THE CONTINUO READS      -       All about music and the mind

      A recent issue of Scientific American (Nov 2004) has a wonderful article by Norman M. Weinberger (page 89) titled "Music and the Brain" (your nearest public library should have a copy).
Here are some of the headings:
"What is the secret of music's strange power?"
"Music surrounds us - and we wouldn't have it any other way."
"Why is music universally beloved and uniquely powerful in its ability to wring emotions - so pervasive and important to us?"

      The article summarizes the current status of what we know about music and the brain. Early studies in this area depended on examining musicians (and others) who had suffered injury or disease that affected specific parts of the brain. Ravel, for example, suffered cerebral degeneration beginning in 1933, in which specific areas of the cerebrum were affected. Although he could still hear music and play the piano, he could not write music. He had planned to compose an opera, "Jeanne d'Arc", and had it "in his head" but could not write it down. In contrast, Vissarion Shebalin, a Russian composer, had a stroke in 1953. He was unable to speak or understand speech, but continued to write music for the next 10 years!

      Recent technical advances have allowed researchers to see which areas of the brain are active during musical activities (by using a procedure similar to a cat scan or MRI scan). One of the findings has been that a positive emotional response to music stimulates the "pleasure center" of the brain, the same one that food, sex, and drugs also activate! (Does this say anything about the suspicions that some strict religious leaders have about musicians?)

      Another finding (common sense would have predicted this): Consonant intervals (fifth, octave, major 3rd) stimulate a different area of the brain than do dissonant intervals (major 2nd); the brain prefers the consonant intervals. An interesting analysis (not yet addressed because of its complexity) would be the interaction of dissonance and consonance in musical compositions. Good composers understand this instinctively, but brain research lags behind.

      Finally, it appears that all human societies so far encountered have music, and it has been so for thousands of years - the earliest known musical instrument is a bone flute from 32,000 years ago.

The old professor in me gives this article an A+!

- Glenn A. Gentry