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

October 28, 2012


"If you are looking about for really profound mysteries, essential aspects of our existence for which neither the sciences nor the humanities can provide any sort of explanation, I suggest starting with music."

The great Lewis Thomas spoke of what we now have to specify as 'classical' music, the above from an essay, "On Matters of Doubt" in Discover and later collected in Thomas' book of essays published in 1980, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. That collection came late in his life after a distinguished career as a research pathologist--and Dean and Chancellor at Yale, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Rockefeller Institute--and essayist addressing many of life's eternal questions.

"I can remember with some clarity what it was like to be sixteen. I had discovered the Brahms symphonies. I knew there was something going on in the late Beethoven quartets that I would have to figure out, and I knew that there was plenty of time ahead for all the figuring I would have to do. I had never heard of Mahler. I was in no hurry. I was a college sophomore and had decided that Wallace Stevens and I possessed a comprehensive understanding of everything needed for a life."

Among the many of Thomas' insights I hold with me is that the prolonged childhood of homo sapiens evolved out of the fact that using that long childhood development period to learn languages gave some humans a "selective advantage" (becoming the fittest to survive); and is the best time of life when a human can truly learn a language. It's the only time to learn to play music, a very special language. One can still learn serviceable French or Chinese as an adult but never successfully become a performer of music after the age of 20 years unless you have laid down firm cerebral hardware before adulthood. So far as I know, Thomas didn't attain proficiency as a performer. As a college sophomore at age 16 and Harvard medical student at 19, he had other passions, but he did listen to music regularly and seriously at that critical age and thus developed his life-long passion for listening.

Once asked how we might send signals from Earth to announce ourselves to whatever life there might be in outer space:

"Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later." 

Thomas eventually did discover Mahler's music. The title essay in the collection, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, one of his last essays, is his saddest of all. When Mahler wrote the Ninth he was aware of his own approaching death, having already experienced early symptoms of what we now know was bacterial endocarditis. When he first listened to the ninth, Thomas "took the music as a metaphor for reassurance, confirming my own strong hunch that the dying of every living creature, the most natural of all experiences, has to be a peaceful experience.... Mahler's idea of leave-taking at its best."

But near the end of his life Thomas began to "hear it differently. I cannot listen to the last movement...without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity...a world in which the thermonuclear bombs have begun to explode...." "This is a bad enough thing for the people in my generation. We can put up with it. I suppose we must. We are moving along anyway, like it or not.... What I cannot imagine, what I cannot put up with, the thought that keeps grinding its way into my mind, making the Mahler a hideous noise close to killing me, is what it would be like to be young."

Since 1993 Lewis Thomas has not had to worry about the end of humanity. For those of who still must, listening to music may help. 

October 20, 2012


Discussing his book (Hallelujah Junction; Composing an American Life) composer John Adams sensed a "suspicious" and “vaguely subversive” view of the arts among the American public. I suppose that view is held mostly by a portion of Americans, possibly an increasing one that has less experience of the arts, at least with what I thought were 'arts' -- in contrast to activities now covered in 'Arts and Entertainment' sections. Wendy Steiner (The Scandal of Pleasure) and Richard Taruskin (The Danger of Music) address similar issues.

Threat from the Arts is nothing new. Taruskin quotes St. Augustine (4th C.E.): “…more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned criminally….” 

The Prophet Muhammad (7th C.E.) commanded, “Those who listen to music and songs in this world on the Day of Judgment molten lead will be poured into their ears.”  (No Fatwas, please!)

A 12th century Bishop of Chartres complained of the singing in Notre Dame: “Music more easily occasions titillation between the legs than a sense of devotion in the brain.”

Divas in the Convent was released in April. For the general reader it is an abridged version of Craig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art & Arson in the convents of Italy, which is, contrary to its scandalous title, a scholarly study of 16th- and 17th-century music and female monasticism. The trouble began in the 1550’s when cloistered singers started to embellish chant (Gregorian and otherwise) with polyphony (singing in parts). The singers were women. Church officials (men) were more than suspicious. They feared that the nuns would “sing to the world and not to heaven” and realized that singing was their only way to get 15 minutes of fame, certainly inappropriate for nuns. The master inquisitor collected testimonies and issued prohibitions, forbidding polyphony and instruments except the organ. (Washington Magazine, October 2012)

October 11, 2012


by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Musically educated kids do better in school, with stronger reading skills, increased math abilities, and higher general intelligence scores. Music even seems to improve social development, as people believe music helps them be better team players and have higher self-esteem. “Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain, our study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning,” said Dr. Nina Kraus of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. “Our research captures a much larger section of the population with implications for educational policy makers and the development of auditory training programs that can generate long-lasting positive outcomes.”

