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Friday, December 23, 2011

Music of the Universe

In seventh grade, my science teacher told us,

"There's no sound in space." 

Perhaps you were told this too? After all, space is a vacuum, and sound requires a medium to travel through, right?

Like so many of our cherished childhood "facts," the answer is yes...and no. I made this delightfully unsettling discovery this morning, while reading "For the Love of Physics" by MIT physics professor Walter Lewin (this book deserves a spot in the literary vesicle). It turns out that space is not a perfect vacuum (though a much better vacuum than any vacuum we could make on "perfection" relative?):  Matter (mostly plasma) exists in space, and  therefore pressure waves, and thus sound, can be produced and propagated. There's actually lots of sound in space! The catch is, our ears can't hear those frequencies. So yes, space is a vacuum, but no, it's not a perfect vacuum. And yes, there's sound in space, but no, we can't hear the sound (and if we can't hear the sound, is it a "sound"? It's the age-old question, "If a tree falls in the wood and no one hears it, does it make a sound?"--see related post). 

Disappointing, isn't it? After a promising realization of sound in space, we still won't ever be able to hear the music of the cosmos? 

Once again, the answer is yes...and no. True, "the big bang produced a bass gong sound that now has a wavelength of about 500 million light-years, a frequency of about fifty octaves (a factor of 10^15) below anything our ears can hear" (For the Love of Physics). The good news is that astronomer Mark Whittle has reproduced the sounds of the big bang for us to listen to (small caveat: it's raised in pitch by 50 octaves and compressed in time from 100 million years into 10 seconds)!

Click to listen to the big bang:
Read about big bang acoustics here:

Consider for a moment if the most basic units of the universe were like musical notes--resonant frequencies of unimaginably tiny strings. And these "musical notes" were what produced all our elementary particles (such as the electron). In effect, this is the basic tenet of string theory. And if string theory holds any ground (who knows if it does?), then the universe is a beautiful symphony of sound!

Of course, that depends on what you constitute "beauty" and "music" as. You've heard the "music" of the heavenly spheres. Now it's up to you to decide if that constitutes as music. The answer's probably yes...and no.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Art of Medicine

An excerpt from "The Art of Medicine: Thoughts on a G String" from The Lancet (2009):
There have been writings about the relation between
medicine and the listening aspects of music, but nothing
on the playing of music. Why do so many doctors pursue
music? Why does the orchestra of doctors in Boston (the
Longwood Symphony) receive audition inquiries on a
daily basis?
Mark Jude Tramo, a neurologist, songwriter/musician,
and director of The Institute for Music and Brain Science
at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, feels that
“there is overlap between the emotional and social aspects
of relating to sick patients and communicating emotion to
others through music…Some would speculate that there is
[also] an overlap between aptitude for science, which most
premeds major in, and for music.”
Lisa Wong—violinist, paediatrician, and president of
the Longwood Symphony Orchestra—speaks for the
many who came to medicine after years dedicated to
serious musicanship. “The music we create builds in us
an emotional strength, sense of identity, and sense of
order. Then it is given away—we play for others, we play in
ensembles. We come to medicine and it is the same thing.
The giving, the service—in music and medicine—is a natural
I was surprised to find my eyes watering after reading the article. Surprised to find myself laughing sighs. It struck me as a deeply personal grasp of my own motive for becoming a doctor, and I suppose an afirmation of it in some way other than my own head was more than just reassuring.

The musician touches others through music--a statement banal enough. What gets less noticed are transformations music brings upon the musician. Music is a beautiful gift, and all the more beautiful because it has helped me realize that medicine works the same way, and beyond. Music and medicine are about sharing something beautiful, about creating something extraordinary together—musician and listener, physician and patient. Musicians may craft an experience to bring their listeners adventure, escape, relief; Doctors may craft an experience to bring their patients life. Sometimes life seems so ordinary that we forget that it is extraordinary. Yet, life—is something more beautiful, far richer than any song could express. Medicine, music, and most things I suppose, are about touching others.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

We're all mad here: Rachmaninoff and Hypnotherapy

Rachmaninoff fell into a deep depression after the disastrous debut of his First Symphony in 1897, and underwent hypnotherapy as a result. He reportedly produced his Piano Concerto No. 2 through the help of regular sessions. The composer himself stated: “… I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in an armchair in [Dr. Nikolai Dahl]’s study. ‘You will begin to write your concerto. … You will work with great facility. … The concerto will be of excellent quality.’ I felt that Dahl’s treatment had strengthened my nervous system to a miraculous degree. Out of gratitude I dedicated my Second Concerto to him.” (source: Philadelphia Orchestra)
I used to believe that hypnosis was in fact, not an altered state of consciousness, but one in which one finds one's own expectations and the expectations of others vastly altered, so that you believe in yourself. I saw it as a kind of extreme placebo effect. And, as a fervent believer in the power of belief (naturally), I was satisfied with that.

But, I'm beginning to believe in the wonders of hypnosis as going behind the mind, or perhaps more aptly stated, having physical influences (mind to body), as Rachmaninoff remarks, "strengthened my nervous system to a miraculous degree". All this is more compelling by the accepted use of self-hypnosis to allow women to undergo natural childbirth with minimal pain, as one example. I'm starting to wonder, where do we draw the line between mind and body? (Related post: Body and Soul)

Interestingly though, Rachmaninoff's statement reminds me of the power of religion, which is itself the power of belief manifested in a different form--"had strengthened me... to a miraculous degree...out of gratitude I dedicated my Second Concerto to him." I'm a bit of a skeptic of hypnosis and religion, yet I have a respectful sense of awe toward both.

Just a thought. Also another thought--Rach 2 is mad. It's so often associated with madness. In Rachmaninoff's case, it's a journey out of the madness of depression. For the case of the schizoaffect-ed pianist, David Helfgott, it's said to be the piece that brought "madness" upon him. It's mad in so many ways and we love it in so many ways.

