Ep. 131 Transcript

Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. My guest today is Dr. Jennifer Krizman, research assistant professor at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, also known as Brainvolts at Northwestern University. The Brainvolts lab investigates sound processing in the brain, and its director, Dr. Nina Kraus, has been a guest on this podcast a couple of times talking about her new book of Sound Mind and also the topic of musicians enhanced ability to pick up subtle emotional cues, which is really fascinating. Professor Krizman’s research has focused on how experience shapes the brain and its interactions with sensory surroundings and also the brain’s neural encoding of sounds, especially speech. The aim of her research is to improve human communication. She has many degrees, including degrees in biology, psychology, neurobiology and physiology and communication sciences and disorders. Welcome to Enhance Life with Music, Jen.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:01:06] Thank you for having me. It’s nice to be here.

Mindy Peterson: [00:01:08] Well, I’m really excited about this conversation and just to start things off here. In your expert opinion, Jen, are people who study a musical instrument better able to process and learn foreign languages? And if you say no, this will be a really short episode!

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:01:23] Oh, boy. But I’m not saying no, no, no. I think that there’s plenty of evidence that musicians are better at learning a foreign language than non-musicians. There’s actually quite a few publications on this topic.

Mindy Peterson: [00:01:41] Talk to us about how or why music does have this effect and this benefit.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:01:47] Sure. I think one of the biggest things I can point to is just Ani Patel’s OPERA hypothesis and just the idea that music training can benefit speech processing. When there’s overlap, there’s precision, emotion, repetition and attention. The five letters that make up opera. And so just the idea that if you think about music and language, they share the same base ingredients of pitch, timing, timbre. And it’s a musician’s job to become very good at being able to listen to those cues and and make those those sounds as well. And so there’s this overlap in just the base ingredients between language and music. And then the p the precision is just the idea that musicians focus intently on the different parts of music. I should also say, in addition to pitch, timing and timbre, there’s also a rhythm which is overlapping between music and speech. There’s that emotional connection. So kind of Robert’s to his work showing that really music is almost like this emotion, this jackpot that it taps into not only the auditory system, but the cognitive system and just the emotions and the limbic system. And there’s repetition. Musicians are incredibly good at practicing. They know how to practice. They know what to listen for when they’re practicing. And just also that attention, that attention to the fine details and sound. And so if you think about it, it’s often been applied to just speech processing in general, but it really translates into learning of new language as well.

Mindy Peterson: [00:03:28] So that emotion and repetition, those represent the E and the are in that acronym that you’re talking about. Yes, that’s correct. So opera, we have O for overlap, P for precision, E for emotion, R for repetition.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:03:43] And A.

Mindy Peterson: [00:03:43] Friday Attention OC. And that acronym was developed by Ani Patel.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:03:49] That’s correct.

Mindy Peterson: [00:03:50] Well, it is really fascinating how there are there is this overlap in sound ingredients. And people have said that music is a language. When I think about pitch and rhythm and I imagine harmonics somewhere figure into that. What are some of the other sound ingredients that are in common between music and speech?

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:04:11] So just the timing. So being very good at picking up on timing cues. So training to be precise with timing as a musician is going to translate to being able to pick up on those timing cues that help to distinguish different phonemes or maybe let’s say a bad from a dad.

Mindy Peterson: [00:04:29] When we talk about the overlap between the sound ingredients, I’ve also read something about an overlap in the neural systems that use both language and or speech and music. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:04:43] Sure. So at our lab we studied predominantly the auditory midbrain, using the frequency following response. And it really does a great job of capturing all of the different sound ingredients, whether or not we’re presenting a speech sound or music sound. Bound to an individual. We can see how well their brain is picking up on those different sound ingredients. And we see that it’s this common process for speech and for music. So it’s going to activate those same auditory centers if you’re hearing a speech sound or if you’re hearing a music sound. And additionally, we know that when the auditory system is activated, it’s going to have it’s going to communicate with your other systems, your cognitive system, so especially your executive functions. And it’s also going to connect with your limbic system that’s going to be really important for your emotional processing. So all of these systems, whether or not you’re hearing speech or music, are going to be active, they’re going to be responding together and and talking with one another.

