By SINDYA N. BHANOO
NEW YORK TIMES
Published: November 11, 2013
Childhood music lessons can sometimes leave painful memories, but they seem to carry benefits into adulthood. A new study reports that older adults who took lessons at a young age can process the sounds of speech faster than those who did not.
“It didn’t matter what instrument you played, it just mattered that you played,” said Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University and an author of the study, which appears in The Journal of Neuroscience.
She and her collaborators looked at 44 healthy adults ages 55 to 76, measuring electrical activity in a region of the brain that processes sound.
They found that participants who had four to 14 years of musical training had faster responses to speech sounds than participants without any training — even though no one in the first group had played an instrument for about 40 years.
Dr. Kraus said the study underscored the need for a good musical education. “Our general thinking about education is that it is for our children,” she said. “But in fact we are setting up our children for healthy aging based on what we are able to provide them with now.”
Other studies have suggested that lifelong musical training also has a positive effect on the brain, she added. Dr. Kraus herself plays the electric guitar, the piano and the drums — “not well but with great enthusiasm,” she said.
Belting out a tune ‘helps those struggling to breathe’
Around the world an estimated 64 million people are struggling to breathe on a daily basis. But could a simple sing-song bring the relief they are looking for?
“If I want to walk any distance then I find a landmark about 15 paces away, make for that and stop to get my breath,” says Jane Petto, who lives near Tunbridge Wells in Kent.
“And if I see stairs – just looking at them tires me out. They take forever.”
Jane is one of millions of people worldwide who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD.
It is a lifelong condition caused by damage to the air sacs and passages that make up the lungs – and can make breathing a constant battle.
The World Health Organization expects COPD to be the third leading cause of death by 2030.
But despite having a profound impact on her daily life, there is one activity that gives Jane some respite – singing.
“When you’ve got COPD, breathing is on your mind all the time. But strangely I don’t notice it when I’m singing. I can hold a note for ages,” she says.
Surprising as it may sound, it has long been suspected that singing can help people with breathing difficulties.
But now a new long-term study on COPD and singing from Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent has shown that the benefits are real.
Dr Ian Morrison, a senior research fellow and one of the project’s authors, said: “Lung function improved dramatically, particularly after about five months, once people had got used to what they were doing and changed their breathing habits.”
“To get such an improvement really was quite remarkable.”
Take a deep breath
Joining a choir is by no means a conventional solution for such a serious illness.
But the research team felt they had good reason to investigate its effects.
Dr Morrison says that people with breathing problems tend to develop a lot of anxiety about the very process of inhaling.
“The tendency is to do ‘gaspy’ breathing so they’re taking short little breaths.
“This actually fills up the lungs without clearing them, making it even more difficult to breathe.”
Due to their obstructed airways, many people with COPD already find emptying their lungs a challenge.
Fill your lungs: the art of breathing
- Trained singers can hold notes for longer than the average person because they know how to optimise their lung capacity.
- Vocal coach Claire Alsop suggests visualising your lungs expanding by holding your arms in front of you like a ballerina, and moving them outwards as you breathe in.
- Keep the shoulders down and knees “bouncy”, not locked, feet slightly apart at a “ten to two” position (like the hands on a clock).
- Breathe out with a “tffff” sound – feel your diaphragm pushing the air out.
- Extraordinary feats of lung control include A-ha’s Morten Harket, whose 20.2 second sung note on ‘Summer Moved On’ is believed to be the longest in pop history. This beats Bill Withers’ note on ‘Lovely Day’ by just over 2 seconds.
Gasping makes the problem worse and can, in the most serious cases, lead to a build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood, which can result in respiratory failure.
In contrast, the techniques used in singing encourage people to breathe in a much deeper, more controlled manner.
“The whole musculature around the lungs, throat and the upper chest improve with time,” says Dr Morrison.
“They use what they have much better and you really see a difference in the skill of actually breathing.”
To test its effects, Morrison and his colleagues asked over 100 COPD patients – ranging from mild to severely affected – to attend weekly singing sessions over a 12-month period.
They measured their lung capacity with a device known as a spirometer – which looks a bit like a giant breathalyser – and asked participants to fill in a questionnaire to find out on a qualitative level how they were feeling.