Well, I guess for us musicians, scientists, skeptics--"We're all mad here."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Paul Bloom: The Origins of Pleasure

Another great TED talk.
Why do we like an original painting better than a forgery? Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that human beings are essentialists -- that our beliefs about the history of an object change how we experience it, not simply as an illusion, but as a deep feature of what pleasure (and pain) is.
Paul Bloom: The Origins of Pleasure

This video became a "rhyming event" for me today. I watched it just seconds before going to the home society where I've been playing piano for kids with developmental disabilities this summer. As I enter, I see that John, one of the kids, has a freshly-painted finger-painting sitting on his lap. It's of a heart. He says it's for me. That meant so much to me, and I though it was such a beautiful painting. Most people would probably look at it, see a blob of red and pink, and shrug.  But I'd rather have this painting than a Vermeer. So yes, it goes to show, the "history" of an object makes all the difference in our experience of it.

Paul Bloom brings up good points about our experience of music as well. The piece, 4'33 has been under scrutiny in relation to so many topics--how do we define music? how does the fact that Cage composed it change how we view the piece? I find it amusing that not only is 4'33 on iTunes, but you can enjoy it here on youtube performed by a full orchestra and a packed audience that gives it a standing ovation (and plenty of coughing between movements). The Joshua Bell "experiment" (in quotes because it wasn't really a controlled experiment) mentioned in the video has a slew of other factors involved as well, like the environment (I disagree with the video--the listeners in the noisy subway, busy with places to be, were not listening to the same Joshua Bell played in a perfectly acousted concert hall. "History" can't account for everything of course.

Once again, psychology has shown us the power of belief in shaping our experiences.

The mind is its own place,
and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell,
a Hell of Heaven

--John Milton

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Desiderata: Does Expressive Writing Make You Happier?

Written by Max Ehrmann to his diary, c.1920
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.

Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

I had forgotten about this little piece of prose poetry until my little sister was assigned to memorize it for her gifted class. And I had a sudden flashback to my own eighth grade self memorizing this as well. I'm starting to realize how much that class has shaped who I am, as much as people may scoff and say, "We never learned anything in gifted."

Desiderata raises something of psychological interest: Max Ehrmann wrote this to his diary. Did that make him happier? Healthier? Pennebaker's expressive writing paradigm showed that people who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than before writing. In the expressive writing paradigm, participants were asked to write about traumatic, stressful or emotional events for 15–20 minutes on 3–5 occasions. Those who did so generally had significantly better physical and psychological outcomes compared with those who wrote about neutral topics. 

The Pennebaker writing paradigm seems to suggest that the expression of emotion helps to cope with the emotion. However, the results seem to go against another study by Bonanno & Keltner (1997), in which the expression of emotion in facial expressions led to higher levels of grief. This supports the facial feedback hypothesis, somatic marker hypothesis, and James-Lange theory, which all say that the body greatly influences emotional experience. 
"Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit."

Perhaps we can resolve the dilemma of "to express or not to express" in this way: express through the mind instead of letting the body dictate. Perhaps expression through writing distracts from one's physical expressions by focusing energy elsewhere. Perhaps crafting words allows you to look at your experience in a different light, perhaps see it as a lesson learned, or growing experience.

It might not work for everyone, but why not try?--write in a diary, write a poem, write a song. "Be cheerful. Strive to be happy."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why do we cry when something is beautiful?

Because it is too beautiful, too beautiful to last.
--Michael Tilson Thomas on Mahler Symphony No. 1, Mvt III, at 5:20-7:00 below (Bernstein conducting):

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Happiness Through Health and Music

“Music has Charms to soothe a savage Breast / To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”
-William Congreve

I came across Regimens: Soothing Melodies for Cancer Patients from the New York Times this morning, stating that new research suggests that listening to music may reduce pain and anxiety in cancer patients. This research isn't new per say, the original paper is actually a systematic review paper that put together data from 30 trials.

Here is the plain language summary:
Having cancer may result in intense emotional, physical and social suffering. Music therapy and music medicine interventions have been used to alleviate symptoms and treatment side effects in cancer patients. In music medicine interventions, the patient simply listens to pre-recorded music that is offered by a medical professional. Music therapy requires the implementation of a music intervention by a trained music therapist, the presence of a therapeutic process, and the use of personally tailored music experiences.
This review included 30 trials with a total of 1891 participants. The findings suggest that music therapy and music medicine interventions may have a beneficial effect on anxiety, pain, mood, quality of life, heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure in cancer patients. Most trials were at high risk of bias and, therefore, these results need to be interpreted with caution.

Although music has been used for pain relief since the ancient times, only recently has music come under empirical scrutiny for pain management in clinical settings, with a focus on postoperative, labor, and chronic pain, three common types of clinical pain. 

Looking at various papers on music interventions, the mechanism underlying music’s pain reducing abilities have been largely attributed to the psychological factors of distraction and relaxation. Other physiological explanations seem to relatively neglected. However, in the end, the psychological mechanisms are inherently physiological themselves, perhaps mediated by a spinal mechanism. So in the end, the gate control theory of pain may serve as an uniting mechanism to explain the beneficial impact of music intervention on pain management.

Though it may not be clear how music heals, one thing is clear: it doesn't hurt to have music. Research isn't necessary for us to know that. As a doctor, I'll take advantages of music to connect with patients. Doctors spread happiness through health, and musicians do so with music. So, why not do both?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

3D Audio (cont.)

Here's just a little update from my post a few months ago, 3D Audio. I was excited to find this video on the Princeton homepage today:

Looks like this 3D audio is getting closer and closer to becoming reality!

Professor Chouieri's last statement - "This is one of the calls of technology--to mimic nature" - is inspiring. It certainly puts technology in a new light. It's another example of how nature propels the [the artist/scientist].

