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Season 4: Ep. 3-4 Sound Connects Us: The Betweenness of Sonic Experience


In this two-part series with Dr. Nina Kraus we examine the neuroscience of our hearing brains, exploring how we make meaning from our sonic worlds. In episode 1, we look at the afferent and efferent journeys as our brains construct meaning from sonic experience. Examining reading, we understand how reading is powered by the strength of our recognition of frequency, harmonics, FM sweeps, and other ingredients. We explore the impact of musical training and bilingual experience on comprehension, synchrony, abilities to hear sounds in noise, our belonging, and our empathetic capacities to respond to affect. The two-episode series concludes with an examination of the violence of noise and sound and the resulting impacts on our health and wellbeing.

Dr. Nina Kraus

Nina Kraus, Ph.D., is a scientist, inventor, and amateur musician who studies the biology of auditory learning. Through a series of innovative studies involving thousands of research participants from birth to age 90, her research has found that our lives in sound shape auditory processing for better or worse.
Having witnessed first-hand (in single neurons and humans) how hearing can change the brain and our connections, Kraus places a premium on communicating the scientific rationale for activities that strengthen the hearing brain and our sonic world. The cornerstone of her research is the ambition to improve social communication.

Her book OF SOUND MIND How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World communicates these principles in a narrative digestible to any interested reader. OF SOUND MIND is Kraus’ love letter to sound, how sound connects us, its biological impact on making us us, and how it affects the world we live in.

This is the first in a two part series. In part one, we explore boundary crossing, betweenness, the magic of the sound brain, and the role of sound in reading.

Of Sound Mind Book Cover

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the sense of "betweenness" illustrated in the episode and how this sense might apply to the relations between things in music, neuroscience, and other disciplines.

  2. Describe the pathways and connections in the hearing brain? What are efferent and afferent journeys?

  3. Using the examples of ba, da, and ga what sonic ingredients are used in subtle differentiations within language?

  4. How is reading impacted by the hearing brain?

  5. How does musical training impact reading? our ability to hear sound in noise? our ability to respond with empathy and connection?

  6. What are the challenges and gains of bilingualism when it comes to the hearing brain?

  7. How is sound central to our sense of belonging through synchrony, affect, a sense of place, and language?

  8. What evidence exists for the power and magic of music and synchrony? How is music a sense of relational betweenness?

  9. What are the auditory gains experienced by bilingual speakers?

  10. What advantages do musicians and bilingual speakers have when listening for sound within noise?

  11. How is the sound mind connected with hearing emotion within our sounds? Whatv does musical training develop that is connected to empathetic understanding?

  12. What evidence exists for the violence of noise? What effect do seemingly benign sounds have on our health, wellbeing, and cognitive function?

Part 1:

2:06 Boundary Crossing
9:21 Betweenness and Sound Processing
11:51 Magic of Ba, Da, and Ga
14:46 Categorical Perception
16:41 Reading and Sound
21:51 Hearing in Noise
23:38 Language and Sound
24:42 Afferent and Efferent Processing
29:21 Closure

Part 2:

2:03 Belonging: Sound Connects
5:47 Betweenness of Music Therapy
6:31 Harmony and Relationship
7:21 Singing into Relation
9:19 Synchrony and the Hearing Brain
10:45 Bilingualism, Belonging with Language
12:43 Bilingual Gains
13:53 Auditory Objects and Bilingual Processing
15:29 Musicians and Emotional Sensitivity
16:35 Research on Emotional Sensitivity
18:37 Bilingual Attention
20:12 Violence of Noise
24:18 Research on Noise
25:36 Wartime Sound and Noise
27:24 Social Determinants of Health
29:35 Closure



Arnon, S., Shapsa, A., Forman, R., Regev, R., Bauer, S., Litmanovitz, I., & Dolfin, T. (2006). Live music is beneficial to preterm infants in the neonatal intensive care unit environment. Birth, 33(2), 131-136.

Bieleninik, Ł., Ghetti, C., & Gold, C. (2016). Music therapy for preterm infants and their parents: A meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 138(3), .

Bronzaft, A. L., & McCarthy, D. P. (1975). The effect of elevated train noise on reading ability. Environment and Behavior, 7, 517-528.

Bronzaft, A. L. (1981). The effect of a noise abatement program on reading ability. Environmental Psychology, 1, 215-222.

Carlson, S. M., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2008). Bilingual experience and executive functioning in young children. Developmental Science, 11(2), 282-298.

Daughtry, J. M. (2015). Listening to war: Sound, music, trauma, and survival in wartime Iraq. Oxford University Press.

Hou, Y., Song, B., Hu, Y., Pan, Y., & Hu, Y. (2020). The averaged inter-brain coherence between the audience and a violinist predicts the popularity of violin performance. NeuroImage, 211, 1-11.

Kraus, N. (2021). Of sound mind: How our brain constructs a meaningful sonic world. MIT Press.

Krizman, J., Marian, V., Shook, A., Skoe, E., & Kraus, Nina (2012). Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages. Biological Sciences, 109(20), 7877-7881.

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The matter with things: Our brains, our delusions and the unmaking of the world. Perspectiva Press.

