Music and the Brain

An article by Andrew Roberts for CASS magazine July 2008

The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who hailed from Merseyside, was famous for his often outrageous quotes. A collection of these have been re published (Beecham stories- ISBN 1-86105-393-2) and are highly recommended as he had a fabulous quick wit. The Beeb was one of Tommy Beecham’s favourite targets, he once described the BBC as “a monopolistic piece of lunacy”.

There was some justified criticism of the BBC for their inaccuracies in the spring edition of this magazine in the article “What’s in a name?” In the interests of balance then, attention should be drawn to an excellent series broadcast by the BBC, which will inevitably be repeated, on one of the many digital channels. This is the BBC‘s description of the series: “Imagine… aims to capture the power and effect of the arts and the people who have changed our way of looking at the world.”

Alan Yentob, who is the creative director for the BBC, presented this series “Imagine”. The documentary “A trip to Asia” followed the Berlin Philharmonic’s tour of the Far East, with their Liverpool born conductor Sir Simon Rattle. It gave a very real insight into the lives of orchestral musicians, and was accurate and revealing. The surprising thing was that musicians in probably the most elite orchestra in the world suffer from the same worries and problems as every other orchestral musician, particularly on tour. For example, not enough rooms available to the politics of new appointment, to name but a few.

Yentob is a good friend of Sir Simon and clearly has a passion for music. In an earlier episode in the series titled “Tales of music and the brain” he interviewed the neurologist Oliver Sacks ( ) and met several truly amazingly gifted but severely mentally or physically challenged musical savants, a new term to me.

The power of music over the human brain has been a passion of mine for some time and this programme revealed something truly amazing. Yentob took part in an experiment which involved looking at activity in the brain in an MRI scanner, whilst it was stimulated by music of his choice in three categories.

The first was something he was comfortable listening to; the second was something he found irritating. The last was one of his “desert island discs”, Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, something I have in common with Yentob! This kind of study has been undertaken before, and in fact, a friend and student of mine (Professor Alastair Watson), gave an excellent lecture during one of my previous Clarinet Summer School’s course on this very subject, outlining the areas of the brain that are involved when performing music. However, the researcher (from Sheffield University) on the “Imagine“programme admitted that they had never done the experiment in this way before and he was staggered at the result.

The increased blood flow or activity in the brain was entirely predictable for the first two pieces of music, but when the Strauss was played to Yentob, the blood flooded his brain, so much so that it was thought the machine might have been faulty…. but it wasn’t!

Most of us will have experienced that unmistakeable feeling which can lift the hairs on the back of your neck or arms on hearing our favourite music, sometimes just imagining it can have the same effect. The physical changes that music produces in your body can be as a result of the release of “happy juice” or endorphins, which give you a sensation of pleasure. The activity of the brain is so complex that it is still remains something of a mystery to scientists.

Music therapy has proved to be vital in stimulating those who are challenged by many aspects of their life. “Tales of music and the brain” makes mention of the Robin Williams 1990 film “Awakenings” based on the 1973 book by Oliver Sacks, which showed patients who were in a catatonic state, stimulated by music to dance and move unaided.

On a more contemporary level, classical music has been used to deter the less good behaviour of some of the youth of today, when it is played outside shops and buildings it has been shown to reduce socially unacceptable, and sometimes violent, behaviour.

Music can have a physiological effect on living matter. A colleague and fine musician, Deborah Tayler, as part of her Music degree at Cambridge, undertook an experiment studying plant growth. These were divided into three groups. In a controlled environment the first group were exposed to pop music, the second were exposed to discordant contemporary music and the third to concordant baroque music of J.S. Bach. The plants which showed the most dramatic growth were the ones exposed to the latter, perhaps proving how fundamental music can be to our own development and growth!