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Ballads on the brain (science)

10 Sep 17 - 12:34 PM (#3876347)
Subject: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Pamela R

Hi all,
When I'm not singing ballads my day job is being a neuroscience researcher/professor. I have an article in press "Ballads on the Brain" in which I consider the cultural phenomenon of amateur ballad singing (as distinguished from professional performance) from a biological perspective, specifically its impact on brain circuits involved in recovering from stress, regulating emotions, and making social connections.

The publisher (EMC Imprint) is rather behind schedule in releasing the volume in which that will appear (it was due out in February) but I'll post a followup message with the link when it goes live, and would be glad to email anyone a pre-print on request.

In the meantime, however, I have given a public talk on this material under the title "The neuroscience of singing". I've now posted a video of the lecture here if anyone is interested:

Ballads on the Brain lecture

Note that although I do sing a little in the lecture, it's not a performance. My ballad singing videos are on a different channel:

Pamela San Diego channel


11 Sep 17 - 07:16 AM (#3876486)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)

Fascinating, thank you.

18 Sep 17 - 03:12 PM (#3877545)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: GUEST,guest

Thank you it is a most interesting video of research.
I am wondering what made you choose Blooming Caroline as the example to illustrate the long song? Where and from whom did you learn that particular version?

19 Sep 17 - 04:11 AM (#3877604)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: DMcG

Very interesting indeed, and I would certainly like a copy of the pre-print when it is ready.

I happen to be someone who both stammers and has a special interest in ballads. I mainly sing much shorter songs in singarounds, because it is a bit antisocial to monopolise the session for 20 minutes, but I am certainly more drawn to the longer songs. Purely anecdotal, of course, but intriguing none the less.

19 Sep 17 - 09:25 PM (#3877740)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: leeneia

I enjoyed your informative talk.

26 Sep 17 - 03:07 AM (#3878738)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Pamela R

Thanks for the feedback!

In response to a question from anonymous guest:

The version of Blooming Caroline I sing was collected by Seamus Ennis in 1952 from Jean Elvin in Turriff, Aberdeenshire. Not much seems to be known about the source singer except that she was born around 1928 in Aberdeenshire. It is one of many ballads that would have served equally well: it has a slow tempo and long continuous phrases that structure breathing into quick inhalations and very extended exhalations; and a lilting melody consistent with prosodic speech. I have no scientific basis for my subjective sense that melancholy tunes and texts are particularly effective. Also in my experience this ballad seems relatively free of musical associations for listeners, compared to Child Ballads and others that are very well known from post-war revival singers' interpretations, which diverged from the delivery patterns I'm describing.

In response to DMcG: I agree -- most singabouts have other goals such as allowing time for lots of people to take turns, and providing opportunities for others to join in on a chorus or play along on instruments, which are not compatible with ballads. It's not easy to find or create gatherings geared towards ballads, but that's another thread.


28 Sep 17 - 02:53 PM (#3879167)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Brian Peters

Pamela, I found this very interesting. People sometimes ask me why I (usually!) find no difficulty in remembering long ballads and, though I've always replied that songs that tell stories are the easiest to recall, I'm now wondering whether it's the state of Zen-like calm produced by the slow breathing and heart rate that's helping. Of course we're often told to douse down our onstage nerves by taking a few deep breaths beforehand.

I was pleased that you addressed the question of the subject matter of ballads, and how narratives of betrayal and violence might be expected to negate the physical effect of relaxation. Might it be a factor that even the bloodiest ballads often end in resolution, even though that might be violent in itself?

I also anticipated the question about other kinds of singing, posed by the choir member. I was already thinking about things like chanting at football matches, or singing traditional carols in local pubs, in both of which the singing is rapid, rhythmical and sometimes almost frenzied. Presumably in that case the feelings of satisfaction would be produced by the well-researched effects on the production of endorphins, rather than the vagus nerve?

If you're right, then unaccompanied ballad singing would represent a special case, where it's precisely the slowness of delivery that produces the beneficial effect. If you listen to some traditional ballad singers, they are far slower than any revival singer, which makes me wonder whether the cultures that produced them were well aware, consciously or subconsciously, of that.

28 Sep 17 - 04:17 PM (#3879178)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Vic Smith

Pamela wrote -
"collected by Seamus Ennis in 1952 from Jean Elvin in Turriff."
That would seem to be right and is the date given in the booklet notes of Good People Take Warning (Topic TSCD 673T) which may be Pamela's source.In his Folk Sound Index, Steve Roud gives the recording date as 16 July 1932 but this must be a typo. On this album set, she also sings another song much sung in Aberdeenshire - The Boston Smuggler (Sometimes he is a 'Burglar'). I suspect that many of the collected versions of the 'Boston' song derive from the popular recording by Delia Murphy. Jean's tune is very similar to Delia's Most of the versions of both songs in Scotland were collected from singers from the Traveller community but I have never heard of a Traveller singer with 'Elvin' as a surname.

