Tag Archives: Neurology

The Music Instinct

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1933, fifty-eight-year-old composer Maurice Ravel suffered a stroke while swimming. The ordeal left him with aphasia, which robbed his ability to comprehend or express linguistic symbols. Because music composition, like language, utilizes a written system of signs, aphasia also silenced his creative output. Although Ravel retained musical mentation—the capacity to think musically—he was no longer able to translate musical thoughts into sounds. He could recognize tunes, identify errors in performance, and select a score by patterns represented on the page. But his analytical deciphering disappeared: note naming, sight-reading, dictation.

Contrast this with a more recent story of a sixth grader who was forced to give up sports after sustaining a concussion. The boy’s dream of becoming a professional athlete was dashed, but he suddenly discovered a new talent for music. He displayed little aptitude for music prior to the injury, and was even below average when it came to simple functions like matching pitches and predicting phrases. Now a high school student, he plays over a dozen instruments, including guitar, piano, accordion, harmonica and bagpipes—all by ear. It is possible that this talent was dormant before circumstances led to its discovery. But it may also be the result of the brain’s rewiring and overcompensating for capabilities lost in the trauma.

Losing or gaining musical genius in the aftermath of a head injury is exceedingly rare. However, these extreme cases do point to the innateness of music in humanity. Ravel, a once expert and meticulous musician, could still conceive of and enjoy music, though he could no longer create or perform it. The student athlete, once indifferent toward music, became musically hyper-expressive. Latent in both was a musical sense that exists in virtually everyone. An underlying musicality was preserved in Ravel, who was reduced to a passive receiver, and magnified in the boy, who was transformed into an active creator.

It is rarely acknowledged that the absence of musical skill or training does not correspond to a lack of musical capacity. Just as one need not be a writer to appreciate a well-written book, one need not be gifted or educated in the musical arts to be moved by a well-executed piece. Likewise, the musically inclined and disinclined benefit from music in essentially identical ways, the difference being one of degree rather than kind. Whatever our talents or limitations—and whether our musical adeptness increases, decreases or stays stagnant over time—we remain musical creatures.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Pots and Pans

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

When Ulysses S. Grant was asked what music he liked, he replied: “I know only two tunes. One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle’—and the other isn’t.” At first reading, this seems like a snarky pronouncement of musical stubbornness. Perhaps Grant considered “Yankee Doodle” the apex of musical achievement, and nothing else deserved mention alongside it. This attitude is not uncommon. It is human nature to put certain music on a pedestal and confidently assert that it is better than the rest (though our “pedestal music” is usually more sophisticated than a patriotic ditty). But that was not the meaning of Grant’s remark. His words were much more cynical—and much more literal.

From an early age, the great general (and not-so-great president) professed an intense dislike for music. He was extremely tone deaf: he could not hum, recognize or remember even the most popular airs of his day. Perhaps his inability to retain or reproduce music was so frustrating that it spilled over into animosity. Or maybe music truly sounded awful to his ears. Whatever the reason, his was an almost pathological aversion to musical sounds. He never went to concerts, refused to dance and had a particular (and ironic) hatred for military bands.

Grant most likely suffered from congenital amusia, an anomaly that begins at birth and affects roughly four percent of the population. (There is also acquired amusia, which occurs as a result of brain damage.)  The primary symptom is a deficit in fine-grained pitch discrimination. Amusics cannot detect pitch changes when the distance between two successive pitches is small, and thus cannot internalize musical scales. This impairs the person’s ability to enjoy or respond to melodies, most of which consist of slight interval changes.

However, while amusics typically cannot distinguish one musical selection from the next, they often do recognize a single piece, usually one that involves strong rhythms and some sort of fanfare. Many patriotic songs fit this description, with their accompanying parades, flag waving and ritualized gestures. That would explain how Grant could identify “Yankee Doodle” and nothing else.

Music can also be a severe annoyance for some amusics. Their problem is not just a failure of recognition. Music as they hear it is comparable to the banging of pots and pans or some other cacophonous irritant. This also seems to describe Grant’s condition.

Nevertheless, Grant was sensitive to how the majority responds to music, even as he could not comprehend their enjoyment. After graduating from West Point, he was assigned to duty with the Fourth U. S. Infantry. In those days, regimental bands were paid partly by the government and partly by regimental funds, which were set aside for luxuries such as books, magazines and music. Grant accumulated money for the fund by ordering the Infantry’s daily rations in flour instead of bread (at a significant savings), renting a bakery, hiring bakers and selling fresh bread through a contract he arranged with the army’s chief commissary. Much of the extra income went to secure a bandleader and competent players, whose music boosted the soldiers’ morale (and punished Grant’s ears).

Grant’s neurological wiring prevented him from being a music lover. In fact, it made him a music hater. He did not process music as music, and could not feel it as most of us do. Yet he was perceptive enough to observe the musical pleasures of others, and gentleman enough to give fellow soldiers the music they yearned for.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.