The media has 'retweeted' these results here, and here and in many other places, for those not accustomed to reading scientific journals. The conclusion is based on interpretation of "auditory brainstem responses" (ABR), brain electrical potentials responding to sounds and recorded from the scalps of college students after being filtered (the potentials, not the students) though a unique electronic system. A greater "signal-to-noise" ratio of the response, Dr. Kraus believes, is a result of musical activity--practicing, playing, listening--for years during childhood and adolescence.

Quoted in Scientific American, Dr. Kraus said: “To learn to read, you need to have good working memory, the ability to disambiguate speech sounds, make sound-to-meaning connections. Each one of these things really seems to be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.”

That beneficial effect of early (in life) musical training has become a hot topic lately, just at the time that funding for music education is being withdrawn from many American schools. Dr. Kraus' results are more convincing than most other studies that compared groups of musically-trained subjects with groups of them not musically trained. Most of those studies found an association but did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Which is the case? Are musically-trained children more likely to perform well on a variety of tests of cognitive ability? Or are children with higher IQs are more likely than their lower-IQ counterparts to take music lessons?

I hope Dr. Kraus' model--especially the correlation of increased signal-to-noise of filtered ABR's with lasting increased abilities--proves valid (it may have already been but I just discovered it yesterday) because it seems to confirm what some educators have intuitively believed for a long time, not to mention what I have wondered about myself. That also includes the health and cognitive benefits of practicing and playing the flute well into old age! It seems to me good mental and physical exercise, and sometimes even meditation--when I mindlessly run through scales while my brain remains in neutral.

Addendum: January 11, 2013: Another study from Germany, carefully controlled and planned, produced similar but more specific results that are, "... consistent with and extend previous research by suggesting that children receiving music training may benefit from improvements in their verbal memory skills."

October 10, 2012


"Chamber music in Lebanon County? C 'mon!" 

We heard that a lot at the beginning and still do occasionally from the denizens in Pennsylvania Dutch country, or, as we like to shoot back: "Buggyland." Although hard-core of chamber-music devotees came out of the woodwork to our first concerts in 1976, most of our neighbors were nonplussed (or hostile) so in year two we prudently thought we should do something for them, not only because they owned the place where we played. Hence came -- with a little arm-twisting because the band charged a fee ("don't they play for the love of it?") -- the New Black Eagle Jazz Band for their first of 36 annual celebrated appearances at Gretna Music. The 'faithful' attending (free) Sunday morning New Orleans Worship Services still spill out into the streets around the hall. 

Ben Shankroff points out that we may have broken from local traditions: the "not-from-around-here" and the "we-don't do-that-because-we-never-did-that" traditions. 

In the 1920's Lebanon native Whitey Kaufman and his "Pennsylvania Serenaders" broke out too. After attending Lebanon Valley College, just down the road apiece from Mt. Gretna, his 11-piece dance band recorded for Victor and appeared in hotel ballrooms, nightclubs, and fraternity houses around the country. Rumor has it they also played a mansion in West Egg. Gatsby might not have danced to Whitey's music but his guests would have -- all night. Ben is particularly partial to "Paddlin Madelin Home" that Whitey wrote himself and I can hear why. It can brighten your day.

Some music you just can't imagine not dancing to, like the Badinerie from Bach's Suite in b minor or the Allegro of Schubert's Rosamunde Quartet. In fact, if you don't feel like dancing, you are either moribund or the players are not communicating. After the first half of our Momenta Quartet's concert on August 24 (2012) when Thomas Baird and Stephanie Sleeper danced (in 'authentic' 18th Century style--ooohh) to the music of Beethoven and Schubert, I regretted that no one came out to dance to the Schubert quartet in the second half. "All music is either a song or a dance" is a bit of a stretch, but there is no question that music and dance were once considered one art. And everything you can say about music -- as unsatisfying an effort as trying to describe the French language in English -- and the place of each in human evolution, is nearly identical.

October 8, 2012

Treasure Your Hearing

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Our sound guy, Jack Nissley, will tell you that I have complained that our jazz concerts are too loud since Adam and Eve. I point out that Allen Krantz’s unamplified guitar can be heard well from any of the 720 seats in the Playhouse, but the next night electric guitars may be played through two 10-foot banks of speakers (destroying directionality because the sound seems to come from the bank nearest you, not from the guitar) through a sound board as large as some pianos. I suspect the same sound level would fill Hershey Stadium. Most recently Jack said that the performers' stage monitors were so loud that he just transmitted their sound to the hall without amplifying it.

