A weekly insight into music's affect on the mind through a review of Musicology and Music Therapy.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Color, Taste, and Feeling of Music

Have you ever wondered what music would look like if it was a color? Or what music would taste like if it was a flavor? Or how it would feel if it were tangible?

Researchers in the field of Musicology have run across some interesting cases in which some people are able to see music as a color, flavor, or feeling in their studies. This unique physiological phenomena is called Synesthesia. It is the combination of the senses, meaning that when one sense is stimulated another simultaneously reacts as well to the stimulation.

How does such a unique condition come about? Most of those with Synesthesia were born with it. As a result, these people do not realize that it is even considered a condition. It is just a part of them as is their color of their eyes or hair. Researchers have studied many with this condition and believe that it is due to the integrity of areas in the cranial cortex and the connections between these areas that results in some being born with Synesthesia. As a result of it being a physiological quality that one is born with, it is very rare that someone might develop this condition and that is why Synethesia is most commonly found in children. There are a few cases in which someone acquired this connection of the senses. This most often was the result of permanent blindness, in which the person's body becomes heighten to visual imagery and intersensorary connections develop to compensate for the lack of sight. 

So, how do people with Synesthesia experience music? For each person with this combination of the senses, the perception of music is a little different. For Evelyn Glennie, music is a feeling. 

The case of Evelyn Glennie, professional percussionist:
At the age of 12 years, she was labelled as being profoundly deaf. Her deafness had been gradual but by this point in her early life, she was only left with a little residual hearing. Before becoming deaf, she had already been a practiced musician and did not want to lose her music. As a result with the help of her music teacher, she taught herself to feel the music. She was able to feel the different vibration lengths in pitches rather than hearing the pitch. Evelyn Glennie may not be able to hear music, but because her senses combined and allow her to feel it she is able to continue in music. In fact, Glennie became the first full time percussionist in history. The only difference between her and other musician performers beside the fact she is deaf, is that she plays barefooted so that she can feel the vibrations of the pitches within her body.

The case of Michael Torke, contemporary composer:
In this instance, Michael was born with his Synesthesia. His sense of sound is connected to the visual senses. So, whenever he would listen or play a song, he would see a specific color associated with it. Torke grew up thinking that this was something everyone had, until his piano teacher informed him otherwise. He (and the Researchers who have studied his synethesia likewise) discovered that his Synesthesia is key and scale based. As a result, when he hears a song in a specific key or scale, Torke simultaneously recognizes it as a color. These automatic color visuals or constant and fixed with an inability for change. No matter how hard he may try, Torke will always connect the key or scale with a specific color that is invariable. When trying to describe the color of specific keys or scales, Michael Torke has a hard time finding the words to describe the color just as one might have a hard time trying to find the right colored crayon. He has discovered a connection between the colors and musical keys/scales. For instance, to Torke's Synesthesia, a scale or key in Gmajor is bright yellow; whereas, a scale or key in G minor is a subdued yellow ochre. The G Major and Minor keys and scales share a color family, but tend to vary in level of intensity and shade. Another composer, David Caldwell, also experiences color Synesthesia to music. However, when hearing about Michael's colors, Caldwell stated that that sounded wrong to him because his colors were connected to different keys. This showed researchers that even those with similar Synesthesia such as Torke and Caldwell experience the combination of senses differently. 

The case of Patrick Ehlen, psychologist and songwriter:
Similarly to Michael Torke, Patrick Ehlen has a color based Synesthesia. However, what makes his case unique is it is not tied exclusively to music.  When he hears any kind of sound, sees numbers, letters, or days of the week, Ehlen connects colors and shapes to these other items. As for his musical Synesthesia, Ehlen sees colors and shapes that is connected to the rhythm and tempo of the music rather than the key signature. Ehlen also experiences shape and color based Synesthesia with regards to the shape of a melodic line, timbre (tone quality) of instruments, and the mood of the music. Patrick Ehlen's Synesthesia is similar to Torke's in that it is invariable and is something that Ehlen feels is just part of him. 