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Quantum Cello

It's time for a fresh look at things.


by Zoe Keating
Free download here.
Zoë Keating is a one-woman orchestra. She uses a cello and a foot-controlled laptop to record layer upon layer of cello, creating intricate, haunting and compelling music. Zoë is known for both her use of technology - which she uses to sample her cello onstage - and for her DIY ethic which has resulted in the sale of over 35,000 copies of her self-released albums and a devoted social media following.
Two words: Beautiful. Fresh.

Hear more of Zoe Keating and how she creates her "strange loops" in Quantum Cello from Radiolab (podcast below). The second piece, "The Sun Will Set" at 17:00 is my favorite.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Choices, choices, choices...

It's a simple question: Left or right?
Of course, the most basic questions are never simple. The more you think, the more you get tangled up in more questions.  Up or down? Over or under? And where will it take me? What determines life's trajectory? How do we choose?

The Future is a question that has undoubtedly flitted (likely done more than flit) across the mind of every person. After all, the question boils down to one thing humans love and fear: uncertainty. Studies in health psychology reveal that patients fear uncertainty more than death (Brynildsen, lecture). Certainly, the state of unknowing can be more nerve-wracking and taxing than the knowledge of the worse-case scenario. But then, as we've discovered in our exploration of the art of science, the uncertain, the ambiguous, the abstract is also where beauty resides and artistry reigns.

In a quest to unravel all of our futures, I turned to my trusty friends Jad and Robert from Radiolab (Radiolab is an NPR program with science episodes and podcasts--lots of psychology and neuroscience--with super-duper sound effects and wonderful storytelling.). The podcast, "How Much Is Too Much?,"  shed some light on how we make choices, and how having options affects us, for better or for worse.

According to Barry Schwartz, the problem of the modern era is that we have too many choices. At the Berkeley Bowl, there are hundreds of oranges and apples to choose from. Surely, having options is a good thing, but how much is too much? Well, studies show that 7 (plus or minus 2) items is our cognitive limit (see the famous The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus 2 by George A. Miller). When mentally overloaded with more than 7-ish items, our rational thinking process breaks down. In words, this manifests itself as "overwhelming"! (Sidenote for the disheartened: Consider, what is an item? This can be fuzzy. It could be each letter from list of letters, or according to the podcast, a category of apple traits. But say you blocked a group of letters together into words. Now, you can remember much more than seven-ish letters. For example, N B A F B I T G I F (10 items) becomes only 3 items when blocked as NBA FBI TGIF. This is called "chunking." )

So what does this mean? That sometimes we can't trust our rational brain? Then what should be trust? Our gut? It may sound a bit counterintuitive, but perhaps so. Our emotional response is a quick decision-making system shaped from our whole life's worth of experience. It's an undercover guardian, guiding our decisions before we are even conscious that our path has been set. Antonio Demasio's Somatic Marker Hypothesis claims that when faced with complex and choices, emotional processes can help guide our decisions when cognitive processes are overloaded (body responses associated with outside stimuli are "somatic markers"). This hypothesis was tested in one of psychology's most famous experiments, the Iowa Gambling Task. In this task, participants were presented with 4 decks of cards, with the objective of making as much money as possible. Two decks were "bad" decks, and two decks were "good" decks, but the participants did not know which decks were bad and good. The bad decks had cards that gave higher gains, but also some cards with huge losses, so the net result would be loss. The good decks had cards with low gains, but also low losses, so net result would be gain.

As the participants were choosing decks, their skin conductance response was measured, and they were asked to categorize their level of awareness of their decisions. After about 50 cards, most healthy participants were consistently choosing from the good decks. Now here's the interesting part: the results showed that the healthy participants' skin conductance response knew which decks were bad very early on (high SCR in response to the bad decks), and that participants were choosing from the good decks far before they even knew why they were doing so. On the other hand, participants with orbitofrontal lesions never learned to pick from the good decks, since they did not have the physiological response. It's a bit unsettling, that our body guides our decisions without our mind's awareness, but it's also comforting that it makes the right ones, according to the Somatic Marker Hypothesis.

It's comforting, that we're not really as lost as we might think we are. That something is guiding us, helping us choose which deck to pick, which road to take, which direction to turn. It's something that embodies both cognitive and emotional processes. I think that's passion. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

[The artist]

[The scientist] does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.

--Henri Poincare, physicist

Friday, May 27, 2011

Doe, a Deer

"Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."  
~Maya Angelou

The title may be the only thing remotely musical about this post. This post is not scientific, nor musical, nor psychology-related. But it is artistic, and it belongs in the blog as one of those "make the ordinary extraordinary" moments. I just had one of the most beautiful fifteen minutes of my life. I just felt like I was some character in a fiction novel. I just talked to a deer.

I was gently swinging on the swing set in my backyard, eating my hotpocket and enjoying the beautiful weather. 82 degrees Fahrenheit, sunny blue sky, gentle breeze pushing me along, my thoughts drifting, thinking about how I would no longer be in my teens soon, deer. I frooze. Deer? My eyes darted back toward the trees in the distance. About forty feet away, there stood a deer, a doe. Doe, a deer. Beautiful, tall, full-grown, majestic. She had a kind of hesitant curiosity about her, as did I. She stared at me, perhaps some fear in those eyes. I didn't want to scare her away. I wanted to let her know, "hey, I like you, you're beautiful, please stay." When my eyes met hers, we connected. That moment, everything was still and time slowed. We just didn't know what would happen next. I felt awkward being stared at so intently, and I lowered my gaze. I rested my head along the swing's chain. I let my hair drift in the wind. I smiled. No teeth, just a shy smile. I looked up again, smiling. I looked at the doe in my periphery, not directly. I could tell her eyes were still penetrating on me. And so I continued, resting my head, trying to appear natural, trying to tell her I'm not dangerous, I'm just like you, I want to be friends. I did. And then I did something funny, I bowed. I sat in that swing and lowered my head, ever so slightly, to show my respect. I was half hoping she might bow too. I could tell she wasn't as scared anymore. There was some curiosity in her eyes. I cocked my head, showing my interest as well. And then she did something.

