Alzheimers Disease and Music

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]


The pathway to freedom?

Most people are familiar with the symptoms of dementia, particularly those of Alzheimers. Confusion, inability to know who you or the people around are, and a general decline in many of the mental faculties, as well as apathy. This is particularly hard on family. As the dementia progresses, the victim may forget who even his or her closest friends and family members are. I read a story once of a man who was woken up when his wife started screaming because she found a strange man in her bead (him). It is a tragic thing. The family longs for the lucid moment when the victims mental faculties are unshackled and, for however short a time, they are themselves. However they are somewhat few and far between.

But what if there was a way to negate this symptoms. Even if there was a way to have two lucid moments in a day instead of one, wouldnt that make all the difference? What if there was something that was immune to the effects of Alzheimers? It seems that there is.


It interacts with our brain in the most incredible ways. Almost every part of our brain is activated by music. It effects our emotions and our ability to learn. I will cover this much more in the rest of this series, but for now, I will stick with Alzheimers.

In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes of a man he once met who had been diagnosed with Alzheimers some 13 years previously. He remembered almost nothing. Not where he live, what he did for a living, or even how to dress and groom himself. He did, however, remember the baritone part of almost every song he had ever sung. Quite an accomplishment considering he had sung with an a capella male voice chorus for many many years. He even was able to open a concert, despite getting lost on the way to the stage.

But music can also improve the symptoms of dementia. Sacks also writes of a women with sever dementia. She literally lived on her couch morning, noon, and night, watching television for most of the time. One time, one of the caregivers had the bright idea of turning on the classical channel. Within the next 24 hours, marked changes began to take place. After living on the couch for so long, she asked to be brought to the table to eat with the family, and began communicating and taking more interest in her surroundings.

But why?

Ever had an experience where you a doing some simple task, and all of a sudden a memory jumps out of what seems to be nowhere. Frequently the memory shares some sort of similarity with what you are doing now. It is almost as if a certain task or experience comes with embedded memories. Music can work in much the same way, as two of the brain structures that respond strongly to music are the structures that deal with memory and emotion.. Songs from someones past, particularly songs one sang, can bring back all but inaccessible memories from ones past. As Oliver Sacks says in a video about the topic, the patient might remember when they first heard the song. Perhaps it was an outing, on Coney Island, the kids were there. etc. It all comes flooding back. Emotions show up to, and music can cause happiness that can last for hours after the music has stopped in even the most apathetic of patients

A patient doesnt even have to be musical to experience this. Music effects almost everyone (I said almost, will blog about that later) in a profound way. It continues to do so throughout dementia.

Although we may never know exactly why or how this happens, we do know this. Music is something so ingrained in us, that even the most sever of mentally degenerative illnesses cant eradicate it.

What about you? Have you ever seen someone with Alzheimers (or any form of dementia) respond in an incredible way to music? I would love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Music and Distraction

I am having trouble writing today. Right before I started on this post, I turned of a recording of Spem in Alium that I was listening to in preparation for an upcoming blog post. I was doing my best to write and listen at the same time, and I have to say, It wasnt working out well.

I mentioned in a recent post how music requires your attention. Not only does it requires your attention, it demands it. Music is truly a jealous thing. If you do not pay attention, it will do its very very best to through you off track in whatever else it is trying to do.

For some of us.


Helping or hurting?

Some people can can listen to music all day every day and function on a completely normal level. Others (including myself) have issues with this. I cannot really focus on two things at once. Either I focus on what I am doing, or I focus on the music. If I focus on the music, I dont get stuff done. If I focus on what I am doing, the music constantly nags at me, trying to distract me.

I wouldnt say I am a bad multitasker, however, what I do is not really multitasking. Instead I do each thing for a little bit, then switch to another. What this means though, is that I cannot, for example, listen to a lecture and check Facebook and expect to absorb anything from the lecture during that time I am on Facebook. I am just a humble male after all.

But why must music do this to me? Cant I just listen passively and forget about it.

No. By writing this blog, I am making a declaration of my unwillingness to listen to music passively. I am trying to show you all that I know music and want to teach you about it. And, as such, here I am.

