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

March 5, 2013

What (if anything) Ails Classical Music? A Neurologic Diagnosis

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

I went to a concert by the Gryphon Trio at "International Classical Concerts of the Desert." They played three chestnuts beautifully--Haydn, Dvorak, Beethoven--no doubt for the umpteenth time, on a raised platform in a ballroom attached to the Rancho Mirage Public Library slightly smaller than a basketball court. It was a 'classical' classical concert: two classical works -- intermission -- final classical work, lacking only the contemporary piece often sandwiched between the chestnuts. 

An attentive and enthusiastic audience filled all 300 chairs. At intermission I strolled around and identified only five people who appeared younger than age 60. Three may have been shepherded by a grandparent. Men wore coats and ties; women evening dresses, at 4 PM, here in a mecca for well-to-do retirees and golfing winter vacationers. 

Looking over grey heads in audiences, anxious observers for centuries have predicted the demise of classical music along with its listeners. Data from the NEA confirms that the classical music audience is indeed older and has been diminishing in size over the past few decades. Although death hasn't occurred, such predictions have intensified along with speculations about the pathogenesis of the terminal illness which may never have seemed more likely than it does now. Orchestras, dance, and opera companies have gone bankrupt; corporate, foundation, governmental, and individual patronage and concert attendance has plummeted; classical radio has almost disappeared (hooray for KUSC!); large record companies have turned to other music as the lifespan of the CD nears its end; schools have dropped music education; and so on. It was frightening to hear someone say the other day: "We don't know whether anyone will be listening to Beethoven 50 years from now." (For the record, I think it's more likely humanity will destroy itself first.)

Adam Gopnik wrote about music and his kids (Music To Your Ears, New Yorker, Jan 28)
"It isn't a question of classical tastes against pop; it's a question of small forms heard in motion against large forms heard with solemn intent.... They snatch at music as we snatched at movies, filling our heads with plural images." 
Young generations rarely hear music sitting down and they rarely, as Linus in Peanuts confided decades ago to an incredulous Lucy, "just listen to it" (Brahms). They dance to it, sing to it, drive to it, jog to it. Sitting quietly for hours looking at 70 musicians bowing, blowing, plucking and pounding just isn't a pleasure they seek, especially those with little listening experience and attention spans shortened by TV and digital devices. A classical concert may be like incuriously staring for hours at a Cezanne canvas in a museum knowing little about art, history, or impressionism. (Gustavo Dudamel said last Friday that's how Monet showed him how to conduct Debussy's La Mer.)

Classical music, of course, is available in amazing abundance in the 'cloud.' You can mix movements of symphonies and sonatas with Sugababes and Boyzone into a random shuffle on your iPod for playing on your commute, your morning run, or in your bathroom, providing wall-to-wall 24/7 background on which to play out daily life. No solemn intent involved. An anonymous violinist can serve an identical Chaconne to millions of casual listeners, cost-effective and free while they rack up miles on a treadmill.

Speculation abounds as to the reason(s) for this change: the fast pace of modern life, the growth and evolution of alternative electronic entertainment, expensive tickets; inconvenience of traveling to concerts; an idea that classical music requires education and refined taste that, like for fine food and wine, requires years of experience; or that classical concerts intimidate the uninitiated, keeping them from concerts because they don't know the rules and regulations. We are accused of snobbery, of believing that only classical music is real music,  that we worship the "permanent collection," and ignore music of the present. We hear that younger generations reject the snooty formal affairs with old arrogant musicians in full evening dress.  

Undoubtedly, there is some truth and validity to all of the above, in varying proportions depending where, geographically and demographically you are talking about. People on the West Coast, for example, may be puzzled by all the fuss. Just try to get a ticket to hear the LA Phil in Walt Disney Hall! Meanwhile the Minnesota Orchestra is on the verge of collapse, other orchestras no longer exist. Emanuel Ax (Gretna Music, March 19) will play to about 400 people in Elizabethtown PA just weeks after playing to thousands in Berlin. Cultural life in the US may be condensing around islands of vibrancy separated by a vast wasteland inhabited mostly by the '99 percent' where all the 'fine arts' are low in priority and struggle to survive. The NEA data shows relatively small average declines but in many places the declines have reached extreme levels. 

Most of these thoughts are packaged into the word "classical" so we try to minimize its use. Most are in the minds of those who do attend classical music concerts; others probably don't have them. "Classical," of course, also connotes a sense of history, another concept often lost in the surge of 'progress' or daily scramble to pay the mortgage. 

