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WCM-Q neuromusicology research reveals secrets of human creativity

WCM-Q student Mohammad Yaghmour contributed to the research project under the mentorship of Dr. Ghizlane Bendriss.
WCM-Q student Mohammad Yaghmour contributed to the research project under the mentorship of Dr. Ghizlane Bendriss.

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) have explored the cognitive and neural basis of human creativity by monitoring the brain activity of a musician improvising on the ney, or Arabic flute. The research has been published in Frontiers in Psychology, a leading journal, and is the first scientific study of the neuromusicology of Middle Eastern music.

Led by Dr. Ghizlane Bendriss, PhD of Neuroscience and Assistant Professor of Biology, the team of researchers used a wireless electroencephalographic (EEG) headset to record the brainwaves of a musician as he played a total of 24 improvisations at low, medium and high tempos on the ney. Dr. Bendriss designed this project after a student, Mohamed Yaghmour, demonstrated strong interest in research. Dr. Bendriss gathered a complete team to mentor him for this original and first-of-its-kind study in neuromusicology. The team was composed of psychology specialist Sarah Roach, biostatistics expert Padmakumari Sarada, and music educators Ibrahim Kadar and Zhivka Pesheva from Qatar Music Academy.

Dr. Ghizlane Bendriss, Assistant Professor of Biology at WCM-Q.

Dr. Bendriss said: “Middle Eastern Music is characterized by the use of additional microtones, resulting in a tonal-spatial system called maqam. These scales have played an important role in healing and medicine since the 10th century in the Middle East, and many theories associate the use of specific maqams with treatment of specific conditions. Unfortunately, these theories are only based on empirical observations and are not yet supported by a strong body of peer-reviewed studies. For the first time, this study explores the neural correlates of these maqams, giving us a detailed picture of their true effects on the activity of the brain and providing new insight into how they might be used for therapeutic means.”

Using sophisticated computer software, the researchers compared the data from the EEG signals and observed that each maqam was characterized by a topographically unique combination of significant EEG changes, suggesting the existence of what they termed “maqam electroencephalographic signatures.” The study also provides further support to previous research that has associated musical improvisation with increased activity in the left-brain hemisphere, particularly of low-frequency brain waves in the frontal and temporal areas of the left-brain. The study also supports the observation that musical improvisation is also characterized by an increase in levels of integrated activity in both brain hemispheres at high-frequency signatures. Until now, almost all research in the field of neuromusicology has concentrated on Western music - it is believed this is the first project to use EEG data to study brain activity while improvising with Arabic maqams and while playing a Middle Eastern instrument, the ney.

WCM-Q student Mohammad Yaghmour contributed to the research under the mentorship of Dr. Bendriss. Mohammad said: “This project was extremely exciting to work on because it has given us fascinating insight into human creativity as well as being the first study of its kind based on Middle Eastern musical styles and instruments. Being involved in research at this early point in my training has been very rewarding.”

The researchers found patterns in the EEG data that showed similarities in the perception of maqams with similar intervals. In common with studies of Western music, a greater incidence of high-frequency brain-waves, which are associated with negative emotions, was observed in relation to improvisations based on nahawand, which approximates to the minor scale.

Dr. Bendriss added: “The results of the study are highly relevant because they highlight the importance of considering intervals, tones, and microtones in studies concerned with the processing of music and emotional correlates. This study on spontaneous music performance backs up evidence from pre-existing research which suggests that the prefrontal cortex is of critical importance for creativity, self- reflection, and sensory processing. We intend this study to be the first in a series; with the help of M. Ibrahim Kadar, who is well versed into studying combinations of maqams in Middle Eastern music, we hope to develop a greater understanding of the emotional correlates of the maqams and by doing so to gain insight into the effects and applications of music-based therapeutic interventions, especially in the context of the Middle East, its people and its rich traditions of music and medicine.”