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Obsessed by Music: Brain Sciences and Oliver Sacks

November 13, 2008 - Durham, NC:


The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) hosted a day-long symposium in the Bryan Research Center on the Duke University campus addressing the human obsession for music and how brain science seeks to explain and explore this fascination. The symposium was preceded on Wednesday, November 12, by a lecture on "Music, Healing and the Brain" by well-known author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, given before a standing-room-only audience in Page Auditorium on the Duke campus. The lecture, co-sponsored by the Duke Libraries and DIBS, was introduced by Duke Provost Peter Lang.

Oliver Sacks is perhaps best known for his book Awakenings (later made into an award-winning movie), which describes the awakening of severely afflicted Parkinsonian patients to the gentle prodding of rhythmic music. Dr. Sacks has written half a dozen books on a variety of neurological topics, most often drawn from his own case studies and from letters from patients and other doctors. His most recent book, Musicophilia, compiles cases related to music. The paperback edition (Vintage, 2008) includes dozens of letters that readers of the first edition sent him.

Standing behind the lectern on the otherwise empty stage, and looking like the stereotypical absent-minded professor, in coat and tie and sneakers, Dr. Sacks read simply from a sheaf of notes and letters, first chronicling anecdotally the history of musically related afflictions, conditions, and obsessions and the questions these raised, from Darwin to the present.

He then described a musically trained singer, severely afflicted by Alzheimer's dementia, yet who performs perfectly on the stage at Radio City Music Hall with a 12-member a capella group.  Contrasting how patients with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's react and relate to music, he pointed out how the gentle rhythms of certain music permit the Parkinsonian patients to move and even dance, but this ceases instantly when the music stops; and with Alzheimer's patients, how familiar music and songs permit them to rouse from their demented state and to sing along and even return to reality for protracted periods of time... before sinking back into their own world.

He described the distinguished doctor who survived being struck by lightning only to become obsessed by music, the piano, and Chopin, in particular, and who, despite no previous musical experience, pursued this obsession, becoming a confident and competent performer. And in response to another question, he explained "Melodic Intonation Therapy" (MIT), in which the caregiver helps stroke victims who have lost the ability to speak (Broca's aphasia) recover speech by teaching them to sing familiar songs.

And on the negative side, he described "ear worms," those dreadful tunes that repeat themselves incessantly in the mind ("Plop, plop, fizz, fizz...") and the musical hallucinations that sometimes afflict healthy people who lose their hearing.

Regardless of which case study he was describing, Dr. Sacks continuously pointed out the extent to which we humans and only we humans are musical creatures. We react musically in the womb, and music is one of the last things we can process at the other end of life. Music changes the brain and music changes our life.

Music and the Brain Symposium

Interestingly, most scientists who study the music-mind connection began as accomplished musicians! The first speaker, Mark Tramo, M.D., Ph.D., is a rock musician and ASCAP songwriter. He is also the director of Harvard University's Institute for Music and Brain Science and a practicing physician at Massachusetts General. His talk began the day and described the functional brain organization in relation to music cognition. He contrasted the duality of the tabula rasa theory (clean slate until sensory information fills the brain) and the "pre-determined at birth" idea and how both (and neither) fully describe how the brain works. Furthermore, specifically as relates to music, there is no music center – there are centers that process pitch perception, just as there are centers that process light perception – but there is no center that specializes in what we mean by "music" or "art."

Elisabeth Marvin, Ph.D., a professor of music theory at the Eastman School of Music, followed with a fascinating study of absolute pitch (AP), which laymen and musicians alike call "perfect pitch," i.e. the ability to say the name of a heard note or notes and vice versa — to sing, unassisted, the correct pitch of any named note. Whereas most musicians have a well developed sense of relative pitch, few have AP. However, oriental musicians who speak tonal languages (Chinese, Thai) appear to have a higher incidence of AP. Dr. Marvin reported on a study in the U.S. by Daniel Levitin (This Is Your Brain On Music, Dutton, 2006) that asked "Joe Six-pack" off the street to sing his favorite pop song, and over 90% of those studied sang the song in the original key and in the original tempo, indicating that the population as a whole may very well have a version of "absolute pitch memory."

Laurel Trainor, Ph.D., is a professor and the Director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind in Hamilton, ON, Canada, and is well-known for her extended work in how infants perceive pitch, melody, and harmony, as well as many other studies in new-born children. Her talk at the DIBS symposium centered on how rhythmic perception and preference originate, and included slides of children being bounced, tossed, etc. — all things infants love. She discussed which parts of the body may be the sources of rhythmic stimulation and concluded that the vestibular system (near and behind the ear, including the three semi-circular canals) is probably the source of — or is intricately involved in — the perception and preferences of rhythms. An interesting bit of trivia: about 2/3s of Americans show a preference for duple rhythms over triple rhythms!

Dale Purves, M.D., director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, discussed the hypothesis his team has been testing that the "emotional impact of major vs. minor usually derives from its spectral similarity to speech in different emotive states." In other words, and grossly over-simplified by me: independently of other factors (tempo, dynamics, etc.), minor music makes us sad because of its structural similarity to the speech patterns when we are speaking sadly — and the contrary for major music and happy speech. This was a highly technical discussion of how scale form (major vs. minor) affects perception and how this in turn affects the emotional state of mind.

Robert Zatorre, Ph.D, of McGill University, in Montreal, is one of the most highly respected researchers in the music/mind field and the author or co-author of hundreds of articles and books on the subject. He spoke about music as a window upon brain function and structure but, as with most windows, this one works both ways — not only does the study of the brain (when involved in musical experiences) give us a window into how the brain functions, but it also gives us intriguing insights into the nature of music. He spoke at length about work that his colleagues have done in the field of the affective cognition of music — how music makes us feel, and why — comparing thrills felt with certain music to the pleasure associated with certain foods and even to sexual ecstasy.

David Huron, Ph.D., professor of music at Ohio State University, added wit and humor to the afternoon with a talk which abandoned the PowerPoint style of presentation in favor of the old-fashioned overhead projector with notes on transparencies. He discussed four "sublime musical emotions": Frisson (shiver), Awe, Laughter, and Weeping. Referring to two brains, not left and right but old vs. new, reptilian vs. mammalian, he described how ""instinctive" reaction to threats ("flight, fight, freeze, appease") is often tempered by "cerebral" control, which situates it in the big picture of current reality. Placing, uncovering, and discarding his slides with a bit of slap-stick comedy, we came better to understand the "sweet anticipation" of certain musical passages and the "good grief" of others which bring a lump to the throat or even tears to the eye.

Unfortunately, the day was running late and long, and my travel plans forced me to miss what I had most anticipated — the performance of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135, by the Ciompi Quartet, and the ensuing panel discussion with the neuroscientists. But the day had been full, the speakers enlightening and the time, well-spent.  Much more will be written about the Biology of Music!