One of the tests involved measuring how much air a person could force out in a rapid puff.
“On average the people in our study had 50% of expected lung function,” said Prof Stephen Clift, the study’s lead author.
“That means about 1.5 litres of air in a one second puff. For healthy lungs, we would expect something more like 3 litres.”
Without treatment, people with COPD can expect to see the size of their puff decrease by around 40ml a year.
The very best the team had hoped for was that after singing regularly for one year, the size of that puff would stay the same.
“Instead we got an increase of 30ml,” says Prof Clift.
“Although the changes are small, the progressive nature of COPD means that any loss of function year-on-year is going to be more significant for them.
“In our study, we not only appeared to halt the decline but people showed a small improvement.”
Dr Morrison added: “There’s also the social and psychological side, because any long term condition is isolating.
“So if people can get out and do things and get peer support, then their wellbeing improves as well.”
‘Singing on prescription’
In terms of treating COPD, the study’s results are enticing.
What is COPD?
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is an umbrella term which includes the conditions chronic bronchitis and emphysema
- Inflammation to the airways causes narrowing, making it difficult to breathe
- Symptoms include a chesty cough, breathlessness, wheezing, anxiety and sometimes depression
- Because the lungs are sensitive, COPD patients should avoid traffic fumes, cigarette smoke, perfume, hairspray and extremes of temperature
Of the deaths predicted by the WHO, most will occur in low- and middle-income countries.
The beauty of singing is that whether you’re Tom Jones or tone deaf, anyone can strike up a tune anywhere they please – for free.
Cooking in indoor stoves and working in dusty places can lead to COPD, but by far the biggest risk factor is cigarette smoking.
It accounts for 80% of COPD cases worldwide, and quitting smoking is the best advice, according to Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation.
“COPD is a chronic disease and it cannot be cured – the damage is irreversible.
“However, someone already diagnosed with COPD could greatly decrease the progression of the disease if they give up smoking, helping them maintain a better quality of life for longer.”
The study’s authors certainly do not claim that singing can cure COPD or be an alternative to interventions such as giving up smoking.
But Dr Morrison thinks that it could be a useful tool in helping people to manage the condition and live with it day to day.
“Deep down, what we’re looking for is singing on prescription for various long-term conditions,” he says.
“However this was only a feasibility study so it wasn’t randomised and there wasn’t a control. But we can now set up a controlled trial where some people sing, some people don’t and that would be even more powerful way of showing these good results.”
But volunteers like Jane are already convinced that singing has made a difference.
She said: “I was diagnosed with COPD 17 years ago and then 13 years ago I was diagnosed with lung cancer as well so I had my right lung out.
“Surviving as I have with everything that’s gone against me, I put it down to singing.
“I’ve been involved with singing all my life and there’s so much going on with the words and the harmony that you’re not thinking about breathing at all. But yet the breathing is working.”
By Amy Ellis Nutt: The Washington Post
Parents who have patiently sat through countless music recitals and questioned their sanity at encouraging all those trumpet or violin lessons need do so no longer. Even ear-splitting dissonance has an upside.
Music training not only helps children develop fine motor skills, but aids emotional and behavioral maturation as well, according to a new study, one of the largest to investigate the effects of playing an instrument on brain development.
Using a database produced by the National Institutes of Health Magnetic Resonance (MRI) Study of Normal Brain Development, researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine analyzed the brain scans of 232 healthy children ages six to 18 specifically looking at brain development in children who play a musical instrument. (The original study did not indicate specific instruments.)
“What we found was the more a child trained on an instrument,” said James Hudziak, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, “it accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control.”
The cortex, or outer layer of brain, changes in thickness as a child grows and develops. Previously, Hudziak and colleagues Matthew Albaugh and Eileen Crehan found relationships between cortical thickening and thinning in various areas of the brain responsible for depression, aggression and attention problems. This research, announced last month in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, was different.
“I wanted to look at positive things, what we believe benefits child development,” Hudziak said. “What I was surprised by was the emotional regulatory regions. Everyone in our culture knows if I lift 5-pound, 10-pound, 15-pound weights, my biceps will get bigger. The same is true for the brain. We shouldn’t be surprised we can train the brain.”