As you may know from my series on music and the brain, the brain tends to be rather activated by music. And when I say activated, I mean activated. The brain cant ignore music, no matter how hard it tries (except for, yet again, those with amusia). Music infects our brain. Listen to Darude (which is, in fact what Pandora was playing) and you can not help but tap your foot in time with Sandstorm (at the very least). It just does not happen. It makes logical sense therefore, that you may not be able to listen to music because of distraction.

It also, on the other hand, can be a catalyst. It can help you think better. If you are like this, I am very happy for you, because I am not. Music does help me think better, I just have to listen to the music then think.

Perfect Pitch: Everything is Music

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Nature can be somewhat musical. Not in a figurative way, but a literal way. A squeaky gate, a car horn, even someone blowing their nose.


My house has a squeaky gate that can drive me insane sometimes. Under the right circumstances, the three squeaks that come from it while closing, make up the first three notes of a tune that I know well. This is not perfect pitch. This is just hyperactive regular musical recognition and relative pitch. But it is not the same for all.

Relative Pitch vs. Absolute (perfect) Pitch

People with perfect pitch have what could be called the Pro version of the musicality that most people are born with. The average person can tell you if two notes you are playing are different, and if one is higher or lower then the other. Perhaps they cant tell you, for example, how much farther above or below the second note was, but this can be taught through training. They cannot however, tell you the names of the notes without seeing a keyboard or whatever else you happen to be playing on.

People without absolute pitch however can do this. They can listen to a note and, assuming they have been taught the names, immediately tell you which note you are playing without looking at your fingers or the instrument. Not only that, they can also reproduce a note exactly on pitch by just being given the name. No other notes required. You may think, What could be bad about this? Let me tell you. Plenty can

This ability does not stop at musical notes. It can apply to everything that may even be remotely musical. The screech of a car, the blowing of a nose, the screaming of a little girl. All of that becomes a musical note that they can name.

I am not at that point (thank goodness). But I do notice some things that I never did before. Take my vacuum for example. I noticed at one point that it too made a musical note whenever it operated. I was able to hum it, walk to my piano, and figure it out. It happened to be a G#. This is not absolute pitch, but it does illustrated how musical training can make you notice things you never did before.

How Can They Tell?

Imagine you are looking at two different pieces of construction paper. Lets say that one is pink and one is orange. Now, there is no difference in shape amongst the two. But you can obviously tell them apart because of their different colors. Most people with absolute pitch say that each tone has its own color. Not an actual, visual color, but a quality that is unique to the tone itself. Letting them know what it is. Obviously something is different with their brains. What is it? Once again we are not exactly sure. It must be hell to play an out-of-tune piano!

Can I learn it?

Ah yes, the ultimate question. The short answer is maybe. It was long believed that absolute pitch could not be learned, and that you had to be born with it. However research has shown that it may be possible to learn it as a skill. Look around on the internet and you will find plenty of products that claim to teach it to you. Although I cannot vouch for the validity of any of these products. The positive reviews do seem to indicate that they work to some extent. But why dont you give one a try and let me know how it goes!

So, in conclusion. Perfect pitch is helpful to a musician, can be quite annoying, and just might be able to be learned. I say we learned something here.

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Earworms: When Music Gets Stuck in Your Head

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

We all (except, perhaps, any amusics out there) have experienced have experienced earworms: when a short bit of a song gets stuck in your head for an extended period of time. It can be for minutes, hours, or even days. It can wear on your nerves to the point that everything is irritable. And it just wont go away. This is particularly annoying when the song that is stuck is one you dislike, or even hate.

Anatomy of a Catchy Tune

The first question is this: What is it in a tune that makes our brain latch onto it the way it does? Sometimes repetition in a song can cause it. In Musicophila, Oliver Sacks writes about his Jewish upbringings and some of the songs that were sung. One song in particularly was quite repetitive.

Had Gadya (Aramic for one little goat). This was an accumulating and repetitive song [a] little phrase of six notes in a minor key would be sung (I counted!) forty-six times in the course of the song, and this repetition hammered it into my head.


However, beyond repetition. What makes a song catchy? Are there certain elements? Lyrics perhaps?

The answer is this: We dont really know. Earworms come in all genres, classical to metal, and many have no of these genres have no lyrics. There is nothing in a song that we point to and say, Aha! Thats why its stuck in my head. However, we can still look at the brain and see what its doing.


