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Music and the brain is a hot topic. Ever since Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sachs’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain both made the New York Times’ best-seller list in 2007, interest has exploded.
So are some people really “musically smarter” than others? (And did all those piano lessons help?) Nearly all the experts agree that studying music makes you smarter—at music. But beyond that, it gets complicated. And it’s a tricky topic to even talk about: none of the experts I spoke to were comfortable with the term “musical intelligence,” saying that it’s just too vague. They were more willing to discuss musical aptitude and musical cognition.
Musical aptitude, or the ability to learn music, is something that almost everyone seems to possess but isn’t necessarily equally distributed: think of child prodigies, and the inequity becomes very much apparent.
Aniruddh Patel, a biologist at San Diego’s Neurosciences Institute, points out that this may be a luck-of-the draw thing. “There’s actually a debate about whether musical aptitude is inborn or whether it’s a product of some early experience,” he says. “But it’s pretty clear that people vary in their aptitude for music.”
As for musical cognition, or the ability to understand music, that’s a different matter. A French researcher, Emanuel Bigand, recently stated that most people have about the same level of musical cognition, whether or not they have musical training. Educated musicians may have a more conscious understanding of how music works (and a vocabulary to talk about it), but the uneducated still have an intuitive understanding of music.
However, at Montreal’s McGill University, neuropsychologist Robert Zatorre has a test that suggests a noticeable difference in musical cognition between musicians and non-musicians. “We play a tune in one key,” he explains, “and then repeat it at a different key, and ask if it’s the same or if a note has been changed. What we find is that people with musical training are inclined to do better. If you study people who don’t have training, you’ll find some people who are just as good as the musicians, but others who are just awful at it.”
Another thing: you can pretty much forget about the “Mozart Effect.” The 1990s fad that had people playing excerpts from Eine kleine Nachtmusik to their newborns was founded on some pretty flimsy scientific evidence. The initial study was done on undergrads at UC Irvine. One group listened to Mozart and the other didn’t. Then they all took IQ tests, and the Mozart group scored slightly higher.
But according to Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, just about any kind of mental stimulation before taking an IQ test will generate better results. “Music changes how you feel, and how you feel changes your cognitive ability,” he points out. “This was wildly extrapolated to the notion that listening to Mozart in childhood might lead to cognitive benefits. The link is tenuous at best.”
But Schellenberg holds that music lessons may produce the solid results that passive listening doesn’t. He claims there are “small but general and long-lasting cognitive benefits” that can come from learning to play an instrument. So can music make you smarter? Maybe—but like the answer to “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?,” it’s all about practice.
Of course some practicing musicians have long felt that they’re a breed apart—different from “normal” people in some fundamental way. And now there’s proof: scientists have observed that musicians’ brains tend to be a little different in certain, specific ways.
“If you look at the overall brain structure of highly musically trained people,” says Patel, “you’ll see differences in the amount of gray matter in regions that have to do with music processing, like auditory processing or, for instrumentalists, hand-motor control.”
Zattore agrees. “It’s very clear from a number of experiments that if you do musical training, you find changes in brain structures attributable to that training. There are experiments that show that changes are greater if you begin musical training by about the age of seven. They’re still there if you begin later, but smaller in magnitude.”
Here we run up against a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. Has studying music caused these changes in musicians’ brains, or do people who are born with musically adept brains tend to become musicians? One thing’s for sure: having certain favorable brain attributes doesn’t necessarily make you a good musician. “If you have a particularly well-developed auditory cortex it doesn’t mean you’ll be a great musician,” says Zattore, “because there are so many other factors. If you’re incredibly clumsy and you pick up a cello, you’ll have a lot of trouble.”
We tend to enjoy the things we’re good at and be good at the things we enjoy. But as listeners, why do humans enjoy music? It’s largely because of the chemical dopamine, a neurotransmitter generated by the brain and closely associated with pleasure—or “reward,” as the scientists like to say. It’s because of the dopamine released in our brains that we enjoy things like sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll—or pretty much any other kind of music.
This is an area of particular interest to Zattore. For one of his experiments, he asked people to bring recordings of music they especially enjoy to his laboratory. “People brought classical, jazz, folk music—it was all over the place. But what they all had in common was that they showed activity in the dopamine system. We observed that the chemical dopamine is released when people hear music that they really like—and not at all when they’re listening to music they feel neutral about, or don’t really like.”
The next time you get that fun-filled shivery sensation down your spine when you hear an especially good performance of your favorite piece of music, you’ll know why. It’s the dopamine.
Does dopamine kick in for “difficult” music, too? It’s been about a century since Arnold Schoenberg began to compose dissonant, atonal scores. And for just as long, many listeners have shunned this music like the plague—some even going so far as to contend that it isn’t really music at all. On the other hand, there appear to be some listeners who genuinely enjoy this music.
So what does brain science have to say about this debate? Not a lot, as it turns out. Scientists aren’t music critics, and questions about what kinds of music are “better” than others don’t interest them much. But with a little prodding, a few scientific ideas emerge.
Schellenberg believes that atonal music is “naturally difficult.” He elaborates: “If you don’t have a tonic, you don’t have anything to hold on to, or relate the other notes to. Consonant intervals assume structural roles. And there’s also research that shows that consonant intervals are preferred by babies.”
“You could come up with tests to determine which kinds of music are harder to comprehend,” suggests Zattore, “by actually trying to measure it. But doing so would not help you to make a value judgment about a musical work’s quality. Just because it’s complex doesn’t make it good, and just because it’s simple doesn’t make it bad.”