Reassurance (speculative as is some of the above) came from the late pianist and scholar Charles Rosen. He felt that the future of classical music is assured so long as enough young musicians want to play it. Judging by the amazing rise in the level of performance over the years since my education, increasing competition among students for positions at conservatories, not just in the US but in Asia, South America, Europe, and even the Middle East, indicates to me that there is no shortage of young players entering the pipeline leading to artistry. Probably more good pianists play today than played throughout allof history.

The problems lie in the declining interest in (or in biz-speak, "market demand" for) the work of classical performing artists.

Nevertheless, we may be making a mistake to view this simply as a marketing challenge. Instead it may be a cultural change driven by multiple determinants. President Obama's State of the Union speech hinted at one. Based on accumulating evidence he drew a clear connection between what children do in their first decade of life--the earlier, the better--and what they can do and who they are as adults. Inherent in this connection is the concept of brain "plasticity" and "critical" and "sensitive" periods in child development.

Brain plasticity refers to gain and loss of brain abilities. Practice that improves performance on a musical instrument is a perfect illustration of plasticity, as is any kind of learning. Recently we have learned that acquisition of brain abilities is accompanied by actual anatomic, physiologic, and chemical changes that we can observe and measure in several ways, microscopic and macroscopic. Of course abilities must be maintained by regular use; otherwise they may be lost; plasticity in that opposite (losing abilities) direction is generally called "atrophy." 

A good example of detectable changes in the brain is the growth in size of the corpus callosum--the large cable connecting (see it crossing in the right image) the right and left hemispheres--in pianists who practice. If they start practicing before the age of 7 years, their corpus callosums become larger. "Bulking up" the corpus callosum by using it for the enormous degree of coordination -- "sensorimotor synchronization" --  between the two brain hemispheres required to play a Schubert Sonata, causes it to enlarge like muscles of a weight lifter; the enlargement is greatest if the practice starts before the age of seven years.

sliced front to back                    sliced side to side

That plasticity varies during the course of every individual's lifetime has been known for some time. In general it is greater when we are younger and declines with aging. But during our first decades of life we pass through critical and sensitive periods of plasticity for the acquisition of various abilities. For example, if a child does not use both eyes together because she was born with strabismus ('crossed' eyes) that are not straightened by about the age of 6, then she can never develop brain capacity for binocular stereoscopic (3D) vision, the most acute kind of depth perception. The critical period for acquiring that ability begins at birth and ends completely in the middle of the first decade of life. 

For acquisition of other abilities the first decade also has sensitive periods, as illustrated by the corpus callosum observation. These abilities, like language, can be gained to some degree at any age, but are more readily developed if they are acquired during the sensitive period. That reality has always been obvious to musicians, educators and scientists. You can't hope to become a concert pianist or olympic tennis star if you first sit down at the keyboard or walk onto a court at the age of 12, for example. That is too late. Now there is evidence (so far only in mice) that a switch gradually suppresses plasticity after adolescence, a protein called the "NoGo Receptor," (NgR1) in order to stabilize or "hardwire" the brain for life.

After the sensitive period ends you can certainly learn to play the piano or to play tennis, but you cannot become a pro. Language has a sensitive period that begins at birth, or very shortly after, and lasts for years, indefinitely tapering off in the second or third decade; some believe that humans take longer to fully develop (take longer to reach adulthood) than other species because of that long sensitive period for language. I would argue that that the same applies to music. Language and music are two abilities unique to the human species. Educators say "read to your kids." Perhaps they should say, "Read to and sing with your kids."

To a degree that remains to be clarified plasticity may be transferrable from one skill to another. For example, disciplined and guided practice on the piano may improve ability to acquire other skills, say ability in mathematics or language, or just improve general intelligence. (See "Learning Music Makes Kids Smarter" Oct 11, 2012, and thisNot all players in the student orchestras of Venezuela's El Sistema become musicians, but they are more likely to succeed in other fields than their non-musical peers. 

Both music and language education can start early, say at age 2-3 (compare that with education in philosophy or statistics that can't). Language is learned through conversations and reading with parents. Similarly musical training can begin with rhythm and simple songs and dances. There are few better illustrations of success-rewarding-effort than practicing a musical instrument. Think of a Suzuki class. An added benefit is that musical training can put very young children into cooperative and productive social contact. (We can suspect that most members of the current House of Representatives never played in the school band.)

Another advantage of very early education is suggested by other recent observations: the earlier and higher the quality of that early education, the longer the individual is likely to continue education--through college or graduate and professional schools and beyond. That observation may explain data from the NEA: the chance of an adult being in an audience for a classical music concert increases with the duration of that person's education. With a graduate-school education you are nine times more likely to be found at a concert (or in a museum) than with only a high school diploma. The naive explanation for that observation, that you must be highly educated to appreciate classical music, has little support. But another explanation may apply: if you associate with educated peers, they are more likely to go to, or take you to, a classical music concert than to a Justin Bieber Tour.