Slater, J., Skoe, E., Strait, D. L., O’Connell, S., Thompson, E. & Kraus, N. (2015). Music training improves speech-in-noise perception: Longitudinal evidence from a community-based music program. Behavioural Brain Research, 291, 244-252.

Strait, D., Skoe, E., Kraus, N., & Ashley, R. (2009). Musical experience and neural efficiency: Effects of training on subcortical processing of vocal expressions of emotion. European Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 661-668.


Iain McGilchrist and Nina Kraus

Nina Kraus at the Kennedy Center

Nina Kraus on the APA Podcast






sound, brain, music, ingredients, timing, peacebuilding, sonic, language, hearing, afferent, harmonics, processing, work, frequency, kraus, fm, study, breadth, thinking, mind


Kevin Shorner-Johnson, Nina Kraus


Nina Kraus  00:00

In the same way as I embrace boundaries, or you know, embrace the crossing of boundaries. I embrace paradox because a complex system that's worth studying is going to have a holistic view. And it is also going to have individual ingredients and parts. You can have both of these things and it's not a paradox. Both things are true.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  00:27

You were listening to season four of the music and peacebuilding podcast, a podcast season focused on multifaceted textures of belonging. Our podcast explores intersections of peacebuilding, sacredness, community, creativity and imagination through research and story.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  00:45

Nina Krauss is a scientist, inventor and amateur musician who studies the biology of auditory learning. Through a series of innovative studies involving 1000s of research participants from birth to age 90. Her research has found that our lives in sound shape auditory processing for better or worse, having witnessed firsthand in single neurons and humans, how hearing can change the brain and our connections. Kraus places a premium on communicating the scientific rationale for activities that strengthen the hearing brain and our sonic world. The cornerstone of her research is the ambition to improve social communication. Her book, Of Sound Mind how our brain constructs a meaningful Sonic World communicates these principles in a narrative digestible to any interested reader. Of sound mind is Kraus his love letter to sound, how sound connects us, its biological impact on making us, us, and how it affects the world we live in. This is the first in a two part series. In part one, we explore boundary crossing between this the magic of the sound brain and the role of sound in reading.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  02:07

I wanted to open with a question because I hadn't heard somebody. I mean, I've heard some people ask a little bit about the breadth of your expertise. But I'm fascinated by your origin story. As a literature major. I'm fascinated by the breadth of expertise diversity that you bring together in brain vaults as far as the different types of people who come together. And then the breadth of topics that you work with just the book itself has a huge amount of breadth to it. So I guess my question is, you know, if you were to start to tell me the story of boundary crossing curiosity, and how that formed within you, and where that's led you to now?


Nina Kraus  02:46

Yeah, well, I love thinking about that. But I got to where I am today, by not by thinking about it at all, I just, I just embody boundary crossing. And that has been a strength. I think of the work it has also been a great liability, which I'll explain in a minute. But, you know, I feel like I belong at the intersection. I belong at the crossroads. You know, I grew up both in Italy and in the United States. And I don't feel as though I can can't really pass for an Italian or an American, I really feel that I belong somewhere in that intersection of worlds. In terms of, you know, my interests? Well, you know, first of all I was I was really fortunate to grow up in a household that was loaded with sound, you know, I had parents who spoke multiple languages at home, my mom was a musician, my dad also played music, and I grew up speaking these languages, and one of the languages that I grew up speaking or having, learning is harmony. You know, how to sing harmony. And I learned it as a language, even today, it's just something I can do. I have no idea, really, about the harmonic structure. And it's just something that I can I can do, I can find where there needs to be a voice. And, and so so that's fun. But yeah, I went to, you know, to school to college, and I majored in comparative literature because I knew some languages and I like to read and, and then I discovered biology and really fell in love with that and fell in love with the idea of using biology to inform my interest in sound, which first was in language and then has really blossomed into music because music is just it's just the jackpot for Our our vast hearing brain, then in terms of the disciplines, so if you go to the homepage of our website, which I hope that your listeners will do, you will see that we have panels that show the different areas that we research and will research music, rhythm. Aging concussion hearing in noise, autism. Reading.


Nina Kraus  05:31

Bilingualism, Yeah, yeah,


Nina Kraus  05:35

bilingualism, and you might, you know, you might ask what what are they even doing at brainvolts, but it really falls under the umbrella of sound and the brain. And I've always had, often when I speak to an audience, it's an audience of specialists. So people who are interested in research and bilingualism, for example. And, you know, I've been told so many times, oh, well, you need to focus on one or the other of these different areas, but it just doesn't work for me, because you know, if you're interested in sound, sound encompasses everything we care about. And it encompasses all of these different these different areas. And I love biology, it's a really great way of thinking about sound because our Sonic selves you know our lives and sound really make us who we are, they shape us. They shape us who we are, as individuals, they shape us who we are as partners, they shape us who we are, as members of society. And I think that it's, it's really important to be thinking about all of these different dimensions. And again, you talk about boundaries, there's the the life in the lab. And then there is the life outside the ivory tower. And I really, I'm only interested in what I do. Not only interested but I wouldn't do what I do if I didn't see that there were huge social and political and educational and medical implications.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  07:21

Wh.. I'm fascinated in that book about the cry, especially in this interview today at the crossing intersections between learning about musicians, brains, bilingual brains, and then also reading, I was just fascinated by the intersections there.