Mindy Peterson: [00:05:46] And I imagine that is something you could really get into the weeds with people who have the understanding that you have about that. As I was reading a little bit about this, I’m looking at like modifying cortical organization and all these terms. I’m like, I have no idea what that means, but I imagine people could really have fun geeking out over that if they knew what they were talking about.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:06:08] Oh, we do. You should hear some of our lunch conversations at the lab table.

Mindy Peterson: [00:06:14] Well, how do you measure how adept somebody is at learning and processing a foreign language?

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:06:22] So what we do with the frequency following response is we apply a couple of electrodes to the participant’s scalp top of their head, and we just play a sound into their ear and we look at how well, let’s say the pitch encoding is or how well the brain is responding to the harmonics, how quickly the brain is responding. So does it have good timing? And we’re able to see whether or not it differs between people with different backgrounds. And what we’ll also do sometimes is not just play the one sound, but we’ll play multiple sounds to see if the person’s brain is able to distinctly encode those different sounds, which is something that’s incredibly important for being able to listen to language, as you have to be able to distinguish between the sounds of that language. This is something that we’ve seen time and again that musicians do much better at than non-musicians, is that their brain will have a bigger difference in its response between, like I said, a bat or a dad. And that really helps to be able to then hear those different phonemes, those different sounds of the language in a.

Mindy Peterson: [00:07:33] Conversation I saw somewhere I think it might have been in Dr. Krauss’s book, or it could have been in one of the Brain Volts articles. I think it was in her book, though, where she said a way to test knowledge of the sounds of language can go something like this. Say the word please without the l sound. And people who are really capable of doing that easily tend to have stronger language, sound manipulation tasks, and that tends to be a lot stronger in child musicians than their peers who aren’t musicians. And the other interesting little tests that you ever do with your I mean, the electrode sound fascinating, but for someone who’s not trained in that, when I saw that little task like say the word please. Well, at the owl, I was like, oh, that’s kind of interesting.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:08:22] Yeah. So that’s something that we do with pretty much all of our participants. And yeah, we’ve seen that musicians are better than non-musicians at being able to manipulate the sounds of their language. Funny enough, it’s something that we haven’t done yet with different languages, and I would love to do that in our lab to see how individuals can do across languages that they know. But we’ve certainly looked at it in English and we’ve seen that it’s a very big predictor for their ability to just process language generally and how well they do with language in general.

Mindy Peterson: [00:08:52] Well, you mentioned the word phonemes. Am I saying that right? Yep. Is that just considered like a small unit of language?

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:09:01] You didn’t think about phonetic? All the different sounds of our language and each sound is is is a phoneme is an easy way.

Mindy Peterson: [00:09:09] So musicians have sort of the equivalent in notes that language has with those phonemes. And then another similarity is that those smaller units combine to form longer phrases, whether it’s word for sentence phrases or musical sentences, musical phrases. And all of those things are conveying information. And then you get into like syntax and semantics. And so there’s those similarities too there between music and speech. Any other comments on on those similarities?

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:09:46] Well, just when you think about learning a new language, if you think that you’ve mastered the 40 ish phonemes that exist in English, and now you’re trying to learn the 30 to 45. Names that exist in French or Spanish or something. And you may not realize that some of the sounds are distinct from between the two languages, that maybe how they look on paper is the same letter, but how they’re pronounced in reality is quite different. One of the things that music training gives you the ability to do with that precision that P is to be able to pick up on those differences and then to be able to emulate those different sounds as they should sound in a given language.