How we listen to music has changed in the last 150 years. It wasnt until the latter half of the 19th century that recorded music (or, for that matter) any sort of sound) became possible. Phonographs and record players became popular in the 20th century, but they were somewhat limited. Then came music on the radio. Just turn it on and let it play. Cars got radios, then tape decks. T.V. commercials and shows got music.

Then came portable music players such as the Walkman and iPod.  Now, people could listen to their music everywhere, at anytime. Our brains were being pounded my music from all sides. This goes back to the repetition angle of the whole thing. Since your brain is constantly getting hit with this stuff, wouldnt it make since that it would start repeating it to itself? Have you ever been in a boat (a big boat, not just a little speedboat)? If so you probably remember constant rocking. And, chances are, you felt like you were rocking after you got off.

Why Our Brains Do This

We have to remember this, our brain is still one of the biggest mysteries of the human body. To go back to something I said in a previous post, by trying to understand the brain, we are trying to make the brain comprehend itself. Thats a bit wacky isnt it?

We are creatures of repetition. Our heartbeat is a classic example. Always going, very rhythmic, systematic. When we miss beat, the whole body notices. People talk about the rhythm of life and, honestly, its not to far off. So it makes sense that something that becomes routine, may very well get caught by our brain

What about you? Do you have any particularly bad earworm stories? I would love to hear about them. Why dont you leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Amusia: When Its All Just Pots and Pans

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

We tend to take for granted how our brain works. Particularly when it pertains to the senses. When you look at a field full of flowers, bees, and butterflies, you arent focusing on just one object (say, one bee, one flower, or one butterfly), but your brain has knit them all together into once complete scene. Similarly, when you are looking at one thing, the brain is identifying all of its parts and putting it together into a conclusive whole. Some people have defects or damage to the brain that prevents them from being able to do this. They can see something and describe it in great detail, but there brain makes no sense of it and cannot put it together into a conclusive whole. This is called Visual Agnosia. A similar condition can affect people in a musical sense. It is called Amusia.

Tone Deafness

This term is perhaps more familiar to most people. A tone-deaf person is one who does not recognize off-key singing himself or others. You no doubt have heard one. Most people who have been to a few church services have stood next to someone who cant carry a tune in a bucket. The sing way off and dont seem to care. They can even ruin the whole service for you.

Chances are that this person just cant hear themselves. Or, to put it more accurately, they can here themselves, but cant really distinguish one pitch from another, so they dont realize they arent singing what everyone else is. People like this can still enjoy music though, unlike people with Total Amusia. Oliver Sacks writes about how he once attended a chapel that employed a cantor that was incredibly tone-deaf, and would often sing a third of an octave away from where he was supposed to be singing. The cantor thought himself an excellent singer.

Rhythm Deafness

This is considerably less well-known then tone deafness. People that have this problem may have absolutely no sense of rhythm. They cant tap there foot to a song, and dancing is not exactly easy.

Che Guevara was famously rhythm deaf; he might be seen dancing a mambo, while the orchestra was playing a tango (he also had considerable tone deafness).

Oliver Sacks, Musicohilia

Total Amusia

The title of this post is slightly misleading. This is the true pots and pans. Total Amusia is easily the most debilitating of these three disorders. A person with this disorder fails to recognize notes as notes at all, and, as such, does not recognize music as music at all. It has been described by some as the sound of a screeching car. In Musicophilia, Sacks writes about a women he once met with this condition. When asked what she did hear when music was played, she would say, If you were in my kitchen and threw all the pots and pans on the floor, thats what I hear! She also said that high notes were particularly bad and an opera simply sounded like screaming.

But what causes this? How can something so basic to human culture be so radically messed with in this way? As you might expect, the answer lies in the brain. Interestingly enough, scientists have been able to link amusia to specific parts of the brain. Rhythm deafness, for example, generally occurs because of damage to the left hemisphere of the brain (the part of the brain that generally is considered the orderly mathematical one). Tone deafness on the other hand tends to arise from damages to the right hemisphere of the brain (the part that is considered more creative). Of course, not all people with amusia have brain damge, but a large percentage of them do.

Sacks also writes about a patient he once met who was very musical. She had perfect pitch, and was a gifted performer and composer. She, it could be said, had it all musically.

