Thursday, October 1, 2009

Musicophobia: When Your Favorite Song Gives You Seizures

When I started reading this article, Musicophobia: When Your Favorite Song Gives You Seizures from Scientific American June 9, 2008, I thought perhaps this story was revealing a great hoax, and that there was going to be a punch line or a happy ending. But no joke, this story is about an American woman (and musician) who has a rare form of epilepsy in which seizures can be brought on by hearing certain musics.

Can you imagine … going to a friends for dinner or a party, going to school or work or church, walking down the street and a car with the stereo on and windows open drives by, getting into an elevator, getting on the subway, hearing a cell phone go off … of course, we can imagine, it is part of our lives. But can you imagine that any of these ‘every day’ musical activities could bring you down, literally down on the ground, your body seizing, completely vulnerable and helpless. As a person with this epileptic condition, without warning, you could be physically and psychologically incapacitated. You are afflicted by music, by something beautiful and life enhancing.

In the process of diagnosis, this woman, Stacey, went through repeated testing and monitoring and the doctors could not find the problem since they could not recreate the situation that caused her seizures. Stacey knew that some musics caused her to seize but was afraid no one would believe her. She proved to the doctors in one of her testing situations that it was the music. The doctors were shocked, understandably so. According to this article, 2.5 million Americans have epilepsy, yet there exists only 150 reported cases of this type.

She had to drop out of school and couldn’t work because medication was not helping her and really, how can you live in a world without music, even if you tried. And she did try; however, music is everywhere and when she had to seclude herself from life, she became depressed and unable to cope. Stacey opted for surgery. She knew that the neurosurgeons would have to remove part of her brain and hoped for the best which was to be able to live in her musical world with the least amount of other brain functioning damage. This must have been a huge decision and only four other people with her condition, musicogenic epilepsy, had undergone the surgery.

What the doctors had found in their testing and monitoring stage prior to surgery was “the overexcited brain cells in the lower section of the brain behind her right ear – perhaps not surprising, because that’s the part of the brain that figures out what to do with sounds.” However, because that area of the brain is also “involved in emotions and memories of particular experiences,” the team of doctors needed to be sure that they weren’t going to cause problems within those brain functions. Stacey underwent two surgeries, the first to place “hundreds of electrodes deep into the areas of her brain involved in her seizures,” and then they monitored her brain activity to assist them in planning exactly and precisely where to cut and where to remove brain matter. Fortunately, the 2 ½ inches that they removed has not left her with any “mental side effects.” Well, I guess there wasn’t a punch line but there is a happy ending to this story. Stacey is back at school studying to be a teacher and is singing in her church choir again. She is once again engaging in life and doesn’t have to be afraid of music.

Can you imagine being afraid of music? What is also interesting is that the musics that were least likely to bring on her epileptic seizures were classical and jazz. So what musical element(s) and/or instrumentation are present or absent in these two musical genres that would make such a difference? Perhaps this question is a good starting point for more research and investigation.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

From Sound

Jourdain, Robert. “From Sound.” Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy. NY: Harper Collins. 1997. 1-29.



In this chapter Jourdain discusses:

How the sense of hearing has evolved in animals and how animals perceive sound.

The evolution of the ear from obsolete parts of the jaw.

The middle ear and how it functions.

The evolution of the Inner ear.

 Why humans hear music while animals hear “relationless noise.”- Humans hear music, because, we can identify complex patterns in sound. Music is made of layers of many patterns, chords, motif, melodies, phrases ect. Humans are able to recognize these patterns and thereby perceive music. 

Presbyacusis -the desensitization of the hair cells. As the hair cells become less sensitive we cease to hear the richness of tone produced by frequencies.

Localiziation -how we are able to hear where a sound comes from. Sound reaches each ear at a slightly different time; this enables us to calculate where the sound is coming from, based on the difference between the sounds.

 Primitive Hearing- how the brain receives the information from the ears. Olivary bodies activate according to disparities in time and intensity, thus, the brain can recognize the differences between the sounds from each ear. The inferior colliculi creates a “spatial map” for each sound we hear. The superior colliculi maps the sensory information from all the senses arriving at an over arching picture. However, understanding music requires the use of the cerebral cortex.


I find it profoundly moving that so many beings live in “soundlessness.” Especially for musicians, music is all-consuming and cathartic. It is difficult to imagine life without sound. Even more startling, is how late in the evolutionary process hearing developed. It is a necessary survival skill and I thought it would have developed earlier.

Knowing how our sense of sound developed makes me realize that music is a universal human pleasure. I don’t know anyone who dislikes music; although, we all have varying tastes and cultural backgrounds. Somehow music taps into something primitive within us. However, I think the cliché phrase “music is a universal language” is erroneous. I have a lot of friends and relatives who have no formal training in music. When they hear a piece of classical music, they remark that the sound is pleasant, but it is evident that they don’t understand what is happening in the music or the skill it takes to perform the piece. They don’t speak the language of classical music. Similarly, as open minded as we may be, listening to music from foreign cultures is often baffling. We may appreciate the sound and think it’s compelling, but our understanding is at very basic level, if we are not educated in that particular musical language. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that humans have developed a myriad of music genres. We all enjoy music despite the fact that we don’t all speak the same musical language.  

  Jourdain notes that “Nature’s priority is not to listen and interpret; it is to hear and react.”  (27). I found this statement interesting, because I have often marveled at how unnatural the process of music making is. It is poignant that a lot of music has been inspired by birdcalls; their language is extremely conducive to music, but they do not perceive music.

  I also found it interesting that a goldfish can hear notes, but does not perceive the relationships between the notes and consequently does not hear music. I had an orchestra conductor in high school who said “Music isn’t the notes itself, but what happens between the notes.” His statement rings very true after learning about the goldfish.

  I did not know that we hear our voice two ways: through the bones in our head and through the pinnae. I wonder what kind of problem this presents for singers. Now I question how the sound travels from my clarinet to my brain and if my body distorts the sound.