Mindy Peterson: [00:10:29] That’s interesting. That makes me think of my kids when they were growing up, they went to a Spanish immersion elementary school and just the differences in pronunciation between English and Spanish with, say, for example, the letter I or the letter E was kind of fun to see as they were growing up because there would be, say, a brand name. So, for example, one that comes to my mind is Cetaphil lotion or Cetaphil cleanser that we’ve always had in the house. And I remember the first time one of my kids said the name of the brand. It was sort of feel.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:11:05] Like and.

Mindy Peterson: [00:11:06] I kind of laughed like, I guess that’s probably how you say it in Spanish. But and so now he always calls it set of feel, you know, it’s just kind of a joke, but it was just kind of fun hearing those different pronunciations that they would come up with when they were learning how to read it just because of their Spanish training. And fortunately, I had just enough Spanish in high school that I knew where that was coming from. It’s kind of fun, though. Yeah.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:11:32] Oh, yeah. And I mean, I was going to say also thinking about just like second language learning in general. I think the other thing that gives musicians a leg up over non-musicians is that the way that we traditionally learn in a second language in the States is through classroom learning, and we get a lot of exposure to reading or speaking at ourselves, but we don’t really have that much access to native talkers except for maybe the teacher. And so for a lot of second language learners, I think it can be overwhelming for them when all of a sudden they’re put into a native context and they have to now try and parse the sentences and the stream of words that are coming from a native speaker. And it doesn’t sound like what they’ve been training for for the past semester or so. And whereas musicians, they know how to listen. Musicians have been training, learning their instrument. They know how to listen, and they know how to find the patterns in the language and they know how to what to attend to in that stream. So it’s a little bit less overwhelming, I think, than if you’re just having if you haven’t really learned how to parse the sounds of that foreign language.

Mindy Peterson: [00:12:46] Yeah, well, it is interesting how you can have those different accents or just even pick up on if something is a true Spanish accent or, you know, accent or not. Like I know our school, that Spanish immersion school was really intentional about trying to find native speakers as teachers whenever they could so that students really were getting that native and those vocal inflections. And even just recently, my kids are now once in college and one’s a junior in high school. So it’s been a while since we’ve been in that elementary school. But even just recently I was visiting my daughter in college in Florida and when I was in the airport over the loudspeaker there was an ad for the city and it was the mayor speaking in Spanish. And I just kind of smiled because you could totally tell he was not a native speaker. And I was like, Well, good for him for the effort. But it just kind of made me chuckle like, I’m not a fluent Spanish speaker, but I could. It was pretty obvious that it wasn’t a native, you know? Yeah, vocal inflections and that sort of thing. But yes, is there a correlation at all between the age that someone begins their music training and the extent that they get this benefit when it in terms of transferring to their language processing?

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:14:03] Sure. So and it’s true for pretty much any experience that we have. So the earlier in life you learn something, the better it’s going to be. So for a long time we referred to the age of up to about seven years or so, maybe nine years as being a critical period where the idea was that if you don’t learn something within that window, you’re not going to be able to learn it. And I think we’ve come a long way that now we refer to it as a sensitive period. So up until those early years of childhood or really the best time to begin exposure to new languages, to music, things like that. So that way you can have the most benefits from them, but it’s certainly possible for you to get benefits if you just start taking music lessons in your thirties, or if you start going to Spanish classes at night after after work, I think there’s always going to be. A benefit, but your greatest benefit is when you’re youngest.

Mindy Peterson: [00:15:02] Well, that totally makes sense. As a music longtime music teacher have always felt like there is sort of that sweet spot before kids get to a certain age where they just seem to pick up music so intuitively. Yes. Whereas when you get kids older, they can be more motivated to learn because they want to do it themselves. Say they’re starting piano lessons in high school so they can be very motivated and kind of overcome that. But it’s definitely not as intuitive as it is when you get those young children. And I think all of us have really seen that happen with language learning to just why those those immersion language immersion elementary schools are popular. Well, one quote another quote that I saw in some of the articles on your website was that music training is akin to physical exercise and its impact on body fitness. Music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness. So just sort of another another way of summarizing what you’re talking about, where musicians are trained to detect really small acoustic differences.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:16:12] Absolutely.

