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The Neurobiology of Music

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Biology 202
2000 Second Web Report
On Serendip


Ann Mitchell

The film Shine (1) is an autobiographical account of the life of a professional piano player named David Helfgott. Perhaps the most dramatic turning point in the movie is when Helfgott has a "nervous breakdown" while playing Rachmaninov's symphony #3, a sophisticated and complex piece. After the breakdown, Helfgott spent several years in mental institutions, always with the same rule: to stay away from the piano. How could music make a person have a nervous breakdown? Is this truly possible? If so, what might be the cause of such a breakdown from a biological perspective? In a search for a few answers, this paper explores the neurobiology of music.

No other act incorporates, facilitates, and improves the use of our sensory modalities (visual, auditory, spatial) and their corresponding neural circuitry in the brain. Evidence from cognitive experiments demonstrates a high correlation between reading ability and their pitch or sound discrimination. (2) Hurwitz, et al. (3) also reported the same findings in 1975. Not suprisingly, evidence to support different areas in the brain that correspond to specific aspect of music comes from patients who have had damage to certain parts of the brain. There are also studies, however, that try to show increased or decreased blood flow in specific areas of the brain depending upon whether or not a person is listening to music. Most findings suggest that(while listening) the right temporal hemisphere, also the location of the auditory cortex, is the structure that is the most activated or at least significantly more so than blood flow levels in the left hemisphere. Animal models demonstrate that "learned significance of sound" is located in the auditory cortex. (4) To a certain extent it makes sense that if a person was listening to only instrumental music, it would show up in the auditory cortex, and not the left hemisphere of the brain where language is processed. Yet singing seems to complicate this process because according to this hypothesis it uses both hemispheres of the brain. Furthermore, if it is true that there is a high correlation between reading ability and pitch or sound discrimination, it seems that music which mixes the activity of both hemispheres is most effective in facilitating or improving intelligence.

Studies show that the side of hemisphere activated depends upon whether or not one is a musician. Musicians process the melodic component of music in both the right and left hemisphere, whereas non-musicians process this component only in their right ear. (5)So, is it the content of what is learned or the process of what is learned that differentially affects musicians? Evidence suggests that not only is it the process of what is learned, but this process is learned, not innate.

Many musicians claim that emotional understanding is also required in order to process music. MuSICA claims that emotional understanding of music can be explained in terms of the relationship between the body (PNS), the brain(CNS), and hormones. We can understand how music affects the body through understanding of how hormones create stress in the body and the how stress hormones affect the brain. The brain receives stress hormones as well as part of feedback. Adrenaline, one of the major stress hormones, affects the amygdala through mediation of another hormone, noradrenaline. The amygdala is considered the "emotional command center". When the amygdala is activated is also strengthens memories of the initiating experience via neural pathways to the hippocampus. Inorder to support this claim, music researchers have conducted studies which typically measure levels of stress hormones before and after exposure to music. MuSICA did a review of this research and concluded that while evidence does exists that hormone levels are changed after exposure to music, this is not consistent finding, and that there is no simple relationship between music, stress, and hormones.

Yet there is a distinction to be made between the process of listening to music and the process of performing music; the latter seems far more complex with far more structures involved. I will explain how this might be so in one moment, but first let me begin this issue by returning to the David Helfgott story. One of the major issues that this story raises for me in terms of the distinction between listening and performing is that performing requires motor movement. Many studies have shown that performing while playing and instrument, typing, or playing a sport is an automatic function in the sense that each action is independent of one another and not dependent upon the subsequent or previous input. The Helfgott story became more interesting to me when a musician friend wrote me his theory on what exactly happened that caused Helfgott to have nervous breakdown while performing.

"What happened to David Helfgott was this. Being a young boy, and not having a developed concept of music, he learned a piece that demands a tremendously deep understanding of emotion and musicality. No small boy has that at his age. And if he just learned the whole piece by muscle memory and played it by muscle memory and shut himself off from the meaning of it, he would have been fine. He probably played that piece a billion times all the way through before he performed it for an audience. How come he didn't collapse then? Because he was just enacting the movements, refining them and refining them further....and because he was a genius, at this age, he also knew HOW to play music, HOW to let go everything and be totally taken by it, and to let the unconscious mind guide the conscious mind, (how to let the music play itself). So when he performed it, his muscle memory which physically makes the music guided him to the other reaches of the galaxy , a place where his conscious mind never had seen before.(of course, it's a different kind of conscious mind when you are performing than when you aren't) ...because he was open, and allowing, the emotional power of the music took him to a totally foreign space, and thus made the conscious mind, the part that has to make SENSE of things completely loose grasp on reality. It's amazing that that actually happened, because most of the time, what probably happens is merely the child plays the piece with minimal emotional involvement, and thus harms himself not. I think it's rarity, but yes, the motor function associated with playing may develop faster than analytical abilities to understand more complex forms of music, but I still think you also need emotional abilities to understand music...For Helfgott's case, yes, his analytical ability and emotional concept of music was NOT as developed as his motor function ability." (6)

