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Music and the Brain: Fountain of Youth?

May 6th, 2015 · music and alzheimer, music and the brain

There is so much wonderful information out there today about the brain and how you can stay young and even reverse aging by using your brain for new tasks, such as foreign language learning, taking up a new musical instrument, or taking new pathways around your town or just your house.  Experts tell us that something as simple as brushing your teeth or hair with the non-dominant hand, can create new neural pathways that are fresh and viable!  Wow!  I remember hearing a professor say that at night you should try not turning on the lights, and finding your way around your house, just by feel and sensory clues other than vision. Music has so many applications for keeping the brain young.  A piano teacher of mine once said that if your really know your music, you should be able to go to the piano in the dark and play your pieces with no light on at all!  That was a radical idea to me, but I tried it!  With no visual cues it is considerably harder, but a good way to test how well you know that music. Of course we know that many blind pianists, who were born blind or who lost their vision at an early age, like Ray Charles, developed their ears and their sense of touch so powerfully that they played as well as sighted pianists.  So...the brain really is an amazing organ, probably still far more powerful than we realize today. When I was working with patients with Alzheimer's disease many years ago, I was constantly amazed at the way they could remember songs and words to songs, when they couldn't tell you their own name or recognize family members and friends.  Alzheimer's is such a cruel and tragic disease, but music is a powerful intervention that can often be quite effective, right up until the end of their life!  There are so many videos on YouTube that show music therapists working with Alzheimer's patients and if you haven't seen them, you should really take a look. As for the Baby Boomers, I really believe we should listen to our popular "oldies" from the 50's, 60's, and 70's.  I know that for me, it brings back floods of memories in a way that is 99% pleasurable and loads of fun, and free!!  Recently I was reminiscing about how I used to race home from school to watch "American Bandstand" and how badly I wanted to be on the show.  My mother said that I could be on it for my 15th birthday, but then, when that came around, she discovered it was broadcast from Philadelphia!  We lived in S.C., so it wasn't going to happen.  Despite that, I still have fond memories of Dick Clark, American Bandstand, and all of the songs that made my youth happy and can do it for me even today!!  I believe that music can definitely be a source of the Fountain of Youth!

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The Musical Brain of Savant, Derek Paravicini

April 3rd, 2015 · music and the brain

Derek Paravicini of London, England, is an amazing musical savant.  He has been followed by doctors and therapists of all kinds since he was born 3 months prematurely over 31 years ago!  He was fortunate to be born into a well-to-do family, who were able to give him every possible advantage. When he was three years old, his parents took him to visit a School for Blind Children in London, and there he happened to hear a piano lesson in progress.  Derek rushed to the sound of the piano and literally pushed the teacher off the bench and started to play the piano with "karate chops," as the teacher described it."mhCH1M Listen as his father and his "piano teacher for life" talk about Derek and the amazing life he has.  It is an inspiring story of a little boy who might have had a very limited life had not the miracle of music taken hold of him!  Enjoy!

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Can Music Rewire the Brain?

March 1st, 2015 · how the brain works, music and the brain

It seems that rewiring the brain is a very popular idea these days!  Over my past decade as a private practice psychotherapist and music medicine practitioner, I've read all the research on how positive affirmations can rewire the brain and I've seen this happen so many times.  We know that the messages we are given my parents, teachers, and caregivers are the messages that we tend to give ourselves as adults.  If those messages were excessively critical or negative, we tend to be overly critical and negative with ourselves.  Doing short but frequent positive statements, such as "I am a good person," "I'm doing the best I can at all times," and "I deserve to be happy," can slowly but surely begin to change the negative thinking, anxiety and depression and actually re-program the brain. BUT, can music do this as well?  According to panel discussion, chaired by renowned music therapist, Concetta Tomaino, RMT-BC, it certainly can!  Tomaino is Executive Director/Co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and Senior Vice President of Music Therapy Services at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services  and a leader in the field of neurologic music therapy.  In the course of this panel discussion, recent research finding were presented and the consensus was that it certainly is possible and actually it happens all the time when musicians practice things over and over. In an article that appeared on the website: "Scientists have found that the brains of professional musicians are physiologically different from the brains of other people, and they got that way mostly because of practice, practice, practice. Training "turbo hands" They can move fast, seemingly faster than humanly possible. For instance, when classical pianist Anna Fedorova plays the popular Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff, her fingers and hands will sometimes move so fast they almost cannot be seen. Meanwhile, all ten fingers are hitting every particular key in just the right way and she has all the 26,000 or so notes memorized. Now in her early 20s, she has been practicing the piano since the age of five. Some musicians can play more than one melody at a time. Vladimir Horowitz, as an encore, would often play a piano version of John Phillip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever march, ending with his left hand doing the melody and his right hand, in seemingly impossible counterpoint, doing what is usually the piccolo part, an entirely different melody. It is not just classical pianists who can exhibit opposing or unrelated motions simultaneously. So can jazz musicians like Keith Jarrett, and violinists such as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Her right hand does the bowing while her left hand modifies the sound of the strings, an entirely different motion, and she can do it at lightning speed. And if it looks as though they are in a trance or autopilot when they are performing, they probably are. How did they get to be able to do that? Yes, practice. Repurposing the hands Repetition of movement helps both the ability to move faster and precisely as well as the multitasking involved in playing some instruments. Musicians are, in a way, fighting nature. The default position of the human hand is holding a rock, not bowing a violin, said Alan Hugh David Watson, a reader in biosciences at Cardiff Univ. in Wales. For one thing, the ability to move with almost superhuman speed is a bit of an optical illusion, Watson said. The musicians surely are going fast, but their fingers are not moving very far, a centimeter or two for the violin, he said. He also said that while piano beginners put a great deal of pressure on the fingers, with practice pianists learn to use only the minimum amount needed for each note, an economy of energy, making it easier for the hands to fly across the keys. It is "absolutely possible" to teach people to move quite fast, said Sharon Levy, who teaches at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. "It's a combination of natural ability, practice and good teaching." It also is possible to train musicians to play two voices simultaneously. In fact, some music was written just to teach children how to do it, including Johann Sebastian Bach's Inventions. The Three-Part Inventions are more complicated than the Two-Part, and those get more complicated as they go on. Bach was the master of the fugue, where one melodic idea, or voice, on one hand is followed by the same idea on the other, only later, like a round. "People can learn to play counterpoint, though they vary in skills," Levy said. “For pianists this is basic. We don't start off with a Bach fugue, of course." Bach even has inversions, with one hand doing one thing and the other the exact opposite. Some people come at it more naturally than others, she said. Nature or nurture? With practice, musicians can eventually perform on autopilot, a trance, or meditation. They are not thinking of what they are playing. "That would screw things up," Watson said. They enter a different realm, and if you sit close enough you can see them do it. Some, like Salerno-Sonnenberg, make inadvertent grimaces while playing. The best example may be the late Glenn Gould, a master of Bach who was clearly in another world when he played, crouched over the keyboard, his mouth moving as he was talking to the keys, gently urging them on. He can occasionally be heard to grunt on his recordings. Jarrett moans and vocalizes as well. Many musicians play with their eyes closed and still never get a wrong note. Watson once saw a woman violinist's neck glow bright red when she played, a condition he called "pre-orgasmic." What is crucial, Watson said, is the kind of practice. Folklore among musicians is that you need 10,000 hours of practice to excel, but Watson said how you practice is more important than how long. It has to be intense and the player single-minded. You are essentially programming your brain to train the muscle memory. You have to play perfectly in practice so the brain knows only one way to play the piece and you don't have to make decisions while you play. "It is incredibly tiring," Watson said. Many break up practice sessions into small pieces and there is scientific evidence that catnaps between sessions actually help imprint the music. "It is clear that sophisticated motor skills are developed only at the expense of a great deal of time and effort," he said. The famous cellist Pablo Casals was once asked why, at the age of 93, he still practiced three hours a day. "I'm beginning to see some improvement," he said."    

