Saturday, October 4, 2008


How the Brain Connects Music to Colour and Pleasure
Dr. Steven Brown and Dr. Daphne Maurer – McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind
Central Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, Ontario
Friday, September 26, 2008
A Summary, Review and Response
By John Picone
For Dr. Lee Bartel – Music and the Brain, MUS 2122H
Dr. Steven Brown began the two-part lecture with his presentation which he called, “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” taking the title from a song by Irving Berlin, which was performed by tenor, David Holler. Brown pointed out that we are, through our senses, constantly assessing things aesthetically. Showing a picture of Steven Harper and asking the audience, through a show of hands, how many thought this to be a picture of a good looking man, he also noted that such aesthetic preferences are significantly influenced by outside factors and previous experiences, including ethnic background and social culture.
A wide variety of inputs find their way to that part of the brain called the Orbitofrontal Cortex. Here, there is a convergence of sensory input for aesthetic appraisal.
How does music figure into all this? Is music, as Pinker suggests, merely “auditory cheesecake”? Why is it that people have a strong appetite for music? How does music nourish us?
Brown offered two possibilities: music is aesthetically appealing for sexual and/or social reasons. Referring to Darwin, he pointed out the essential role of music in courtship: by and large, only male birds sing. It indicates their attractiveness, especially the fact that they must be healthy to produce such sounds. It is an aesthetic display which the female of the species finds appealing.
Another possibility is that the production of music in the animal world is a territorial display. Wolves, for example, will mark their territory acoustically. This establishes cohesion in the pack.
For humans, said Brown, the question is whether making music has to do with the aesthetic appraisal of mates, or the establishment and maintenance of social groups.
Brown observed three phenomena about music: first, traditionally, music was made only in groups; all were participants, and there was really no such concept as “audience.” Second, because music is beat-based, its production is coordinated and, as such, establishes coordination in social groups. Finally, there was a natural evolution into polyphonic blending: many voices.
Brown’s conclusion was that “music is about the pleasure of communion.”
The second part of the lecture was a presentation by Dr. Daphne Maurer called, “Violet Chords: Synaesthesia and the Linking of Colour to Music.” Before exploring how the brain functions synaesthetically, Maurer pointed out that roughly 4% - 5% of adults are synaesthetes, and that 10% - 20% of these see colour when they hear music. Synaesthesia is common in musicians and composers. She went on to note that this phenomenon in synaesthetes is, for them, automatic: they don’t have to think about it; that it has been present all their lives; and that the mappings of their synaesthetic response to music are consistent over time. Franz Liszt was a synaesthete who would suggest directions to his musicians such as, “A little bluer, please!” Other noteworthy synaesthetes include musicians such as Duke Ellington (who felt Harry Carney’s saxophone music was “dark blue”), Stevie Wonder, Bon Jovi and Farrell Williams who, appropriately, titled his recent album, “Seeing Sounds.”
Particularly interesting were two “tests” to demonstrate synaesthetic perception: the Stroop Effect and the Pop-Out. In the first case, words that designated colours were shown: purple, green, red, and so forth. However, the words were displayed in a colour other than that which they described. For instance, the word “purple” was in green. We were asked to say the colour of the word, not read the word. The collision of sensory perceptions made this tedious and difficult. When the same exercise was done with numbers, however, there was little difficulty: no Stroop Effect.
The pop-out activity demonstrated the fact that some synaesthetes see numbers in different colours. A triangular shape made up of 2’s amidst a scattering of 5’s was difficult for the non-synaesthete to find. For the synaesthete, however, who sees the 2’s as red and the 5’s as green, the shape popped out right away.
Dr. Maurer presented a clear explanation of how fMRI works to sense more highly oxygenated blood in certain parts of the brain under certain conditions. She explained that the human brain has a sensory cortex that specializes in each of the five senses. For the synaesthete, fMRI readings demonstrate that the sight cortex – the occipital lobe – is stimulated when hearing music.
Perhaps the most fascinating of the findings presented by Dr. Maurer was the response to certain sensory stimuli by infants as opposed to adults. It would seem that when the auditory cortex of the infant is stimulated, the visual cortex responds in an equal fashion. This is true even in infant monkeys. It would seem that the infant brain has extra functional connections between the sensory cortices. It is through continuous visual experience that the visual connections are reinforced and the others diminish. Each sensory cortex, therefore, becomes specialized, although it is important to note that experience does not prune away all the connections between sensory cortices. For the synaesthete, these extra connections, present at birth and in infancy, do not get pruned away. Dr. Maurer did not offer an explanation for this.