Still staring at me, she lifted her right leg, deliberately, slowly, and then just as deliberately, stomped the ground. It wasn't a hard, angry stomp, but it was a firm, steady, stomp. I waited a little. Then I too, while still sitting on the swing, lifted my right leg, ever so slowly, and then lowered it, not as firm as the deer's placement, but with deliberation. I'm not sure what made me do it, it just felt natural. I wanted to tell her, you're the one in charge, I'm shy, I'm timid, don't be afraid of me. And then, she did it again, but with her left leg. I copied once again, with my left leg. Her left, my left, her left, my left, her right, my right, her left, my left. It continued, a sort of steady tempo of about 10 beats per minute (10 seconds between leg lifts), her leading, me following. I'm not sure how long we just did that, probably just a couple of minutes, but it felt like a long time. And then, she stopped. She walked around a little. I thought she was about to leave, but she came back. I looked around to. I started playing with my hair, pretending to groom myself. And then, I bowed again. This time, deeply, my hair touching the grass. I looked up, half expecting her to be gone, but there she was, looking at me with softened eyes. Then I lowered myself to the grass, I felt too artificial, too distanced, sitting on a man-made swing set. I made myself lower, I made myself more approachable, sitting sideways, resting my weight on one hand, like how girls sit when they're wearing a dress. The doe started walking toward me. She did seem curious. I held my breath. And then, perhaps thirty feet away, she stopped. She stomped her right leg, but this time, immediately followed it by stomping her left leg. She waited. I shifted so my weight was on both on my hands, and then gently lifted up my right, and then left hands. She stares at me. Five seconds pass. She does it again. Right leg, then left leg. I follow--right hand, left hand---and just as my left hand reaches the grass again, she suddenly lets out a tremendous snort of air, almost like a sneeze, and prances off. Really prancing, she seemed so joyful. I was in shock. I didn't know what it meant. I wonder what I had told her? It seemed so sudden, like I had just said something delightful, and she had to go and tell someone. I was in disbelief, and just stayed there half sitting, half lying on the wet grass, jeans wet but I didn't even notice.

And then, recovering from my daze, I returned to the swing set. I stayed there for another five minutes, thinking she might return and have something to say. Then I went inside, grabbed some corn, and returned to the swing set, waiting for her. I stayed out there another ten minutes or so, thinking about what had just happened, and realizing this was the most beautiful kind of experience I could have asked for before leaving my teen years. That doe had a kind of wisdom and maturity. I do feel more ready to grow up now.

She never returned. I'm leaving for the lake tomorrow, but I'll be back in a few days.

It's argued that theory of mind, "the ability to attribute mental states—beliefsintentsdesirespretendingknowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own" and an important component of empathy, is unique to humans, but I think this doe I met today has theory of mind. (So I lied, this post is a bit psychology-related.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

From the Literary Vesicle: Body and Soul by Frank Conroy

Body and Soul was written by a true musician. It is about a gifted young pianist's journey through music, through life, through maturity, through the professional music world and music business. It gets at the heart of what music making means, and puts into words the those inexpressible, wonderful, magical moments of music making.

The story is a fictionally rich and beautiful one.  But I'm actually not going to write about the plot (here's a nice plot synopsis). I'm going write about the parts that resonated to me, parts that express some experiences of music making that I've never known how to express. The music making that goes beyond the body--that is what music is all about, and this book gets across that wonderfully. Here's a rather lengthy passage, but I'm going to quote it in it's entirety, because it's my favorite from the whole book, and it's absolutely true. This is a dialogue between the piano teacher (Fredericks) and the student (Claude), in which the piano teacher has just told his student that there is an attraction, like magnetism, between two pieces of glass that were given to him:

When, after a moment, the orbits of the two pieces of glass brought them near each other, Claude both saw and felt his ball move slightly out of its orbit toward the other one. It was quite distinct. A little jump.
"You see?" Fredericks said. "You held perfectly still?"
"Yes." Claude was amazed. "Magic. Is it magic?"
Fredericks took the glass balls and put them back in his desk. "Some people would have you believe so, but it isn't. It only feels like magic."
"Well, what is it, then? What made it do that?"
"You did."
"No, I didn't move. Not one bit. Anyway, I could feel it. I could feel a little tug when it jumped."
"You believed the pieces of glass were attracted to each other."
"Well, you said they, I mean, I didn't actually know whether--"
"Listen to me, Claude," Fredericks said. "This is important. It's because you believed."
"But that's like magic. You said--"
"I said you did it. You did it without knowing it. Tiny micro-movements in the pad of your thumb and the pad of your forefinger. Infinitesimally small movements below your level of physical awareness, magnified because of the length of the string, making the ball jump."

"I've just shown you that your fingers can do more than what you physically feel them doing." He made a little arc in the air with his hand. "The other side of the wall."
Claude thought about it. "Yes, but how? How do you do it?"
Fredericks got up from the desk and stood directly in front of the boy. "You must imagine the music in your head. Imagine it shaped and balanced the way you want it. Get it in your head and then believe in it. Concentrate, believe, and your fingers will do it."
"My God," Claude whispered.
"Anything you can imagine clearly, you can play. That's the great secret."
So, it goes beyond the body," Claude said.
"Exactly."  (Body and Soul, p. 117-119)
The power of belief is magical, but not surprising. Psychology knows this well. The powers of the placebo effect are well-known. Just a couple of weeks ago, our health psychology professor showed us a video on the power of the placebo surgery. Patients underwent a sham surgery for knee pain. In other words, they underwent surgery without the actual surgical procedure, in which incisions were made, but no actual knee surgery was performed. After the "surgery," there was overwhelming improvement. Patients testified how the pain that had impeded their whole lives was gone, and they could go back living normally. Yet they never had an actual surgery, the improvement was all in their head. "So, it goes beyond the body." Here is the video our professor had shown us:

Placebo Surgery

Well, reading this, believing seems so simple. But it's not. Yet this it is the key that makes all the difference. Focusing on the music, not on your playing of it. But there's something further than just imagining the sound, you have to imagine the image, the scene, the thing you want to portray with the sound--what story you want to share with the audience. And from there, things take off.