Imagine my reaction on a nearby porch after one of these concerts when a neighbor appeared in this T-shirt!

I am indeed old. And I have lost significant hearing over a lifetime playing and attending concerts. I have “presbycusis,” a word that implies (falsely) that hearing loss that comes with aging is ‘normal’ at a certain age or inevitable. Typically, my high frequency sensitivity (>2,000 Hz) is what I have lost, so in some situations, like loud parties, I have trouble understanding speech, distinguishing the sibilant “s” from “f” from “t” unless I watch the speakers’ lips. Fortunately, I don’t have any trouble hearing music (if not painfully loud).

There are two main reasons for progressive age-related hearing loss: 1) the DNA in your inherited genome, and 2) the cumulative effect of a lifetime of exposure to sound. The former you can’t avoid; the latter you can. The pictures help us to understand the reason. Sound (vibration of air) enters the ear and causes the eardrum to vibrate. The vibration is passed by the three “ossicles” (bone) to the cochlea, a small delicate organ embedded in the thick temporal bone (for protection). The ossicle at the end of the chain, the stapes (looks like a horseshoe), acts like a drumhead on the bell-like opening of the cochlea and the sound travels though the bore of the cochlea, as if backwards through a french horn, all the way to the narrow “mouthpiece” end of the coil, stimulating the microscopic hair cells that line the bore as it passes by. 

If you were a hair cell living near the opening of the cochlea it would be like sitting under a drumhead, and these hair cells are the ones that resonate with higher frequency sounds and thus may be the most vulnerable to damage. Loud sounds cause hair cells to disappear, as putting mileage on your car thins the treads on your tires -- very slowly and imperceptibly. You can replace a tire but you can’t replace hair cells and they don’t regenerate. So the number of hair cells you possess at any time in your life is the maximum you will have from then on. You can destroy hair cells with loud sounds during any time of your life but may not notice hearing loss until enough of them are gone. By then it is usually too late because you have permanent hearing impairment.

Early in life we may be cavalier about exposure to anything, especially loud rock music if it is essential to our emerging identity. Some musicians are beginning to be aware of the problem. The next time you ‘see’ an orchestra watch the woodwind players who sit in front of the trumpets and trombones. If there are no sound-blocking baffles behind their chairs, you may see them insert ear plugs when the brass play exuberantly. The orchestra pit may be the most hazardous environment; players are trapped in sounds from all directions.

There is some suggestion that sustained sounds (2-30 minutes, depending on loudness) are more damaging than sound that is periodically interrupted. But it certainly makes sense to avoid loud sounds altogether, if only by carrying a pair of earplugs in your pocket.  Just remember a first sentence in a recent issue of Consumer Reports: “Our shoppers purchased ... 48 hearing aids ... ranging from $1,800 to $6,800 per pair.”  But they don't replace normal hearing and come with their own set of problems, especially for people who enjoy music.

Warning: If your hearing loss is only in one ear, you may have an acoustic neuroma.

October 6, 2012


Even before we started our first week of August, low-level background noise--at the post office, on the street, at the Timbers--swelled into a resounding crescendo: “How can you expect anyone to come to 17 concerts in one month?” I attended less than half of them, only partly because our accelerating board meetings--to address this very problem--took place on concert nights. On other occasions I had to host musicians rehearsing for performance the next night. Not to mention the cost of so many tickets at once. Even if you are a chamber-music nut, two concerts on one weekend is a challenge.
Doris Lederer, Anna Polonsky, and Jim Campbell
Needless to say, we are re-visiting our schedule for next summer. 

Our first 10 years of success (1976-1985) were enviable enough so that others jumped onto the Gretna bandwagon to offer their favorite music. But as Alban Berg admonished a young George Gershwin, “Music is music.” We now share our audience with a lot of different kinds of it every summer. And unlike New York’s Chautauqua Institution, we don’t have thousands of people living on campus to populate several events going on at once.

Our recent strategy had been to balance popular performers--Vienna Boys Choir, Canadian Brass, Capitol Steps--against less celebrated but equally superb artists known to a smaller circle of cognoscenti. We came to learn that when we present blockbusters to make a profit, and pay an artist fee that in some cases approaches the cost of a BMW (that most Americans would no doubt choose instead), just one miscalculation (or thunderstorm) can sink us. The cognoscenti and others, by the way, were rewarded elaborately by the inexpensive superstars who played for an exquisite Audubon farewell concert on Labor Day weekend, including the three pictured above.

