Classical Music Lovers May
Indeed Have More Brains
By Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times Music Critic

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 appeal."
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



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