This past year, I have been on a quest to understand more about what music does for us. What are the benefits? Why do we enjoy it? Where did it start? The scientist buried deep under my liberal artist wanted to know the biological purpose for music in our lives. It has survived for so long, and there is evidence of instruments that goes back to the time of the Neanderthals, so surely there is a reason it has stuck around and continues to have an impact. The short answer is, there unfortunately isn’t a whole lot of evidence evolutionarily that explains the purpose of music. The philosopher Immanuel Kant thought music was useless. We don’t need it for survival.
However, physics and cognition researcher Leonid Perlovsky believes the contrary: music serves a “universal purpose.” In one experiment, a group of 4-year-olds discredited the value of a toy in having to choose a favorite, but when they were asked to do the same thing while music was playing, they still played with the toy, despite it not being their favorite. In a group of 15-year-olds, while music was playing, they spent more time working on more difficult problems on a multiple choice test, which resulted in higher test scores. In both of these studies, the presence of the music created a calming effect that allowed the subjects to complete a task they were otherwise uncomfortable with.
Perlovsky concludes that the biological purpose of music is to give us a sense of peace in a world that doesn’t always make sense. Music is calming and provides a balance in our lives. “Music soothes the difficulties involved processing conflicting information.”
Take that, Kant!
My first two blog posts here were on Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. This book had such a positive impact on me, and I could not rave about it enough. Sadly, Sacks passed away a couple weeks ago from a terrible reoccurrence of cancer, but he left us with so much knowledge on the human brain.
Sacks was a neurologist, professor, and author, shedding light onto the many things the human brain can experience based on many of his patients. He wrote many books about himself and his patients, exploring the effects of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Tourette’s, Autism, Deafness, and many other conditions of the brain.
In listening to interviews on Radiolab and Star Talk, he was obviously extremely intelligent, but knew how to speak to and captivate the common person, however lacking in medical terminology. He personally impacted my life with Musicophilia, delving into how music affects the brain.
In patients with Alzheimer’s or Dementia, while all other memories fade away, if they were musical earlier in life, the music would stay because that memory is located in a totally different part of the brain. Often, the only times patients in the latter stages of these diseases would only be themselves if they were engaged in music. The life and light would come back into their eyes, and their families could see them again in those moments.
Music activates so much in the brain that nothing else can reach, that it is used therapeutically for people with Autism, Tourette’s Syndrome, Williams Syndrome, etc. Oliver Sacks writes,“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain…Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.” Understanding how helpful music can be reignited my passion for Music Therapy, and I owe it all to this book.
Oliver Sacks, thank you for your brain and your studies. You have helped and inspired many, and your song will continue on.
“Music is part of being human.”
“About Oliver Sacks | Oliver Sacks, M.D. | Author, Neurologist | On The Move, Hallucinations, Musicophilia, Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Oliver Sacks MD. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.
Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS, and Mathematics: The Future.
The integration of STEM classes is an on-going and important development in school systems across the world. All of these fields are dire for the evolution and understanding of our society, and yet, they are highly overlooked and understudied. Science helps us understand people and the world around us. Technology gives us whatever we want with the click of a button. Engineering designs and builds the technology that helps us study science. Math is a universal system to understand how all the puzzle pieces fit together.
While these four areas are highly important, what are they without creativity? What is Science without an Albert Einstein to discover the Theory of Relativity, or Technology without Jack Dorsey to invent Twitter? Imagine a world without the ideas of the Engineer Bill Nye or Mathematician Isaac Newton. These people, and many more, did not just study their field, they created and discovered something new, a skill best developed through the Arts.
The Rhode Island School of Design has taken STEM one step further and added the Arts as an equally needed field of study. Music, art, theater, and design can help foster the innovation needed to propel STEM into the future. In creating art or improvising in music, the artist develops the ability to create new ideas which lead to cell phones and space travel, and maybe one day that long-awaited hover car.
In an article titled, Learning to Think with Emotion, Robert S. Root-Bernstein writes of what the philosopher Michael Polanyi calls “personal knowledge,” such as emotions, intuitions, or patterns, skills often neglected among logic-based studies. “By slighting those preverbal forms of thinking, we stifle the inventive capacities of many students,” Root-Bernstein poses. Fields that study people, like Biology and Psychology, need to develop empathy to understand others. Math and physical science require visual and pattern recognition. The article closes with this poignant thought: “The most successful people in every field share an ability to think in ways that we seldom teach in the classroom.” With STEAM, this ability can be included for all the fields.