In addition to these individual cases, there is a case of a female musician in Zurich who experiences music as taste. Her Synesthesia is the combination of the auditory and taste senses. When two notes create a specific interval between them, the musician experiences a taste on her tongue. Researchers have documented that these tastes are invariably connected to specific intervals. For her, some intervals are bitter, sweet, taste like cream or mowed grass. When tested to see if she could identify the intervals just by the taste in her mouth, this musician proved to the researchers that she could accurately name the interval every time. As a result the automatic and instant Synesthesia response of taste she has to hearing musical intervals is never wrong. 

It is fascinating to think that there are some people out there who experience music differently than what is "normal". However, for those with Synesthesia, experiencing Music as a feeling, taste, or color is normal to them. 

With this in mind go listen to one of your favorite songs. As you listen to it try to think about what kind of color, flavor, or feeling it might have for you if you had Synesthesia. Feel free to share your thoughts about this in the comments below. I would love to hear what your favorite song is and the color, taster, or feeling it gives you.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Memories and Music

Have you ever had a relative, a grandfather, uncle, husband, mother with Alzheimer's or dementia?
For so many people, this is a real-life occurrence. Many people suffer from these diseases and are slowly losing their memories. There are some who argue that people with Alzheimer's or dementia have "lost themselves" or the person that they were is "no longer there". However, this blog post might cause you to disagree with that statement or view these diseases differently.

Research done in the Music Therapy field has uncovered some amazing developments. Though many patients with Alzheimer's and dementia experience profound amnesia and sometimes loss of speech, they never truly lose the essence of their character. Preferences, personal interests, and personality still remain, according to one researcher (Oliver Sacks), an "indestructible form of memory".

The personality and preferences of a patient with Alzheimer's or dementia can still be seen in their response to music. How is this done? Music therapists select music that addresses the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts, and memories of a patient. The music selections that they choose from are ones that are already familiar to the person with memory loss.  By using the music that stimulates the emotions, cognition, and memories in a person, the therapists are helping the patient's personality and awareness of self to resurface. With their personality and self awareness, comes a patient's freedom, stability, focus, and organization. They are able to remember things about the music or memories connected to the music.

There are many examples of people, who suffer from Alzheimer's and dementia, having benefited from music therapy or who have shown the ability to remember music when every other memory has left them. One such example was Nietzsche. After a case of neurosyphilis, Nietzsche became mute, demented, and partially paralyzed. Despite these great limitations, he still continued to play and improvise musically on his piano.  Another example of a patient with Alzheimer's but still maintaining his musical memory is Mr. Woody Geist. Previously diagnosed with the memory loss a decade earlier, Mr. Geist's family was amazed by his ability to remember the vocal baritone part to almost every song he ever performed within an a Capella group he'd been a part of.  One woman who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's seven year prior was said (by her husband) to play the piano for several hours every day and was currently working toward memorizing one of Schumann's piano concertos.

So, why does music of all things happen to be one of the few things that someone with Alzheimer's or dementia can remember when they can't remember their own family? According to Connie Tomaino, researcher at the Center for Music and Neurological  Function, the reason these patients can remember music is because they are not just recognizing the music. Rather they are remembering the pattern and temporal structure of the song which is then associated with another memory of a person, place, or event. How does that work? According to cognitive neuroscientist, Petr Jarante, the  part of the brain that stores self-referential activity, such as: personality, emotions, feelings, thoughts, and inferences, is stored in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) of the brain. The MPFC is the last area of the brain to atrophy in patients with Alzheimer's or dementia. Musical memory is stored in the Prefrontal cortex; therefore, it comes as no surprise that these two would be connected.