Because the study’s participants were all mentally healthy children, Hudziak thinks the positive effect of music training on those who are not could be significant.
“A kid may still have ADHD,” he said. “It’s the storm around it that improves.”
Inspired by his own research, and having never learned to play an instrument, the 56-year-old Hudziak decided to take viola lessons last year.
“I had this passion for health promotion in children, it seemed silly not to do it myself,” he said.
Though music isn’t his only health-related extracurricular activity — Hudziak also engages in regular exercise and meditation — he believes the viola lessons contribute to his overall wellness. They have not, however, contributed much to his overall playing ability — at least not yet. The sanguine psychiatrist had just one word for his viola skills:
BY David Harding
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Singing show tunes helps fight off dementia, Alzheimer’s disease: study
A recent research study found that those suffering from moderate to severe dementia did particularly well singing show tunes from movies and musicals such as ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Oklahoma!’ in group settings and had a marked improvement in their remembering skills versus those who simply listened during the sing-alongs.
The hills are alive with the sound of music, which could help people with Alzheimer’s stave off the effects of the debilitating disease.
A study by U.S. scientists has shown that the brain function of those suffering from dementia can be improved if they belt out their favorite show tunes.
Researchers working with elderly residents at an East Coast care home found in a four-month long study found that people who sang their favorite songs showed a marked improvement compared to those who just listened.
Among the songs sung during 50-minute sessions were hits from “The Wizard of Oz,” “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music.”
The most improvement was among those sufferers with moderate to severe dementia.
Jane Flinn, one of the scientists involved in the study who works at George Mason University in Virginia, concluded singing was beneficial.
“Even when people are in the fairly advanced stages of dementia, when it is so advanced they are in a secure ward, singing sessions were still helpful,” she said.
“The message is: don’t give up on these people. You need to be doing things that engage them, and singing is cheap, easy and engaging.”
By Lindsey Bever February 13 at 5:12 AM, THE WASHINGTON POST
The world’s best boys’ choirs have been losing their sweetest sopranos earlier and earlier to puberty. Every choir director knows that the crack, croak or squeak from a young singer means the boy will soon have a different sound. Many boys never stick with it through this voice change to see where it takes them.
That’s why the Cincinnati Boychoir is partnering with researchers from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to study the science behind boys’ changing voices and learn better ways to help them transition as singers.
“Many choral directors and voice teachers believe that the voice change is a primary reason for boys quitting singing as they enter puberty,” Christopher Eanes, Cincinnati Boychoir’s artistic director and co-author of the upcoming study, told The Washington Post in an e-mail. “Who can blame a boy who, when singing, becomes uncomfortable for a time, follows his friends to the football team, never to look back at his musical career.”
“When one thinks about the fact that boys’ voices in the 18th century changed at 17 or 18 years old, and now they change around 12 or 13 years old, one can only conclude that boychoirs are heading for extinction,” he added.
Later this month, researchers will begin to study the physiological, aerodynamic and acoustic changes that happen when boy singers hit puberty. Some 20 Cincinnati Boychoir members from ages 5 to 11 will participate in the study, which is expected to last about two years. The boys will speak and sing in a sound booth, and researchers will examine their larynxes and voice boxes to see how they change during certain tasks, co-author Alessandro de Alarcon, an ear, nose and throat doctor at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told The Post.
Over time, the researchers said, they hope the study will shed more light on how the male voice changes during puberty, particularly in vocalists, so voice teachers will know how to intervene to help them move into their adult voices.
“My personal hope is that we can, on some level, anticipate voice change stages in order to assign the appropriate voice part for a boy, or to design appropriate vocal exercises to strengthen certain aspects of the singing voice,” Eanes said. “Overall, anything we can do to make the voice transition more comfortable for boys will help us as teachers and conductors.”
Singing With a Cold
by Anthony Jahn, M.D.
It’s most singers’ nightmare. Two days before an important engagement, it begins: the stuffy, itchy nose; the headache; and the congestion. A cold is on its way, and your engagement cannot be canceled. You know the cold will usually run its course in a week—but you must sing now, and make the best of it. What to do?