One day she was in a bad car accident, she was in a coma for several days, and in a state of being only half awake for several weeks after that. When she finally came to, she noticed that her perfect pitch was gone. The first song she listened to was a Beethoven string quartet. Something incredible had happened. Although the notes sounded like notes, and she could tell when they went up or down, they did not blend together. Each instrument part sounded like its own individual laser of sound. She was suffering from the musical form of Visual Agnosia.

Why things like this happen we unfortunately dont really know. It shows us how little we understand our brain, and how music interacts with it. However it is quite fascinating, and I am very thankful that I am not stuck with one of these issues.

Do you suffer from amusia? Know someone who does? I would love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Intro to Music and the Brain

[This is part of my Music and the Brain Series]

Unfortunately, we dont really know. Here is something that will blow your mind a little bit though. It may be impossible to understand how our brain works. Look at it this way. In trying to figure out how the brain works, the brain is attempting to comprehend and understand itself. As you might imagine, this presents some boundaries.Music does some incredible things to our brain. It can change our emotional state, help us learn, and even help fight dementia. But why? What are the processes going on behind this.

Much of this series will be based of an excellent by called Musicopilia by Oliver Sacks, who is a prominent neurologist. Sacks Has worked with many patients, and has many incredible stories about how music has interacted with their brains. Not only in helping them get better after brain damage or dysfunction, but in all sorts of ways.

I am excited to share this with you, as well as launch my first blog series! I am going to try to do my best to give you some of the incredibly stories and science behind them, without infringing copyright I sure hope you will come out on the other side with a lot of cool information. You may not be fascinated with it as I am, but it is still quite interesting stuff.

[This is part of my Music and the Brain Series]

Music and the Brain: Remembering Songs

On my iTunes and iPod, I have a playlist of my personal favorite songs. It currently contains 52 songs from artists such as Switchfoot, U2, Newsboys, Coldplay and Owl City. For most of these songs, I know ever single lyric. The Coldplay songs being the biggest exception. Not only this, but this favorites playlists only covers a relatively small number of the songs I could sing most of. What I am talking about here is the ability that most of us have to memorize lyrics, which is truly fascinating.

Photo courtesy of VoomBroom on stock.xchng

My music library currently consists of about 1500 songs by about 170 artists. However, there are probably only about 20 that I listen to on a regular basis. I dont listen to all the songs frequently, but I certainly have in the past. There are also songs by other artists that I know well.

All told, there are hundreds, if not more, songs that I know by heart. And thousands more that I know snippets of. The same is probably true for you. That just absolutely blows my mind. And, not only do you know the words, you probably know the tune, which includes rhythm and pitch, as well. Not only this, but they are separate memories. Take a classic song like Dont Stop Believing by Journey. If you know this song, chances are you could hum or whistle the tune without actually saying the words. And, it is also quite possible that you could say the words with no tune. But notice this, its not as easy as you might think. If you are humming the tune, there is a good chance your tongue is moving around in your mouth as though you were speaking, and if you speak the words you probably would like to burst out in song.

This is a great tribute to our brains power. The fact that all this data can be store and brought back at a moments notice. If you play a song I know fairly well, chances are I can identify it (know what the name, artist, and album are) within about a second. Many people can do this, and it is not very heard.

But how exactly do our brains do this? I dont really know, but I am going to take an educated guess. Now, I am not a neurologist, so dont take my word as law, if your doctor tells you I am wrong, have him contact me.

Our brain has two basic types of memory. Short term and long term. Short term memory, also known as working memory, is basically the stuff we are thinking about right here, right now, such as a phone number you just looked up on your computer. It is believed that our short term memory can hold around 7 items at a time. After first hearing a song, chances are that it is in your short term memory. However, it can migrate to your long term memory surprisingly fast.

Take a catchy song as an example. If you hear it once, there is a good chance you can remember parts of it days later. This shows how easy it is for songs to go right to your long term memory. By the time you have listened to the song several times, you will have most of it memorized. The interesting thing about it is that you are not (in most cases) actively working on memorizing it as you would lines of a play or a bible verse. You just listen to it enough times, and eventually you know it.

This is where it gets slightly muddy. Long term memory (I will call it LTM from now on) has several different types. The two big subgroups are explicit LTM and implicit LTM. Explicit memory is memory of specific events (an episodic memory) of facts (a declarative memory). Implicit memory is something you just know without thinking about it, such as how to ride your bike or a your phone number. The question becomes, what type of memory does music fall under?