Nina Kraus  07:37

Yeah, yeah, the intersections are huge. In terms of music, it's just baffling to me how I think everyone recognizes how important it is for, for for kids to be literate. And, yet, there is so little appreciation for the fact that making music can help the brain develop what we need in order to read and to make sense of, of the written word. Because, of course, you know, before we learned to write and read, we learned to talk. And it was in sound, you know, we're really just sonifying it and also you think historically, you think about the fact that we have been communicating with each other as a species for hundreds of 1000s of years, through sound. And yet, it's only been what 3000 years that there's been any writing. Literature writing is very, very, very young. Very wise people like Socrates worried once we started writing, he was afraid that people would stop that our memories would be harmed which in fact they are. Because if you have to really remember everything that you know, memory and hearing are incredibly tightly linked. And then that's just something that again, we need to, to think about we need to think about for cognitive health.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  09:21

Sounds are a connective force between our thoughts, memories, emotions and relations. Upon her recommendation, I read about Iain McGilchrist's sense of betweenness. Writing of music McGilchrist contrasts parts and holes to examine the study of music, psychology and literary criticism. McGilchrist uses the language of betweenness to refer to the entangled importance of relationships between things he states quote, that is to say that betweenness is more important than the things we believe we discern within it." Kraus' book opens with a fascinating account of the afferent journey of sound from the eardrum through fluid that stimulates tiny cochlear hairs that are tuned to specific frequencies. And then to the roughly 30,000 auditory nerve fibers per year as sound as mapped as electrical signal from there, the midbrain inferior colliculus to the thalamus engages in a lightning fast series of firings to determine the location of sounds and the grouping of auditory objects. A journey of accumulating insight reaches the auditory cortex, where sounds are recognized and processed. However, this seemingly one way journey is highly dialogic in back and forth communications that identify importance and bring order to sonic experience. Kraus states quote, "It is precisely this interaction of downstream and upstream influences that allows learning to occur and sculpts our sound mind." Our experiences of a vibrational universe through complex biological interactions may be the very essence of betweenness.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  11:29

Following my fascination with the betweenness of hearing and sound, I asked Dr. Kraus to use one example, exploring how we differentiate da and ba. To illustrate the between this of pitch, timing, harmonics, FM sweeps and other ingredients of sound.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  11:53

I thought it'd be really important for our musician listeners just to just to understand the complexity of the hearing brain. And I wondered if you might tell us the story of like ba, da, and gah. And what's happening as we differentiate these I wasn't, I wasn't familiar with the idea of an FM sweep, for instance, for my training, so So maybe you could tell us about like, why it's so magical that our brain can distinguish between  ba da and gah. Yeah.


Nina Kraus  12:23

And if you just if we can just stay with ba or da, we call it the mighty da. If you look at the acoustics of just the sound, da, you know, you can see the waves, and you can decompose this da sound into its component parts. So what you find is, first of all, it has a fundamental frequency - ah. But the real tricky stuff is as you go from the consonant to the vowel, du - ah, and the du, has, first of all very, very precise timing that separates the du from the ah. But you'd have to get from the du to the ah. And you do that with an FM sweep. So an FM sweep is just a change a rapid, a very rapid happens over 40 milliseconds of rapid change in frequency over time as you go from this d, which is a very acoustically dense multiple frequencies into just pulling out certain frequencies that are going to change in a systematic way, in time, your FM sweep as you connect your du to your ah. And this is happening very, very quickly. So at the same time that you are, you've got this onset response, you have the fundamental frequency of the ah and all of the harmonics that are in the ah, as well. And then you have this FM sweep, connecting it together. These components all have temporal ingredients. So things are happening very fast, but just that FM sweep is happening fast and 40 milliseconds where the difference between a T and a D is just a difference of a few milliseconds because du has is voiced and t is unvoiced. And so what they call voice onset time, again, is just a matter of 25 milliseconds. So your brain has to very, very quickly figure out, you know, and interpret these timing differences. So we get we get really good at this.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  14:46

And the part that blew my mind was the idea too that maybe it was between ba and da that there's been kind of controlled experiments where they've changed the gap. And it's dichotomous the Like that fascinated me, I didn't realize like at one point, the brain automatically switches that from one syllable to the other.


Nina Kraus  15:07

Yeah. So you can, you can create a continuum and acoustic continuum, either voice onset time from da to ta or from da to ba or ga, just by changing the different acoustic elements, but you can make it continuous. So the change from one, exemplar, one unit to the next is identical in time and in frequency. But your brain because you have learned and based on your language, and this is a beautiful example of the sound to meaning connections that you have learned that are important for your language. When you cross the boundary between da and gah, you just automatically hear it as one or the other. And so our ability to categorize it's called categorical perception is really strong. And it's based on the sound to meaning connections we make. And as we know, we're born, we are citizens of all the world's languages, and all the world's music. But based on the music we make, and the languages we speak, we make these sound to meaning connections that then make us who we are, and make us able to hear these category boundaries, which is really, really useful because it helps us make sense of sound that is relevant to the language and the conversation you're having at the moment.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  16:41

As citizens in sound, we need to remember that our capacities of reading are fundamentally rooted in sound. Kraus notes that timing, harmonics, FM sweeps and other Sonic sensitivities are developed early in the sound minds of children. Indeed, reading problems at age eight might be predicted by sound processing struggles at age three. When students develop the sound mind through music, language learning, or even sports, they may strengthen skills of reading.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  17:16

What I think is powerful about what you're opening about reading is that if we start with the notion that reading is fundamentally about sound, then we asked the next question, which is, how do we develop the hearing brain and the sound brain? So would you take it from there about like, what's the evidence that shows us that reading is rooted in sound?