Brian wrote:-
I (usually!) find no difficulty in remembering long ballads
... and this is my experience also. I can come back to a traditional ballad after 5 or 10 years and find that I can sing in straight through and I certainly cannot do this with most other songs. I have also found that I have learned one or two ballads unconsciously, just by being around people who sing then quite frequently. Repertoire extending made easy!

30 Sep 17 - 01:21 AM (#3879404)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Pamela R

Yes I agree the traditional singers are much slower as a rule than the revival singers, and I suspect the use of guitars or entire bands might have resulted in more tempo regularity as well.

I've thought a bit more about the choir singer's question since that talk.

The effects of taking very deep breaths, and exhalation with resistance taking up more time than inhalation, is in my experience also true of faster and more upbeat songs, so these might also stimulate the vagus to some extent. For example in my repertoire the only song in which I actually run out of breath before the end of a phrase is "Rocky Road to Dublin". But the rapidity would not be as consistent with natural prosody. I can imagine how to analyze recordings the songs to determine if pitch modulation or timing modulation are systematically greater in slow ballads vs. faster songs, but I'll need a Maths PhD student to actually do that work. Bottom line I think all kinds of singing are probably pro-vagal, but traditional ballad singing might be "optimal". We have experiments underway in the lab at UCSD to test this experimentally.

Also I didn't delve into it too much in the talk because I know less about this literature, but the vagus is connected up with limbic circuits and hormones, including oxytocin, that are involved in human bonding. So I don't think it's a coincidence that carol singing, football chanting, etc that are particularly emotionally gratifying are typically social experiences.

However I would speculate that the faster or more exciting songs, football match chanting etc, are fundamentally different because they are simultaneously engaging fight-or-flight (adrenaline) circuits at the same time as the vagus nerve. I still have a lot of reading to do to make sense of that neurobiological combination, which I think may also be true of sex.

More about memorization another time, that's yet another brain region (hippocampus).....


02 Oct 17 - 10:19 PM (#3879924)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Donuel

Pamela great stuff. In order to wake up from general anesthesia I could not sing a ballad but I could hum the great fugue in G minor which did the trick nicely.

04 Oct 17 - 05:46 AM (#3880155)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Mr Red

I read in the New Scientist one theory about why we love to sing (and dance). The theory goes somewhat like:

It is evolution at work. For a tribal, pair-bonding species to co-exist as that we had to do communal things, and bonding is essential to avoid serious conflict. Singing and dancing serves little functional purpose unless you consider the "tribe's" survival. The fact is - it has, even today - see Dunbar Number. We have evolved into a singing, dancing species, because the "tribe" offered evolutionary advantages, and look how popular singing and dancing is still - particularly in the young. Soccer matches (anywhere in the world) will illustrate how we haven't shaken off the tribal tendency at all, either! And communal singing on the terraces is de riguer (in the UK at least).

A point from the lecture - exhale lowering the heartbeat. Consider the sigh when danger passes or the realisation of a beneficial resolution to a story.

Thanx 4 the lecture. As an engineer I love to hear about mechanisms and nuts and bolts. I sing (and dance) because I love to, but if I want to improve - those nuts and bolts had better fit.
I still feel the tribal evolution came first, and the nuts and bolts really support that. I guess as a species we social groom aurally more than physically. Hence folk clubs/choirs and chorus songs.

10 Oct 17 - 08:05 PM (#3881441)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: GUEST,Brian Humphrey


We are only beginning to learn how the brain processes and uses music.

I am a recently retired speech-language pathologist with a long history of singing and playing acoustic instruments in a variety of venues, usually in traditional dance bands. For many years,I was also a traditional dancer.

I continue to be interested in how the brain processes singing and music, as well as how it processes speech and language. I am speculating that the calming and organizing effects attributed to singing may also apply to instrumental music, as well as other forms of vocal music like humming and whistling.There may be evidence for other benefits as well.

I have read that for casual musicians who are right-handed, evidence from brain imaging studies indicates a left-brain dominance for language, and a right-brain dominance for music. However, for trained or experienced musicians who are right-handed, brain activity for music may more often be associated with the the left hemisphere. In other words, it may become a "language." I apologize for not having the reference at hand. I happen to be left-handed, and answering brain dominance questions about language and music for lefties can become quite complex. I consider music as my "second language" and Spanish as my "third language." :)

Singing is no longer a good option for me: some years ago, my singing range was reduced to a bit less than an octave when a feeding tube was placed for several months during a hospital stay. However, I still play several musical instruments and write music; and I wonder if the act of making music by other means (whistling, humming, or with a musical instrument) may produce an analogous response to singing.   

