The Brain and Music

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Here’s your brain on music!

April 18th, 2010 · No Comments · how the brain works, music and the brain


Sometimes, the longer you journey toward a goal, the more it appears to recede into the distance. The experience is common to both alpine mountaineers and scientific researchers—especially, it seems, to those involved in neuroscience. It’s a burgeoning field, with new discoveries at every turn. Lately much of its focus has been on the arts, and a spate of best-selling books has hit the marketplace with the promise of unraveling the secret of music’s enduring power.

“Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization” (Knopf/Vintage).

However, an abundance of brain scans, experimental studies and case histories has, in the end, failed to answer certain vital questions: What is music? Where can we find it in the brain? Why does it do what it does to us?

The brain is, in essence, a musical instrument—taking bits of material from a world of chaos, then shaping and modulating them into one graceful, lyrical stream. Yet, despite some scientific success in mapping its discrete compartments, it is an organ that resists efforts to render its workings in black and white. Cognition involves processes that are simply too wide-ranging and complex to be assigned to a single anatomical location.

Scientists have had to grapple with this, as well as with what is known as “plasticity.” At a recent conference on “Emotion, Music & the Brain”—held at the State University of New York’s Purchase College Conservatory of Music in Westchester in collaboration with the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at the Bronx’s Beth Abraham Hospital—Concetta Tomaino, Beth Abraham’s vice president of music therapy, explained the phenomenon: “Simply put, the brain changes as it experiences and learns.” In effect, those attempting to pin down its internal circuitry are chasing a moving target.

“Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization” (Knopf/Vintage).

Yet, the plasticity that reshapes the brain as we grow is also a blessing. “The challenge is in knowing how it can change when there is damage,” says Dr. Tomaino, “and then working with the neural networks that are still available.” This is an area with remarkable success. Steven Sparr, professor of clinical neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, demonstrated at the conference that “emotions can utilize alternative pathways when the primary ones are damaged—allowing a patient with facial paralysis, for example, to regain a symmetrical smile in response to humor.” Emotions, Dr. Sparr says—and thus music—are integral to human intelligence. “A mind without either is impoverished.”

Inspired by the work of these doctors, I signed up to become a subject myself in an experimental study at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, under the supervision of Preeti Raghavan, assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine and director of the Motor Recovery Laboratory. Dr. Raghavan has done a great deal of work with victims of stroke. But the nature of the new study was especially intriguing to me: How do injured pianists and those without injury differ in their muscular and neural reactions when playing?

Although I don’t have any performance-related problems, I have been suffering from a slight shoulder tear, which placed me in the injured group. So one afternoon in October, I sat at a keyboard as Dr. Raghavan’s team—graduate students Errold Reid Jr. and Akshay Bhatt, along with Dr. Sravani Mudumbi—placed electrodes on my arms and torso, asked me to slip on a special glove to measure my hand movements, and put me through a lengthy protocol. I followed their instructions, though much of the time I had no idea why I was being asked to do so.

“Listen for the octaves,” said Mr. Reid before playing a tape, “and then try to duplicate them exactly.” I assumed it was a test of my ability to mimic what I heard with all the subtle nuances of a professional artist. I was wrong. “Play the notes of the scale singly and slowly.” “Perform a challenging piece that lasts 10 minutes.” “Now listen to the octaves and again repeat them.” “Squeeze your shoulder blades together.”

A video camera caught it all, for the purpose of observing the way I moved my arm. I was asked to use biofeedback as a relaxation method while holding my hands in a playing posture, and then while playing. Finally, I was shocked with electrical pulses—more than once! I survived.

I met with the team again last week to hear the results. “These are all preliminary,” Dr. Raghavan warned me. “The study is still ongoing, and I can only give you a very general picture.” The octaves, it turns out, were simply used to check on how I held up the three fingers between my thumb and pinky, since they have to be raised above the keys when the motion is performed. Meanwhile, the other electrodes relayed measurements of stretching, contracting, levels of tension and relaxation, and the transmission of information in my body. The glove tracked finger “wobble.” The shocks stimulated a nerve while the team watched their effects on distant back muscles.

“We want to know if there are any predisposing factors that might lead some individuals to injury,” Dr. Raghavan said. Because my shoulder injury was on my left side, that was the hand and arm the team focused on. The results? My finger muscle activity was good, and my wrists relaxed. But . . . “Your upper trapezius and lower trapezius [muscles] are not behaving the way they do in pianists without injury,” she reported. “When certain reciprocal relationships are disturbed, the resulting instability causes other muscles to strain in an attempt to restore balance.” My results were a warning sign.

Dr. Raghavan is clearly on to something. Part of her research will involve righting the problems. One of her colleagues, Dr. Richard Frieden, developed insights into the training of back muscles in injured musicians using physical therapy. But as the biofeedback portion of the test showed, another solution may rest in the brain itself, perhaps through visualization and meditative techniques. The research is still young, but it could well confirm truths as ancient as the hills.

—Mr. Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College Conservatory of Music (SUNY) and author of “Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization” (Knopf/Vintage).

This is your brain on music!


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