Published online 5 October 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.510

Column: Muse

Music on the brain

The emotions wrapped up in the works of the Romantic composers may have a neurological explanation, as a recent meeting explored. Philip Ball tuned in.

It's not hard to understand why Robert Schumann was selected as the focus of a meeting called The Musical Brain: Arts, Science and the Mind, which took place last weekend in London. Not only is this year the two-hundredth anniversary of the German composer's birth, but his particular 'musical brain' gives neuroscientists plenty to think about.

For one thing, Schumann suffered from a neurological condition called focal dystonia — a loss of muscle control that ended his hopes of becoming a concert pianist. He also seems 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 a primarily muscular problem: it begins in the brain1. As neuroscientist Jessica Grahn of the University of Cambridge, UK, explains, it stems from the fact that intense musical practice can overinflate 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 painful stiffening or curling-up of some fingers. The American pianist Leon Fleisher began to lose the use of his right hand in this way in 1963, and only recently returned to regular concert performance. Although dystonia is a consequence of over-practice (or, as Fleisher says, inappropriate practice techniques), it may also have a genetic element — it is, for example, more common among men. But it is precisely because the disorder is a neural rather than a muscular problem that dystonia is so hard to treat, and there is still no genuine cure.

ROBERT SCHUMANNRobert Schumann's hopes of becoming a concert pianist were scuppered by a neurological disorder.Mary Evans

Schumann succumbed to this condition in his right middle finger at the age of 212. 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 that 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."

For Schumann, matters only grew worse. Towards the end of his life, he heard voices and was tormented by visions of angels and demons. In 1854, he attempted to drown himself in the Rhine, only to be rescued by boatmen, after which he voluntarily entered an asylum.

Although Schumann's spells of wild creativity and sleeplessness interspersed with periods of lethargy look like a classic case of bipolar disorder, not everyone agrees: some say his mental disturbance could have been caused by syphilis3 or by the mercury medication used to treat it. In any event, Schumann is by no means unique among composers in having wrestled with mental illness: Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Leonard Bernstein are among others who seem to have done so.

Audible emotions

Whether or not music was therapeutic to these composers, it is clearly effective in treating both psychological and physiological disorders of the mind. It is thought that this is due, in part, to the way that music accesses the emotions. Psychologist Katie Overy at the University of Edinburgh, UK, says that her interest in musical therapy "forced me to get interested in the emotional aspects, because they are so powerful".

Although she acknowledges 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 works4.


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, whereas 'calm' or 'sad' music tends to be soft, slow and low-pitched5, because of the way these acoustic qualities mimic the actions and voices of people in those emotional states. This observation seems to hold true across cultures, as Stefan Koelsch of Sussex University, UK, another speaker at the meeting, and his co-workers have shown recently6.

"Music has the capacity to tap into these qualities and expand on them," says Overy. During her talk, pianist Ian Brown illustrated how, for example, musical expressivity can involve mimicry of singing with legato (smoothly connected notes) and speech-like phrasing. The composer and performer can then add to this effect by deploying culturally specific structures (such as major or minor keys — see 'Does a minor key give everyone the blues?') or unexpected rhythms and harmonies: Koelsch has shown that musical 'surprises' can elicit the same neurological signals as do other types of surprise7.

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'. 

  • References

    1. Altenmüller, E. & Jabusch, H.-C. J. Hand Therapy 22, 144-155 (2009).
    2. Altenmüller, E. in Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists (eds Bogousslavsky, J. & Boller, F.) 179–188 (Karger, 2005).
    3. Worthen, J. Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician (Yale Univ. Press, 2007).
    4. Molnar-Szakacs, I. & Overy, K. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 1, 235-241 (2006).
    5. Balkwill, L. L. & Thompson, W. F. [journal]Music Percept./journal] 17, 43-64 (1999).
    6. Fritz, T. et al. Curr. Biol. 19, 573-576 (2009).
    7. Koelsch, S. , Fritz, T. & Schlaug, G. NeuroReport 19, 1815-1819 (2008).
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