Music and the Brain

    A recent report entitled "Study of Music and the Mind Hits a High Note in Montreal"(Science (v315,p758, 2007) describes work at the Unversity of Montreal's International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research. Some of the findings there may be of interest to anyone who makes music, whether as a beginner or a professional, or simply enjoys listening to it.

Where Is the Music Processor?     For a long time it was thought that the areas the brain uses for processing music mostly overlap with the language processing centers. Isabelle Peretz, Co-director of the laboratory, suggested that was wrong, based on a study she did of people with amusia (a form of tone-deafness), which can be present from birth (congenital) or result from injury (acquired). Many of these subjects had normal language functions, which would not be possible if the music and language centers had much overlap. (One does wonder if native Chinese speakers with acquired amusia would retain normal language function, since the Chinese language does depend on pitch far more than other languages.) Further study by the laboratory's director, Robert Zatorre, showed that the areas for pitch-recognition and music memory are located in the right side of the brain, while language functions are in the left.

Music & Emotion     Another finding by Zatorre is that when people listening to music have a pleasurable "spine-tingling" experience, the parts of the brain that get activated - the amygdala and the orbito-frontal cortex - are the same ones activated by food and sex! Thus religious authorities, from the ancient Egyptians down to the present, have often been highly suspicious of music and musicians (for good reason, as it turns out!) In the 1500s Zwingli, the Zurich protestant reformer, banned all music from the worship service. Interestingly, he himself was an experienced musician. My own grandfather and his brother were country musicians, playing the fiddle and banjo, respectively, in the early 1900s in rural middle Tennessee. When they "got religion", they stopped playing abruptly, and Uncle "Waddy" (Walter) hung his banjo on the wall and never touched it again. My grandfather did demonstrate his fiddle playing to his grandchildren occasionally, but never played in public again.

Music & Memory     One of the most interesting findings has to do with musical memory - for example, the ability of pianists to remember long and complicated scores. It had long been thought that the brain would store the score in some way, and the fingers would simply follow. As it turns out, however, that's only part of the story. The fingers are activated by motor neurons, and in the brain these have a separate place for memory that is not accessible to conscious thought; that is, the only way content can be put into that memory is by actually moving the fingers. That place is, not surprisingly, well-connected to and coordinated with the part of the brain where the score is stored. The practical meaning for pianists and other musicians is that when you practice a passage over and over again, you are strengthening the motor memory as well as the score memory, and not just making your fingers stronger. Merely memorizing the music by visual and/or auditory study is an incomplete process as best. And when you play a fast passage it may be impossible to think about each note. Also, if you have a disturbance in the conscious part of your brain, such as might be caused by performance anxiety, your fingers' memory may well save the day, but only if you have actually practiced enough! I suspect most experienced pianists (and other musicians) have already learned this. There is a further related process that is fairly well-known, although not discussed in the Science report. It takes a night of sleep for the results of an extended practice session to be most effective. Organists take heed - if possible, practice on Saturday rather than on Sunday morning!

- Glenn A. Gentry