There was a nice conference on ‘music and the brain’ here in London last weekend, and I have a report on it on Nature News. Here’s the longer version.
The emotions teeming inside the works of the Romantic composers may have neurological explanations, as a recent meeting explored.
It’s not hard to understand why Robert Schumann should have been selected as the focus of a meeting called 'The Musical Brain', which took place last weekend in London . Not only is the 200th anniversary of the German composer’s birth, but his particular ‘musical brain’ gives neuroscientists plenty to think about.
For one thing, Schumann suffered from the neurological condition called focal dystonia – a loss of muscle control that afflicts an estimated 1 in 100 professional musicians and ended Schumann’s hopes to be a concert pianist. And he seems also to have struggled with severe bipolar disorder, which apparently dictated the rhythm of his creativity and left him confined to an asylum for the last two years of his life.
Focal dystonia is sometimes called ‘musician’s cramp’, but it is not primarily a muscular problem: it begins in the brain . As neuroscientist Jessica Grahn of Cambridge University explained, it stems from the way intense musical practice can over-inflate the mental representation of the relevant part of the body (usually the fingers, although it can affect lip control in brass players). Once the neural representations of the fingers overlap, they can no longer be controlled independently.
This typically manifests itself as a stiffening or curling-up of some fingers. The American pianist Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand in this way in 1963, and was restricted for decades to the repertoire for left hand only (much of it written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm in World War I). Although dystonia is a consequence of over-practice (or as Fleisher says, inappropriate practice techniques), there may also be a genetic predisposition to it – it is more common, for example, among men. It’s precisely because it is a neural rather than a muscle problem that dystonia is so hard to treat, and indeed there is still no genuine cure.
Schumann succumbed to this excruciating condition in his right middle finger at the age of 21 . He used a home-made contraption to stretch the finger, but it may have done more harm than good. He even composed an extremely difficult piece, his Toccata Opus 7, that avoids the use of the middle finger entirely (hear it here). ‘I was hoping to convince someone to play it at the meeting’, says Grahn, ‘but it’s a bear, so no luck.’
With his performing career stalled, Schumann focused on composing – which, according to neuroscientist Eckart Alternmüller, a specialist on focal dystonia, was for us ‘a blessing, because it allowed his creative talent to be developed to masterful perfection’ . But that was probably little consolation to poor Schumann, particularly as things got far worse for him. Towards the end of his life, he heard voices and was tormented by visions of angels and demons. Fearful that he might harm his wide Clara, in 1854 he attempted to drown himself in the Rhine, only to be rescued by boatmen. That was when he voluntarily entered the asylum where he stayed until his death.
Not everyone agrees that Schumann was bipolar: a recent biographer John Worthen argues that he exhibited no serious mental disturbance until the end of his life, when his psychological disintegration could have been caused by tertiary syphilis . Alternatively, it has been argued that Schumann’s final ‘madness’ looks like a case of mercury poisoning, caused by the mercury medication then used to treat syphilis. But psychiatrist (and concert pianist) Richard Kogan has argued that Schumann’s well documented spells of wild creativity and sleeplessness interspersed with periods of lethargy look like a classic case of bipolar disorder.
If so, he is by no means unique among composers in wrestling with mental illness: Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Leonard Bernstein all seem to have done so. All of which raises the question whether we can hear the emotional turmoil in what they wrote. It’s not hard to imagine so: music critic Stephen Johnson, who introduced the life and work of Schumann at the meeting (and also has bipolar disorder), says of Schumann’s fiendish Toccata that ‘it seems exuberant, it seems it’s flying and it’s very exciting – but it’s breathless, it’s on the edge of something frightening.’
It’s not obvious, however, that we should infer a composer’s state of mind from the music. The German composer Paul Hindemith felt that, if we believed that, the leaps of emotional tone classical compositions often exhibit would compel us to be diagnosing mental disorder all the time, while even the febrile Tchaikovsky doubted that composers express their mood at the actual moment of composition. Take Mozart’s wickedly playful A Musical Joke (K.522): it was apparently the first piece he composed after his father died.
But nonetheless there can be no doubt that music does express emotion – indeed, it is one of the most powerful emotional vehicles in all of human creativity, which seems to be one reason why it can be so effective in therapeutic contexts. It was an interest in the use of music in learning and therapy, says music psychologist Katie Overy of Edinburgh University, ‘that forced me to get into the emotional aspects’.
While acknowledging that musical expression is multi-faceted, she argues that current neurological studies suggest that the activation of mirror neurons – ‘empathy circuits’ that fire both when we watch another person perform an action and when we perform it ourselves – offer a clue about how music works .
It may be, she says, that when we hear music, we can ‘read’ it as we would read indicators of emotional state in another person’s vocal or physical gestures. ‘Happy’ music is typically up-tempo and high-pitched, while ‘calm’ or ‘sad’ music tends to be soft, slow and low-pitched , because of the way these acoustic qualities mimic the actions and voices of people in those emotional states – an observation that seems to hold across cultures, as Stefan Koelsch of Sussex University, another speaker at the meeting, and his coworkers have shown recently .
‘Music has the capacity to tap into these qualities and expand on them’, says Overy. Pianist Ian Brown illustrated during her talk how, for example, musical expressivity involves the mimicry of singing with legato (smoothly connected notes) and speech-like phrasing. The composer and performer can then add to this effect by deploying culture-specific structures (such as major/minor keys; see here) or unexpected rhythms and harmonies: Koelsch showed that musical ‘surprises’ can elicit the same neurological signals as other types of surprise .
In this respect, then, support may be emerging for the suggestion of philosopher Susanne Langer that music mimics the dynamics of emotion itself – or, as psychologist Carroll Pratt put it in 1931, that ‘music sounds the way emotions feel’.
1. The Musical Brain: Arts, Science and the Mind, St John’s Smith Square, London, 2-3 October 2010.
2. E. Altenmüller & H.-C. Jabusch, J. Hand Therapy 22, 144-155 (2009).
3. E. Altenmüller, in J. Bogousslavsky & F. Boller (eds), Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists (Karger, Basel, 2005).
4. J. Worthen, Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007).
5. I. Molnar-Szakacs & K. Overy, SCAN 1, 235-241 (2006).
6. L. L. Balkwill & W. F. Thompson, Music Perception 17, 43-64 (1999).
7. T. Fritz et al., Curr. Biol. 19, 1-4 (2009).
8. S. Koelsch, T. Frtiz & G. Schlaug, NeuroReport 19, 1815-1819 (2008).