Nina Kraus  17:35

I love it. So when, when we think about sound, and most people, most people really don't think about sound sound is under recognized because it's invisible. And we live in a very visually biased world. But if we think about sound, we realize that sound has many ingredients, just like a visual object, I'm holding this pen and it has a color, a size, a texture, shape. And so it has these ingredients. And if you think about sound, of course, sound also has ingredients that are very obvious to you and to the I love speaking with music instructors, because they of course, they know that there's pitch timing, timbre, phase, FM am all of these wonderful, rich ingredients that just occur even in a syllable. It's multiple elements at once. And we measure at brainvolts, we measure sound processing in the brain. And as I'm talking to you now, the neurons in your brain that respond to sound are producing electricity. And with scalp electrodes in humans, we can pick up that electricity and you know very carefully and amplify it many times but we can really get a sense of how you hear the world. And if you think about the metaphor of the brain as a mixing board, and all the different ingredients, the pitch, the timing, the timbre the FM, these are different faders on the mixing board. And so if I measure your brain's response to sound I can see what are your strengths and what are your bottlenecks in terms of the different processing of the ingredients. And we have discovered now by measuring sound processing in the brain, in 1000s of musicians from you know, birth to a very older age, and and we find that the particular ingredients that are especially strengthened are the harmonics and timing. And these are crucial ingredients. And obviously in music, the harmonics is what enables us to tell two instruments apart. So a piano, and a bassoon can be playing A flat. And you will hear the same note, but it will sound different because the harmonics are different. But the harmonics turns out to be also really important in distinguishing a D from a B that I say dad are bad. And, and timing, you know, where do things stop and start and all the timing elements in between. And the rhythm. Oh, my goodness, rhythm is you know, everybody knows, oh, yeah, of course, there's rhythm in music Well, there's so much rhythm in language. There's so much rhythm, you write this out in quarter notes and, and rests, and realize that these ingredients that are strengthened when you make music, and it's important that you make music, of course, singing counts, drumming counts, any kind of making music counts, and it will strengthen your brain's automatic processing of harmonic and timing cues. So you can be sound asleep, and I can be measuring your brain's response to sound and I will be able to see right away Oh, yeah, this is a guy who's made music. Of I can just see that because your brain has become based on your life in sound. Your brain has become automatically more sensitive and precise and accurate in coding harmonics and timing.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  21:50

Musical training may improve skills beyond music. Because musicians work within complex soundscapes to extract auditory information and apply skill to make responsive, creative decisions. In a 2015 longitudinal study, Slater and colleagues sought to understand if musical training might improve the ability to pick out a sentence amidst a noisy background. The ability to hear speech in a noisy soundscape is a complex auditory processing task that requires, quote, "The successful integration of cognitive, linguistic and sensory processing." This task is all the more difficult when one has bilingual superpowers. Because the individual must discriminate between enlarged sonic palettes amidst distractors. To study this skill, researchers worked with the Los Angeles harmony project, a music education program serving low income youth, over 90% of these youth identified as bilingual. After two years of training, these music students improved speech to noise threshold by 2.1 decibels, or an improvement of roughly 20 to 30% in ability. A comparison with a group that only had one year of musical training demonstrates the skill improved significantly at two years of training. How does our training and rich experiences like music, shape and mold the plasticity of our biological systems?


Nina Kraus  23:39

Again, we can see in a child because we also can see developmentally that a child who is language delayed, has these bottlenecks, especially in harmonics, and timing, and rhythm. So so there is just as we think of it as a biological system. And what I love about these biological systems is that, you know, there's nothing that you can do if I put some electrodes on you and play some sounds to you, your brain is going to respond, doesn't matter how mad you are in the moment, it doesn't matter what's going on what we're most. I mean, yes, we're interested in some of the processing that happens in the moment, but we're especially interested in what have we become as a human being based on the languages we speak in the music we make, or the noise that we have had to endure? Or all of the various oral influences, sonic influences in our lives?


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  24:42

I think that leads me to a question my afferent and efferent processing. So please correct me if I have a wrong understanding, but what I thought I took from the book was that maybe the methodology of using the FMRI in the past has kind of obscured the two directional way in which our hearing brain works. And you're introducing this idea of the frequency following response, because it has allowed you to really map the two way journey of the brain and am I going in the right direction? And can you talk about?