Incidentally, ‘classical’ music is really not the 'permanent collection' locked in a dusty canon for centuries, but a vibrant, exciting, and growing art attracting a surge of young players and composers around the globe, from Shanghai to Caracas to Kinshasa. (In case you haven’t noticed.) Unlike a painting by Rembrandt, also timeless but impossible to update, a Beethoven string quartet can be played in myriad ways, different for each generation and performance. But in our country one generation has been deprived of music in school and will never hear, or want to hear, a string quartet by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn. Although audiences distilled from millions in metropolitan regions like Los Angeles or New York show up in concert halls regularly, the economics of filling seats in the Playhouse in central Pennsylvania are increasingly perilous. Potential audience members may be unaware of most of Beethoven’s 55 piano sonatas and string quartets and may never have heard one of Bach’s 212 cantatas or any of Haydn’s 108 symphonies. Or even know that modern Beethovens live among us. Musicians know and have played all these works for centuries for good reasons.

So we asked ourselves and our friends, “Are there enough people ‘around here’ who still value the music that has nourished religions and cultures through the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment and two World Wars, for 800 years?” Or has the time come to settle for other kinds of ‘arts and entertainment?’ 

A resounding “No!” came fast, loud and clear from our usual suspects, especially those on our board, in all the ways they could have expressed it. 
The answer from the Gretna community has not yet been clearly audible. 

Call me an old fossil, but I have believed, with the eloquent Paul Paulnack of Boston Conservatory, that “music is a basic need of human survival... one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we cannot with our minds.”  Hollow words, I suppose, to someone who hears human-generated sounds during every hour awake--but hasn’t listened much. 

We would be interested in hearing from you, having read this far. Respond to this post if you have an opinion.

Programs of our substantial winter season at Elizabethtown College and in Millersville’s Ware Center in Lancaster will appear here soon.

October 1, 2012


A new player in the opera-accessible-to-all industry, this one broadcast on TV on the civilized West Coast last weekend. 

A wonderful singer, great production of Salome. (Click on the arrowhead to see the trailer.)


Welcome to the new Gretna Music Blog. I'll be one of the bloggers but anticipate more once we get our feet on the ground again. We have just finished our 37th year, the fiscal year that ended yesterday, September 30, and 37th summer season in the Mt. Gretna Playhouse. The excitement of 17 concerts (all in August and obviously more than many people could handle) has given way to the peace that Gretna residents treasure for the nine off-season months of each year and exquisitely expressed in Madelaine Gray's photo appearing in the current Mt. Gretna Newsletter (no. 133).

This year we gradually became aware of a looming shortfall between revenue from ticket sales and contributions and expenses as we studied cash-flow projections as early as January. It was nothing new for panic to set in as each summer approaches and expenses mount but concerts have yet to begin--but this year the deficit was on a scale unprecedented. We may never understand all the causes--the concentration of 17 concerts into one month, the selection of artists, the repertoire, the diverse mix of different styles of music, the changes in local and American culture, the weather--the list is endless. But the problem has spared few other artistic institutions in recent years, from The Philadelphia Orchestra to dozens of local opera theaters, museums, and dance companies. More than a few have gone out of existence.

Led by President Susan Hostetter, our board moved into crisis mode and began to meet at least twice a week beginning in July, all thirteen members becoming engaged. We discussed all options, including "a soft landing," ending immediately, at the end of the summer, or after the winter season in Elizabethtown. But no one relished going out of existence and so the board raised $76,000 in a matter of weeks (still increasing) to keep us alive. 

The new Gretna Music will be closer to our original vision: uncompromising quality of music in the tradition stamped for better or worse with the label, 'classical' that has met the test of time for centuries and is still alive and well, albeit more appreciated in some places than others where it has been drowned out by a flood of other kinds of entertainment. 'Classical' does not mean 'the permanent collection.' Instead, it changes with time and we intend to keep up, realizing that, although our audience has lived different lives than Mozart's, he, and Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, and others, still speak to us, as do modern and contemporary composers. Through our crisis we learned that we have a appreciative and loyal band of followers who share our vision. We would not be alive now without them and so I can end today with a heartfelt thank you to all! We welcome your comments and suggestions.

Our Winter Season begins on Saturday, November 17, with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, playing Bach's Goldberg Variations on the wonderful new Steinway in Leffler Hall.

Carl Ellenberger