This explanation of what happened to David Helfgott makes clear that trying to explain the complexity of musical performance is very much like trying to find the neurological correlates to consciousness. Antonio Damasio recently wrote a book entitled The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the making of Consciousness which attempts to explain the biological basis of consciousness. (7)In this book, Damasio posits that consciousness is a feeling of knowing, and he goes on to explore how the brain knows and knows itself through an initial feeling. After the initial feeling, Damasio tries to hierarchically divide up consciousness into three different aspects that build one another. Interestingly, there are many parallels between the Damasio theory and the explanation my friend gave for the David Helfgott incident. For instance, both theories require a basic understanding of emotions and knowing a feeling. More importantly, both make distinctions between functions achieved at a unconscious and conscious level and how they interact with one another. Damasio even has a name for the level at which activities such as playing an instrument, typing, and playing a sport occur: core consciousness.

Considering the research which indicates that musicians have superior problem solving abilities , the research which suggests that emotions play a significant role in understanding music, and the evidence that this process is learned, we might conceive of musicians as those individuals who have developed more corollary discharge between the emotion areas of their brain and the analytical areas. Although in theory it is highly likely that these parts of the brain are somehow connected on neurological level, some musicians and many students at Haverford would argue that the process of intellectualization involves a conscious effort to separate these two pathways, even though they may still exist on a subconscious level. Research has yet to fully explain the phenomena of musical performance. Perhaps part of the reason is because musical performance represents one of the most complex aspects of human behavior: simultaneous integration of the conscious and unconscious. While there are neural structures that correspond to the act of listening to music, any attempt to try to explain what happens at the neural level when a person performs music is just as complicated as any attempt to explain the biology of consciousness.



WWW Sources

1) David Helfgott, Info. on the movie shine

2) MuSICA Research Notes: VI, I2, Fall 1994

3) see above

4) MuSICA Research Notes: VI, I2, Fall 1994

5) see above

6) conversation with ethan herr

7) Damasio, Anotonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the making of Consciousness Harcourt Brace & Co.: New York, 1999

Comments made prior to 2007

I found the article about the Neurobiology of Music very informative and interesting. You may want to change the second sentence: Hilfgott was a pianest and therefore was playing the lead in Rachmaininoff's Third Piano *Concerto*, not third symphony (which has no permanent leads, and with very few exceptions, no pianos.) ... Christian Anderson, 19 September 2004


Serendip Visitor's picture

The film Shine (1) is an

The film Shine (1) is an autobiographical account of the life of a professional piano player named David Helfgott. Perhaps the most dramatic turning point in the movie is when Helfgott has a "nervous breakdown" while playing Rachmaninov's symphony #3, a sophisticated and complex piece. After the breakdown, Helfgott spent several years in mental institutions, always with the same rule: to stay away from the piano. How could music make a person have

The only reason a person can have a nervous breakdown while listening to music is because they have issues and memories that they have not thought about. The music hits the tone [a frequency in the music that is the same or near the same frequency the memory was recorded on] and the person reacts.

Lena's picture

I Learned alot but

I noticed so many grammatical errors I kept getting distracted from what you were saying. I mean there aren't that many im just picky. Just misspelt words and stuff. But I thought you should know just incase that's something you'd wanna know. I loved your arguments tho. Really interesting =D

Serendip Visitor's picture

its trapped if you allow your

its trapped if you allow your mind to get sucked into black hole of negativity. stop and ask yourself if thinking your trapped is getting you anywhere. music frees the spirit from the constraints of the mind. use your body to feel the rythm. dance and move when your listening and even playing if you open your mind body and soul completely to music than she will free you

Anonymous's picture


Thank you for sharing this article.I find it is useful for whom is fresh in this field.

Anonymous's picture

Musically stuck; emotionally gifted

i feel, breath, become one with listening to music; it races thru my veins, I can feel it more than most people I notice who listen and with my friend I accompany to concerts. I even played the piano and had sort of an innate ability; playing by ear any melody I heard. My father is gifted in that he plays but does not read music; I mean he hears it and plays it; he plays the accordian and a few other instruments . . . drums etc. I am full of musical expression by I cannot get it out, it won't escape, it's locked in me and I want to release so badly and I don't know how. It's not about lessons and or practice or maybe it is but I know I have an uncomfortable sensation like I'm trapped, something is trapped within me and I can create music but I cannot bring it to the surface . . . its trapped within me for lack of better terms.

Lena's picture

Awesome. I feel the exact same way

I always make friends with musicians and talk to people about music cause I love it. But I can't play anything. And that thing you said about the piano when you were younger, I remember doing the exact same thing with mary had a little lamb an shit. :) cheers