Nina Kraus  25:14

Right? Yeah, because the FFR, frequency following responses, physiological response, we can capture a snapshot of the entire hearing brain, which goes upstairs and downstairs. So there's afferent, that's the ear to brain connection and the efferent, which is brain to ear. And, and by efferent, you know, I am including our hearing brain is vast. And again, people have, you know, hearing scientists often specialize just in the classic auditory pathway. But the auditory system, and the hearing brain has inputs, from our memory, from our feelings, from our, our guts, our movements, how we connect our other senses with sound, what we know, these are all important aspects of making sense of sound. And you can think of it as who, you know, you have this, this pathway, the automatic pathway that would respond while you're asleep to the sound of your name. But the efferent pathway, so this is carrying information from all over your brain, throughout the this vast auditory pathway network. And it changes and is informed by the sound to meaning connections, we make one of the most obvious sound to meaning connections we have learned is, we learn language. But as we make music, you're constantly making sound to meaning connections. So it's sound, the knowing it's the memory, it's the movement, it's the combining of the other senses, it's how you feel about all of these things. You know, as scientists, we love to deconstruct and parcel out try to find, you know, individual units, but life doesn't really always work that way. I mean, yes, it is helpful to look at units, but it cannot ever, ever forget the fact that the system really works as a whole. And that there are many things First of all, that there are limitations, not only in fMRI, but there are implementations in biology in general, there are limitations in the frequency following response. You know, there are that we need to acknowledge the limitations. But also, of course, learn from what we can measure, and from what we can understand biologically, because of the biology is, is really powerful to our understanding.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  28:20

And that's if we go back to boundary crossing, like that's why it's so important, as we open up more of a network theory of the brain and the mind, if that's why it's so much more important to see the whole, is what I understand.


Nina Kraus  28:34

Yes, no, I think that is important, and to be seeing the whole end the parts together, you know, and I think that it's, again, in the same way as I embrace boundaries, or you know, embrace the crossing of boundaries. I embrace paradox, because a complex system that's worth studying is going to have a holistic view. And it is also going to have individual ingredients and parts you can have both, just because you know you, you have both of these things and it's not a paradox. Both things are true. These two things that seem as though they're opposing are both true.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  29:21

Iain McGilchrist notes the most profound truths hold paradox. profound truths hold a quote, "realization that what applies at the local level does not necessarily apply in the same way at the global level." A hearing brain is made up of parts, and it is also constructed of the network between a back and forth that organizes sonic experience.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  29:47

Join us in the next episode, as we examine the belonging of sound, synchrony and language, as well as an examination of violence and the harmful effects of noise. Dr. Nina Kraus' book, the sound mind is published by MIT Press. Her research lab named brainvolts can be found at Dr. Krauss invites you to consider donating to the work of her lab at brainvolts. She knows how much work her lab has yet to do, and the desire to advance this important work. This is the music and peacebuilding podcast hosted by Kevin Shorner-Johnson. At Elizabethtown college we host a Master of Music Education, with an emphasis in peacebuilding. thinking deeply we reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at music

Episode 2:


belonging, sound, kraus, music, brain, noise, bilingual, musician, people, peacebuilding, language, sonic, book, bilingualism, musical, study, synchrony, audience members, lives, daughtry


Nina Kraus, Kevin Shorner-Johnson


Nina Kraus  00:00

Sound connects us. Sound connects us really better than anything I can think of. It is a way of feeling that you belong you belong to a group that might be singing your songs or speaking your language. We live in a world now where there is a lot of isolation and loneliness, and depression. And I think that a lot of that comes from a lack of connection.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  00:30

You are listening to season four of the music and peacebuilding podcast, a podcast season focused on multifaceted textures of belonging. Our podcast explores intersections of peacebuilding, sacredness, community, creativity and imagination through research and story.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  00:50

You are listening to part two of a two part series on the sound mind how our brain constructs a meaningful Sonic World. Nina Kraus is a scientist, inventor and amateur musician who studies the biology of auditory learning. Kraus places a premium on communicating the scientific rationale for activities that strengthen the hearing brain and our Sonic World. The cornerstone of her research is the ambition to improve social communication. Her book, of sound mind how our brain constructs a meaningful Sonic World communicates these principles in an accessible narrative. Of sound mind is Kraus' love letter to sound, how sound connects us, its biological impact on making us, us, and how it affects the world we live in. In this episode, we explore the role of sound in connecting us through belonging, synchrony, affect and language. We close with an examination of the violence of noise, and what we might do to enter states of wholeness.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  02:03

So this season, I'm focusing on belonging, and I was captivated by this one quote, I'm going to read back to you where you write, the sound of speech and music has privileged access to the brain's reward, or emotional network, speech and music might not have evolved, if not for the deep emotional feelings of connection with other humans that arise during these communal activities. Indeed, sound contributes to our sense of belonging to the world, to our own personal sense of home." That was the quote when I knew that I wanted to interview you. And as I move through your book, the themes that I think I heard that relate to belonging, and I'd love to talk about maybe each one of these a little bit, I hear themes of belonging in the synchrony of Sonic experiences. I hear themes of belonging in the emotional sensitivities. I hear themes of belonging in the sounds of place, I think you open up that a lot with songbirds in particular. And I hear language as a form of belonging. Would you like to open up one of those, maybe we can start with synchrony and talk about like how you have noticed sound being a driver within this concept of belonging?


