About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

June 13, 2014

Eye Music

On Sunday July 20 at Ware Center in Lancaster we will hear two great classical ballets, but without the dancers. You might wonder if maybe that's like listening to the Met Opera on a kitchen-table radio, or MTV without the picture. No "visuals," the kids would say. But I assure you that Claire Huangci, the pianist, though a small person, will more than make up for a full orchestra in a pit. And the music is so good you could enjoy it on a bandoneon.

Rough estimates hold that at least 40% of the neural machinery of our brain participates in the processing of visual images focused on the retinas of the eyes. Evolution has adapted these vision-related regions, many of them in the posterior parts (back half) of the cerebrum, to receive the visual information and integrate it with other sensory information (touch, hearing, etc) and other functions of the brain--language, emotions, a wide range of spatial functions, memory, and "theory of mind" (look it up on Wikipedia). Years of normal seeing during an average human life enhance these abilities and connections because of the brain's "plasticity." 
But sight is not necessary for many of our abilities. Take for example language or music. Congenitally blind persons can speak languages and also play and sing music, substituting their ability to reproduce what they hear for their inability to read words or notes. Blind pianists substitute non-visual sensory cues to depress the right keys for their inability to actually see the keys. “Substitute” is a key word.

You might wonder whether a blind person's previously idle visual machinery is especially receptive to getting a job and 'welcomed' the input. Just as you might wonder whether Ray Charles called upon parts of his idle brain visual mechanism to enhance his music.
A group of researchers* has used a “sensory substitution device” (SSD) to help people blind from birth, or blinded later in life. They call it “EyeMusic.” Their work is based on the principle that when information is delivered to the visual machinery of the brain, that mechanism may utilize it as if it were visual information. But instead of visual images they delivered musical sounds, produced by natural instruments. It is astonishing how quickly blind people could begin to describe a visual scene or object or movement and even color, after they have learned that certain musical sounds have been designated as codes for certain visual characteristics. A translation, if you will.

This ‘translation’ could prove in some ways like learning a second language. At first we translate word by word from English to French, for example, but eventually (say, if we move to France) the English recedes and the French prevails and we not only speak but think in French. Music, a very complex language with many variables -- rhythm, tempo, pitch, harmony, timbre, intensity, volume, etc -- is the type of sensory stimulus that comes close to the complexity of a visual image, even closer perhaps than spoken language (at least as used by an average non-poet or novelist). While these changes, examples of brain "plasticity," take place, modern imaging techniques (like fMRI) can show them in progress by displaying the changes in the regions of the brain that are active.

You may think of this when you listen to Claire Huangci play 'scenes' from two famous ballets d'action, Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, on the piano at Ware Center, July 20. A fuller experience of  the ballets may depend on your imagination residing at least in part in your extrastriate and other nearby areas of visual cortex. Or you might contend that the music, some of the best by both composers, 'speaks' for itself.

*Amir Amedi

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