Music and brain recovery

It is now more and more fashionable to talk about the effect of music on the brain. As I had mentioned it on an earlier blog, books are coming out about the subject, and now the PBS show Nova has an episode on the subject, centered on Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia. But it is another PBS show that struck me, and although I usually don’t watch it, P.O.V. showed a 80 minute film about the story of the struggle of guitarist Jason Crigler overcoming the debilitating effect of a stroke, which occurred while playing a gig in a club.
Jason basically lost all normal higher brain functions, and had to re-learn how to function as a human being. The movie describes the hardship Jason family went through to help him recover his brain function. Against many odds and the prognostics of doctors, Jason made a full recovery. But what did fascinate me is that obviously music, and of course all the love and patience of his family, was very much instrumental (no pun intended) in his recovery.
Jason’s insurance eventually ran out, leaving him in a state where he was totally dependent on outside help. The ‘normal’ route was to go into hospice care, but his family decided against it and decided to take him home where he could be in a more stimulating environment. There he would be able to reconnect with familiar things, like all of his music making tools, and in particular his guitar.
As Jason’s dad recounts it, after a while in the house, Jason got drawn back in his music room, and the moment Jason picked up a guitar and began to play again was the milestone that seemed to validate the family’s faith. Jason started with small ostinato phrases of four or five notes that he would repeat as he was practicing. A few months later he sat in at a friend’s gig, then a whole set, and then his own gig in downtown NYC. After the gig where all his friends came and were quite impressed by his control of the instrument, Jason recalled: “I had trouble connecting,” but at Jason’s first concert in New York, something clicked and he suddenly connected with the music. “It’s the first gig I played that I felt really good,” he later said. That was the moment, a year and a half after his brain hemorrhage, when things turned around.
Jason is now fully recovered, although he does have a somewhat deeper relationship with music.
Well this is quite an amazing story, and I have to say that I kept thinking, at the point he picked up his guitar, that since music involves so many areas of the brain, it must be the way to recovery. And off course there is no way this would have happened without the incredible support from his family. But, some regions where damaged, on the other end there also must have been some other regions that still functioned well, and it was a matter of remapping them all back together. Some of the good parts of Jason’s brain must have been involved with music, and they could act as some kind of crutches to his healing brain, that led to recovering the damaged part.
It seems that the ability for repair exists in anyone with a brain injury, but the challenge is to find the crutches, and in this, music seems to be unique, since music stimulates so many areas in the brain, rendering those areas potential crutches in the event of a brain injury. I would be interested if other examples of recovery are linked to other kind of activities of the brain. It might not be that music has a monopoly on this but, to me, it seems self evident.
Here’s a few links to the movie and the P.O.V. site:

Music and synesthesia

Another association described in “Musicophilia” is the condition known as “synesthesia”. This means that somehow the region of the brain that deals with perceiving colors gets linked to a sound perception area or more particularly, pitch recognition. All of these kinds of phenomena are fascinating, but they will always intrigue you more when you witness it in someone. I happen to have a student who is visually impaired, who has enough sight to get around without a cane. A few weeks ago, as I was giving him his drum lesson, he started to tell me what fundamental pitch the cymbal had; as I checked on the piano, he proved to have the right pitch. I then went to the vibraphone and, sure enough, he could name each pitch. This kid is thirteen and nobody had noticed that in him. The next week, as before, we were listening to various pitches. He told me that F# was his favorite note because it was making him think of the color blue, and as I asked him about the other pitches, he started describing what colour the twelve different pitches made him feel.

After discovering this I started asking my other students, and sure enough, one of the sax players in my jazz ensemble has synesthesia, with tones and keys having shades of colours, or a certain brightness, that is unique to them and also has strong color association with numbers. Synesthesia means fusion of the senses, which means there can be any one of them involved. Some people also see things like numbers in landscapes, which actually hit close to home. I have always seen numbers that way, going along a path that angles right, left and up, with different shades of brightness, but no colours. I experiences this as well with days of the week, and months of the year; and as I was thinking about it, it is how I memorize pieces of music. So it can be used as a mnemonic device, too.

Oliver Sacks says in his book that about one in two thousand people manifest this condition, and he suggests that there might be a greater ratio, since most people who have the condition don’t see it as such; it is just the way things are, so they don’t usually talk about it.

Music and memories

Here is a change from all of the nebulus topics I’ve been consumed with recently. Music has a very deep relationship with the brain, especially when considering how many regions of the brain are put to the task when music is experienced. Therefore as the tools to look at the brain become more sophisticated, to the point seeing its functioning in real time, so the effect of music on the brain comes to the fore front. There is seldom a week that passes without some bit of news about it. A recently published book by Oliver Sacks (Musicophilia) is making everyone aware of the influence that music has on our “control module”.