Full STEAM ahead!
Stagefright: Palms sweating, heart racing, stomach in knots. Most people have experienced this feeling one time or another presenting school projects, getting interviewed, or performing in recitals. In an article in The New Yorker called “I Can’t Go On! What’s Behind Stagefright?,” Joan Acocella names several famous performers who have experienced stagefright such as Stephen Fry, Laurence Olivier, Barbra Streisand, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Daniel Day Lewis. The cause of this nervousness is unknown, but Acocella attempts to uncover what can be done about it.
People who are shy and/or introverted are most likely predisposed to stagefright. It’s taxing enough to have a simple conversation with regular people everyday, let alone get up in front of people and perform. Acocella also writes that perhaps culture and audience expectations create a sense that the performer must be perfect, and of course, entertaining, making the performer worry about making a mistake. Additionally, some performers, particularly solo concert instrumentalists, spend hours on end rehearsing alone , which sometimes leads to difficulty or stress interacting with others.
So what’s the cure? Several performers take Beta-blockers, which are harmless pills that inhibit those stagefright jitters. Practicing calming activities such as yoga or meditation may also help to deflect performance nerves. Perhaps we could alternatively learn to perform through it, knowing that we have it, and creating techniques to be successful despite it.
As a pianist and an introvert, I cannot remember a time I was calm speaking in front of people or performing in recitals. My heart beats fast, my hands and feet tremble, and my stomach gets butterflies. However, after a performance goes well, I am flooded with immense joy and the desire to do it again, which usually drives me to continue despite the stagefright. When I was in high school, I performed a Brahms Intermezzo for a master class. I had performed this piece in a competition and won, but right before I played for this class, I kept running through the music in my head, and my mind was blank. I was getting nothing but commentary out of this class, and I knew I could be successful playing this piece, and yet my brain made up thoughts that convinced me otherwise. When I sat down to play, I couldn’t get passed the first two measures. I couldn’t remember any of it, and I was mortified. Thankfully, the master teacher and other teachers in observance recounted all the times that that had happened to them, which made me feel slightly better.
Once all the worries of stagefright come true, it is hard to not become prisoner to them forever afterwards. As I studied piano through college, I had to learn a completely new way to memorize music in order to overcome those thoughts, but it worked. I have to have check points in my music, so if I make a mistake, I can keep going as if nothing happened. A lot of people memorize tactilely, but once the nerves kick in, that is the first thing to go, so we have to also memorize visually as well as theoretically (chords, progressions, etc.). These techniques did not cure my stagefright, but they did help me to once again be successful in my performances.
Once I began teaching, the director of the music school at which I taught encouraged teachers to get students’ recital pieces ready a couple months in advance so students would have played their songs so many times before the performance that it would be no big deal playing it one more time on the recital. I have taken this approach as well as all the techniques that I had to use to help my students with their stagefright.
Everyone has to perform at some point in their life, whether it’s speaking, acting, or playing an instrument. Many will experience stagefright. As a piano teacher, my goal for my students is for them to experience performance and build the skills to cope with and push through the nervousness to be successful, which hopefully will carry through into other aspects of their lives.
We learn science and social studies to understand ourselves and the world. We study language arts to learn how to speak, read, and write. Math helps us function with every day tasks like buying a coffee, building a house, or running a business. So, why learn an instrument?
As a new school year begins, parents are enrolling their children in new grades, sports, and usually last on the list is music lessons. Many students begin music with general classes in school where they might learn to play the recorder and sing. Once they are around middle school age, they can choose between band, orchestra, or chorus. Unfortunately, middle school is also the time that students are given a lot more homework and, at least in my town, they get out the latest, giving all the more reason to drop music lessons.
But music is so much more than just an extracurricular activity. Music develops areas of the brain that other subjects do not activate and enhances the brain in areas in which we are already learning. Participating in playing an instrument and performing music amplifies and improves all of these wonderful affects on the brain.
In a blog post titled, Cognitive Benefits of Being a Musician, Kevin Pearson writes:
“Because musicians need acute hearing, well-developed senses of pitch, rhythm, dynamics and timing as well as great control of small and large muscles that non-musicians rarely use musicians develop neurological and morphological changes that can be beneficial not only when playing their instrument or listening to music, but also in other aspects of everyday life.”
