Sunday, May 1, 2011

Music and the Brain: When it Fails

You're probably not "tone deaf."  While an argument about semantics isn't particularly important right now, I must point out that if you can tell the difference between a person saying, "The sky is falling." and "The sky is falling?" you can differentiate pitch (a major marker of inflection) and are not what I would call "tone deaf."

There are, however, people who are deaf to rhythm or melody.  There are people who can hear and recall sounds as well as anyone, except when listening to music cannot process it as expected.  The condition of amusia encompasses these anomalies and is just beginning to be defined, understood, and researched.

I intend to expand upon the topic of amusia with discussions of the relevant research, but there's a lot of research to read and I would like first to introduce readers to some quotes that paint a fascinating picture of amusical minds and moments.

In Oliver Sacks' "Musicophilia," he tells us that Che Guevara was rhythm-deaf, which was made worse by a stroke.  He also recounts a quote about a former singer who "complained of hearing 'a screeching car' whenever he heard music."  He then talks about a personal and temporary amusical event:
I was...listening to a Chopin ballade on the radio when a strange alteration of the music occured.  The beautiful piano tones started to lose their pitch and their character and were reduced, within a couple of minutes, to a sort of toneless banging with an unpleasant metallic reverberation, as if the ballade were being played with a hammer on sheet metal.
After a similar experience weeks later, he identified that this was an effect of a migraine aura.  Next, a quote from Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography:
Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds...The concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones.
Sacks' incredible background provides him with even more stories, each about a different type of amusical experience.  One of them reminds me of a spoken sound bite in a Chumbawamba song in which a band member says, "I only recognize two tunes, Silent Night and God Save the Queen, and I only know which is which because one of them everyone stands up for."  It seems that's neurologically possible.

My thoughts, based on my limited readings on amusia, are centered around which neural connections may be malfunctioning.  As pointed out in Music and the Brain: A Primer, there are a lot of areas in the brain involved in processing music.  I have not discussed as much the importance of the communication between these areas.  These testimonials regarding amusia seem to demonstrate that while the basic processes can stand alone successfully, the conceptualization of music doesn't materialize when there is an error of communication between two or more areas.

While it is always a loss to individuals when their brain is incapable of processing something that a normal brain can, the potential scientific insights are profound.  Studies of amusia will teach us much about how parts of the brain communicate with each other and what causes these anomalies in the first place.

If you still wonder if you have a diagnosable amusia, go take this test.

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