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Tuning pianos improves memory and navigation skills

29 August 2012

Researchers have long known than learning a musical instrument can cause long-term beneficial changes to the brain, but now experts at the Universities of London and Newcastle have found that tuning pianos can also cause changes to the brain structure - in particular to the structure of the memory and navigation areas of the brain.

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience and funded by the Wellcome Trust, the scientists showed that the structural changes correlate to each piano tuner's number of years in the job.

Piano tuners need to listen to the sound of two notes played simultaneously and navigate between sequences of chords in which one note is already tuned and the other still needs to be adjusted. Interaction between the sounds produced by the two notes produces a wobbling sound - a beat - and tuners need to detect this frequency of fluctuations - or beat rate - and adjust it so that the two notes are in tune.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to examine how the brain structures of 19 professional piano tuners differed from those of the nineteen ordinary people. The tuners, from across the UK, all tune pianos by ear, without the use of any electronic instruments.

Sundeep Teki, from University College London, said: 'We already know that musical training can correlate with structural changes, but our group of professionals offered a rare opportunity to examine the ability of brain to adapt over time to a very specialised form of listening.'

The researchers found highly specific changes in both the grey matter - the nerve cells where information processing takes place - and the white matter - the nerve connections - within the hippocampus. The changes significantly correlated with the number of years that tuners had been performing the task and were not related to age or to musical expertise.

'Perhaps surprisingly, the changes relating to tuning experience were not in the auditory part of the brain. In fact, they actually occurred in the hippocampus, a part of the brain traditionally associated with memory and navigation,' said Dr Sukhbinder Kumar from Newcastle University.

Professor Tim Griffiths, also at Newcastle University, led the study, and said: 'There has been little work on the role of the hippocampus in auditory analysis. Our study is consistent with a form of navigation in pitch space as opposed to the more accepted role in spatial navigation.'

Music lessons lead to better adult hearing

23 August 2012

A new study has shown that children who have music lessons, even for as little as one year, have better hearing as adults. Research in the Journal of Neuroscience found they had enhanced brain responses to complex sounds. Those who had music lessons were particularly good at identifying the lowest frequencies, which are needed when listening to speech and music in noisy environments.

The report’s author, Nina Kraus, Professor of Neurobiology and Physiology at Northwestern University in Illinois,  said, 'Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain, the study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning.

'We infer that a few years of music lessons also confers advantages in how one perceives and attends to sounds in everyday communication situations, such as noisy restaurants.'

Tottenham school launches post-riot anthem

23 August 2012

More than 100 celebrities are supporting a North London school which is attempting to get a song to number one.

Everybody Dreams was written by children from Gladesmore Community school in Tottenham in response to the negative image of their area created by last year’s riots. It has received backing from DJ Chris Moyles, Nigerian rapper Wizkid, comedians Jennifer Saunders and Ricky Gervais and has been remixed by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.

Deputy headteacher Juliet Coley said the school hoped to establish an orchestra with the proceeds from sales. The song, which can be heard at www.sites.google.com/a/gladesmore.com/news/ was sung by London Mayor Boris Johnson while he was on a visit to the school. It is also being used as Haringey Council's hold music and the single is  being played at Spurs games. Stephen Fry has tweeted his four million followers, encouraging them to buy it.

Juliet Coley explained that the children had been inspired by a desire to change people’s impression of Tottenham. 'When the kids came back to school after the riots they were really upset by images in the media. The riots started in Tottenham and it was the last place that got cleaned up. You could still see the debris and burnt out parked cars. The idea of a song came up because they thought it could move people. We wanted to give the kids aspirations to think big and think anything is possible.'

She hopes the proceeds from the sale of the single can be used to fund a school orchestra, anticipated to cost at least £20,000. 'We want to do something beyond the expectation of kids in Tottenham,' she said. 'We want to make classical music in an urban setting, but that costs and we've never been able to afford it.'

BBC Performing Arts Fund to award £200,000 to young musicians

15 August 2012

The BBC Performing Arts Fund is to award £200,000 to help young musicians in the early stages of their careers.

The fund’s Music Fellowship is designed to support individuals through the early stages of their music careers, helping to establish them in the professional world through placements in music organisations. Music organisations from across the UK can apply for one of 20 grants of £10,000 each to host a music fellow. The organisations will provide a specifically tailored and mentored experience for their fellow, providing access to their facilities, training and audiences.

Miriam O’Keeffe, director of the BBC Performing Arts Fund, said: ‘The BBC has a long history of discovering and supporting new talent. This year we are looking to help organisations to support the next generation of musicians, composers, conductors, songwriters, producers and emerging talent.'

Some 1,250 individuals and 190 community groups have so far received a grant from the fund, helping more than 900 musicians purchase instruments and equipment. Thirteen emerging producers, choreographers and dancers have been awarded fellowships, and the fund is the UK's biggest funder of musical theatre training in the charity sector, having supported 162 students. Previous winners have gone on to produce a Mercury Prize winning album, perform at the Glastonbury Festival, appear with Jools Holland and land starring roles in the West End.

The BBC Performing Arts Fund has awarded more than £3.8m in the past nine years. This year, the charity has received funding from BBC One’s The Voice through the public phone vote.


Disabled musicians to feature in Channel 4 documentary

10 August 2012

Conductor Charles Hazlewood is to feature in a new Channel 4 documentary, which follows him as he puts together an orchestra of disabled musicians.

Paraorchestra will show how the conductor recruited the musicians, and will also reveal each player’s own relationship with music. Channel 4 said the documentary, being made by What Larks Productions, would explore the 'achievements and challenges facing disabled musicians in Britain today'.
The musicians include a blind sitar player and a pianist with one arm. Others have had to abandon traditional instruments but are still able to make music using computer technology. Clarence Adoo used to play trumpet with jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine until a car crash left him paralysed. He now blows through a tube hooked up to a laptop to simulate a wind instrument.

Hazlewood was inspired to put the orchestra together after his daughter Eliza was born with cerebral palsy. 'I thought it was time to establish a really brightly lit platform for astonishingly gifted musicians who happen to be disabled, in order to get the attention of the world to bring about change,' he said.

The show is one of four new music programmes commissioned by Channel 4 arts commissioning editor Tabitha Jackson. 'While on the face of it these films are about music, in fact what they really illuminate, in a beautifully crafted way, is contemporary human experience and the power of music within that,' said Jackson.

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