Music and the brain

Pwyll ap SiônMon 1st September 2014

A look ahead to a new festival celebrating the rare communicative and healing power of music

We all know that music works on so many different levels – emotionally, physically, cerebrally – but it appears that science and neurology have only just started exploring the complex mechanisms that come into play when music connects with our brains. Of course, early trailblazers such as Oliver Sachs have been drawing attention to the power of music over the mind for many years. Sachs’s Musicophilia, first published in 2007, is an excellent introduction and should be on everybody’s bookshelf.

Earlier this year the European Brain Council launched its ‘Year of the Brain’. One of its aims is to draw attention to the ways in which music can be used to retrain and re-educate the injured brain, and to show how the process of learning music helps improve our ability to think, understand, and move. ‘Emerging Classical Talent in the EU’ forms part of the ECB’s year-long activities, and will include an exciting four-day festival called ‘Small Nations Big Sounds’, held in Cardiff between October 3-6, featuring the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Sinfonia Cymru, and one of Sweden’s most dynamic chamber orchestras, Camerata Nordica. I’m looking forward to seeing how these concerts will highlight connections between music and health.

Classical musicians are certainly doing their part to bring music to those who really need it. A few years ago, I attended a concert organised by Live Music Now at a care centre for patients with Alzheimers along with my partner, Nia, who works part-time as a musician for the Alzheimers’ society and has published several articles on the subject of music and dementia. Loss of memory is a terrible thing. Some patients couldn’t remember their own names, let alone their wives, husbands, or carers’ names. But as soon as the soprano struck up a tune from My Fair Lady, many started singing along spontaneously, remembering the words and tune without the aid of any lyric sheet or music. One man who had quite severe dementia even got up and danced. The music had brought him to life again. He completely connected with it. But when the music stopped, he stood there – lost – in the centre of the room.

Music forms part of our physical and mental makeup from the moment we are born and remains with us long after our ability to think and speak in words has gone. While language processing occurs mainly in one hemisphere of the brain (the left side), music involves an understanding between both sides of the cerebral hemisphere. Because of this, as Sacks has pointed out, our emotional response to music, ‘is widespread and probably not only cortical but subcortical’. What this means is that people who develop a diffuse cortical disease such as Alzheimer’s can still understand, appreciate, respond to, and enjoy music. And even when one’s ability to recognise a song has disappeared, one’s ability to respond to it emotionally continues.

The Alzheimer’s Society is already harnessing the powerful effects of music in this way. Their highly successful Singing for the Brain scheme – now running in many parts of the UK – has brought people with dementia together in a setting that allows them to relax, enjoy and express themselves.

There’s still far more to uncover about the positive impact of music on the brain, however. Let’s hope the Year of the Brain will shed yet more light on this fascinating subject.

Sinfonia Cymru and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama present the Small Nations Big Sounds Festival from October 3-6. Visit www.sinfoniacymru.co.uk for further information.

Pwyll ap Siôn

Gramophone reviewer Pwyll ap Siôn is senior lecturer in music at Bangor University. His monograph on The Music of Michael Nyman was published by Ashgate Press in 2007. Other books include The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music and an edited volume of Michael Nyman's Collected Writings (both due out in 2013).

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