Recently I listened to a radio show with the topic of how one could help Alzheimer patients use music that they learned during their youth to help them recover some of their lost memories. People working with them (most of them from another generation) are actually learning about the music of their patients’ youth in order to expose them to tunes that could help them. I think that as the baby boomers come to age, the Beatles will come as an unexpected rescue to the unfortunate ones who suffer from these kinds of diseases of the brain.

I use my own experience as an example: in my youth, I listened to a particular recording while reading a particular book. I had not listened to this recording in at least twenty years, but when I rediscovered the music, and heard the first notes played on my stereo after all of that time, it was as if I was in the middle of that book, the memory was so clear.

Now one can suggest that we create some of these memories. But since the brain, as we recently discovered, is the only part  that does not lose growth potential in our body, the chances are pretty good. It would be more of a conscious effort than the free-association we make in our teens, but it might be worth it; as when memories are recalled this way, it always gives us a warm feeling of connection.

I am wondering if any of you reading this might have made some of these connections and what kind of interesting, except the summer of …. ( fill the blanks) association you’ve made with a particular recording or song. Let me know, we can compare experiences.

The Power of Sound

Most of us understand that sound needs a medium to transmit itself, but not, at least in my case, that this includes any form of matter that constitutes our Baryonic universe. It turns out that this has monumental implications in how fundamental sound waves are in the universe we live in.

When I am talking about a ‘medium’, this applies to all matter in its many forms:

– gases, the most common of which make up our atmosphere in which sound travel at 1,235 meters per second;

– liquids, water from which we are made mostly, in which, due to its higher density, carries sound waves at 1497 m/s;

– solids of course of still higher density, for steel the most dense of solid, the speed is 5930 m/s. Another less well known form of matter is:

– plasma found in extreme invironment like stars or the early universe, but nevertheless does conduct sound waves, like other states of matter, as of the sound speed in a plasma, it must vary as in the other medium as the pressure or temperature changes I could not find a actual number, but I can assume that the speed in it is higher still to many magnitude. if you have the knowledge to figure out the formula here it is:


Baryonic matter, is anything that constitutes our visible universe, which is about 4% of its composition. The bulk of the universe is made with 23% Dark Matter, and since we do not know what it is made of, we do not know how sound waves behave in it; but since sound is so instrumental in the shape of the universe, there is no reason to think that it is not affected as well. The rest, 73%, is made up of Dark Energy, an even more puzzling phenomena but on which sound could help shed light.

All this brings me to the point I want to make: sound waves have an influence on matter of all kinds. They have an elastic or kinetic effect due to the slow rate of their frequencies, compared to the electromagnetic spectrum (light, etc.) which, due to the shortness of their frequencies only have influences at the atomic level.

What is the loudest sound ever created in this universe? Well, it has been very adequately named, as we are all calling it the “Big Bang”– just think about what it means!

The Big Boom, right? But we all have seen those science fiction movies with silent explosions, as being in space, there is no medium, so no sound. That is right, except for the fact that in the case of the Big Bang, it is sound that created the empty space. The Big Bang was infinite pressure, so sound must have traveled infinitely fast, its wave spreading to every corner of the young universe, pushing matter with its peaks and valleys in clumps and creating voids, engineering stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters, and somewhat its own demise– empty space or vacuum.

Now, sound is left vibrating, isolated in the islands of matter that dot the universe, where the original Boom still resonates from all directions. It can be measured and it has a name. It is called the “Baryon Acoustic Oscillation” or BAO. The following is a quote from an article by Richard Panek in the February 2009 issue of Sky & Telescope:

‘Early in the Universe, sound waves (“acoustic oscillations”) coursed through the primordial gas, creating peaks at intervals of 436,000 light-years. As the universe has expanded, so has the spacing between these peaks; today they are 476 million light years apart. And because galaxies tended to form on the peaks of these large waves, astronomers can measure galaxy distributions at different eras, allowing them to see how the peak spacing changed over time, and thus how fast the universe has expanded.’

This will help us measure the effect Dark Energy has on accelerating the expansion of the universe, and help predict its ultimate fate… And fittingly this all was discovered about forty five years ago with the use of a giant ear! (see picture below)


This is only the genesis of the much under-reported fundamental influence that sound plays in our existence that we shall explore in future postings, so tune in (you have no choice).

Feed-back loop, the groove, and other earth shattering phenomena.

