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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Neuroscience of Music

Professor Lawrence ParsonsLawrence Parsons is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield. He trained in cognitive and neural sciences at University of California San Diego and MIT, and was associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Centre. From 2001 -2003, he was responsible for establishing a cognitive neuroscience program at the National Science Foundation in Virginia, USA. Lawrence was a trustee of the International Foundation for Music Research, on the Editorial Board of the Social Neuroscience, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has published papers in Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), Journal of Neuroscience, Proceedings of the Royal Society (UK), Scientific American, and Trends in Cognitive Science.
Professor Lawrence Parsons


Lawrence’s recent research interest has focused on reasoning, language, emotion and the improvisation of music and dancing. He organized the first public forum on music and brain (at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London) and the first on the cognitive neuroscience of dance (at the Wellcome Institute, London). He also spoke as part of the excellent conference on creativity and mental health organised by the Royal Society of Medicine last year. He kindly took time out of his hectic schedule to answer some questions for this blog. His answers have provided a healthy dose of empirical evidence to the scope of this blog! 


Your work as a cognitive neuroscientist is an obvious starting point for your interest on the effect of music on the brain. What led to the development of this interest into a major part of your career?

I have been an active, wide-ranging music listener throughout my life; as a youth I played keyboard, stopping when I started university.  Later, when I was a professor, one of my colleagues asked if I would like to restart a research project that had stalled for various reasons.  This was early days, and the project was a neuroimaging study of piano performance: I jumped in with keen interest, realising upon its completion that a neuroscience of music performance could bring a variety of insights of general scientific, educational, and clinical interest.


Some of our readers may have read Daniel Levitin’s ‘This is Your Brain on Music’ or attended events such as the RSM conference on music and the brain last year or ‘’Shaping the Brain’ at Wellcome Trust this September. For the rest of us, could you select some key findings from research literature in this area that have relevance to mental health practitioners?  

Here is a selection of newly emerging, promising findings that could be of relevance to health practitioners:

- Learning to play a musical instrument appears to develop and maintain executive, multi-tasking, and attentional functions. Nadine Gaab and colleagues at Harvard Medical School published an excellent study on this issue.

- Listening to music may speed the recovery of health in patients in hospital and may elevate the threshold for pain. Robin Dunbar at Oxford and colleagues’ published a paper on this in Evolutionary Psychology (2012) (MacDonald, I., & East, V. P. (2012). Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: implications for the evolutionary function of music.) On Recovery, Teppo Sarkamo and colleagues University of Helsinki have papers on this in the journals Brain (2008) and Cognitive Neuroscience (2009).

- Learning and practicing dance, especially partnered dance, may enhance and maintain coordination, gait, balance, social relations, and quality of life, especially in middle aged and older adults, and those with movement disorders. Hackney (Emory University, Atlanta) and Earhart (Washington University, St Louis) have several studies on this.

- Learning to play a music instrument or to sing appears to improve the ability to detect prosodic emotion and other auditory speech information. Nina Kraus and colleagues at Northwestern University have a series of publications, as do Cesar Lima at UCL and Sao Luis Castro at University of Porto in the journal Emotion.

- Listening to, and performing, music may assist in the management of stress and arousal, and may enhance immune system function.  There’s a very helpful review on these issues by Mona Lisa Chanda and Dan Levitan in Trends in Cognitive Science 2013.

- Group drumming and group singing may enhance social affiliation and quality of life- Gunter Kreutz et al., in Behavioural Medicine (2004); Jonas Vaag, Arts and Health, 2013.

- Music can serve as a secure psychological space for autistic individuals, assisting with their social connectedness. Pam Heaton at Goldsmiths College Psychology Department has done very useful work on this issue.

Recent studies have emphasized the details how of music listening influences important parameters such as emotion regulation and reward.   These details will be helpful in elucidating possible applications in clinical settings. Valerie Salimpoor, Robert Zatorre and colleagues, have published very good studies on this, for example, in Nature Neuroscience 2011.


In your view, how can future research best further our understanding of mental health issues?

From increased emphasis on standardization, replication, and rigorous hypothesis-testing for clarifying the underlying mechanisms and potential effectiveness.  For example, delineating the role of music and dance experiences in treatment contexts of mental health.


What is your next project? What question(s) would you most like to answer in the remainder of your research career?

Two recent concerns of mine are (i) close investigations of the brain activity in each of a pair of co-performing musicians (singing together, or performing rhythmic percussion), and (ii) the close restrictive control of emotion in order to optimise available cognitive resources during concert/recital performances by musicians.  These issues are rich and unexplored, with various general implications for a variety of scientific and clinical issues.


How would you describe your own connection with music- fan, aficionado, obsessive, or other?! Can you select some pieces of music that have had a major impact on your own life and/or career?

As I mentioned, I am an avid listener to a wide range of music, always looking for new sounds.  I am not sure that any single musical piece has had a major impact on my life, but I can name (in random order) a few pieces, artists, or genre that I feel particularly close to. Here are a few:

Claude Debussy Sonata for Violin and Piano; Sonata for Flute, Viola, and HarpOliver Messiaen The Quartet for the End of Time






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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.