With that in mind, let's consider why music is able to bring back memories and self-awareness in patients with dementia or Alzheimer's. Music therapists have discovered that music with which the patient is familiar brings forth a response and an increase of awareness. As a result, the therapists select music that they know their patients will recognize. This in essence provides the soundtrack to a mental movie in the patient's mind. While listening to music, a patient with Alzheimer's or dementia might see a memory or a person's face in their mind's eye.

Therefore, the benefits of music therapy for patients with Alzheimer's and dementia are plain to see. Since, musical memory is the longest lasting of memories and is connected to other types of memories it should be no surprise that therapists are using music to help their patients hang on to any remaining memories and trying to restore lost memories, if only for as long as the song lasts. Furthermore, music therapists have proven that music helps patients with Alzheimer's and dementia to come out of themselves. As their disease often takes communication and person-to-person interactions away from them, music therapists have discovered that by playing music for a group of patients has resulted in "togetherness". These patients will often begin singing together or evening dancing together on occasion for as long as the music is playing. Once the music stops, these patients return to their previous state, falling back into their own minds. For these people who suffer from diseases that draw them inwards, they are able through music to relive memories and to spend time with other people outside of their own minds. 

While those with Alzheimer's and dementia do lose their memories and communication abilities, through the help of Music, they have not lost their entire identity. 


Music's the medicine of the mind.  ~John A. Logan
Music is the universal language of mankind.  ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

All good music resembles somethinng. Good music stirs by its mysterious resemblance to the objects and feelings which motivated it. ~ Jean Cocteau


Additional video:
This video is from a documentary called "Alive Inside". This is the uncut, unedited video filmed about Henry, a patient in a nursing home who has Alzheimer's

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Amusia - The Truth behind Musical Deafness

There are many people who believe that they can't "carry a tune in the bucket" or that they are "tone deaf". What they don't realize is that according to many Musicology studies these people are not actually musically deaf. 

Amusia (music deafness) is the inability to recognize music. This can show up in people in  either tonal (pitches/sounds) or rhythmic forms. Therefore, it is possible for someone to become musically deaf to tones or rhythmic patterns without becoming deaf to the other. Still there is a sub-level to these two types of musical deafness. As the mind uses rhythmical patterns and tonal patterns all over, complete musical deafness in either area is rare.  Partial rhythmical deafness means that the listener is unable to hear certain patterns. A person with partial tonal deafness may have troubles hearing the differences between certain pitches or sounds.

Furthermore, there are some people who experience music deafness in both area. This does not mean they have Amusia. Those who are truly amusic are unable to recognize tones and rhythms as what they are. As a result, they do not experience music the same way as those without Amusia. For people with complete musical deafness, music is not music. They are unable to hear the differences in vocal pitches, the differences between singing and talking, and the differences in music and banging pots together. Those who deal with musical deafness (Amusia) have often described listening to music as being "painful", "a screeching car", and generally "unpleasant". To those with Amusia, music is nothing but jumbled sounds being thrown together.

So, what is the cause of Amusia? According to studies in Musicology, musical deafness is a result of a person's inability to differentiate between adjacent tones (tones that are next to each other) and semitones (tones that are only a half step apart from each other). Without these basic building blocks, those who are Amusic can not find a tonal center. For them not being able to hear pitch differences to find the tonal center is like trying to speak without having the syllables to form the word.

How does someone become amusic? Amusia is typically not something that someone is born with. It is most often acquired. This can be a result of brain trauma which impacts the auditory senses, hearing deafness, strokes, and more. There is still some mystery surrounding how some people become musically deaf, especially those who are born with amusia. 

With all of this in mind, why is it that some people are not able to sing as in tune or are classified as not being able to "carry a tune in a bucket"? It is not because they have Amusia or are musically deaf. Rather those who have difficulties with tonal pitches have not trained their auditory faculties to recognize the subtle differences or they have a partial Amusia. They can still hear music and appretiate it; they just may not be able to produce it as perfectly.

