You Light Up My Brain

Jun 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Paul D. Lehrman



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Although scientific writings about music and the mind date back as least as far as the 1970s, a more recent technological development has boosted the quantity and quality of research: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI. Like its older sibling, plain-old MRI, fMRI takes remarkably sharp and detailed pictures of the structures inside a living organism without invasion or risk. The difference is that while the MRI is a snapshot, the fMRI shows action and in real time. Neuroscientists have gathered tons of knowledge with this tool about how human brains react to various stimuli. A favorite stimulus of researchers, because it is controllable and widely variable in its many parameters, is music.

What they've found is that right along with the complex models being built of the brain's response to chemical changes, the topological model — the part of the brain that is affected when music is heard — is much more complicated than most people ever thought. fMRI research shows that music is not perceived at one specific site; instead, the response is distributed.

Jamshed Bharucha, a psychologist and violinist at Tufts University, where I teach, gave a lecture to the music department in which he showed fMRI pictures where you could clearly see distinct areas of the brain literally lighting up in response to changes in different musical parameters. You could see that the ways in which the brain responds to melody are different from the way it responds to harmony or key or tonal structure or rhythm.

Bharucha points out that the deep, nonverbal level on which music communicates indicates that it is as old, if not older, than language. For our ancestors, it was how stories were told. “We should pay more attention to music as a medium for memory and cultural knowledge,” he writes. “Prior to writing, which is very recent, [music may have provided a way] of asserting our cultural memory and passing that on through generations.”

If you've spent time around older people, you've likely seen evidence of the sub-verbal power of music among people today who have impaired brain function. An elderly relative of my wife's has been in a nursing home for the past year. Once a highly articulate woman, she now can rarely formulate a coherent sentence. But whenever my wife goes to visit her, one of the first things she says is, “Is Paul here?” followed by, “Will he play the piano?” Even my inelegant attempts at Mozart, Bach and Cole Porter on the beat-up spinet will make her day. When she is depressed or anxious or grumpy, the staff knows to pull out a CD of her favorite Irish harp music and put the headphones on her. She doesn't know what she is listening to, or even how for that matter, but whatever expression was on her face is quickly replaced by a peaceful smile.

Another woman — I'll call Edith — in the nursing home hardly talks at all. If you say something to her, she'll turn her head to look at you and say a word or two, but no more. She can't eat by herself so she takes meals in her room, where one of the aides cuts up her food and puts it in her mouth. Last Christmas, my wife and I had dinner at the nursing home, and after dessert I sat down at the piano and banged out a few seasonal tunes. All of the talking and clanging of dishes stopped, and many people started to sing.

Astonishingly, above them all was the Edith's voice, who had been wheeled in when her aide heard the music start. Staring intently at me so as not to miss a note, she sang all the words of all the carols and songs, sometimes even adding a harmony. If you could have watched her brain on an fMRI screen at the time, it would have looked like the sky over the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July. When the high note at the end of “O Holy Night” came, she soared into it and there wasn't a dry eye in the room.

After I finished my little set, I went over to her and tapped her on the shoulder. “Merry Christmas, Edith,” I said into her ear. She turned slowly to look at me, an expression between sorrow and fear on her face, and said, “I don't know that song.”

Music is such a precious thing, and science is only confirming what a unique and valuable medium it is. Those of us who are able to make our living in the field should be very grateful that our work can be so meaningful on so many levels. We get to play, listen, shape, mold and pass along music to others so that they can experience and be affected by it. We can't always describe in words what it is we do and how we do it. Frank Zappa was famously quoted as saying, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” but we know when it's right. And that might happen when we hear Tal Wilkenfeld solo'ing on “‘Cause We've Ended As Lovers” through a 2-inch speaker or a silent old woman finding the perfect high E-flat on Christmas Day.

It would be great to see an fMRI on Wilkenfeld's head when she's adding her unique voice to those classic tunes with Beck, or flying with Chick Corea. Just like Edith's, the light show would, without a doubt, be spectacular. But even more than that, I'd just like to sit down with her and jam.

When Paul Lehrman was 22, he thought he was a pretty good bass player. Now he knows better. His more recent brain flashes are documented in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, available at Amazon and MixBooks.

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