brain on music

Music and The Mind

Last November, I gave a short speech at the fifth annual fundraiser for an interesting organization called the Institute for Neuro-Innovation (INI). This non-profit is dedicated to brain research in an effort to fight Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, and other neurological diseases. It was started by Dr. Amir Vokshoor, a busy and gifted LA-based neurosurgeon. After he witnessed his father’s sad decline because of Alzheimer’s, he decided to start INI. With millions of baby-boomers heading into old age, this is valuable, innovative research worth supporting, especially with National Institute of Health budgets being slashed by the sequester and other funding cutbacks.

I was asked to make remarks on “music and the brain” at the Belief, Brain, & Perspective fundraiser last Fall. Listed below is my speech from 11/9/13 that I wanted to share.

Thoughts on Music and the Brain

Years ago, when I received the score I got on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), I knew I was destined for another vocation besides law. Which was just fine for me, because music was my number one love. I’d already gotten a graduate degree in Comparative Literature, but never really trusted language as much as I did music. In fact, one of the big thinkers for Comp Lit majors was Jacques Derrida, and I lost a lot of brain cells trying to figure out his deconstructivist dogma, which simply put, asserted that language was untrustworthy, self-referential, with no real basis in nature.

If language is unnatural, what about music? Eminent neurologists and pyschologists such as Oliver Sacks, Daniel Levitin, and Iain McGilchrist all say that singing and music predated language, and even made language possible by expanding brain function in early humans. A few years ago, a 40,000 year old bone flute was discovered in Germany. It had precisely drilled holes. Even then early humans were making music, and it was the structure of music that helped their brains develop to a point where language became possible.

Furthermore, studies of infants have shown that the musical aspects of language come before actual words themselves. It starts early in the womb, with the swaying of a mother’s body while walking, and her baby picking up lullabies and the prosody of baby talk. It’s not the words per se but the sounds and tone of voice the baby is hearing. It’s been said that lullabies heard by the baby in the womb aid in the development of the amygdala which is a crucial part of the brain’s limbic system.

Music is primal, and it transcends language. I’ve been to many Congolese and Nigerian concerts, as well as the sufi concerts of the late singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and I’ve seen thousands of people become transported in the music while not knowing a word. Language really didn’t matter. Rhythm and sound rule here. Words come in second.

Like the other creative arts, music is a right-hemisphere phenomenon. It helps us return to the basics, escape the hegemony of the left hemisphere, of logic and language and mechanical thinking, and return to a more primal state of being that our ancestors once enjoyed. Take Coachella, a contemporary version of Woodstock, where thousands of people come together in a shared music experience. At times it becomes akin to a tribal ritual. Music, like romantic and physical love, releases endorphins and makes us feel emotions. Dopamine and serotonin are the feel-good neurotransmitters. People taking Ecstasy at electronic dance concerts are experiencing how good it feels to have a serotonin rush. Primitive cultures have used more organic and less-toxic means to reach the same state.

John Cage once told me that the concerts of Edgar Varese and Henry Cowell he attended while growing up in LA in the 1930s were “statements of belief” that set the course of his musical life on track.

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My “Statement of Belief”

My “statement of belief” came when I was 16. I sat in my room at home and listened to a live track called “India” from John Coltrane’s album, Impressions. I was transfixed, the music had such a powerful impact on me it was like an out-of-body experience. I’d never heard anything like it before, didn’t touch alcohol or drugs, and couldn’t explain quite what was happening to me. Music has been a driving force my life ever since. It is not a hobby. It is a psychic need. It lifts my spirit and stirs my emotions like no other art form. By the way, I still have that original Impulse album, in glorious mono (couldn’t afford stereo when I was 16).

Music even has the power to move us when our cognitive function is wrecked. There was a viral video that came out a while ago that showed an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s, who no longer remembered his own daughter when she visited. Somebody put on some of his favorite music from earlier days, in this case Cab Calloway, and he started moving and singing. He remembered all the songs, the lyrics, and better times when he was younger. He spoke animatedly of his love for music and his wonderful memories of dancing and enjoying it. I’ve heard when the left hemisphere is damaged, the right one takes over. In this case the old codger’s hippocampus was stimulated and produced this rush of joy.

When I was living in Paris, I spent about 2 weeks pay to buy some good tickets to see the Bejart Ballet dance to music of Boulez and Mahler. I had a hot first date and wanted to impress. The Boulez was hard and angular, but the Mahler was sweeping, ravishing. I was enraptured and moved–I tend to get pretty emotional. At the end, when I was recovering, I asked my date what she thought (she probably was embarrassed to be sitting next to a cry baby). She said rather formally “Oh, it was quite good.” I was dumbfounded. Hadn’t the music penetrated her spirit? How could she not feel something more?

Amusia is the inability to derive pleasure from music. It is related to an even worse syndrome, anhedonia: the inability to experience pleasure, the opposite of hedonism.   Musicophilia is the musical opposite: the word for a music lover (the French have a better word, “melomane”). Was my unaffected date an example of amusia? I certainly fit the second designation.

One of my favorite artists, Melody Gardot, was hit on her bike by an SUV and suffered extreme motor and cognitive injury. She was a musician prior to the accident, and it was music therapy that helped reconnect her damaged neural pathways and enable her to become the amazing singer and songwriter she is today. If you don’t know her work, you should.

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Dr. Tony Cicoria was struck by lightning and became obsessed with music

Some of you may know the story of Dr. Tony Cicoria, an orthopedist in Boston who was indifferent to music until he was struck by lightning while in a phone booth.  Oliver Sacks wrote about him. The electric jolt reorganized his brain, got his right hemisphere mojo working, and soon he had an unquenchable thirst to listen to music and learn how to make it. He learned piano technique, cut back his practice, his wife felt ignored and divorced him, and he debuted his piano sonata a few years ago which is also available on CD. What musical magic is tucked away in the white matter of our brains?

There was recently yet another article about Einstein’s brain, saying that his amazing gifts may have been the result of a huge corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the left and right hemispheres. Einstein was also a gifted violinist and lover of music. He once said and I quote, “If I weren’t a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I see my life in terms of music.” Was there a connection between his amazing mind and his love of music?

Iain McGilchrist says we have in modern western civilization a chauvinism of the left hemisphere, the domain of language and reasoning and the way we achieved the advanced civilization we have today. So much research has been devoted to left  hemisphere functions but not the white matter on the right side. Think of the old guy coming alive to his beloved Cab Calloway. And of a whole generation of baby boomers heading into old age. We would be fools to ignore the treasures inside the right hemisphere and the hippocampus.

I’d like to close with some quotes I’ve always loved:

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination.” — Plato

“Music expresses that which can’t be said.” – Victor Hugo

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” — Beethoven

“Music doesn’t lie.” — Jimi Hendrix

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

What do all these quotes have in common?  They say that music is the language of emotion and truth. This is why I believe in it.

Here is the transcendent music of John Coltrane that was my “statement of belief”.

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  • Carvin Knowles

    Thanks for this. I LOVE this stuff. Have you read Carl Sagan’s “The Dragons of Eden?” He gets into exactly this sort of detail.

  • tomschnabel

    thanks xomako….i was a literature major in college but music always spoke the truth better….best, tom

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