Mark Steinberg, first violinist of the Brentano String Quartet, and my coach for one semester of "Projects in Musical Performance" once said something that I remember dearly. He told us at our last lesson together before final concert (I was playing a piano duo--Schubert Allegro in A minor), "How many people around you can do what you are about to do? You are going to take all those people on a journey together, and only you can tell that story." That's what music is all about, affecting those around you. That's what life is about too--inspiring others.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Night of Sublime Thunder: The Tokyo String Quartet

The last concert of the Princeton University Concerts 2010-2011 season  featured the renowned  Tokyo String Quartet. The program consisted Mozart Quartet No. 15 in D Minor, Takemitsu String Quartet No. 1 "A Way A Lone," and Beethoven Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130.

The program itself is a stormy one. Melanchoically sublime. According to the program notes, the pieces are tied together by "influence," all of the pieces being greatly influenced by previous composers (Mozart by Haydn, Takemitsu by post-Romanticists, and Beethoven by Handel). It is interesting to note that all of these pieces were later works from each composer's life. What's more interesting is that these later works are all some of the most tumultuous pieces of each composer, and I think it is this character that defines this concert and ties together the pieces, more so than the influence. For instance, the Mozart Quartet No. 15 is the only quartet that Mozart had written in a minor key (D minor--interesting, the same key as the only minor piano concerto Mozart had written, Piano Concerto No. 20). And as for the Beethoven, excluding the infamous "Great Fugue," Op. 133 (the last piece Beethoven had written--horribly painful as Beethoven's testament to the destruction of music), the Op. 130 is one of the greatest, and most unpredictably contrasting Beethoven string quartet. Now for the Takemitsu, I am unfamiliar with his work, but Quartet No. 1 was also composed later in this contemporary composer's life (1981), and was literally (or shall I say, musically) governed by the word, "SEA" (Eb (S corresponding to German pitch designation, E, and A). In this case, the SEA was tempestuous indeed. I thought the program selection in itself already set apart this concert from others. It was definitely one of the most "emotional" concerts I've attended, one reason being because all the pieces were so profound. I treasure concerts for that emotional experience, and I certainly got it here (just maybe a bit much though).

Now many sublime and thunderous things happened in each piece, but there was one eerie external and internal instance of it that I must share. Some sublime thunder happened during the Cavatina of the Beethoven. Literally and figuratively.  This movement is the definition of sublime. So much beauty and sorrow. It is said that Beethoven wept when he heard this in his head. This piece was actually sent to the heavens (okay, space--it was sent on the Voyager mission into space). What is truly uncanny is that during this movement (shortly after the heartwrenching "Beklemmt" passage, in which the first violin is "choked up" in anguished free recitative) a rumble of thunder resonated throughout the concert hall (there was a storm outside). It was as if the Gods were responding to such human suffering and sorrow; as if Beethoven had firmly said from the sky, "and let it be no more." But alas, it continues. Thank goodness it does. What would be a world with no suffering? A world without happiness?

Of course, the Tokyo String Quartet was phenomenal. I'd like to give a special shout out to the violist and cellist. In the rarer moments when I felt like things were getting rushed, the violist played with the "pauses" (but not pauses, just the inclination of a pause...) needed. I thought the violist played with the most conviction, mainly because he really played the silences. And the cellist, my goodness that deep, rich, sound gives me the chills just thinking about it! I've always been partial to cellos, but what I heard from this cello really resonated through my body and warmed it.

After the concert at the reception, I was very lucky to have gotten a chance to talk to one of the quartet members, Kikuei Ikeda (violin) and to express how much I enjoyed their performance. He was really pleased and asked me if I played any instruments, to which I replied that I was minoring in piano performance. His next response was completely unexpected and humble. He told me how exceptionally talented he thought us undergraduate musicians were (more so than graduate students), how he thought it was amazing how we were so intelligent and dedicated to our academic studies and yet exceptional musicians as well, referencing his experience teaching undergrad musicians at Yale.  Well, those words awakened me like the thunder did. I was really speechless, for I would have never imagined, this world-renowned musician felt humbled by us! It's really amazing how fast perspectives can shift, how fast relationships can change; how stepping outside of your own shoes for a while makes the world a different place. Music does that in so many ways, direct (like the concert), and indirect (like the reception), and turns an otherwise normal night into one of sublime thunder.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Art of Organic Chemistry

The air is thick, saturated with flying bonds, proton transfers, reagents. Hundreds of students, and inside every head holds a whirlwind of activity. 10 seconds left...Frantic scribbling...5....turning of pages...3....erasing...

And suddenly it's over. The anxiety, confusion, frustration, hours of toil. Over.
The air is empty. The flashes of insight, the beauty of creation, the elegance of pushing arrows. Over.
Last exam of the year. Organic chemistry. Over.

And who would have thought, that one might discover so much beauty in it? Organic chemistry is one of the most artistic experiences I've been through. As musician and dancer, that's saying something. Seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? Chemistry is often thought to be the realm of the realists, for what could be more specific and real than molecules--the basic units of life, and synthetic “life”? Yet, there’s so much ambiguity, so much abstractness and postulating to be found in organic chemistry (like science in general, the ambiguity and unknowns make up the great art in science). No explanation is set in stone…perhaps the molecule goes through a cationic transition state, or perhaps the reaction involves a concerted displacement…perhaps the more bulky substituent migrates to relieve steric strain, or perhaps it can stabilize positive charge better... Certainly, the ambiguous and abstract can be confusing and daunting, but they are ever so interesting and artistic as well.

