Music on the Brain


It’s been nearly 15 years, but I finally have a piano back in my life, and I’m enjoying playing again so much that I’ve even taken up the ukelele to have a second instrument I can carry with me everywhere.

I played music for several hours daily from an early age – first piano, then also violin and guitar –  until I moved away from home to start university and it all became a bit too much. In my early teens, I was seriously considering a career as a piano teacher, and I often remind myself that what I do as an arts administrator and producer is very much along the same lines of sharing my passion for music and the arts and trying to get people to appreciate them from within.

As I continue to research what art is and does, I like to organise my findings into more-or-less structured lists, so here are a few resources I’ve recently come across about the effects of music on the brain. Nothing exhaustive here, just a few starting points for further enquiry that can perhaps support advocacy efforts.



Like all other books by the neurologist Oliver SacksMusicophilia (2007is a surprisingly entertaining and enlightening dive into the mysteries of the brain, looking at the biochemistry of music perception through case studies based on clinical observations of Sacks’ own patients and correspondents. A keen amateur pianist himself, Sacks probes into the musical phenomenon with a rigorously scientific and deeply empathic mind, sharing fascinating insights into the role of music in people’s life: sometimes a burden, for example when it takes the form of intrusive auditive hallucinations, most often enriching and transformative.

The video below is a 90 minutes’ talk that Sacks gave at the Cambridge Forum about the book, where his personable storytelling style shines.

The Benefits of Music Education

The Toronto-based Royal Conservatory of Music has recently published a pamphlet on The Benefits of Music Education, using neuroscience research to convince parents to sign up their children for formal instrumental lessons (another publication details how Structured Music Education is the Pathway to Success).

Promised benefits include:

  • speeding the development of speech and reading skills;
  • training children to focus their attention for sustained periods;
  • and helping children to gain a sense of empathy for others.

It’s also peppered with quotes from successful people who studies music in their youth, such as writer Annabel Lyon:

Music study made me disciplined, and it’s helped me to understand that you don’t need to feel brilliant or inspired all the time to know that you’re moving forward.

Or Olympic champion and motivational speaker Jeremiah Brown:

…piano lessons were my first experience sticking with something over a long period of time. This set me up for being able to pursue goals that did not come with quick rewards.

I also found on their website a nice animated video conceived by music educator Anita Collins about what happens in the brain when we are playing an instrument.


Meanwhile, back on this side of the Atlantic, the French public broadcaster Radio France is organising a series of conferences on music and the brain entitled Neurosymphonie between March and October 2015.

Gathering prominent neuroscientists and musicians and aimed at an audience of music, health and science professionals, the conferences examine questions ranging from the differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians, the links between music and memory and between music and health. Video highlights will be made available soon.


How Music Works

The first instalment of this series of conferences featured a discussion on amusia, a congenital or acquired condition whose sufferers can’t ‘hear’ music. Amusics have difficulties in processing pitch, rhythm and melody; depending on the severity of their condition, they can be keen amateurs but a little tone-deaf, rather indifferent to music or downright hostile to it: for some people, music is an unpleasant or even painful experience.

What makes music music rather than noise? That’s one of the many questions that classical composer and physics professor John Powell set out to answer in his 2010 book How Music WorksIt’s quite simple really: a sound is a ripple travelling through the air that hits the eardrums with a certain pattern; the eardrums then translate the information to the brain. The difference between a musical note and a noise is that notes have a regular pattern – whereas noises are erratic ripples.

Powell goes on to explain why the minor mode sounds sad and the major mode triumphant (or rather why we think so), why harmony sounds good and other historical, psychological and scientific musical facts. It’s an entertaining book that covers a lot of ground to help readers become better listeners.

Here’s a trailer that gives a good sample of the questions explored in the book:


(featured image by Matt Kish – from his awe-inspiring Moby Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page project).

Art and Animals 2: Hybrid Species


Toronto-based festival of art and science, Subtle Technologies, is on from 7 to 9th June for the 16th year running, on the theme of Immortality. As we’re waiting for the programme to be announced shortly, it gives me an excellent pretext to mention an artistic experiment that has haunted me since I read a review in We Make Money Not Art: Que le cheval vive en moi / May the Horse Live in Me by Art Orienté Objet.

In my first Art and Animals entry, I explored the collective and participatory dimension of TransHumance, flagship event of Marseille 2013 European Capital of Culture, which was developed with a myriad of embedded learning opportunities. Producing company Théâtre du Centaure define themselves as a heterotopia – the physical representation or approximation of a utopia, in Foucault’s language. It strives to create a new Actor, the Centaur – neither man nor horse.

French art collective Art Orienté Objet took the bioart route to explore the myth of the Centaur: performance artist Marion Laval-Jeantet injected her body with horse blood plasma over the course of several months, and took a carefully controlled higher dose on the day of the performance – at the Gallery Kapelica in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in February 2011.

Here’s how she describes this experiment in an interview for an exhibition at Rurart (a contemporary art centre in the French countryside, related to the Ministry of Agriculture) [translation from French via We Make Money Not Art]:

I had the feeling of being extra-human. I was not in my usual body. I was hyper-powerful, hyper-sensitive, hyper-nervous and very diffident. The emotionalism of an herbivore. I could not sleep. I probably felt a bit like a horse.

There is nothing participatory about May the Horse Live in Me: the performer is alone, in the risks she takes, in the feelings she experiences. She can also never repeat the experiment, as states this VIDA (International Art and Artificial Life Awards) awards entry: “As a general rule, a person can only undergo such a challenge to body boundaries once and survive.”

The life of the work continues in its mediated form, through videos, images and texts, some of which are accessible in the Rurart archive. In her essay “De l’incorporation du sens” / “On the incorporation of meaning” (in French only), Marion Laval-Jeantet explains her research topics and methods, and the long conceptual and scientific process that has led to May the Horse… since 2004.

Art Orienté Objet’s project won the 2011 Golden Nica in the Hybrid Art category at Ars Electronica, which befits particularly well Marion Laval-Jeantet, herself artist, clinical psychologist and anthropologist. At the heart of the collective she formed with her partner Benoît Mangin, there’s a refusal to settle for perfect balance or for conclusions, and a desire to fully engage with the dynamic relationships between seemingly opposite poles: research and art, thinking and doing, observing and experimenting, human and animal.

A comprehensive catalogue of their art practice of the past decade has just been published, and for more on their motivations and processes, head over to this interview in English with Régine Debatty from We Make Money Not Art.