Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Music, the brain and Ravel


Sergent, Justine. 1993. Music, the Brain and Ravel. Trends in Neurosciences. 16(5). 168-172.


Understanding the functional organization of the cerebral structures underlying receptive and expressive musical processes can be a difficult process. There are many difficulties inherent in the artistic and subjective nature of musical experience. In other words, since listening to music and producing it are human activities, they do not lend themselves easily to scientific inquiry since they require a direct response or one that can be generalized.

Yet clarifying the relationship between brain and music is a logical and legitimate goal of neuroscientific research. One approach to this goal is based on new developments of brain imaging techniques, and recent investigations indicate that complex musical activities such as sight-reading and piano performance relies on a distributed neural network comprising locally specialized cortical areas. The practise of music engages the visual modality for reading musical notations, the auditory modality for hearing and appreciating melodies, rhythms, harmonies and timbres, the combination of which define a musical piece. Further, the motor modality is required in performance, since it requires the coordination of many muscles; and of course, and cognitive and emotional processes in understanding and appreciating it.

Another approach to this type of research is concerned with the study of musicians, such as Gershwin and Ravel, who have been affected by brain damage. An analysis of their deficits helps to uncover some properties of music-brain relationships, to identify the essential questions raised by these deficits, and to clarify the neurofunctional anatomy of musical abilities.

Like many articles on this subject, the article concludes by acknowledging that understanding of the neurocognitive bases of musical functions is still at an early stage. However, recent progress in cognitive and neurofunctional research opens the way to more systemic studies than were possible previously.


In this article, I was especially interested in reading about what had actually affected Ravel. I knew that he was unable to compose toward the end of his life, but only had a vague idea why. Ravel’s first symptoms of neurological dysfunction were in 1933 and noticed by one of his pupils. When spelling errors on one of his pieces were pointed out, Ravel did not realize his errors. We do not know just when Ravel became aware of a deficit directly related to his musical skill since he did not realize immediately that he had lost his ability to actually compose. However, it soon was evident that his illness consisted of the selected impairment of various functions related to the translation of musical representations from one modality to another, for example, from visual to a motor or an auditory representation.

In a way, I think it would have been very frightening for Ravel to recognize that in a way, he had become musically illiterate since he was no longer able to utilize his musical knowledge in an integrated fashion to translate musical representations from one mode to another. As a pianist, I can only imagine how I would feel should my fingers be injured or paralyzed and I be unable to play.

The article included graphs demonstrating cortical activation during sight-reading and other musical activities. These graphs were obtained by positron emission tomography and measured cerebral blood flow. Though some of the anatomical language used in describing them went beyond what I remembered from second-year anatomy, I found them to be useful nonetheless.

More than anything, what I learned from this article is just how vast this topic we call music and brain really is. I have read many articles written from a scientific standpoint, as well as those from a musician’s viewpoint and it is clear that both parties agree on one thing – though we may know something, there is so much more to discover!

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