Nina Kraus  03:15

Yes, so much. So I think if we had three words, to put these ideas all together, it is that sound connects us. Sound connects us really better than anything I can think of. I mean, just think of you and me right now. You know, first of all, we're everyday improvisers. And so, you know, it's just, it's this back and forth. That happens in a way through sound. That just doesn't happen in other ways. And it really does sound really does connect us. You know, it is it is a way of feeling that you belong, you belong to a group that might be singing your songs or speaking your language. If you start to get a hearing loss, you might become paranoid because you feel like people are talking behind your back and you're not hearing them. But if you can hear them that you, you know, suddenly feel connected. We live in a world now where there's a lot of isolation and loneliness, and depression. And I think that a lot of that comes from a lack of connection. And we are living I think, increasingly in a disconnected world. And sound has the ability to bring us together. And you mentioned synchrony, so we can measure neurons firing together. So the idea of rhythms as you've read in the rhythms chapter, you know, there are rhythms outside the head. So the rhythms you might think of in language and music, and then there are brain rhythms, and you get these rhythms by neurons firing in synchrony. And when you and I are engaged in making music together, our brain rhythms actually synchronize. So you know, we are literally biologically in sync. And as we go back and forth and talk with each other, we synchronize our biological rhythms. So this has deep biological roots. And again, music has a way of connecting us.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  05:47

Sound connects us. Our auditory processing strengths or weaknesses may grow belonging, or isolation. Studying preterm infants, Arnon and colleagues compare the impact of live recorded and no music therapy. Those preterm infants receiving live music therapy, lowered their heart rates and entered restful sleep states after musical interactions. I wonder if these live musical interactions were relational betweenness offering rich responsiveness that attached comfort to early relationships. With musicians Kraus notes that the musical ability to harmonize may be a skill that asks us to modulate and vibrate with each other in relationship. In harmony, quote, you simultaneously hear yourself and what your partner is singing, and use this feedback to adjust your own movements accordingly. This interaction is about modulating the space between voices, a marriage, a sensitivity to the other person and to the space between them. Singing harmony is emblematic of sounds power to connect us sound is alive, created and experienced, in the lived world.


Nina Kraus  07:21

We all like to sing songs. We all like to sing together. And I think so here I'm really talking to the music teachers. Because I think that especially conservatory trained musicians, you know, you're taught to aspire to perfection. And so much of First of all, making music is being musical. And we are all musical. You don't have to be a professional music, you know, I have a one year old grandson and I can take his little feet. And I can sing a little song and tap his little feet together. And anybody can do that. But it's kind of remarkable how, you know, I mean, just little things in my own life. So I'm fortunately I'm married to a musician. And one of the things he started doing is at the place he teaches is on Sundays at three, we have kind of a Hootenanny and you know, people who we know kind of come together and bring their instruments and maybe somebody has a song and we just sing and play our instruments. It feels great. You know, we've been going to retirement homes, and, you know, groups of us and just sort of singing songs. And you know, people who you kind of look out at a group of people who, before you started singing, and making music, we're kind of looking down and we're not especially engaged and then you start singing, you know, a song they know and they're singing along and it feels good. Just so you know, we all would love to sing


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  09:19

fascinated by Kraus' writings about synchrony and the hearing brain. I looked up a 2020 study by Hou and colleagues on inter-brain coherence between an audience and violinist. Audience members watched recordings of 12 pieces, while wearing headgear to record cortex activity. Researchers found that the performer and audience members synchronize their brain activity as a piece progressed. And in particular, the synchrony of the left brain auditory center was significantly correlated with the degree to which audience members enjoyed a performance. The left brain auditory center may use memory to generate, quote, expectations of how the next sound will unfold. Researchers also found synchronization in the right inferior frontal and post central cortices. These regions assist in recognizing temporal patterns, and are important hubs of the mirror neuron system. As a peacebuilder, and music educator, I see synchrony as the possibility of entering the betweenness of restorative community. Musical synchrony and shared affect are building blocks of belonging.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  10:45

Let's talk about bilingualism because I'm fascinated by bilingualism and that there's also some crossovers to music that we can get to here in a second. So there's something magical that happens with bilingualism and there are some of what we might consider some losses in the bilingual brain. But yet, you're arguing that there are some gains that far outweigh the losses as a person develops a bilingual sense. So can you talk about bilingualism a little bit?


Nina Kraus  11:13

Yeah, and I can tie it back easily to belonging. I think I tell the story of Trevor Noah, who he wrote a book called Born a Crime. And so he was born in South Africa and was born in a culture where he learned a number of different languages from English and Afrikaans and Zulu. And, and he reads his audio book, which is really great. But but he talks about how when he was, you know, in school, it was just a school kid. And, you know, kids are so partisan in terms of their little groups and cliques. And, and he, you know, found himself with one group of people and they kind of looked at him and wondering, you know, why are you with us because like, the the color of your skin might make us think that you belong with that other group. And then he just started speaking, whatever language they were speaking, and suddenly you belong. And I also say in the book, that if I could have a superpower, it would be to be able to speak every every language I wanted to speak. Because that would enable me to belong in a very special way. To anybody who I wanted to have a connection with, belong, belonging with your language.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  12:43

Kraus writes, quote, speaking more than one language influences how sound makes us feel, think and move. While a bilingual brain may slow down processing due to a diverse palette of linguistic possibilities, that diversity may also quote, provide richer ground for thinking, conjuring memories and other associations. Bilingualism also strengthens response to the fundamental frequency of pitch, a critical skill in grouping auditory objects. And as examined in a study by Carlson and Meltzoff. bilingual children experience gains in attention and inhibitory control that seemed to transcend challenges of poverty. The shared cultural stories of our worldviews are encoded in the vocabulary, grammar, and usage of language. When we hold a diversity of linguistic stories on our tongue, and in our ears, we enter possibilities of different ways of being and comprehending.