But organic chemistry is creative for another more obvious reason: it holds the power of creation. Synthesis. That’s a beautiful word. Organic chemists have to unique power to create new molecules--molecules with structural complexity that deserve to be on display in an art museum, molecules that mimic the wonder of nature, molecules that hold the power of treating diseases. Molecules are a work of art in themselves. Take, for example, this simply elegant molecule (which we considered how to synthesize in one of our problem sets!):

And take, for another example, this complex architectural sculpture (synthesized in the lab of my chemistry professor, EJ Sorensen) with antibiotic properties:

We have science museums and art museums. One day, I shall like to see a science art museum, with molecules like these two certainly included, along displays of art such as the ones found in the Art of Science Gallery (see previous post).

And it goes even further. When I said organic chemistry was artistic, I didn't mean just the subject itself, but also the process of learning organic chemistry. What do I mean by that? Well, let's just say, learning organic chemistry is like practicing piano (it's amazing how many times I've found myself making this analogy during my study of organic chemistry). It takes regular practice, often repetitive and seemingly tedious, to really nail down a concept. It's a doing, not watching thing. You can't just study the music score and expect to be able to play a piece. Similarly, in ballet class, our instructor always would say, "Go ahead, practice the moves! This is not school, you can't just study the moves and expect to be able to do them." Well, our instructor was half right--in the case of organic chemistry, dancing is certainly is like school indeed. In organic chemistry, you can't just study the concepts, you have to do chemistry "with a pencil"--you have to actually work out problems, and make mistakes. Frustration. It's a wonderful part of the artistic process. Because without it, we wouldn't have the wonderful sense of reward experienced when we overcome our challenges.

Organic chemistry. Over? Not quite.

Because organic chemistry, like music making, is process that teaches you to think a bit more artistically, and that, --that will continue for the rest our lives.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Music Therapy for Cerebral Palsy: The Carter School

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 5
This morning, groups of three of us went to the Carter School for Cerebral Palsy to observe music therapy. The sessions were led by Sarah Blacker and music therapy students from Berklee. Each session consisted of around four students, each with various degrees of cerebral palsy or autism.

We witnessed how music could help the students with movement (such as using arm movements to hit a drum and dance) and vocalizations (such as singing). I truly saw the patience and care required of music therapists, and how it is extremely rewarding when one is able to reach another through music. I was delighted to have been able to interact with the students as well. The music therapist asked if I could help hold a symbol in front of a student and match the symbol's position with the student's arm movements. I desperately wanted to reach him somehow, as the music therapy student and I encouraged him to hit the symbol through actions and  song. One wonderful moment was when one of the students started banging the drums, and the rest of us answered him by playing back his rhythm. It was amazing because he realized what we were doing, and his face lit up in understanding. He ended up getting so enthused about it that we had trouble getting him to calm down and stop!

Drum Circle: "Drumming increases antibody production"

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 4
This evening at Spontaneous Celebrations, there was a drum circle jam with members of the community, and we joined in! It was a very fun and enriching experience for all of us. We learned the basic techniques of drumming (bass, slap, ?) and then went around soloing and playing various rhythms in synchrony. I could sense how close the group (many which had been to these weekly drum sessions for more than 14 sessions) was, and how they found support through drumming together. Drumming is a effective type of music therapy technique; our group has been drumming in some way or another every day since our trip started. And we've been constantly reminding ourselves, as we learned from Sarah Blacker, the music therapist we visited at Boston Medical Center the other day, that "drumming increases antibody production."

"An Apple and a Bicycle:" Adventures in Songwriting

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 4
This afternoon, (after some deforestation and then salsa dancing with 7th graders!), a group of three of us visited Hannah Slater, a senior at Berklee majoring in music therapy, for a session of songwriting with a male student K. Sarah works with at-risk youth to help them to enrich their lives through music, as part of the nonprofit organization, Genuine Voices.

We went outside in the sunny Boston day and started freewriting about ourselves, and using metaphors to describe ourselves (brainstorming). Next, we went inside to put our ideas to song. Student K suggested the title of piece to be "An Apple and a Bicycle," based on the metaphor of apple and bicycle one of us used in the brainstorming process. Another metaphor we wanted to incorporate was the sea and storm. Eventually, our first few lines came out to be:
Sitting in a lonely rowboat,
Drifting out to sea...
By the end of the hour, we had come up with a complete verse, along with melody. Although we wanted to continue songwriting, we were out of time, so we decided to record ourselves! You can listen to our impromptu recording here.

I was very impressed by the talent and passion Student K showed for music, and I was deeply impressed by Hannah's ability to guide us through the song-writing process (it was her first time). Hannah showed genuine care and passion for what she does, and it shined through not only when she worked with us in songwriting, but also by just talking with her. It was a delight to have her join us for dinner. I'm very happy to have made a new friend in Hannah. Once again, it's amazing the wonders that music can do to bring people together and enrich lives.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Music in Medicine at MA General Hospital: Dr. Conrad

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 3
After the music therapy session, we went to the Massachusetts General Hospital to visit Dr. Conrad, a surgeon and the Director of the Music in Medicine Research group . Here is a bit of background information about Dr. Conrad:
Claudius Conrad, Director of Music in Medicine of the Department of Surgery and the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, is well-known for his work understanding the role of music in modern medicine. He holds an MD, a doctoral degree in stem cell biology, and a doctoral degree in music philosophy from the University of Munich. He has been awarded several honors for his work, including the Excellence in Research Award, the Leadership Award of the American College of Surgeons, Steinway Artist, and many others. As a trained concert pianist and lecturer, he promotes the scientific use of music in medicine at prominent institutions around the globe.
Dr. Conrad gave us an informative lecture on his research on how listening to music (Mozart) helps performance (performing surgical procedures and motor control tasks). The results of his studies show that listening to Mozart decreases stress (by measuring stress indicators in the blood), and improves motor performance. In one study, subjects were asked to perform motor tasks, similar to surgical procedure tasks, in either a silent, dichotic music, mental loading, or Mozart condition. The results showed that subject's speed and accuracy in the tasks increased in the Mozart condition. Also, the blood samples taken from the participants showed that those in the Mozart condition had lower indicators of stress and that nurses (blind to the study) rated those subjects as more relaxed. See the paper, "The effect of defined auditory conditions versus mental loading on the laparoscopic motor skill performance of experts" published in Surgical Endoscopy, 2010.