Feed back is a term that musicians who use amplification, like myself, are very familiar with. For those who might not be used to the phenomena, an audio feed back can be quite annoying, in particular for singers who walk around concert stages with a microphone. When a mic gets too close to a speaker, it picks up the resonant frequency of the room and sends it to the speaker after being amplified by the P.A. system. This is then picked up by the mic again which sends it a second time (feeding it back) through the system around the same loop. Soon enough it amplifies itself out of control and produces a loud whistling sound. By moving the mics away from the speaker you break the loop.

On the other hand musicians, in particular electric guitarists, have learned to use this to their advantage, and have created a unique blend of guitar tones and controlled feed back into the rich sustained sound that is so unique to the instrument. One example would be the tone of Carlos Santana’s guitar.

So there is two sides to the feed back loop- the Dr. Jekyll and the Mr. Hyde.

There are many examples of feed-back loops, and one of them has to do with bridges, which I’ll get to in a minute, but in thinking about this it came to me that this could also explain another musical phenomena. I am thinking of the one we call “groove”. As a percussionist I am always concerned about it; is it good, or is it not good? What makes it good, or what makes it lame? What is a groove, anyway? I’ve never seen a definition of it; the only thing I know about it is if it is there or not. I then read this story about the London Millennium walking bridge and as an analogy it made perfect sense…..

The closest thing to a string in the everyday world in which we live is the bridge; it is long, stretched, and subjected to all kinds of vibrations.

When the London Millennium bridge was open to the public, people enthusiastically started to walk on it in great numbers, but it wobbled a little bit, which then fed back to the people, which made them want to synchronize their footsteps to the bridge’s motion, which made the bridge’s motion worse. In other words, the situation created a feed back loop between the bridge and the foot steps of the people. It is not a new phenomena, it has been well known for a long time; military parades have to break their lock step while walking on a bridge, because they could create such a feed back loop that they could collapse it.

So, to me, a groove does behave in a similar way. There is no physical bridge or amplification system as previously, but only the sympathetic relationship between the different elements that constitute it. They re-enforce each other by feeding back in a looped pattern. The common denominator is the down beat, which can be present or only suggested by the interlocking parts. A groove is made of at least two parts (bridge-steps or mic-speaker), or, in this case, down beat and syncopation. But it can include many different parts.

When a groove is locked in, and it is important to stress that this word is a paraphrase helping us describe the “groove” phenomena the best we can (there is no lock on a groove), in this case the analogy is the lock step of the aforementioned parade. When a groove is locked, it means that the feed-back loop is enabled and is re-enforcing each part in relation to the other. To make another ‘bridge’ to the scientific lingo, you can say that the synergy is at its highest, the whole become larger than the sums of its parts.

Just listen to African, Latin American, Jazz and Funk music, and when the feed – back loop is enabled, feel your step locking with the groove, and as with the Millennium Bridge– shake your whole body.

The International Year of Astronomical

One could say that it is the Hubble telescope’s amazing images, the Cassini/Hyugen circling Saturn, or even the discovery of new planets around faraway stars that are responsible. Add the fact that this is The International Year of Astronomy, and it would seem obvious why people are becoming acquainted with the vastness of space. But I am referring to something much less obvious, but no less astronomical. I am talking about the numbers that are spread out in the front headlines of all of the newspapers, tv, and websites around the world.

One of these numbers is the $818 billion (818,000,000,000) stimulus package. What does a number such as this one represent? One thing for sure is that it can be described as “astronomical”. Now what does it mean to call something astronomical? First of all it means that because of its size, we just simply don’t understand it. Let me give an example:

The distance from here to the Moon is an average of 239,000 miles. This is something that we can wrap our heads around, barely– just think of going around the earth 60 times at the equator. From here to the Sun it is 93,000,000 miles. This number is already beyond our understanding; it is 389 times the distance to the Moon, or 23,340 times around the equator. From the Sun to Neptune, our most distant planet (I do agree that Pluto is not a planet, but that’s another topic) it is 2,790,000,000 miles. That number makes no sense to us humans. We are not made to understand this kind of distance; we can only try to compare them to others, which conveniently makes the numbers small. In the process, we often use the speed of light: 186,000 miles per second; but that new unit is already one we can barely understand. Even so, it conveniently translates distances into time: at the speed of light, it would take 4 hours and 10 minutes to reach Neptune.