Nina Kraus  13:53

For example, if there are two people talking in a crowded place, one of the cues that we use is pitch because I say, oh, that's Kevin's voice. Oh, I know, I know that. That's the voice of this little kid that's talking over there, pitch helps us group what we might call auditory objects. Right? And identify Oh, that's the that's the sound of my coach. And so, if you are bilingual, or trilingual, or however many languages you have, you need to be. All these languages are, they are alive in your brain at the same moment, even though you're only speaking one language you have them all. And you have also become especially good, and we can see this in the biological response in the bilingual, the strength of processing of the fundamental frequency is really strong. which I would argue really helps people make sense of complex soundscapes as does, you know, the musician's brain also helps you make sense of complex soundscapes because you can pick out the tuba. But you're doing it in a different way. The brain is using different resources in its vast and intricate and beautiful sound mind. To, to make sense of sound,


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  15:29

I think there was there was one study that you pointed to about a musician, being more sensitive to the emotion of a baby's cry, than the non musician and I would also that, that probably also maps to the complexity of a sound, right?


Nina Kraus  15:45

The harmonics? Yeah. Whether your baby means it when he's crying in the night, and you know, your judgement of okay, I need to get up and be with my baby because he really needs me. Or, you know what, we'll both be way better off if he just cries for a while and we'll go back to sleep and be happier in the morning. But you're making this judgment on the emotion of his call, his crying based on the harmonics, and if you make music, you are you know, we just know that the musician brain automatically is better at processing the nuances of the timbre of the baby's cry.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  16:35

Encoded and frequency harmonics, rhythm and amplitude. Our voices contain subtle cues of our affect, and emotions. These subtle cues help us hear the emotional texts beyond our words. How do we become responsive to the sound and meanings beyond words, if musical training develops sonic sensitivity, could enhance our perception of emotional meaning? Using the rich and complex auditory stimulus of a baby's cry, Strait, Skoe, Kraus and Ashley, explored how musical training might impact responsiveness to sound affect. When compared with non musicians, adults who started musical training prior to age seven, had improved stimulus representations of pitch and timbre. Adults with 10 or more years of musical experience had an enhanced synchronous response with a stimulus. In reviewing literature, authors reflected, quote, our results thus provide initial biological evidence for enhanced perception of emotion in musicians, indicating involvement of subcortical mechanisms in the auditory processing of communicated states of emotion. Rather than being hardwired, responses to the emotional content of vocal sounds is quote, malleable with extensive auditory training. If we are to develop our capacities of empathy and care, investments in developing our heightened senses to frequency, harmonics, and amplitude, might unlock doors to emotional understandings and responsive belonging.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  18:41

And bilingualism and musicianship, if I'm right, have an impact on the ability to hear sound in noise.


Nina Kraus  18:49

Yeah, so with with the bilingual bilinguals new because if you think that a bilingual has all of these capabilities for languages in their brain, and but but they need to kind of inhibit the language, they're not speaking to be speaking, the language that they're currently speaking. And so it turns out that bilinguals are especially good at what is called in the business inhibitory control. Actually drummers are really good at this too. It just kind of inhibiting the sounds that or events that are not relevant, you know, just kind of being able to better pay attention to what is important and better inhibit what is not important. So bilinguals are especially good at doing those things. And it has just been repeatedly shown in a number of different ways and we can show this biologically and also very clearly link people's abilities in attention and inhibitory control with sound and the strength of their fundamental frequency.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  20:12

My last question, because this is a peacebuilding podcast, we often talk about our theory of violence or violence. And, and I would say that if I was to speak to violence, and here we can talk about noise and the noisy world that we live in, let me go back to my question here. So if we don't, we don't even just have to talk about the noise of war, we can talk about just the noise of our daily lives. And and there was one part in your book where... fascinated me in which there was a study that compared a classroom that was near train tracks and a classroom was away from train tracks and the direct impact it had upon learning. So could you open up for us that even some of what we think of as benign noises, have an incredible effect on our being in the world.


