting. Music with lyrics is less beneficial if you’re reading or writing, or trying to work on a cognitively demanding task, because there’s a part of your brain that’s trying to process the lyrics and that process is competing with the work that you’re trying to do. Your brain is only able to hold and process so much information at a time, and providing too much input can be overwhelming, and can mean that information is lost or not retained.

There’s actually also some evidence that listening to jazz can have the same effect as music with lyrics, even though it tends to be instrumental; it’s possible that the improvisational solos are almost like a conversation the musician is having with the listener or with the other musicians, and that might have the same effect as lyrics.

You might also want to avoid music that has a lot of changes — many different instruments, changes in tempo or loudness, etc. — those can also be distracting. 

4. Are there any negative effects of listening to music while studying or working?

Depending on the music, it can pull your attention away from what you’re doing, and can be distracting. The more you get distracted, the less well you will learn. Everyone thinks they can do more than one thing at once, but research shows that we’re actually really bad at it. Every time our attention is diverted, there’s a biological cost, and the more we do it the more exhausting it is and the more it ultimately affects our productivity. 

If we’re doing something cognitively demanding or learning something new, it may be best to do so without music — a simple real-world example of this would be why people turn down the radio in the car when they’re looking for an address! They’ve gone from the repetitive task of driving to the more cognitively demanding task of looking for the address, and the music is now competing with that task. 

5. If you had the option of studying or working with or without music, which would you choose and why?

For me, it depends on how much I need to pay attention to what I’m doing! If it was something I was really working to understand, or needed to remember, I would either not listen to music, or listen to music that could stay in the background for me. But if it’s something I just need to get done, or don’t need to pay much attention to, or want energy for (like cleaning or something), I can listen to music. 

I did an interview a while back on a similar topic, so this may be helpful:

I hope this helps you with your research paper!

-Dr. Van


Does music affect the brain and behavio(u)r?

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

Hello! My name is Uche, and I am a student in [location]. I am doing some research on how music affects the brain and behaviours. I was wondering if you could help me answer a few questions, since you specialize in music’s effect on the brain. I hope you have time to answer a few questions. They’ll be listed below.

1. How does (certain) music affect the brain in a bad way?
2. How does (certain) music affect the brain in a good way?
3. Do you think that in the future, certain music styles will be banned for the benefit of the society?
4. Do you think that the way music affects the brain affects the behaviour?

I look forward to hearing from you,

Hi Uche! I’ve answered your questions below, interspersed with your questions.

How does (certain) music affect the brain in a bad way?

It depends on what you mean by “bad”! Music definitely affects the brain, but I’m not clear what you mean by affecting it in a bad way. I’m going to take a guess that you mean that music might make people aggressive or violent; that’s a justification that some people use to argue against certain genres of music — heavy metal, for example, or sometimes rap. Those people claim that the music “makes” people aggressive, or angry, or violent, and that the music needs to be controlled or censored somehow.

Research shows that music does not actually make people violent or aggressive, just like it doesn’t make you happy or sad; what research shows is that people who are feeling some emotion or in some mood tend to select music that reflects their mood. So sad people tend to listen to sad music — but at that point the sad music may be pleasurable and can therefore result in an improved mood! So it’s not the case that someone will get angry by listening to heavy metal music; it’s that people tend to listen to music that reflects their feelings or mood. There may be a correlation between higher levels of overall anxiety and distress and a preference for heavy metal music, but it’s not that music is causing the distress, it’s that it’s reflecting it.

How does (certain) music affect the brain in a good way?

If someone is listening to music that reflects their current mental state, and it’s a genre of music they like, that tends to be pleasurable — again, even if the music is sad or aggressive. Music has also been used to work with people with anxiety or depression, because pleasurable music (regardless of genre) can help forget about undesirable states of mind, can help relieve stress or worries, and can help remove intrusive or unwanted thoughts (which are prevalent in clinical depression). 

Do you think that in the future, certain music styles will be banned for the benefit of society?