To play an instrument, a lot of things must happen at once: the fingers (and sometimes mouth) move to play the correct pitch, the eyes read the music and decipher the rhythm, the whole body is engaged to feel the beat, and all of this happens through a few, small muscle groups in the body.
Pearson goes on to write about different areas of the brain that are usually bigger in musicians, indicating more success. These regions of the brain include a better balance between both hemispheres, as well as areas for coordination, understanding language and music, ability to focus on one task (i.e. not be distracted by background noise), memory, and reasoning. Consequently, because a lot of the brain is engaged in learning an instrument, it is usually not lost with age.
We all know the importance of the regular school subjects and physical activity. Music needs to be included as an equally important activity, instead of constantly being pushed to the back burner. The younger they start, the better, but you’re also never too old to learn and benefit from the power of music!
I have since finished reading Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and I have been quite moved by this book. It has sparked much introspection and thought for me.
Musicality, the sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is different for everyone, but is often present in some form for most. Some are gifted with perfect pitch, the ability to hear and name the exact note being played, but sometimes this gift can take away from the overall affect of all the pitches interacting. Some people with perfect pitch can only hear a C and an F#, but not enjoy (or cringe) from hearing the tri-tone that this interval creates like those with not-so-perfect pitch. (If you are curious what this sounds like, listen to Cool from West Side Story.) Sometimes people’s brains turn the sound of music into something else, like the sound of pots and pans. This effect may not happen all the time, and when it does occur, it’s usually with specific types of music or instruments. This sound distortion is called amusia, sort of like amnesia but with music. People can be born with it or they may develop it later in life, usually after a brain injury. In one account in the book, a composer in his sixties developed amusia in the form of hearing the outer register notes as being out of tune, but he was able to retrain his brain over time by continuing to compose and practicing what he knew the notes should sound like. There are several musical pieces that are named after colors: Blue is usually sad and minor, red is angry, yellow is bright and happy… but some people can’t hear any notes or music without associating a color quality to them. This is called synesthesia, the combination of sensory reactions. And then there are musicians and non-musicians alike, who may not have amusia or synesthesia or perfect pitch, but still have some sensitivity to music, at the very least. We all listen to some type of music because it makes us happy, reminds us of someone, relates to our emotions, etc. So you see, we all have musicality whether or not we are musical.
The second half of this book is what really sparked my interest. Most of it was about how music affects those with Tourette Syndrome, Parkinson’s Disease, Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, Autism, and what I found the most intriguing, Williams Syndrome. Music therapy is a profession that uses music to provide calmness, focus, rhythm, and motor skills to help patients. Music helps with focus, activating the brain to be engaged. People with Tourette Syndrome or Parkinson’s Disease can experience these moments of focus while participating in music as moments without tics. Some people with Alzheimer’s can sing and perform music from their past, sometimes creating an avenue to be the “most themselves” according to some accounts in Musicophilia.
I had never heard of Williams Syndrome before, but what was so intriguing to me is that every single person who has Williams Syndrome is impacted by music. This syndrome affects 1 in 10,000 children and is a fairly recently described syndrome (1960’s). Like Down’s Syndrome, Williams Syndrome has very distinct facial features, but unlike other chromosomal syndromes, the brain develops in such a way that their frontal lobes are very highly developed making them highly sociable and musical, but the back of the brain is very underdeveloped, so they tend to have low IQ’s. Every person observed with Williams Syndrome is drawn to music, so much so that if they walk past a group that’s singing, they have to stop and join in. Studies have shown that the way their brain reacts to music is even more intense than that of a musician’s. They also have highly developed language skills, so in having conversation, you wouldn’t know that their brain may have developed differently, but if you asked them what 8+3 was, they may not give the correct answer. In one account, a girl with Williams Syndrome became highly accomplished opera singer and she was able to go to college and live independently.
Music is an amazing tool that can be so helpful and necessary. I am so inspired by this book and hope to help music positively impact the lives of many.
Sacks, Oliver W. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.
Recently, my husband and I were browsing through Barnes and Noble and we came across this book: Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks. I read the back and immediately needed to purchase this book. As I began reading, I found everything so fascinating that I’ve decided to bring up interesting topics from the book and discuss them here.
