Monday, October 6, 2008


Please view this video on You tube before reading comments.

Oliver Sacks noted author and neurologist, talks about a condition known as AMUSIA. This condition is when one cannot recognise musical tone or reproduce musical tones; music simply does not register in the brain. Dr.Sacks recounts the story of a woman who reveals that all her life she has not been able to recognise music and in fact when she does hear music, to her sound like pots and pan being rattled. After reading an article in the news paper written my some of the researchers at McGill, who were studying congenital Amusia , she contacts them and her condition is confirmed.
An addition not seen in this video:
I saw Oliver Sacks interview last year on a special on TVO (David Suzuki’s “Science of the Senses) the program was on hearing. After Dr. Sacks had told this story (as in this video) the camera cut to the researcher from McGill and to the women with this condition. She was a retired elementary school teacher in her 70’s. She spoke about how after a fifty year teaching career she never knew what the national anthem sound like she only knew it was the anthem because the class stood up. She went on to say that as a retirement gift she was sent to see the Broadway show Cat’s. She said that by the time intermission arrived she had a terrible headache and by the time the show was over she was on the curb nauseous and ready to vomit, as much as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music can make one sick this seemed extreme. At that point she recounted how she read about the research at McGill and confirmed her condition
What I find significant about AMUSIA is that it reveals that there exists a specific area or areas in the brain that were set up to understand and decode music. This condition is also unique in that in this case brain plasticity does not seem to seem apply. For example when the brain receives an injury and a portion of it becomes dysfunctional other parts of the brain can often take over. Even in the case of blindness or loss of hearing the argument could be made by the other senses are heightened. In the case of Amusia when this area(s) set up to decode music are non-functional no other area seems to take over. Why is this so? Is the understanding and recognition of music so important that the brain must have a special area dedicated to it and make use of other parts of the brain for listening and performing music as well? Could the discovery of amusia be revealing the even greater importance of music in brain development? The brain uses many areas to participate in musical activity and yet it does this for no other activity.
I have to admit that as of music educator constantly trying to convince administrators and parents how important the study of music is, having the possibility that the claim could be made that the brain has dedicated not only specific parts but many parts of itself to music is exciting. If this is so it would stand to reason that we should spend more time and more effort in the study music.


Janet said...

Michael, I found this posting interesting for I can perhaps relate Amusia to my teaching practice. A few students in the past demonstrated these tendencies who either suffered from high anxiety disorder, autism or Aspergers. During a vocal music class, they would cover their ears and eyes and would cause a commotion so that the educational assistants assigned to them would remove them from the class. It would be interesting to see the correlation between Amusia and these disorders and how and if they are related to brain functions!

s@bd said...

janet - I have two nephews who are autistic and,although Amusia is not 'on the spectrum', I made the same connection between the symptoms of Amusia and some of the behavior patterns of autistic children. One of my nephews (my brother's son) absolutely loves music and regularly asks me to sing to/for him while the other nephew (my husband's sister's son, so not genetically related to me) avoids music. I wonder if there is a connection between how/where the autism has affected his brain and how he perceives music?
Interesting ...

Lee Bartel said...

Interesting questions emerge from this - autism is a communication disorder, and if music is essentially about communication, is it therefore blocked? or is it then a possible alternate channel. I suspect it varies from person to person and there is no generalization. But I don't see that amusia is an automatic in autism. But I am also worried about the definition of amusia - the McGill test - because it is a test - is for people who in essence have been through the basic learning and enculturation period. However, it seems the temptation is to think amusia is a result of brain structure or at least characteristics rather than a lack of learning or nurture. Perhaps environment for some creates amusia? It is a lack of appropriate context?