Short of canceling (a wise choice, if it is an option), you can do several things to make the course of your infection shorter and less severe, and lessen its impact on your voice.
Colds are caused by rhinoviruses. Normally transmitted by physical contact or the aerosol droplets of a sneeze, these viruses can survive outside of the body for up to 72 hours—you don’t need to be infected in real time by someone with a cold.
As the name implies, rhinoviruses have an affinity for your nose. Typically, they begin the infection by attaching themselves to the mucous membrane in your nasal passages. There, they start to multiply and the clinical symptoms begin. Rhinitis progresses to nasal congestion, postnasal drip, then laryngitis, cough, and possibly, bronchitis.
What can you do once the viruses have landed?
Everyone has his or her favorite routine for dealing with a cold. I would like to give you some of mine, and, if the show must go on, some tips on singing with a cold.
Numerous scientific studies have shown that zinc can help. Zinc gluconate tablets, or nasal swabs (such as Zicam), when wiped over the infected mucosa, can be beneficial. Zinc not only shortens the duration of the cold, it also lessens the severity of the symptoms, and (attention choral singers) shortens the period during which you are contagious. Zinc seems to work only once the cold has begun, however—it has no preventive effect, so you don’t need to take daily zinc prophylactically.
If your nose is not too congested, you should begin (or increase) using saline nasal spray or irrigations. You can find many manufactured solutions at the drug store, but I recommend a Neti pot with lukewarm saline that you make up yourself. Why? It’s cheaper and easier.
Unlike Zinc, vitamin C does have some preventive effect. Whether you take vitamin C preventively or not, you should increase your intake once the cold has started. I recommend 4,000 mg in divided doses daily, though some physicians recommend even more. Since vitamin C is water soluble, you won’t poison yourself with excessive amounts—it is simply excreted in the urine. Side effects however may include mild diarrhea and heartburn.
Echinacea and goldenseal are two herbs often recommended for treatment of a cold. Again, you should take them once you have a cold. Whatever benefit they may confer, they do not prevent inoculation of the virus.
OK, you’ve done all you can, yet the cold continues. What to do, what to avoid?
As much as possible, avoid antihistamines. Antihistamines, especially the proprietary mixtures such as DayQuil or NyQuil, are very drying and make phonation difficult. Decongestants such as Sudafed, on the other hand, are a bit drying, but the benefit may outweigh the negative effect. Inhaling warm steam before the performance is helpful, perhaps with a drop or two of eucalyptus oil in the pot. This soothes the upper airway and loosens sticky mucus.
From the vocal point of view, your difficulties will be on the top and in the passaggio. Swelling and thick mucus on the vocal folds affect the top, and irritation of the pharynx affects the passaggio. This may require you to push, to muscle the voice more than usual. Support may also be affected, especially if you have chest congestion and are dealing with a cough.
When singing with a cold, it is important to be aware of support, and also to realize that you may temporarily need to use suboptimal technique to get the voice out. As soon as the cold passes, conscientiously revert to your good technique, opening the pharynx, lowering the larynx, and anchoring the voice in the lower abdomen and pelvis. In other words, do whatever is necessary to get the voice out, but as soon as possible, return to your normal good technique, otherwise your temporary compensation may itself become a problem.
Many singers think they “sound better” with a cold. They don’t. When you have a cold, more sound is absorbed into the swollen tissues of the upper airway, so to your ears the voice (conducted directly through the body) sounds louder. This conducted sound favors lower frequencies (with longer waves), so the sound seems not only louder, but also deeper. The voice coming out of your mouth, however, is not what you hear inside, so don’t be deceived.
Perhaps most importantly, you must rest your voice after your ordeal. You can get through one or two performances with a cold perhaps, but continued singing while impaired can cause damage.
Norman Punt, the English laryngologist, once quipped that the difference between a professional singer and an amateur is that the professional can sing even when he doesn’t want to, and the amateur can’t, even when he does. The singer with a cold exemplifies this aphorism. None of this advice will lead to a great performance, but it can be an adequate one.
Anthony Jahn M.D., noted author and professor of clinical otolaryngology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, has offices in New York and New Jersey. His book, The Care of the Professional Voice, now in its second printing, is available on the CS website.
E-mail the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org