Some would say music is explicit. After all, it is simply data you are accessing right? Others would say it is implicit. You dont have to think about singing a song, you just know it.

One interesting thing is dementia patients. Dementia greatly reduces the ability to recall old memories and create new ones. Over time, it can lead to virtual no explicit memory whatsoever. However, it has been shown that these dementia patients respond very well to music. Not only can many remember songs, the music actually helps them improve their memory. Because they remember it, it seems as though the music is being stored in a place not affected by dementia. Perhaps in the implicit memory?

All in all, we are just beginning to discover the connection music has to our brains. You can know beyond a shadow of a doubt I will be writing more about it soon.

Timbre: What Makes the Tuba the Tuba and the Flute the Flute

I will start off by saying that you dont need to know any of this.

Now that I get that out of the way, I will say that this whole subject can be endlessly fascinating. If you like music and you like science, you will not be sorry you read this. The science behind sound is incredibly fascinating, the science behind music even more so.

Chances are, if you have done any sort of higher science (by which I mean high school or above), you have heard of hertz. The term is used to describe not only sound, but light and several other things as well. It can most easily be described as cycles per second, or, in other words, how many times an event takes place per second.

Note quite like this, but it makes for a pretty picture.

In sound, this event is vibrations. As an example. The A above middle C is at 440 Hz (abbreviation for Hertz). This means that whatever happens to be producing the sound is vibrating 440 times per second (approximately, were not perfect tuners). As you probably know as well, sound travels in waves. 440 hz also means the 440 will hit your ear every second. This 440 hz is called the fundamental frequencey of the pitch. This is the pitch that you perceive (for the most part, we will get into that later). But, if you think that is all it is (which I call, with all due respect, The Magic School bus interpretation) you are wrong. If this is all that notes are about, what makes a tuba sound like a tuba and a flute sound like a flute? We call this timbre.

I touched on this in a previous post, but did not elaborate much. Timbre, also called tone color, is the quality that makes a sound seem to have come from a particular source, such as a voice or a violin or a piano. But what makes up timbre exactly?

A musical note is comprised of not one, but many frequencies. In most musical instruments, the overtones of musical instruments are generally multiples of the fundamental pitch. So, to go back to our example the A at 440 Hz, we would find overtones at or around 880 Hz, 1320 HZ, 1760 Hz and so on. These types of overtones are called harmonics. How loud or soft these overtones are are a big part of how we perceive the sound. There are other types of overtones as well. These are called partials and are not at any particular interval above the fundamental pitch. For a good note, there has to be little or no partials. The more chaotic the sound (i.e. the less harmonics and more partials in the sound), the less and less it sounds like a note and the more it begins to sound like noise.

The attack can be simply defined as how the note is started. There is a distinct difference, for example, between the sound of a piano and that of a trumpet. But, if you remove the attack from a recording of a note, it become much more difficult to tell the difference.

Decay Time
For the most part, the attack produces a loud burst of sound. The decay time is the amount of time it takes for the volume of the sound to be reduced down to how it will be for the majority of the note.

This is the main part of the note. As the name suggest, it is the part where the note is being sustained. It can be by the continued pressing of the piano key, or simply allowing the note on, say, a guitar, to continue to ring. How quickly the note reduces in volume is also taken into account.

This is like the attack, except at the end. It is the manner in which the musician releases the note. If you listen, you will notice that are distinct sounds associated with various instruments. It also includes what you might call the residual noise. Once a note is released, it doesnt stop instantly. The noise that hangs in the air is also included in timbre.

These are the slight changes in pitch that occur in the middle of the notes. This is different for each instrument. Although you may not pick up on it consciously, it is there none the less, and your brain picks up on it.

All things things are added together in your brain to let you know what instrument is playing. Remove one and it will make it harder to tell. Remove two and you may not be able to tell. Remove three and you have no way of telling.

This is really incredible. It is amazing to me that the brain picks up on so much, both consciously and unconsciously, to give us a more complete picture of the world around us. This is true not only in music, but in every aspect of life.  I hope you have found this article informative. If you found it uninformative, well, thats to bad.