I really hope not! There’s absolutely no scientific reason for that to happen; it would just be because people have misconceptions (grounded in ignorance) about music genres they don’t understand.

Do you think that the way music affects the brain affects the behaviour?

It can, but doesn’t have to. Energetic music can make people feel like they have more energy, or certain types of music can aid with mental work or concentration, or can strengthen feelings in a way that affect behavior. These effects are temporary, though.

I hope that these answers help you — since your questions were vague I had to guess at your intent. If there are more specific questions that you have, feel free to let me know!

-Dr. Van


Multilingualism and artistic ability

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Hello, My name is Allison and I am a senior at [school]. I am in the process of completing my senior project, and one of the requirements is to interview an expert on my subject. I have a passion for the arts and have been taking French since my freshman year so my topic combines two of my passions. I am trying to find a connection between knowing multiple languages and artistic ability. 

My essential question is:
What kind of benefits come from knowing more than one language, and is there a connection between artistic ability and bilingualism (or multilingualism)?

If you are willing to be my expert, please email me back when you get the chance. Thank you so much for reading my email!

Hi Allison,
A question: When you’re thinking about the arts and artistic ability, what do you have in mind? Musical ability? The physical arts (painting/sculpting/drawing)? Those are really different things.
-Dr. Van

Dr. Van,   That is a very good question that I unfortunately don’t have a great answer for. Personally, I am a singer and actor so it would be nice to touch on performance arts for my project, but it doesn’t matter too much to me. 
Thank you for responding so quickly! You’re the best!

This isn’t exactly my research area, but I did a little digging and found some things that may be helpful.

There is evidence that speaking more than one language can enhance cognitive capacities. There’s also evidence that creative thinking comes from general cognitive functioning. So the argument thus goes that if bilingualism has cognitive benefits, those benefits may extend into creative thinking. However, apparently there isn’t a lot of research that has been able to directly prove this relationship. One problem is that the terms aren’t actually well defined — as we’ve already found, it’s hard to decide what quantifies as “creativity” — is it music making? Art making? Culinary creativity? There’s creativity involved in mathematics and sciences, as well as things like computer programming — it takes creativity to solve difficult problems! So the lack of definition of the word “creativity” is one of the biggest issues.

One of the other issues is what is meant by “bilingual” or “multilingualism” — how well does one have to know a language to be considered bi/multilingual? Some would argue that a couple of years studying a language doesn’t necessarily qualify you as bilingual, and that it requires fluency in both languages developed from birth or very early childhood; otherwise one language is the “dominant” language. Since it’s difficult to define when someone is truly bi/multilingual, that’s a challenge with the question also.
What I’ve found in some quick research is that there’s some evidence that in some types of verbal tasks, bilingual or multilingual children and college-level students may have had an advantage over monolinguals. There’s research tying that to the ability to “code switch,” or alternate or mix different languages quickly and regularly; the bi/multilingual people may have a more developed verbal network in their brain which may lead to more creativity in certain types of tasks.

There’s also a cultural component that complicates things. There’s research that shows that people who live in diverse cultures or diverse socioeconomic settings tend to exhibit more creativity; it may be that because more multi/bilingual people live in those diverse cultural/socioeconomic environments, that the increase in creativity is due to t hose sociocultural factors. 

So the answer is that it certainly seems possible that bi/multilingualism may increase creativity — but there’s a lot of undefined terms and other factors that are tied into it, and there really hasn’t been a lot of research done to test how each of those factors is involved. 

I don’t know if you need to cite sources for your project, but the author I found who seems to have done most of the work on this topic is a fellow named Anatoliy Kharkhurin. I found a chapter he wrote in a book called “The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education,” published in 2015, and it has a lot more information and specific references to studies. He certainly seems to believe that there’s a relationship between bi/multilingualism and creativity, but he also acknowledges that the research isn’t really there to prove it yet.