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Music and the Brain of an Alzheimer’s Patient

January 30th, 2015 · how the brain works, music and alzheimer, music and the brain

The brain of the patient with Alzheimer's disease is affected in a manner that has been described as being filled with tangled, plaque-laden dendrites.  Although, I believe that we are closer to a cure than ever before, it still stands to be a major disease with us aging baby boomers. Research is being conducted in universities and hospitals around the world and there are many new possible correlations between life-style issues and later development of Alzheimer's disease.  Dietetic links, environmental links, emotional links; all are being looked at under the microscope and considered as something could possibly lead to a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. So how does music positively affect the brain of the Alzheimer's patient?  Here are five ways that a recent article on put forth:
  • 1. Music evokes emotions that bring memories. Music can evoke emotion in even the most advanced of Alzheimer’s patients. NeurologistOliver Sacks says that, “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory… it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.” By pairing music with every day activities, patients can develop a rhythm that helps them to the recall the memory of that activity, improving cognitive ability over time.
  • 2. Musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in dementia patients. Linda Maguire, lead author on the study wrote, “Musical aptitude and music appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in patients with Alzheimer’s.” Because these two abilities remain long after other abilities have passed, music is an excellent way to reach beyond the disease and reach the person.
  • 3. Music can bring emotional and physical closeness. In the later stages of dementia, patients often lose the ability to share emotions with caregivers. Through music, as long as they are ambulatory, they can often dance. Dancing can lead to hugs, kisses and touching which brings security and memories.
  • 4. Singing is engaging. The singing sessions in the study engaged more than just the brain and the area related to singing. As singing activated the left side of the brain, listening to music sparked activity in the right and watching the class activated visual areas of the brain. With so much of the brain being stimulated, the patients were exercising more mind power than usual.
  • 5. Music can shift mood, manage stress and stimulate positive interactions. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has an entire web page dedicated to music therapy in Alzheimer’s patients. They say that, “When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function and coordinate motor movements.” This is because music requires little to no mental processing, so singing music does not require the cognitive function that is not present in most dementia patients.
  • For more information about this, see

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Music benefits the brain in so many ways!

September 30th, 2014 · how the brain works, music and the brain

We all know that music makes us feel great!  Pretty much everyone on the planet has some kind of music that they really, really like and that they respond to immediately!  And the good news is, the music that you like, and respond to, and choose over and over, is the very music that is going to be best for YOUR brain. There is no doctor or health professional or clinical musicologist that can tell you what music will be best for your brain.  We might be able to suggest some things, based on you symptoms, age, and background, but YOU will always know what music is best for you! Studies that have just come out this year (2014) have shown yet again, that music powerfully fosters brain plasticity, provides an alternative educational tool, and can treat learning disabilities.  Knowing this, getting involved in some kind of music making is so important for you.  Can't carry a tune in a bucket?  Pick up a hand drum or a tambourine or a shaker of some kind.  Do you love to sing?  There are church choirs, civic choirs, and local music theaters widely available.  Love to play your old clarinet, trumpet or violin?  There are orchestras and bands available in your town or the next one over that would love to have you!  Or do you play guitar or piano?  Start a garage band or just get together with friends and enjoy the fun of jamming for a few hours. Medscape is a great resource for articles and research on music and the brain.  Enjoy this one!

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