Dr. Maurer presented other interesting research dealing with the relationship between pitch and lightness. This connection is unconscious. Two balls, one light, one dark, are dropped simultaneously. Two sounds are made when each hits the ground: one of a high-pitched “ping;” the other, a low-pitched “pong.” Even two and a half year old participants consistently associated the higher pitched “ping” with the lighter ball.
A final experiment with the audience dealt with our preference over two shapes or colours. One of the shapes or colours was a synaesthete’s response to a sound; the other was an artificially altered one. For example, after hearing a sound, the colour the synaesthete saw was red; the “control” colour, if you will, was green. When asked which of the two colours or shapes they thought was most “like” the sound heard, the members of the audience invariably chose that of the synaesthete, the “correct” one. Studies have replicated this outcome.
Virtually every aspect of the presentation of this lecture was superb! The venue of Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton was perfectly suited to the topic and the performances: it was a delightful contrast between fMRI technology and animated PowerPoint presentations, and the high, vaulted ceilings, looming wooden pulpit (which housed a video camera!), and hard-backed pews of the church.
The lecture was choreographed with rehearsed precision, moving the audience’s focus from microphone to screen to grand piano and flute with remarkable fluidity. The pace of the evening was comfortable, and the content, though often of a technical nature, was accessible to anyone interested in the field of music and the mind, free of jargon and couched in clear examples. The performances were brilliant and the evening’s closing of Brett Kingsbury performing “Variations on a theme of Bach” by Franz Liszt was, in a word, exhilarating!
The presentation by Dr. Brown and Dr. Maurer was fascinating! As an English teacher, I was certainly aware of synaesthesia in poetry, most notably, as I recall, in the verse of Keats. Synaesthetic poetry offered a single image with a simultaneous multi-sensory appeal: “she has a sweet voice.” A single word could be synaesthetic: “snow.” The image appeals simultaneously to sight and touch.
That a person’s brain could respond to music in a visual way was quite new to me. “Synaesthete” was a new word in my vocabulary.
I was fascinated at the fact that we all appear to be synaesthetes at birth, that is, our sensory cortices are far more connected than they are as adults. I wondered, however, whether the specializing of sensory functions in the different sensory cortices of the brain was “learning,” or “unlearning.” It seems to me that I would rather like to be able to see colours and shapes as I hear music and am rather disappointed that my brain, through experience, “learned” not to!
Dr. Maurer noted that a significant number of synaesthetes are musicians and/or composers. Reference was made, quite naturally, to painters. It would seem quite common, to me, that a painter would have background music playing while she or he painted. But, making reference to Van Gogh and Tom Thompson, it would appear that such music is not at all background, but, in fact, importantly “creating” the “picture” in the mind that such artists are creating on the canvas.
At several points in the lecture, I found myself quite jealous of synaesthetes! I likened them to savants and clairvoyants, possessing a gift that allowed them a richer experience of life, a fuller participation, somehow. This envy was particularly heightened when Dr. Maurer offered some apparently verifiable directives by Liszt to his orchestra: “That is deep violet, please! Depend on it! Not so rose!” I immediately thought about the difference this might make with my high school band: I could encourage a particular interpretation of a score by talking about it in terms of colour.
I also wondered if there were synaesthetes for whom a visual stimulus caused them to hear music. I wondered to what extent composers depend on visual stimulation?
Like any good presentation inspired by cutting edge research, I was left with more questions than answers. Perhaps the most burning question for me is: “Does my awareness, now, of synaesthetic possibilities, encourage me to “hear” colour when I listen to music? Or to imagine colours or other visuals? Landscapes?”
Delightfully, the lecture didn’t really “end” that evening. The program gave details of a monthly reading group: the MIMM Journal Club which meets the third Friday of every month “to discuss recent research articles related to music and the brain.” Such articles are sent out ahead of time.
I can’t wait for my first meeting with MIMM!

1 comment:

Lee Bartel said...

Thanks John for posting this description and review of this event. Very glad you went so that you could give us your perspective. A question in this to me seems the definition of synaesthesia. As you know, the definition of "perfect pitch" is not an easy one since there are such gradations of the ability. Is the same true of synaesthesia? Perhaps the ping and pong example points to one level which is quite different from seeing a full-blown array of colors? Or having a specific connection between specific pitches and specific colours or shapes or images? Composers like Scriabin seemed to have this in the extreme - but not many others report it?