- One of the most fascinating of all medical-research subjects
- especially to those interested in the arts - has been the relationship
of music to brain function. Classical-music lovers are really going to
like the results of recent British and Italian studies that offer one explanation
for individual preferences for classical versus pop music: The former may
require more brainpower.
- A recent issue of BBC Music Magazine reports the studies
of the dementia patients of Dr. Raj Persaud of Maudsley Hospital in London,
from which Persaud concludes that there's a link between musical taste
and intellectual function. As brainpower diminishes in dementia patients
who have previously liked classical music, the patients sometimes begin
to prefer pop music.
- As Persaud put it, "What this may mean is that you
require more gray matter to appreciate classical music and that you don't
need so much gray matter to appreciate pop music, so as you lose gray matter
your taste in music changes accordingly."
- Brain damage changes tastes
- Other research suggests Persaud may be right. Writing
in the Journal of Neurology, Italian neurologist Dr. Giovanni Frisoni states
that dementia's damage to the frontal lobes of the brain (the part most
involved in complex judgments) is responsible for those changes in musical
likes and dislikes. Since pop music is "composed to appeal to the
widest possible audience," as Frisoni put it, "the frontal lesions
of our patients might have damaged the circuits that were inhibiting this
- Of course, Frisoni does not mean that pop-music listeners
are brain-damaged. Musical taste, he points out, is an extremely complex
issue, depending upon "individual, social and cultural factors."
- Frisoni's own research in Brescia, Italy, reached similar
conclusions. Patients suffering from dementia exhibited a complete turnaround
in their musical tastes. One 68-year-old lawyer and longtime classical-music
lover, for example, who had developed increasing problems with speaking
and abstract thinking, began listening to Italian pop music at top volume.
Earlier, he had referred to pop music as "mere noise."
- There could be other reasons for such changes in musical
preference. As reported in BBC News Health, patients who have damage to
the brain's right frontal lobe, where novelty is managed, could be more
inclined toward seeking novelty " and pop music would certainly be
novel to those who had previously shunned it. Frisoni also thinks that
lesions may have damaged the dementia patients' brains in the centers responsible
for the perception of pitch, rhythm and familiarity.
- More Mozart effects
- More brain research suggests that playing Mozart "
that same composer responsible for the much-touted "Mozart Effect,"
in which performance on certain aspects of IQ tests was improved following
exposure to his music " can also have a beneficial effect on epilepsy
patients. John Jenkins of the University of London has found that playing
"short bursts of Mozart's Sonata K.448" (the D Major Sonata for
Two Pianos) decreases epileptic attacks.
- Other studies suggest that Mozart also has a beneficial
effect on coma patients.
- An early start
- Educators have long observed the benefits of early musical
training on school performance, and various studies have shown that some
areas of the brain are enlarged among those whose "perfect pitch"
facility is revealed in that early training. More recently, the American
Academy of Neurology has released the results of a study that found "significant
differences" in the gray-matter distribution between professional
musicians trained at an early age and nonmusicians.
- The musicians in the study had more relative gray-matter
volume in five regions of the brain, and "pronounced differences in
the cerebellum bilaterally."
- Nature or nurture?
- Study leader Gottfried Schlaug said the study was undertaken
to determine whether "intense environmental demands such as musical
training at an early age influenced actual brain growth and development,"
and the study may show that this is the case.
- On the other hand, it's possible, though apparently less
likely, that the brain differences were there in the first place. The musicians
could have been born with these brain differences, "which may draw
them toward their musical gifts," as Schlaug put it.
- In any case, we can be sure that research studies are
continuing apace, as scientists plumb these fascinating relationships between
music and the brain. At the University of Washington, for instance, the
School of Music and the Medical Center are beginning a collaborative study
to examine the neurological responses of adult listeners (with varying
degrees of music-performance training) to musical excerpts and spoken statements.
- Just remember: If any of you classical fans out there
suddenly start craving "Oops! I Did It Again," it just might
be time for a quick visit to your neurologist.
- Melinda Bargreen may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.