If dollars were miles, we could go on for 51 days (at the speed of light) until we reached the amount of the stimulus package. In comparison, Voyager 1, the furthest traveling man-made object, is just over 1% of that distance, and it was launched on September 5th, 1977. We would still be four years and one month away from the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Far enough away, but actually not so much, considering that already the government is considering buying bad loans from banks to the tune of a trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000). That would put us 62 days closer. In this department, The Treasury is way ahead of NASA- they’re reaching for the stars!

The point of this little exposé, if you are still with me, is just to try to put things in perspective. We continue to be exposed to larger and larger numbers, but do we really understand what they mean? Chances are that we don’t… when we talk of light seconds, minutes, days or years, we are just surrendering to galloping inflation. Yes, 40 years ago a New York City subway token was 25 cents; now it is about to be ten times more. 400 years ago “our” universe was 1500 miles; it is now roughly 15,000,000,000 light years, and we are now thinking that our universe is one of many. Billions of any currency used to be safely confined to one or two figures, but a trillion? Can we understand what it means to the scale of our wallet? No, we can’t.

So when you hear complaints about the $50,000,000 designated for the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), I would not pay too much attention to this, as it represents only 4 minute and 30 seconds out of a 51 day stimulus package! Or averaging less than 5/100ths of a percent.

Think about it, or don’t think about it; in the end, it’s above our heads.

Science and music everywhere…

These things have a slow start, and I am probably the first to blame for this. There are several reasons, one of which is that I am (I have to confess) a bit intimidated by the breadth of the subject. I am a musician, not a scientist, although I have a strong interest in that subject. Being an amateur astronomer, it is impossible to ignore the concept of the “Music of the Spheres”, and all the extrapolations we can make at the wave level. A wave is an orb or orbit, and an orbit is a wave, and the two are completely interchangeable. So I will soldier on.

About the music of the spheres, I have a small thought experiment which to me, epitomizes one side of this relationship. Look at the relationship between the three most influential celestial objects in our life: the Sun, the Earth and the Moon. Imagine the moon circling the earth in an almost perfect circle (all orbits in the solar system are ellipses, not perfect circles, but we will make them perfect for this experiment). The moon goes on and on around the earth; this is easy enough to imagine in your mind’s eye. Now imagine the earth itself orbiting around the sun . Just try to think what it does to the path of the moon when you put yourself on the sun (I did say it was a thought experiment!). The observer on the sun sees the moon weaving around the earth. There is no circle anymore, but a “sine wave”, the most pure (and boring) sound. Can you see it? if you can’t quite make it, drawing it it will make sense.

The thought experiment is one of the most productive techniques that physicists and mathematicians use to peer into new concepts. Einstein as a kid was imagining himself riding on a ray of light, asking himself what would the world look like to him from that vantage point.

Of course I am trying to find out what is a musical thought experiment; and it jumps to my mind that we are in a constant thought experiment. At least I am. I can think of two examples:

1. when composing, or actually even more when I am just thinking about new musical ideas; I am always putting them in this or that musical context. Different musical arrangements give me a different point of view, like being on the earth or the sun as in the previous thought experiment, rendering musical ideas almost as different as my perception of a circle or a sine wave.

2. when improvising, a different but related phenomena occur: time loses its grip and takes on a much more free and malleable form.

Now, to close this where I intended to start it. I am helping my wife promote her show which, how appropriate, is a multimedia performance about science and music in the 17th century. You’ll find out all about it here: .In the process I did google the phrase ‘science and music’ together, and came across a lot of interesting stuff, and in the middle of it I found this page.

Be careful for what you wish for!

Welcome to this discussion

To every musician and scientist, this discussion is dedicated to you!

The links between science and music (and art to a wider extent) is by far not a new concept, you can actually hold an argument that they were united in most of their history, as science and art were both considered as philosophy. The root of the western scientific method can be traced to Aristotle who as he explored the physical world created the scientific method, which led him to study scales, modes and harmonic relationships, with the use of weights. from this it is not far to see the relationship: weight = mass = creative energy = emc2.

Yes, it is quite a short cut from one to the other; even absurd. But this kind of thinking is needed now, since the recent (about the past 100 years) trend is to compartmentalize the creative thinking process. But the history is on the other side. Besides Aristotle, Galileo’s father was a famous musician, Einstein played the violin and Richard Feyman played the bongos (quite well, I can attest, as a percussionist).

Another fascinating recent development, is the rise of techniques to study the brain. Neurology is opening a window in the process how music is understood by conscious and unconscious.

I think this is a fascinating subject, where there is still a lot of unknown that deserves to be explored. I also think that the answers can be explored by the people who are at the forefront of each discipline.

So please be open to offer your opinion and observations.

Marc Wagnon