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May 21st, 2009
Music and the Brain
Are Humans Wired for Music?
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Oliver Sacks, MD, FRCP: We are wired for speech, we are wired for spoken language, for expressing and understanding spoken language. That’s to say any human being who is exposed to language at a critical stage of development in their second or third year will acquire language without any explicit form of teaching. Comsky above others has spoken wonderfully about this, but basically exposure to language activates language parts of the brain. However we are not wired for written language in the same way. Written language only goes back five or seven thousand years. There is no built-in circuitry in the brain for written language. But a circuitry is developed through learning to write. A circuitry which may be somewhat different in different people. In other words what is already in the brain is recruited and pressed into a new use when one learns to write. So in this way is music like speech? Or is it like writing? I’m inclined to think, but here only one can speculate, that both of these are involved. I think there are certain aspects of music which do not have any equivalent in speech, in particular the pulse of music, the steady rhythm, and its synchronization with movement.  I think there is good reason for supposing for that is built in, and there are anatomical connections, which are strongly and almost exclusively developed in human beings.

  • Stephen Dick

    Try not to think of music as the stuff we make with sounds. Divorced from organized sound, music as a function of the brain can be seen as the ability to monitor interrelated and simultaneously changing systems. If there is no change, there is no perception of music. If the change is perceived as random, there is no sense of music . Only when we sense changes that are systematic do we sense music. Still, I’m not talking about music as that stuff we listen to – I’m just talking about the perception of changing systems. For example, when we drive, we experience all the cars around us as simultaneously changing systems.
    Seen in this way, music as a function of the brain is a necessary survival tool for the kind of animal we once were – able to perceive multiple threats and opportunities. Like many of our essential skills, it also find form in a purer expression, organized sound.

  • Nearly Gold

    Attn: (in particular) O. Sax: I just finished watching PBS program on music and brain function. What has science learned, if anything, about effects of repetitive sound and/or lyrics on listener’s disposition? I am predisposed to irritability (bordering on anger) when exposed to exaggerated repetition. Catchy tunes and/or lyrics bother me since I find, with great annoyance, I cannot rid my mind of them for days. This goes for most music with associated lyrics. However I can notice a single note misplayed or a tune that is not exactly correct; therefore I believe I have above average sense of pitch and tune recognition. Also love music of Bach and many other composers but find the majority of more modern, perhaps less-inspired, classical-type music to sound much like poorly coordinated noise. When this happens I find I must shut the music off within a very few minutes. What, if anything, is wrong? Also has there been any work done on correlation between a particular form of music and enhancement of abstract mathematical reasoning? Thank you. Nearly

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  • Ward Christensen

    1) I have always thought music was stored uniquely in the brain – using computer analogies – a “serial” store – like tape, but with a few ways to enter into the middle.

    For example, most people can best sing a song (or yes, admittedly recite something else “memorized” such as a verse, or “culturally, perhaps verbal history”) … from the beginning, but have difficulty starting at an arbitrary point.

    2) again computer analogy: the brain – or recollection – being “content addressable” – you recall something by a piece of its content – BLUE: “Windex” “my 2nd car” “the sky”; or for songs, you can enter the “serial memory” via either a learned title, but of course by hearing the first few words / melody (e.g. “name that tune”).

    It would be interesting if there were some way to determine the percentage of the brain or of memory, which is directly accessible (e.g. “Blue”, or the first few bars of a favorite song, — compared to the “total storage” in which you can’t as easily “address” or “get to” a memory without the right “key”.

    3) agreeing with “Nearly Gold” on the annoyance of repetition – (a) I skip ads on tv; (b) some jazz where a player plays say a triplet 8 times — after 4 I say “all right, get ON with it! Think of something more!” haha .

  • Eric

    Hello Oliver. I recently watched the program you did with Nova where you yourself were analyzed via FMRI. Great broadcast really. Loved the exceptional stories and they were very inspirational to me on a personal level. I sometimes doubt my musicality so this helped immensely.

    Wondering if you have done any research on how the heart and its natural rhythm/beat influence our ability to partake in music. Do you think we become condition to learn this instinctive “1, and, 2, and” or “thump, thump” when in the womb? I understand if you feel this question is completely obscure.

    Cheers, Eric

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    I am neuroscientist working on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) which soon is going to be an epidemic disease if not intervened. AD impairs memory and cognition and abnormal beta amyloid has been reckoned as hall-mark of AD pathogenesis. However, essentially memory is not lost in AD, but rather non-functional, due to loss of synaptic connections. Mind which is store house for memory and thoughts uses neurons for traversing back and forth across well knit-neuronal connection. When the connection is lost, the mind is stuck into the hollow chambers of empty brain. Beta amyloid represents broken neuronal railway track and vaccines against beta amyloid may only remove the debris, but perhaps not re-connect the broken neurons. What is essential is to find alternative strategies which renders life-long protection between neurons. Music is powerful for mind, body and neurons. After Cosmic Big band what dissipated into the space is primordial sound “Aum”. Certain musical notes are like stress-evaders, immune-boosters and memory enhancers. Music not only improves memory, but it alters the very essential nature of human personality into serene, sublime and one with Cosmic Primordial Sound. Yet…some musical notes may have adverse effect with vibrant sound vibrations. The greatest musician of India has been teaching how different musical notes known as “ragaas” have healing power and the musical notes touches the affected part of body and heals. Music should be introduced as mandatory subject in schools for children which can help them in education, health and personality as such. Music vibrates neurons, connects the neurons attracted by musical notes, improves memory and cognition and eliminates depression, pain and mental agony!. I enjoy reading Dr.Oliver’s books and listening to him.

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  • Lorraine Warren

    Dear Doctor Sacks, After watching the Nova program re:music and the brain, I wanted to ask you about my particular syndrome. I am a 77year old retired female, who after losing some hearing 4yrs ago started hearing music. At all times, some I had heard before but mostly new orchestrated music with choirs. It got so loud that my primary doctor prescribed Prozac, which I have been taking for 4years. She told me to enjoy the music which I have been doing. Until 4 months ago, when I started hearing a voice, calling my name, which scared me and I consulted a psychiatrist who prescribed Risperdone .25mg. The voice has subsided after 2months of RX and so has the music. Which I miss and subsequently I am getting depressed…..Will advise doctor of results today. Just wanted to know if you are aware of this connection between hearing lost and music hallucinations and if there is anything that can be done.? I enjoy reading your books and marvel at your compassion.

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    How can we compose music which will change the physical structure of the brain to improve cognative ability and othjer enhanced consciousness?

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