-Dr. Van


Ask Dr. Van …

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

in which I answer emails from secondary students

I regularly receive emails from secondary students (junior high/high school) doing research on music theory and/or music cognition for school projects; oftentimes a requirement of their project is contacting an expert in a given field and asking questions.

I can’t always answer all of the emails I get, but I do my best to respond when I can. Sometimes their questions get to a really interesting or important question in the field, and I end up doing a fair amount of research to make sure I’m answering their questions accurately! This is a collection of some of the emails I’ve received and the responses I’ve provided.

Why do people listen to music?

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

Dear Ms. VanHandel:

My name is Mia, and I am a student at [junior high school]. I am reaching out to you because I am working on a Passion Project in English class about how music affects psychology. My Inquiry-based question is “Why do people listen to music?” I would love to learn more about music theory and how the brain processes music. My reason for contacting you is I consider you an expert on my topic.

I realize you are busy, but I would appreciate any information you can share with me. Please respond as soon as possible to my request in order that I may continue with my project. Thank you for your time and assistance in this matter.


Hi, Mia!

Your question is a REALLY big one, and not one that’s easily answered. In fact, it’s sort of THE question — why do all human groups that we know of have some form of music? Music has served a lot of different purposes for different communities: it might be for communication reasons, it might be for celebration or to increase enthusiasm or inflame emotions in warriors, or it might be used to woo a potential mate! Or, it might just be because music is enjoyable. Those are all reasons why people might listen to music. 

Since your question is SO big, it’s really hard for me to answer it, but I can recommend a very reasonably priced book that might help you out; it’s by an author named Dan Levitin, called “This is Your Brain on Music.” It’s typically available for about $8 in paperback, and is a great introduction to the discipline of music psychology, which is exactly what you say you’re interested in! It’s a very readable book, aimed at people who are asking the same types of questions that you are, so it may be a help to you.

If you’re able to narrow your question down a little bit, I may be able to help more. Good luck with your project!

-Dr. Van

Hi, Dr. VanHandel:

Thank you for responding! I suppose a more specific question would be: What parts of music can attract listeners?



That’s still a huge question! In general, we can be drawn to a number of different characteristics of music — the melody, which is the part that you can sing; the rhythm, which is how the music is organized in time; or the harmony, which is how notes work together. Not all types of music contain all three of these characteristics, though, so each one works both on its own and in conjunction with the others!

We tend to like, or be attracted to, music that we are at least kind of familiar with — not necessarily music that we know already, but music that is *similar* — in style, or a similar genre — to music that we know already. It’s because we learn how a style of music works through listening to it, and we develop an ‘expectation’ for that music — we know what’s likely to happen. 

When we don’t know much about a style of music, it can be harder to understand it, which makes it harder to like it. Think about people who like the pop music they hear on the radio, and say something like, “I don’t like _______ music” — maybe they’re saying country, maybe rap, maybe opera. It’s because they’re not as familiar with the other genre.

As before, these are really big and important questions that you’re asking, and are questions that lots of people have been working on for a while! The field of music cognition has grown a lot in the last fifteen or twenty years, and it sounds like you have a natural interest in that area. The fact that I can’t answer your question definitively shows that there’s still so much work to do, so I hope you keep your interest going and someday help us to research and answer these questions.

-Dr. Van

Dr. VanHandel:

I really appreciate your assistance so far and thank you for taking time out of your day to respond. I myself would like to work in the field of psychology when I am older and find the topic of music therapy to be quite fascinating. Our Inquiry-based questions were supposed to be broad so that we could appreciate the depths of our topics as well occupy ourselves with non-stop research. However, you have worked very hard in trying to answer my question in a way that I could understand.

If I may, I would like to ask a few more questions. I would like to know how you chose your career path and, in your expert opinion, what genre of music has provided the most contribution to modern standards of what music should be.



I was really involved in music when I was in junior high and high school, but I didn’t really want to be a music teacher in elementary, junior high, or high school. So I started college with a science major — I wanted to do genetic engineering. I realized pretty quickly that I missed music too much, and managed to get accepted to be a music major during my first year of college.