Nina Kraus  21:02

And our thinking? The brain is vast, and it consists of what we know, our cognition. So everybody knows that loud sounds, super loud sounds can damage your hearing, your ear. But hardly anybody knows that moderate level sounds can really disrupt our brain. So you know, we've all had the experience of, you know, the air conditioner will cycle off, or there's a truck outside, and then suddenly, he turns off his ignition. And you hadn't even noticed you hadn't been paying attention to those things. But when the sound turned off, we take a deep breath, and we relax. You don't realize that sound is our alarm sense. So people tell me, Oh, I'm so anxious. Oh, I'm stressed.. Well, if there is meaningless sound that is going on all around you, or you know you are, and another thing that people complain about, is not being able to focus. Well, sound is your alarm sense. If you are distracted every time your neighbor locks or unlocks his car door. That's biologically programmed. And we don't realize how damaging that is to our ability to learn, as they've demonstrated in this classroom. The ability to learn the ability to think the ability to have psychological, peace and quiet and not to feel. Its as though, we're in a in a constant low level of alarm. Because evolutionarily, we've had to learn to pay attention to that sound, that sound is what's going to alert us to.. is this a sound I need to get away from? is this a sound associated with mating? Is this the sound, is this food that I'm going to get? We're programed, to, to pay attention to sound, sound is our alarm sense. So I think that we can all... you know step one is being aware that this is a problem. I mean, even something like a hairdryer. You know, if people, if people were aware of the deleterious effect of this noise on our lives, and on jarring up our brain, you can create a hairdryer that doesn't make a lot of noise. You know, there are things that we can do. So first of all, you need to be aware of what it is and then secondly, make the best choices. I mean, you can't change the whole noisy world, but you can change the the environment you live in to some extent.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  24:18

Chronic noise exposure, like near an airport, quote, can lead to an overall decrease in perceived quality of life. increased stress levels, along with an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, problems with memory and learning, difficulty performing challenging tasks, and even stiffening of blood vessels and other cardiovascular diseases. Early studies by Bronzaft and McCarthy looked at the impact of an elevated train that ran next to an inner city school. In this study, trains passed by this school every four minutes and 89 decibels between At 9am and 3pm. Comparing a classroom next to the train tracks, with one away from the tracks. Researchers found that students on the noisy side lagged behind peers by three to 11 months and reading when noise abatement measures reduced trains by six to eight decibels, quote, the reading level difference vanished. Kraus points out that even the most seemingly benign noises may have an accumulative effect on the neural static we carry within our bodies.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  25:38

I layer hear a profound text by Daughtry because of its relevance for peacebuilders on traumas of sound and noise, Daughtry's book, listening to war, sound music, trauma and survival in wartime Iraq, examines the violence and meaning of sound in wartime contexts. In layers of sonic zones organized by proximity Daughtry documents the increasing oppressiveness of wartime sound from electrical generators to roadside bombs. War may be an accumulation of hyper arousal. As humans vigilantly gather information and judge the importance of sounds of bullets, bombs, loudspeakers and increasingly disturbing silence. As warriors return to peacetime environs, the damage of wartime arousal has the greatest post dramatic effect within the medium of sound. A returning soldier named to Baker reflects that when he hears triggering sounds and peacetime soundscapes quote, you figure out what it is real quick, but you get the tingling, my heart starts racing fast. It might just be for three seconds, but it feels like 10 minutes, it can take you away, and you're not there anymore. The stories of post traumatic stress, quote, all point the capacity of Bellephonic sound to live on as a ghostly resonance, haunting those who have been exposed to the toxic nexus of sound and violence. How do the imprints of noise and sound live on in our health and wellness?


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  27:34

And that it's one more factor I think, as in a recent New York Times article that is linked to a social determinant of health, you know, different populations have different exposures to, to sound depending on where you're living? Absolutely, yeah.


Nina Kraus  27:49

Yeah, and in fact, some of the research that we've done on on children living in poverty is that we, you know, we know that even although there is sound, and excessive levels of noise in these low income areas, because they're next to the airports and there's a lot of environmental sound. Also, within our brain, we have what we can think of as you know our neurons are always on. And if the neural responses are not synchronous, they create kind of a static, and we have found that just internally, kids living in poverty, part of the signal the neural signature of poverty, is, is excessive neural noise. So you know, think about being between radio stations, on your your tuner. And so that gets in the way of learning. And another group of people who we have seen to have exceedingly quiet brains are athletes. So, you know, we're doing this work with our elite athletes at Northwestern University. And these Division One athletes have the quietest brains that you can imagine. And you know, they are really primed then, and in a really good biological condition to make sense of the sounds and of any information that is happening around them. Yeah.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  29:35

I leave you with the final paragraph of Nina Kraus' this book. What I have shared with you in this book, are my scientific gut feelings based on years of thinking about the biology of hearing. Science cannot furnish every answer, but we have abundant evidence to trust that sound is a force shaping our minds. We can give voice to the power of sound by considering initiatives for making music, foreign language learning, and athletics, sounds has a place in medicine for people and coral reefs, we can work to honor silence, the sounds of home the soft sounds we love, and avoid excessive noise and the places we spend our time. We can consider sound in the creation of new spaces. We can try to make music with our families and friends. We can appreciate the beauty of sound with awe.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  30:36

may we embrace the vibrational between this of our Sonic lives listening to respond to unlock to belong to conjoin the marrow of our being in vibration. and may we quiet our noise finding betweenness in our languages our listening our quiet steps home. Dr. Nina Kraus' his book The sound mind is published by MIT Press. Her research lab named brainvolts can be found at Dr. Kraus invites you to consider donating to the work of her lab at brainvolts. She notes how much work her lab has yet to do, and the desire to advance this important work. My deepest gratitude to Dr. Kraus for her ongoing research work in support of the depths of our sound lives. Special thanks to Pixabay and Sandra Lehman for the use of free sound effects in this podcast. This is the music and peacebuilding podcast hosted by Kevin Shorner-Johnson. At Elizabethtown college we host a master of music education with an emphasis in peacebuilding. thinking deeply we reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at music

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