What really astounds me is how Dr. Conrad is able to do such research, be a surgeon, and a touring concert pianist at the same time. He told us he attended medical school and a music conservatory at the same time!

For more on the music in medicine research Dr. Conrad does, check out this video: "Music in Medicine--Dr. Conrad"

Experiencing Music Therapy with Sarah Blackner

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 3 
After visiting Dr. Seibel, we went to the Boston Medical Center (Integrative Medicine) to participate in a session of music therapy with Sarah Blacker. We were graciously welcomed into the music therapy circle, along with a group of around twenty patients dealing with cancer. Here is a little about Sarah Blacker and the sessions:
Board-Certified Music Therapist, Sarah Blacker, who is also a nationally touring and recording singer/songwriter, graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and who previously worked at BMC practicing inpatient Music Therapy for 2.5 years, will be providing the opportunity to sing your favorite songs, engage in drumming or playing instruments, and also to write your own original songs.
The session started off with Sarah going around the group singing as we all introduced our names through song, while playing on a small instrument we had chosen ourselves (i.e. maracas, guitars, drums, bells). I chose the drums (we had just been told by the doctor that drumming increases antibody production, so why not?). Next, she asked us all what music meant, and we came up with phrases like "music is happiness," "music is life," and "music is expression." Through using our phrases, Sarah helped us improvise a song. During our songs, people were given the opportunity to perform solos and express themselves. Two solos especially stuck out to me (besides the blues solo I ended up singing): an older man's solo and a young child's solo. The older man sang a long folk-like tune with purity and sincerity. It was beautiful and touching. The little boy, around six years old, shy and unwilling to sing at first, opened up and sang with a quiet determination. While listening, I felt a deep sense of empathy, a sense of understanding communicated by music, where words would have failed.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Dr. Seibel and Healthrock. The new Schoolhouse Rock...for medicine?

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 3
This afternoon, we visited Dr. Seibel for a fun informal discussion at the Boston Medical Center. What a treat! He played us songs on his guitar from Healthrock, a creative music business he created similar to Schoolhouse Rock, except related to medicine and health education. Now here's a doctor who brings creativity and music to his motto of "It's better to stay well than to get well." Here's more about Dr. Seibel and Healthrock:
Dr. Seibel founded HealthRock® ( to make health education fun and easy to remember. His songs go in one ear...and Rock the other! As DocRock™ he leaves audiences smiling and singing his songs long after his presentations are over. He has written 12 musical CDs, the songs and lyrics to three musical comedies and has spoken at the US DHHS, the CDC and at professional meetings, schools and companies across the country. His motto is: “It’s better to stay well than to get well.” You can learn more about Dr. Seibel at
During our discussion, Dr. Seibel treated us to his very own performance of his own songs on the guitar, singing the lyrics with great energy along the way, ranging from Gospel to rap, on topics from colonoscopy and mammograms to healthy eating habits. It was such a delight seeing his enthusiasm and enjoyment as he performed. It certainly was contagious, and we enjoyed it very much! It was especially fun hearing his little improvised song to welcome us, along the lines of "greetings to students of Princeton University, thank you!" Well thank you, Dr. Seibel, for showing us the widespread powers of music to not just entertain, but to educate and heal. Well, Dr. Seibel asked for a testimonial so here's mine:

He left us college students with some parting words of wisdom:
"Try to think where you're going. It's important to know how you think in the long run. Explore, and then stick with your goal."

I'm inspired by Dr. Seibel's ability to bring his passion and creativity into his medical practice. In his words, I'm "sticking with my goal" to do so as well.

The Interfaith Arts Connection

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: Day 2
Last evening, we went to a workshop on music therapy by the Interfaith Arts Connection at Lesley University. Cobi, a masters candidate in music therapy at Lesley University, along with two of his colleagues, facilitated some very engaging activities. Our first activity was fun and wacky. We greeted each other using various parts of our body, such as the ears, nose, and feet! Another activity included a type of guided imagery to music, where one person, "the leader," would narrate his/her story (of faith) through movement as calm music was played in the background, and another person, "the follower," would mimic the movements. In another activity, each person chose their own instrument, and then played along with others in the group based on criteria such as instrument similarity and dissimilarity. Through the workshop, we were able to look at some techniques of music therapy while socially bonding as a group at the same time.

As an artistically synaptic sidenote, we went stilt walking yesterday at noon! You know, going on those high stilts like clowns do in parades? Well I still can't believe I managed to do that! Although a bit intimidating at first, it's amazing how quickly we can adapt and learn to walk on two sticks and be a couple of feet higher. By the end of half an hour, all eight of us were stilting like we were ready to go on a parade. Photos will be up by next week!

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Haydn, Bartok, and Beethoven

Chronicles of Boston Breakout: An Introduction
This begins the chronicles of "Boston Breakout: Music, Mind, and Medicine," a week-long spring break trip sponsored by the Princeton University Pace Center for Civic Engagement focused on learning about music therapy, music and medicine research, and volunteering to improve the community and lives of at-risk youth through the arts. After many months of busy planning, I'm so happy the trip is happening and going so well! I'll share here some snippets of the exciting things our group of eight students, ranging from English to Molecular Biology to Philosophy majors all with a deep love of music, are doing outside what we students call "the orange bubble."

Day 1: Boston Symphony Orchestra

On Saturday, we went to the renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra for a delightful concert of Haydn, Bartok, and Beethoven. The program featured Haydn's Symphony No. 93 in D, Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, conducted by Roberto Abbado, with Peter Serkin as pianist (both substitutions for James Levine and Maurizio Pollini, who were were both unfortunately ill). See the concert program and program notes here.