I signed up for a double major in music ed and music performance, because that’s all I thought you could do with a degree in music, and even though I wasn’t sure about teaching at the elementary/secondary level, I thought that was better than not doing music at all. But I was extremely fortunate to have some wonderful theory professors as role models, and they encouraged my interest and creativity early on and told me that music theory was an option, and that I could do research and teach college students, which sounded a lot more exciting to me. 

I was also very fortunate as I went through school to have some mentors recognize that I was also interested in psychology and language, and they encouraged me to connect the dots in the different disciplines and find a place for myself in the emerging field of music cognition.

I always say that I think I have the best job in the world — I get to learn about things for a living, and I get to get excited about a topic and learn about it, and then I get to teach other people about the things I’m excited about and get them excited about it as well. And I get to recognize and encourage creativity and interest in a growing field, just like my mentors did for me.

For your second question, “what genre of music has provided the most contribution to modern standards of what music should be,” there’s no possible way to answer that. There isn’t a “modern standard” of what music “should” be — there are lots of different types of music, and no one version of music is “standard.” In fact, I think one the hallmarks of music these days is that every genre is influencing every other genre! I know that sounds like I just don’t want to pick one, and maybe that’s a little bit true, but I honestly believe that when you consider all of the different types of music that exists — and remembering that there is music that is completely separate from the Western tradition, whether that tradition is classical, jazz, popular, rap/R&B, or what have you — there is such a global influence of all types of music that there’s no way to say that one genre has contributed the most. 

I appreciate your questions, and I’m enjoying our conversation. I hope I haven’t simplified anything too much — it’s always hard to know how in detail I can go in a response like this. Thank you for making me think about some things! 

-Dr. Van


Music and Memory

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

Hello, I am an 8th grader who is researching the effects of music on memory. I greatly admire the work that you do in your field! Since you are so experienced, I would like to ask you a couple of questions:

1. Do you think that playing a musical instrument regularly affects memory? Why?
2. Do you think that listening to music while memorizing will affect memory? How?

Your input would be very valuable to my research. Thank you for taking the time out of your day to answer my questions.


Hi Sahil;
Question 1: There is some research that indicates that musical experience can affect memory, but it’s a specific type of memory — it’s what’s called your ‘verbal’ memory, or the ability to remember verbal information (things like lists of words, etc.). It’s not entirely clear why that’s the case, although what we know about musical development is that musician’s brains tend to have more development on the left-hand side of the brain, and that’s the side of the brain that’s primarily responsible for the processing of verbal information. Also, musicians obviously tend to spend a lot of time listening to sound, so when information is presented via sound the musicians may have more practice in active listening or recall of that information. 

Question 2: There’s been some work done on this, too, but what’s really interesting about this is that nobody really seems to agree on this. One thing that’s been found is that if you’re listening to music, it can actually disrupt memorization of verbal information — it makes memorization worse! This is especially true if the music you’re listening to has words. The idea is that the music and words you’re listening to actually interfere with the verbal information you’re trying to learn. It’s interesting that this has been found even with music without words, because a lot of people say they like to listen to “classical music” while they’re studying, and there were even “music to study by” compilations that were put out by companies back when there were studies that were claiming that just listening to music could make you smarter! But a lot of the evidence more recently indicates that music in general can interfere with verbal memory because it’s being processed by the same part of the brain that processes verbal information. 

As I said, there isn’t agreement on this, though! There have been studies claiming that if you listen to music while you’re studying, you should listen to the same music when you’re taking a test, because that will put you in the same frame of mind when you were studying and you’ll do better on tests. (But not everyone agrees with that!) There are studies that have found that background music, as long as it’s low in complexity, can help learn second languages. A more recent study found that it’s the speed of the music (the tempo) and the volume that have the most effect on things like reading and memory tasks. 

This is a research area that’s very active these days, because everyone wants to find what will help them study/learn more effectively and efficiently, so you’re definitely asking a good question — but there isn’t a lot of consensus right now on what the answer to that question is!  

