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Vol. LXIV, No. 10
May 11, 2012
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Brust Discusses Neuroscience of Musical Literacy
Columbia’s Dr. John C.M. Brust speaks at NIH.

Columbia’s Dr. John C.M. Brust speaks at NIH.

Maurice Ravel, most famous for his orchestral work Boléro, was the victim of a cruel coincidence: Although a composer by vocation, a brain injury left him unable to compose. “My mind is full of ideas,” he wrote, “but when I want to write them down, they vanish.”

The cause of Ravel’s problems was never definitively established, said Dr. John C.M. Brust, who delivered a Great Teachers lecture at Clinical Center Grand Rounds recently. But there have been many reports since Ravel’s death of other people who have lost similar musical abilities following brain injury. Research on these and other individuals has shed light on disorders of musical literacy and the neurological processes involved in this skill.

The processes we use to read, write and listen to music seem to be different than those we use for language, explained Brust, professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Brain-imaging studies have shown that different areas of the brain are activated in reading music versus reading words, for example, or listening to music versus listening to speech. While Ravel and some people with brain injury experience problems with both music and language, others, like the Russian composer Vissarion Shebalin, do not. After two strokes severely impaired Shebalin’s language abilities, he continued composing music, including a well-regarded symphony.

The various aspects of music—including melody, rhythm, meter and chords—are perceived by different brain circuits, explained Brust. This concept is reflected in case studies of individuals with disorders of musical literacy: Some affected individuals have only lost the ability to indicate pitch, but not rhythm, in musical notation; another case involved intact pitch-writing skills, but loss of the ability to write rhythm.

Research seems to indicate that it is musical reading and writing, specifically, that can improve other cognitive skills. But Brust did not seem to think much of the idea of acquiring musical literacy purely for the cognitive benefits. “Forget it,” said Brust, a jazz saxophonist. “Musical literacy has its own rewards.”

Research seems to indicate that it is musical reading and writing, specifically, that can improve other cognitive skills. But Brust did not seem to think much of the idea of acquiring musical literacy purely for the cognitive benefits. “Forget it,” said Brust, a jazz saxophonist. “Musical literacy has its own rewards.”

Photos: Bill Branson

Emotion is another important component of music; the brain’s emotional processing functions are intertwined with musical perception. Some music is pleasurable, triggering activity in the brain’s reward system, whereas dissonant music can trigger the brain’s fear center, the amygdala.

Musical training influences how the brain is involved in listening to music and making music, explained Brust. For example, one study found that trained musicians tend to use the analytical left side of their brains to listen to music, while untrained people use the more holistic right brain to take in the same piece. Research has also found a strong relationship between the brain’s processing of visual-spatial information and musical training. Brust mentioned the region of the brain known as Broca’s area—located on both sides of the head at the temples—that is usually activated when listening to speech or perceiving motion. However, in trained musicians only, this area is also activated when performing three-dimensional visual-spatial recognition tasks.

This type of evidence might help to explain why musical training seems to improve people’s visual-spatial skills, among other cognitive abilities, such as learning languages.

The most well-known version of the cognitive benefits of music is called the Mozart effect, which has spawned an entire industry of Mozart-for-babies products designed to increase infants’ intelligence. The study that coined this effect found that people who listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata experienced a short-term boost in performance in spatial reasoning. Later research largely debunked the Mozart effect, explained Brust. It turned out that the temporary benefit conveyed by the music was probably due to emotional arousal, not the music per se.

Research seems to indicate that it is musical reading and writing, specifically, that can improve other cognitive skills. But Brust did not seem to think much of the idea of acquiring musical literacy purely for the cognitive benefits.

“Forget it,” said Brust, a jazz saxophonist. “Musical literacy has its own rewards.” NIHRecord Icon


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