The concert was, of course, splendid. It was a wonderful blend of witty Classicism (Haydn), intricate Romanticism and virtuosity (Bartok), and finale classic (Beethoven 5). And, no less than expected, the Boston Symphony performed with classic ingenuity.

Which was my favorite piece? Well...I might give in and let the popular classic shine in it's glory for once. I must say the Allegro finale of Beethoven 5 left quite an impression on me. The sonority and shear power of the brass's entrance before the upward scalar run of the strings sent those wonderful chills through me. Bravo brass! That movement was my highlight of the concert. However, I thought Movement 1, Allegro con brio, with the famous fate theme (ba ba ba buuummm...) was a little too hurried for my taste, despite the nature of the movement. I would have liked to hear more silence, more 'breaths" between some phrases.

So I think I'll have to reconsider. I mean, the Haydn was really delightful, in the witty delight that Haydn is! And really, as a pianist myself, how could I not consider the Bartok? Peter Serkin played with technical brilliance and showmanship. However, as a critical pianist, I think his touch was a bit harsh, especially during the Adagio religioso (his wrists seemed high, and his shoulders and arms seemed somewhat stiff in general).

Though I may not have quite made up my mind on which piece was my favorite, I can certainly say this will be a concert that I will treasure forever! It's such an returning to the wonderful Boston Symphony Hall, and to share the experience with such a wonderful group of friends. It was a shame that James Levine was ill, but Roberto Abbado did a masterful job in his place.

Friday, March 4, 2011

3D Audio Craziness!

Well, in light of the dearth of posts, I must admit things have been pretty crazy for me lately. Certainly crazy in more ways than one, but here is kind of craziness you want to hear about, I promise!

Professor Edgar Chouieri, professor of Mechanical Engineering at Princeton, gave dinner discussion last Friday, Feb. 25, titled "3D Audio" as part of an art and science lecture series organized by the newly formed student group, Music in Mind. Here was the event description:
Lecture and Dinner brought to you by the Music in Mind (MiM) group:

An excerpt:
I’m about to hear a demonstration of Choueiri’s Pure Stereo filter, which promises “truly 3-D reproduction of a recorded soundfield.” Only a handful of people have heard his 3-D demo, but it’s already spawned awestruck hype, as well as preemptive rumblings of audiophile skepticism. -- Atlantic Monthly, March 2011.

So sure, that sounds pretty cool, but the lecture was way more than just cool! We actually got to hear 3D audio (if you're befuddled as to what 3D audio even means, bear with me for a while, or read the above article). Professor Chouieri brought in a small black rectangular device--one of those things that you might mistake for a pencil box--that played out sound in 3D. When I held black box (Chouieri's, not Tolman's) an arm's length away from my head, I heard bird sounds not only to the left and right of me (what regular speakers can do), but I could also hear a bird as if it were right next to my right ear, and another one just a little farther away, or another one a little behind me. I could hear actual depth in audio, and it was wonderfully uncanny. It was quite entertaining to see the looks of awe on everyone's faces (all 50 of us!) as the device was passed around the room.

You're wondering, how does this work? Well, the answer is surprisingly obvious--in the same way that 3D images work. (We witness here again how creativity and innovation arise from applying old concepts in new ways.) We see 3D images by eliminating cross-talk between the eyes. In the same way, we hear 3D sound by eliminating cross-talk between the ears. I'm being horribly vague, so please check out this video! It does a much better job at explaining this extremely fascinating stuff:


Professor Chouieri's going to California in a few weeks to talk with the movie makers. Imagine having 3D audio in the movie theatres, and then 3D audio TV, 3D audio CDs...! Professor Chouieri offered to show us his 3D Audio and Applied Acoustics Lab; we're working on organizing groups to visit for Music in Mind and perhaps even working with him on the creation of a 3D audio musical project. Crazy awesome!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Hyper-Emotion Theory of Psychological Illness

An article appeared in the New York Times this month titled "Giving Alzheimer’s Patients Their Way, Even Chocolate." It's a feel-good article about giving in to the whims of patients to improve their mood, encouraging music and painting and flower arranging in an emotion-focused atmosphere, proving significantly effective in treating disease. 
The article attests to the importance of considering the impact of emotion in treating psychological disorders, and it got me thinking about the hyper-emotion theory of psychological illness (A Hyper-Emotion Theory of Psychological Illness), a theory by Phil Johnson-Laird, Francesco Mancini, and Amelia Gangemi, postulating that psychological illness is not a result of faulty reasoning (as is the main tenet of cognitive therapy and Aaron Beck), but one of hyper-emotion, or inappropriately intense emotional reactions. In fact, the research finds that those with psychological illness are better at reasoning when the reasoning is related to their illness. Johnson-Laird describes the theory in his book, How We Reason:
[Cognitive therapists] stress that a closer questioning of patients yields thoughts revealing that the source of illnesses is in faulty inferences. But, according to the present theory, the patients' remarks do not elucidate the cause of the hyper-intensity of their emotions, but merely their thoughts about the precipitating object or situation yielding the emotion. Their reasoning is not the cause of their illness, but its consequence. Indeed, those of us with a propensity to mental illness reason better than control participants, though only on matter concerning the illness. (p.100)
The hyper-emotion theory certainly revolutionizes the way we think about cognitive therapy. Instead of treating how we think, should we be treating how we emotionally respond? And how would we go about doing so? Perhaps, as Johnson-Laird mentions in his book, through exposure therapy, which falls under the domain of behavioral therapy. So should cognitive therapy really be a form of behavioral therapy? Then again, cognitive therapy has strong research support (as does behavioral therapy), so how does the hyper-emotion theory address that? 
Just as an artistically synaptic side-note, Phil Johnson-Laird also does research on the psychology of music (see his music-related work here), which includes emotions and music, creativity and jazz improvisation, dissonance, twentieth-century music, computer music, and rhythm (we are currently working on a study of rhythm similarity).