I hope that helps a little bit! Good luck with your research!

-Dr. Van


Music and the brain

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

Dr. VanHandel,
I had a few questions that I was thinking of bringing up, so whenever you have the chance to look them over and answer them, that would be amazing.

1. Do different styles of music affect the brain in different ways?
     a. How so/why?
2. What studies, if any, have you conducted in your field?
     a. How did you conduct it/them?
     b. If you haven’t conducted any yourself, which have you researched and what were the overall conclusions?
3. Is there an aspect of music (tempo, meter, mode, rhythm, etc.) that most directly correlates to changes in the brain?
     a. If so, how do the effects of that aspect of music differ from other aspects?


Hi Eliza;

Here are some quick answers to your questions:

1. Do different styes of music affect the brain in different ways?
a. How so/why?

As far as I know, there isn’t any reliable evidence that different styles of music affect the brain differently in any large way. There are some studies that supposedly showed that if you listened to Mozart while you studied, you would learn the material better, or that if you listened to specific pieces of classical music that you would get smarter. Those studies have been largely disproved, though.

One thing that has been shown, though, is that cultures whose music is more complicated rhythmically — with meters like 7/8 or 11/8 — are better able to process and understand those complex rhythmic patterns. That’s probably a result of familiarity and enculturation (just hearing it more) but there’s also a chance that it has to do with changes in the brain from listening to that music.

So there isn’t a “better” type of music to listen to, or a “right” music to study to, or anything — although some studies have shown that if you’re listening to music when you study, it’s better to listen to music without words, since music with words might compete with material you’re trying to learn.

2. What studies, if any, have you conducted in your field?
a. How did you conduct it/them?
b. If you haven’t conducted any yourself, which have you researched and what were the overall conclusions?

This is a really big question, and it’s one I can’t really answer since I’ve read hundreds of studies and run dozens of studies. What I’m working on right now is trying to understand what the musical cues are for tempo. Imagine you’re given a piece of music to sing, and you’re asked to perform it, but it doesn’t have any tempo indication so you don’t know whether it’s supposed to go fast or slow. The question I’m trying to figure out right now is, how would you figure that out? You’d probably look at the music and listen to it, and make a decision based on some aspects of the music, but what aspects? Would the melody give you some hints? Would the rhythm? Would the harmony? Do all three of them work together to help you decide? Is one of them more important than the others?

So I’m running a series of experiments right now where we have people listen to different melodies and change the tempo of the melody until it “sounds right” to them. From that, we can tell what the people are reacting to, and what characteristics have the biggest effect on what tempo people choose for melodies. For example, what we’re finding is that if people hear a melody that has a lot of contour changes — if it changes direction a lot — people want those melodies to go more slowly than melodies that don’t have a lot of contour changes.

3. Is there an aspect of music (tempo, meter, mode, rhythm, etc.) that most directly correlates to changes in the brain?
a. If so, how do the effects of that aspect of music differ from other aspects?

I think this is something we’re still trying to figure out. One thing we know is that musicians tend to have an advantage in what’s called verbal working memory over non-musicians; it probably has something to do with needing to keep and rehearse information (musical phrases, melodies, etc.) in our minds as we’re performing in order to make the music make sense in terms of phrasing and structure. And we know that musicians tend to have better hand/eye coordination than non-musicians. But the question you’re asking is pretty broad, and it’s one that people are spending their entire careers on researching!

I hope this helps you a little bit! You’re asking some great questions — they’re just too big to answer in a short period of time! If you’re interested in music cognition, there’s a couple of great books I can recommend — one is “This is Your Brain on Music” by Dan Levitin, and one is “The Psychology of Music: A Very Short Introduction” by Elizabeth Margulis. Both are great resources to read about the types of research going on in the field of music psychology/cognition, and would probably give you some ideas of the types of research going on. And if it’s something you’re really interested in, look for universities that have music cognition programs!

Dr. Van


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