» Archive for February, 2008

Music and the brain

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008 by Martin Hester

Oliver Sacks
Musicophilia – Tales of music and the brain.
Published by Knopf in English, by Companhia das Letras in Portuguese.

I remember being taken aback when Carol McDavit (soprano diva and singing teacher) told me: “No two people in the audience hear the music in the same way”. What? -doesn’t everyone hear the same things I’m hearing?…. But if the truth of this remark gradually sinks in, reading this book by Oliver Sacks is like realising there’s a whole new world out there – of interactions between people and music. Curiously, although music is so predominant in our lives, the way we react to it seems to have been little explored scientifically. Various anecdotal tales circulate about musicians, but only in the last 20 years or so have the techniques of imaging and mapping neural activity been used to track how our brain is activated by music, and thus make possible studies of some distinctive behaviours.

Dr. Sacks, born in London but working in the US since 1960, is a doctor specialising in neurology and psychiatry, who has also become a best-selling author. He has been in contact with music since early childhood, and is an amateur musician himself. In this book, he has done a tremendous job of bringing together stories of patients from his own clinical practice, plus reports of colleagues, plus quotes from the literature, all to illustrate how people may react to music, how music may be present in the mind, how it may influence behaviour. Some of the stories are really way out – but many ring bells with our own experience.

One important realisation is that, as human beings, we are extraordinarily capable of working with music – a sequence of tones of greater or lesser complexity that we hear. Not only can we hear it and retain it in the mind and reproduce it, but music may provoke our emotions and feelings, and may cause us to react in movement. Around this rather banal statement (who could possibly doubt that at Carnival time?) there are related some extraordinary tales.

In this fascinating universe of music and the mind, I wanted to comment this time on just two aspects:

Musical perception
Musicality, or musical perception, covers a range of abilities and wide differences in personal sensitivity. The abilities are broken down by Dr. Sacks into the perception of rhythm, pitch, timbre, intervals, melodic shape, and harmonies. Although most of us have these perceptions in some degree, there are some people who have little perception in one or the other, and others who have extraordinary ability. Some are very sensitive to slight variations, and others appear to have no perception of them at all.

Regarding rhythm, for instance, some are unable to clap in time, while others have skill sufficient to play the tamborim in a samba school bateria. Pitch means the perception of the frequency of a note. Some really can’t tell whether a note is higher or lower than one struck previously – while others have a precise perception of relative pitch, knowing immediately if a note is bang on the frequency we expect or not. (Beyond this, there are people who have “perfect” pitch – hearing a note, they know if it’s a C or an F sharp, or whatever – must be rather uncomfortable to live with that). Timbre refers to the quality of sound, which is related to the harmonics attached to the note. Most of us feel instinctively if a sound is pleasing or not – while for others, timbre is unimportant (particularly housewives who love Roberto Carlos!).

But these are technical abilities, and it seems that this sort of ability doesn’t interfere with the response of our emotions. It is well known that music can provoke emotional reactions – but again, some people are quite indifferent, but others are very sensitive. If we describe a piece of music as sad, or peaceful, or happy, or heroic, we are really saying that that is the emotion we feel while listening – but another may not feel it in quite the same way.

The connection between music and movement is well known. Rhythmic music helps us to move with less conscious effort. Dancing is enjoyable, and we can keep going for a long time if there is a strong rhythm. Music is used in gym classes and military parades. Athletes’ performance can be enhanced if they listen to (or imagine) music whose rhythm reinforces their efforts.

But perhaps the most endearing thing about musical perception is that it is there in some degree as part of our nature. We can enjoy and react to music without training for it or having particular skills. (Of course, we can change things by study and experience). This makes it rather different from language skills, which are painstakingly acquired over a long period. Indeed, there is the suggestion in Sack’s book that musical abilities in very young children may be very strong, but they tend to get dampened down by learning speech and other reasoning skills, as if parts of the brain were programmed and occupied by this learning, leaving less available for musical development.

Musical images
Through recounting various cases, Sacks shows us that the storing of music in our heads has some pretty remarkable variations. While it is common for most of us to recall fragments of music, this recall may become obsessive and difficult to control – particularly if you have been saturated with repetitions of a short theme. In older people, as they lose normal hearing, the mental images of music may become stronger and more intrusive, though usually fragmented. On the other hand, some people have complete and vivid musical memory, and can command a playback of music in their head which seems as if they were listening to it live. And often our musical memory remains clear and strong, even when our conventional memory (names, people, places) is fading…

This is a fascinating book, full of intriguing tales.