While I was in the rehabilitation hospital, one of my musical instruments was brought in, and I was allowed access to it. Subsequently, a musician friend speculated that opportunities to play instrumental music during my hospital stay was an important part of my recovery.

For further information, see the following online account, in the Tenth International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference (2007):
Humphrey, B., "Once Upon a Brian Aneurysm":

All the best,
Brian Humphrey, M.A., SLP (retired)

11 Oct 17 - 11:53 AM (#3881536)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Mrrzy

Fascinating. There was some interestng research recently on stories being processed in the brain that I can't find now, intriguing.

11 Oct 17 - 06:38 PM (#3881649)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: leeneia

Thanks for your interesting insights, Brian. I applaud you for coming back from months in the hospital and still making music.

As for why we sing and dance, I think we do it because it's fun.

14 Oct 17 - 09:26 PM (#3882311)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Pamela R

I don't know a lot about the mechanics of instruments, but on the basis of my arguments for singing, I would think that playing a woodwind or reed or brass instrument would have very similar effects because I'm told these also require (perhaps even more so) deep breathing and very controlled, pressured blowing out over a sustained phrase, repeatedly. Humming and whistling would seem to share some components but maybe more weakly (depending on how you do them I guess).

It's always intrigued me that some musical instruments might owe their emotional power in part to mimicking acoustic features of the human voice that correspond to emotional signals. Whether or not that's true, certainly musical melodies have the characteristics of prosody (modulation of pitch and timing). So the arguments about the benefits of auditory feedback or simply listening to singing would apply even to non-breath-powered instruments.

I've got to find another word than "soothing" for this vagal effect, however, because all this is applicable to intense, exciting, passionate music too, it's not just about lullabies and lilting ballads. Maybe "restorative", "replenishing", "resourcing"?

I'm sure there's another story to be told about how music organizes sequences to unfold in the brain, and how powerful this is for retrieving memory. Even people who can't recite a single couplet of poetry can sing (often to their own surprise) dozens of songs from memory once you get them started.

There seems to be a growing movement to bring music into hospitals to aid recovery, whether or not there are hard data to support it, I'm all for it. Personally I sang ballads and played old country songs on the Autoharp for hours every day during my partner's grueling in-patient cancer drug infusions. It seemed to help both him and me endure those miserable and scary times. Which reminds me of another useful thing about songs - words and narratives distract the verbal mind, and save us from perseverating and worrying thoughts, which helps break a cycle.


15 Oct 17 - 05:46 AM (#3882343)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)

I play flute and, whilst I guess experiments are required, I would be surprised if - for slow tunes at least - the effect is not similar. I think I have read someone drawing parallels between wind instruments and 'calming breath' exercises. Are you deliberately avoiding ‘calming’ as an alternative word because it already has wide usage for something similar?

I was wondering about dance tunes, where the aim is usually for a more rhythmic effect and to provide ‘lift’ for the dancers. So your mention of “Rocky Road to Dublin” is interesting. Others here will correct me if I am wrong but I am fairly sure it is a dance tune to which words have been added. The different breathing strategies in it of a singer or, say, a whistle player are interesting but, I suspect, not very relevant to your study. (I was as the first guest who posted but thought it too soon to bring in wind intruments)

15 Oct 17 - 11:03 PM (#3882473)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Pamela R

I think we are agreeing. WInd instruments are probably more similar than different.

I don't object to the word "calming" but I think people get the impression from my talk that the singing HAS TO BE soothing, slow, and sleepy like a lullaby to have the described effects. That's because I tend to use that kind of ballad for my examples and I mention that the slower cadence is a prosodic feature.

I think it is also possible for the vagus to be activated and experience a positive affect that people might not call "calm". I'd guess an exhilarating chorus or hearty round of drinking songs would stimulate the vagus as much or more so, and you wouldn't feel "calm" while singing. But after it's done the effect that persists could be described as calming. I think Shape Note singing (Sacred Harp) is a particularly interesting case in point. I haven't sung it myself, but from what I have seen and heard, I would guess it is highly vagally stimulating. Hoping to get some volunteers to help me test that!

Stimulating the vagus could also be described as relieving stress or tension, or lifting mood (particularly from flatness or heaviness associated with depression or isolation). So "calming" and "soothing" are good words, but maybe not broad enough to capture all of it.


17 Oct 17 - 04:54 PM (#3882861)
Subject: RE: Ballads on the brain (science)
From: Mrrzy

Dance and trance, baby, dance and trance.