Mindy Peterson: [00:16:13] So without even using all those big terms, like the subcortical differentiation that I don’t mean anything to me, you know, it totally makes sense that with all the training that musicians have, that auditory processing is just a highly tuned machine. One thing that I thought was interesting, too, that I read was that this music training that musicians have can compensate for the lack of language experience. Can you talk to us a little bit about how musical training can compensate when you don’t maybe have any language experience or it’s minimal. Like, for me, I took four years of Spanish in high school, but I haven’t used it a lot since then.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:16:55] Sure. So we did a study several years ago looking at maternal education level as a kind of index of socioeconomic status and vocabulary exposure, language exposure in high school age students. And we found that children who have mothers with less maternal education, which traditionally reflects lower socioeconomic standing, have poor language skills that their brains respond more weakly to sound than their peers who have maternal mothers with higher maternal education level. So what we’ve done is we looked at this in two directions. We’ve looked at this both in terms of music and with bilingualism. And we found that both music training and knowledge of and speaking a second language can offset a lot of the effects that are seen in children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. And so the idea is, is that if you can get children exposed to either running a second language or music lessons early in life, we can really offset some of the language deficits that are seen in these low SES kids. Wow. Yeah. Yeah. It’s really exciting.

Mindy Peterson: [00:18:15] That is really fascinating. You’ve spearheaded Brain Volt’s bilingualism work and you’re currently working on launching new projects in the area. With the bilingualism work that you do, how often is music a factor in those and how much is it? How much of that work and research is strictly languages, not including music.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:18:37] Yeah. So I actually started looking at bilingualism because we’re, we’re a music lab at heart. And one of the things that always intrigued me was the idea that some people, some children have limited access to music. It’s something that requires money, it requires lessons, and it’s not always available to kids, but especially kids from lower socioeconomic status or kids who are from immigrant families. But one of the things that’s very common or is becoming more common, I think, is that children have access to a non native English speaker or bilinguals in their family and so they have the ability to learn multiple languages in the home. And so what I wanted to see is whether or not bilingualism could offer some of the same benefits as musicianship, as a form of just auditory training that could lead to some of the benefits that we see with musicianship, but perhaps in a more implicit manner with learning in your home environment, things like that. Yeah. And so what’s interesting is that we see that both musicianship and bilingualism will lead to benefits in a number of different domains, not just our auditory system, but also with our cognitive system and just how we interact with the world. But that it seems. Like the differences in the type of training lead to differences and what those benefits are. So for example, whereas we see that the music training will offset some of the smaller responses that are seen in children from low socioeconomic standing. With bilingualism, we see that it actually boosts the pitch response in those children. And so we have this difference in harmonics are boosted for musicians and pitches boosted for bilinguals, but they seem to lead to these similar enhancements for language abilities.

Mindy Peterson: [00:20:38] Is there any other work that has been completed recently, research or current studies that are going on that are especially interesting that you can tell us about?

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:20:50] So what I’m working on right now is building a little bit on my bilingualism work, but looking at accent and speech recognition. So how it is that we can hear accents and how well we can understand accents. And just the idea is that globalization means that we are almost daily interacting with people for whom English, let’s say, is not their native language. And so they’re having to speak in a non native language and it can be a barrier to communication for some. So I’m trying to see ways that we can improve this so that people become better listeners in these different situations. And so this is just a project that I’m actually kicking off this week, so I don’t have any any findings for it yet, but that’s just kind of where I’m taking it right now.

Mindy Peterson: [00:21:40] Oh, fine. Interesting. Well, this is all so fascinating. Is there anything else that I haven’t already asked you about that you want listeners to know about? Or just any little tidbits that you think may be intriguing to those of us laypeople who you’ve done a great job of putting this in layperson’s terms. By the way, as I was reading some of these research studies, it’s so nice to have the abstract because that kind of summarizes it. But even there some of the terminology, I’m like, Yeah, they kind of lost me there and you’ve done a wonderful job of putting this into layperson’s terms, but anything else I haven’t already asked you about that you think would just be intriguing to know or just a little tidbit or trivia thing that you want to leave us with?