Patel proposes a kind of experiment that might be done to shed some light on the issue. “You could take a listener who claims to understand and appreciate both traditional classical music, like Beethoven, and modern classical, like Boulez. Then you scan their brains while they’re listening to those two types of music. And then you could compare that person’s brain activations to someone who says, ‘I get Mozart and Beethoven, but I don’t get Boulez and Stockhausen.’ But nobody’s done that experiment yet.”
It’s easy to talk about “the brain”—but there are about seven billion humans on the face of the earth, grouped into hundreds of nations and thousands of ethnicities. And one of the things that influences the way people use their brains is culture. So is it fair to derive universal conclusions about “the brain” from studies conducted within the Western world? Or is cultural bias the skeleton in the closet of brain science?
Patel defends the brain scientists’ methodologies: “It’s true that there’s been skepticism about approaches to music that are using brain sciences to come up with universal theories about music. Ethnomusicologists have been saying for a long time that there are few universals. But certain things are widespread.”
Zattore acknowledges that more cross-cultural studies are needed: “Our results are based upon the people whose brains we are studying. As my laboratory is in Montreal, I study people in this area. But there are some groups in China now who are becoming interested in this research. And I had a student from India who’s now back in Bangalore, and she’s trying to develop research with Indian music.”
Zattore points out that a study in musical cognition was done in the African nation of Cameroon in 2009. This experiment was conducted with Mafa people, who have had almost no exposure to Western music. They were asked to listen to examples of Western music and decide which pieces sounded happy, sad or scary. The Mafa tended to make the same decisions that a sample group of Westerners made.
Schellenberg is less concerned about cultural bias than he is about research methods. “The problem is that virtually all of the brain studies are ‘quasi-experiments,’ ” he says, because they don’t allow for random assignment. “You can’t take a person at random and make them a musician, and take another and make them not a musician.”
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that most brain scientists who study music aren’t doing so for the benefit of musicians. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting tidbits to be gleaned from their research. For advanced musicians, one such tidbit may be “mental imaging,” or learning a piece of music with the mind, rather than the fingers.
“If you practice the cello for an hour a day for a week,” says Zatorre, “we’ll see changes in your brain associated with your ability to play that exercise. But if I ask you to practice mentally, without touching the instrument, we’ll see some of the same changes. Some people say that mental practicing is better, because you won’t suffer from the physical problems that come from over-rehearsing: cramps, posture problems, dystonia, et cetera.”
If this is true, it’s good news for conservatory students. But what about the vast majority of musicians—the ones a little lower down the ladder, who aren’t studying music to become virtuosos or even professional musicians? What does brain science have to offer them?
As music educators find themselves increasingly pressed to come up with reasons why music programs in schools should not be eliminated, all kinds of “side effects” are touted as arguments for school music programs. Music teaches discipline and teamwork. Learning an instrument gives young people a sense of accomplishment. And yes, thanks to recent research, it can be argued that studying music can make young people smarter.
That said, Schellenberg cautions against arguing this point too strongly. Music should be recognized as an end in itself, not a means to some other end. “Studies show slight gains in IQ,” he observes, “so there is mounting evidence that music training has some kind of cognitive benefit. But nobody tries to justify math lessons because they make your poetry skills better.”
A refuge I missed out on was Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s hard to tell if I reacted as viscerally to Bach then as I do now, but I certainly liked him, and knew his music from the tapes my father had meticulously made for me by recording radio broadcasts. But in a Catholic institution like Regensburg, Bach isn’t high on the list of priorities, and in three years I never sang any of his music. In Leipzig, on the other hand, Bach is the choir’s daily bread, the music that determines its sound. A B minor Mass on tour in Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón or in São Paulo is a season’s—even lifetime’s—highlight. And at home every Sunday, Bach is heard in the Thomaskirche. I watch and listen with deep envy as the Thomaners perform the St. John Passion or speak of the inexplicable joy they get from the music. Even Biller suggests that while you can’t ever know God, you can sense him in Bach. Instead of Bach, I have anecdotes.
I have an anecdote about the huge, homemade stuffed toy snake I got from an aunt at my baptism, for example, which proved so devastating in secret nightly pillow fights that it earned itself the name—lamentably politically incorrect, even for a nine-year old—Hiroshīma. It is still alive and well, as is Jokko. Jokko was handed to me, wrapped and to be opened on my birthday, as I left for Regensburg after another stressful, biweekly one-day weekend at home. Not keen to return, I didn’t feel good leaving Munich, and I felt even worse after the train spat me out in Regensburg. Eventually my body followed suit, and physical sickness mixed with unhappiness. In an attempt at consolation, I got permission to open my package early, and out jumped a magnificent little plush monkey. Jokko turned out to be so terrifically moisture-absorbent, it became his primary duty to dry all my tears. By the time I left boarding school prematurely, Jokko’s sodium content was perilously high.
That I am particularly moved by this documentary has much to do with my own experiences, but also to do with the film’s production values. Every aspect exudes thoughtfulness, from the excellent, smartly applied choice of music (whenever the Thomaners are not providing their own soundtrack) and the editing to the carefully constructed, naturally dramatic arc. The result is a subtle, touching masterpiece about young life in symbiosis with old music.
This feature originally appeared on listenmusicculture.com, an award-winning music magazine.