In conclusion, Amusia can be either a partial or complete musical deafness. It can limit someone's tonal or rhythmical perception of music or both at the same time, or it can completely cut off someone's perception of music at all.
Imagine what it must be like to have Amusia and to be musically deaf. How would your life be different? In what ways would you be affected? Or pretend you're a scientist/doctor and come up with another cause (not listed in this post) for why some people might be born or develop musical deafness (Amusia). 

 For more  information on Amusia, feel free to watch this short video from the author of Musicophilia:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Musical Brain Worms

People often complain about having a particular song stuck in their head. We typically blame this on the fact that the song is particularly "catchy", or we blame it on the radio playing the song multiple times a day. However, sometimes we don't have a reason for why the song is stuck in our head. It sometimes just happens that we are walking along and a song we listened to as a little child becomes thoroughly rooted within our mind. Often times, we don't understand this, but Musicology has worked to answer it for us.

A study by Oliver Sacks the author of Musicophilia argued that these musical "ear-worms" that we get stuck in our heads typically consist of "short, well-defined phrases". They are normally short consisting of a line or two. These "ear-worms" are typically born of a song we know well or originate from an advertisement that has a little ditty as its main feature. Our minds catch on to and often repeat these short musical phrases over and over again for hours even days at a time. These little brief snippets of music can also have a longer life expectancy than the occasional onset. This means that they will sometime fade with time or the introduction of a new stimulus; however, they may simply be lying in wait for another time. A word, conversation, noise, image, anything can re-trigger the particular "ear-worm". In short, an "ear-worm" is a short collection of musical phrases that can last in the mind for extended periods of time.

Now that we know what an "ear-worm" is, why do they have this affect on us? Why will we get these short selections of music stuck in our head and are unable to get them out?

 For starters, part of the reason we get these musical brain worms stuck in our head is because they are composed or made so that they will do just that. Composers and song writers create these songs in such a way that they know people will get them stuck in their head. This means these songs are often invariant in nature. The melody would be very repetitive allowing for it to become easily memorized and ingrained in the human mind. Furthermore, when a person gets an "ear-worm", it is most often the part of the song that the composer created to be catching.

Another reason why these musical "ear-worms" get stuck in our head is we as a people have allowed ourselves to become over stimulated.  We have devices (ipods, mp3 players, cd players, etc.) that allow use to carry thousands of songs right at our finger tips. As a result, we have become bombarded with musical sounds.  Even without these devices we are surrounded by music in stores, restaurants, and other places. It is almost impossible to retreat into pure silence; as a result, our minds often take over when we are lacking this stimuli. This leads to musical sensitivity in which the mind provides the musical stimulus we are so desperately seeking by creating a musical projection within our own mind.  In addition to this musical sensitivity, humans typically have repetitive tendencies. As music is often repetitive in nature, we allow ourselves to indulge in music by listening to it consistently to fulfill our desire for organized and melodic sound. When this indulgence is denied, the result of ignoring it comes in the form of musical "ear-worms". Our brain works to make up for the stimulus (sense of sound) that we are lacking by creating its own.

Furthermore, there are several other problems (in addition to musical "ear-worms") that arise due to the auditory bombardment on our senses. One of these is the increased amount of early hearing loss. An increase of hearing loss has been shown in recent generations that is predominately resultant from new music technologies (ear buds, ipods, cd players, tape players, headphones, etc.).  It is because of these "day-long concerts" via radio, media player, and other devices that we are seeing an increase in not only the over stimulation of auditory senses and "ear-worms", but an premature and progressive loss of hearing in people.

In conclusion, musical "ear-worms" are the results of their nature and our overuse of musical stimulation. 

Have you ever had a musical "ear-worm"? Does what the study of Musicology suggest on this subject make you view your own musical "ear-worm" experiences differently or with more insight? Why or why not? Do you view musical media devices now, knowing that they may be potentially over stimulating your auditory senses (hearing) and causing damage? If you have any thoughts or questions on this post, please feel free to share in the comments. I would love to hear what your experiences, thoughts, and ideas on musical "ear-worms" are.