I’ve always been intrigued by psychology, and I’ve made my career out of music, so reading about how the two intertwine is interesting. In the book’s preface, the idea that there is little biological reason for music and the arts is mentioned. As the daughter of two scientists, it is difficult to argue with science, but as a musician, it is hard to not witness the clear affects of music. The arts help people express emotions. They are therapeutic to patients with illnesses and disabilities. They help develop focus and understanding in other scholastic studies. How could something so clearly important be biologically insignificant?
Of course I find music important – it’s my life. But I’m hoping to find an argument, through this book and other studies, to prove its importance, and the importance of all the arts (with the help of my storytelling, librarian sister), to everyone, musicians and non-musicians alike.
Musicophilia – literally a love of music. The book begins with stories of people who, by lightening or stroke, had a brain altering experience that ignited this musicophilia. Many of them were middle-aged adults who had little to no musical experience as children, but after their experiences, their brains created a sudden desire to play and compose music, almost to the point of neurotically needing the music. As someone who’s spent their whole life developing musicophilia, I’m a little envious that some people can get it overnight (though I’m not envious of how they get it). If something so drastic can happen to your brain and change your desires and needs, and even instantly develop a skill, music must have an important relation to the brain.
I always thought that I was a visual learner because I’m left handed, and while that may have something to do with my right brain dominance, musicians tend to have to be visual. Pianists especially, are generally expected to perform from memory, which requires the ability to see and hear the music in your head. Through aural skills, the study of identifying elements of music by ear, musicians are again required to visualize the notes in our brain and hear their relation. I have taken for granted that, because of music, I can envision words, music, people, etc. A week before my senior undergraduate recital, I developed tendonitis in my wrist. I couldn’t physically practice piano, which was scary, but my professor told me to mentally practice. Visualize the music, move my fingers, basically do everything but actually play on the piano. My recital went well, and since then, I have continued mental practice, though I have not had any more pain. In the weeks leading up to my masters recital, I would fall asleep running through every recital piece, in order. I truly believe this positively affected my performance. I have since passed this technique along to my students, especially those who come in with broken arms.
You know how you can get a song stuck in your head? Oliver Sacks writes about patients who get some music stuck incessantly, maddeningly. Musicians, particularly composers, tend to have a constant stream of music floating in their brain. Is this not something that many people, musicians or not, experience? I usually have some music in my head. Sometimes it’s entire songs, but more often than not it’s my own radio channel of snippets of songs. I think that’s partly why I can’t ever sit still, something is always bouncing to a beat. My husband says that the way to get a song unstuck from your head is to listen to a new song, but for me, that would just get the new song stuck. Perhaps this is something else I have taken for granted if it is not as common as I assumed.
Music plays some role in most people’s lives. We may not all be musicians, but technology has developed so that we can be plugged in at all times: iPods, smart phones, Pandora, Spotify, etc. We listen for comfort, we listen to meditate, to study, to worship, to shop, to drive… Music is important to our lives and our brains, and all the benefits we get from listening to music, amplify when we learn music, rather than just listen.
Sacks, Oliver W. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.
Much research has come out on how the brain reacts to music. The studies have shown that listening to all kinds of music sparks several brain functions, but performing music and learning an instrument is a “full brain workout.” Just as important as it is to get kids active and exercising in sports and getting an education, learning an instrument also helps exercise areas of the brain and improve skills throughout other aspects of life. Click the link below for more on these studies!
Below is a link to an infographic of many ways learning the piano can help the brain, motor skills, and emotions. There are, of course, similar benefits to learning music in general and playing many instruments, but the piano is a special instrument that involves both sides of the brain with both hands performing different tasks simultaneously along with the feet. For me personally, piano has always been a stress reliever and it has helped me build confidence. Knowing that you can get up on stage and perform memorized music that you’ve worked so hard on is extremely rewarding. It takes time, patience, and perseverance, but it is all worth it in the end!
Glenn Gould was a fascinating pianist and a master at performing Bach. If you haven’t heard of him or listened to him play, read through this article. The video is proof that rules were made to be broken as Gould defies most rules of how to sit at a piano. There are very good reasons why one should sit with a straight back and relaxed arms – this prevents injury and allows good control over the keyboard – so Gould’s position probably shouldn’t be copied, but it does go to show all that you can accomplish despite how others think you should do something.