Knowing the brain's development schedule can help a student plan his life. If you start on the piano or tennis court when you are 6 years old, you might--if you have all the other requisite abilities, and sacrifice your teenage years to as many as 10,000 hours of guided practice--become a pro by the age of 20. That leaves the rest of your life for study of other things, to become a scientist, doctor, teacher, or judge, an Albert Schweitzer, for example. Learning to master the clarinet can equip you later to more easily acquire other knowledge and skills. 

You can't follow that schedule in reverse. Late-starting tennis players and pianists are forever amateurs, playing for their own enjoyment, rarely for ticket buyers. There is a difference between one child who starts to play the piano at age 5-6 and practices, and another who decides to imitate what s/he hears on an iPod at age 13.

Musical ability on one hand and understanding and appreciating complex music on the other, two closely-related brain abilities, are learned, and best learned when you are very young and your brain is most "sensitive" to that task. I am never surprised to learn from a member of our audience that s/he played in the school band or sang in a choir.

The reality that music education has been jettisoned by uninformed and cash-poor school boards gives me little hope that current and future generations will acquire what is necessary to understand classical music written in any era, including yesterday. If children continue to be denied opportunities during critical and sensitive periods of their lives to learn basic musical skills, gaining a life-long love of music will be increasingly unlikely as they get older. Indeed, learning anything might be more difficult.

Nevertheless, an amazing number of the very young somehow seem to discover a passion for music in time. Perhaps that number will even increase in the YouTube era as chance discoveries by web-surfing three-year-olds lead to, "Mommy I want a violin!" But considering the trends in our culture, they may have to play for each other when they become adults.

Addendum: David Hahn, songwriter and former Broadway conductor looks  at one part of the elephant: The 4,000 musicians in 51 major orchestras, 2% of all musicians in the US, are paid far too much for what the market will bear, largely because of the efforts of their union, the American Federation of Musicians. See Solving the Symphony Crisis for his suggested solutions.

Addendum 2: Listen to the brilliant and eloquent commencement address by flutist Claire Chase. Is this a map to the future?


  1. Carl has eloquently said more than I would like to comment on. What interests me the most is the reference to pianist, Charles Rosen, who felt that “the future of classical music is assured so long as enough young musicians want to play it.”

    I agree with that philosophy. It is certainly what led me to a professional career as a symphony musician – and this was 40 years ago, so, in that respect, very little has changed. –and that’s fine, as long as someone is willing to subsidize the orchestras in which only a very few of those hopefuls will play.

    So here’s what I think will happen. “Classical” music will go back to what it was. It will become more exclusive – not less. It will depend on “patronage.” And those patrons will get what they want for their money. Haydn was prolific because his benefactor, Prince Esterhazy, demanded new music daily. He paid for an orchestra and therefore wanted symphonies! (-and needed them to keep the musicians busy.)

    Serious audiences will also drive this. My experience these days in public performance is usually one of grave disappointment because of what happens in the audience, not on stage. Every time I go to a concert, I walk out saying, “I thought I’ve seen (or heard) everything!” Cell phones, smart phones (used by dumb people), talk, packages, snoring, hats indoors – you name it – one can count on something ruining the most sublime moment in the slow movement of a Brahms violin sonata. In future, those who can afford to isolate themselves from the general public will pay to do so.

    This is OK with me. I probably won’t be able to afford exclusivity, but I’ve been lucky. I’ve heard and played some great music in my time, a lot of it at Gretna, for small but appreciative audiences. Emmanuel Ax playing for 400 people is an embarrassment, but they are the lucky ones.

    -Doug Blackstone

  2. You are probably right, Douglas. Patrons of classical music need some amount of each of three essential ingredients: 1) love and knowledge of the music, 2) a connection to it such as childhood band or choir experience or musician relative or friend, 3) disposable wealth. That puts them in an exclusive group.

    Medical science has not discovered what in quiet slow movements triggers the cough reflex.

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  4. While the neurological basis for absorbing the language of classical music is fascinating and sadly indicative of why our audiences are not replenishing, we must add to that how future parents are likely to encourage the parents taste and discourage foreign ones. A successful musician is not just the result of the student, but also of parent(s) willing to endorse, fund and drive. While we provide alternatives to school music programs, we must also open the hearts of current and future parents to the possibility their kids might choose classical. This is why I believe we can and must insert art music into popular culture.