Music: It's All About the Brain (And Nervous System)
I haven’t been writing in the last month because I’ve been busy plowing through the first half of the orchestral season at Chautauqua, which has been 3 programs a week, while simultaneously working on my personal training certification through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. It’s been…a lot! If I had to summarize the month, and this year in general, it would be that our brain and nervous system are truly phenomenal in the act of music making and daily living. As I work with more varied clients in pilates, I’ve also been seeing more folks dealing with neurological conditions, which has led to me reading more about the brain, studying the brain’s role in movement, learning and coordination, and more. I’m by no means an expert, but here are some of the things I’ve gleaned this year that have changed the way I think about the brain in music.
The brain and nervous system are in constant dialogue. You have many different kinds of sense receptors in your body, including those discern temperature, pressure (mechanoreceptors), light, and chemicals. Those sensory neurons (afferent) take the stimuli to the CNS and brain while motor neurons (efferent) direct movement. While playing an instrument, your brain is instructing your body (via nerve impulses) to execute complex movements while also being aware of what is happening moment by moment and adjusting.
Playing an instrument is a really complex task for the brain. It involves motor (movement) components, coordination and interpretation of music (visual and cerebellum), auditory feedback, as well as emotional responses. There was a great Ted Ed video (see above) a few years ago about music impacting the brain in action.
Reading music is different (and similar) than reading words. I’ve been looking into how we process music visually and how it differs from interpreting written words, and I’ve observed that there are some similarities in processing, but it seems to affect different aspects of the brain. In reading some of Oliver Sack’s writing, I’ve noticed that after an injury, someone may have lost the ability to read words, but retained the ability to read music, or vice versa, suggesting that they are different functions, or at least stored in different locations in the brain.
When we read music, analyze the material, and play the notes, our brain is doing a complex series of movements, whereas reading a book doesn’t necessarily trigger a motor impulse and movement response. In music, we are reading the notes, bowing, breath indicators, dynamics, text (if song), and sending appropriate motor messages out to our body to execute the task. I’ve noticed that the first few times I learn a new piece, such as an orchestral work, it takes me a day or two to recognize the patterns: the rhythms, the fingerings, the intervals, but by the performance a few days later, my brain has mostly acclimated to the new material.
When we play in an ensemble, we are handling a ton of different stimuli, and determining which is relevant at any given moment. We are observing loud sounds of winds and percussion, lighting, following other players, and managing a lot of information. Although most performers are used to playing in ensembles, looking at how we actually do it is pretty amazing.
We often take our visual system for granted- not just our eyes, but how our brain processes visual information. In working with clients after a concussion this year, I’ve realized how much visual information our brain collects in ensembles and how versatile our visual system has to be to manage it. Let’s say you’re playing viola on the third stand- you’re toggling between looking at sheet music in front of you, the principal further in front of you, the concertmaster to your right, and the conductor in the center. At any moment, your eyes are flitting between these different targets, which may be under different quality and intensity of light, while processing the sounds of the ensemble in conjunction with your task of interpreting the sheet music in front of you. Your visual system is changing direction and distance constantly.
Performing a familiar piece of music is charged with memory. There was a terrific documentary called Alive Inside that came out a few years ago about music for those with alzheimers and dementia, which addressed how music could elicit surprising responses from patients. While I’m no specialist in psychology, I can feel my own version of that when I play certain pieces. I first learned Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony in 8th grade in my first full orchestra experience. I’ve played it many times with different orchestras since, and each time, I have memories of the other places I’ve played, whom I played it with, how I felt about it, and where I was in my life at the time. For performers, music becomes embedded with experiences, feelings, and memories from when we first heard things as a child or teenager through adulthood. (And your amazing hippocampus plays a role in that too!)
Sight reading music is an incredibly complex task. Dr Noa Kageyama wrote a nice blog about this a while ago, but I continue to be fascinated at how my own brain can process information on the spot quickly. In orchestras, you are often given a day’s notice to step in and substitute, which means I have to learn music incredibly quickly or sight read it on the spot. In the initial pass, my brain is trying to identify some patterns by which to cling to (scales, rhythms, arpeggios, pitch relationships). If we work on the piece more, aspects of the music will be stored to short term memory and the subsequent passes will be easier as more connections are drawn.
Music that I haven’t played in years is often still well organized in my long term storage in my brain (and body). Excerpts or solos that I haven’t prepared in a long time are still “in there” so to speak, and it’s amazing, at least to me. I’ve taken breaks from auditions, only to surprise myself at the clarity with which my body and brain can coordinate the repertoire, despite the lack of recent practice on that piece. The same is true for pieces that were formally memorized and performed.
Your brain changes itself, and that’s amazing. Neuroplasticity is a more recent concept, believe it or not, and your brain’s ability to change is part of the reason learning new music is possible. Let’s define neuroplasticity though- it’s the brain’s ability to change itself in response to stimuli, training, etc. I currently have a lovely 76 year old violin student, who occasionally doubts that she can learn new material. Yet, in 6 months of weekly lessons, she has indeed made progress technically which suggests to me (and her!) that neuroplasticity is very real. Her brain is still able to make new connections and change previous patterns of playing violin which may not have been advantageous. The same can be true for a musician trying to change a habitual pattern or improving a specific skill, whether it be in music, movement, or life. For more on music and neuroplasticity, read this article by Dr. Jon Lieff.
While this is by no means a conclusive list of what is happening in your brain while making music, these are just some of the things that are interesting me these days. Here are some of the resources worth checking out for more brain related content:
The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (He writes a lot about neuroplasticity)
Healthy Brain, Happy Life by Wendy Suzuki. (While this is more about her personal story about fitness and its impact on the brain, I found it really interesting)
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk (looking at trauma, the body, and the brain)
And if you’re not ready to spring for a huge heavy duty reading adventure, I highly recommend checking out podcasts to get more bite sized topic adventures. Some of the podcasts I’ve explored include the Functional Neurology Podcast, the Liberated Body, and the Broken Brain podcast. You can also just look up these authors and see which interviews they’ve done.