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:22:27] No. The only thing that I would want to say is that I strongly recommend that everyone get their hands on a copy of Dr. Krauss’s Book of Sound Mind. It really breaks everything down into a way that’s accessible to a very large audience. And I think it’s I find it to be a fascinating read, but I might be a bit biased.

Mindy Peterson: [00:22:46] But I totally agree with you. Yeah, I read it and it was yeah. Very much written for someone like me who’s a layperson who can understand it, but then also lots of opportunities with resources to dig in deeper for those who have the educational background to understand all of that. So I highly recommend that to and I’ll put a link in the show notes to the previous two episodes with Dr. Krauss, one which is focused on her book. And I’ll also put a link, of course, to the Brain Vaults website, which is a treasure trove of information for laypeople and professionals alike. It’s organized really well so that it’s easy to find information on different topics. I’ll include specific links to articles that I referenced in our conversation, so there will be lots of resources in the show notes for people who want to learn more. Well, John, this has been fascinating. I ask all my guests to close out our conversation with a musical ending a coda by sharing a song or story about a moment that music enhanced your life. And when you told me your idea for the coda, I just melted. I thought, This is one of my all time favorite coda. I just love the so to tell listeners the story about what they’re going to be hearing.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:24:07] So my father comes from a very musical family. He played the guitar and sang. My grandfather played the guitar and the mandolin and sang. My grandmother sang, my aunts played the organ at church. And it was just a part of the family dynamic that my grandfather and my father would get together and play. And my grandfather would usually play the mandolin and my father would play the guitar and they would sing all of their favorite songs, some of it which is now classified as classic rock, but mostly they would sing country and bluegrass and folk. When my mom was pregnant with me, my grandfather, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and we had just moved to Minnesota. And so my grandparents were living in Indiana and it was really hard. Hard for them to come and see my parents or see my older brother, who at the time was two years old. So my grandparents did as they made a tape for my brother of them singing and playing. And it was just the idea was that they wanted him to hear them and give them give him a memory that he could share with his kids. So it’s been almost 40 years and we’ve only got one song from that tape that still remains. And I’m honestly not sure who originally wrote it or sang it. It’s only I’ve only ever heard my family sing it.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:25:32] But it’s called to please do. So it’s the only way that I’ve actually ever heard my grandfather’s voice, because he passed away from cancer when I was about eight months old. And so just growing up as a kid, my father kind of continued that tradition. And every month or so he would pull out his guitar and his binder of songs, and he would play and he would sing. And just over the over the years, my older brother, my younger sister, my younger brother and I, we started to learn all the words and we would just join in and sing along with him singing Hank Williams or Willie Nelson, the Louvin Brothers, whoever it might be. And so I remember one time I was about eight or nine years old, and I asked my mom, when my dad pulled out the guitar, I said, Mom, why does dad do this? And, you know, it didn’t occur to me that that why he could be doing this. And she said, well, well, he misses Grandpa and this is how he remembers Grandpa. And it just kind of really hit me like, Oh, I see. This is what we do to remember people. So over time, it’s just become this family tradition. So even to this day, whenever we get together or get together is always include a guitar and singing our favorite family songs.

Mindy Peterson: [00:26:51] That’s so awesome. Well, in music has that same connection to memories like that olfactory sense. You get a whiff of like, Oh, that reminds me of grandma’s cookies. That smell and music has that same effect. And so I can totally imagine that your dad bringing out the guitar and playing those songs could really be a powerful connection for him to his dad and the memories of his dad.

Jennifer Krizman, PhD: [00:27:17] Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. It’s so true to please do is is the song that it’s my grandpa that’s you know, that’s as far as I’m concerned. It’s his song nobody else’s.

Transcribed by Sonix.ai