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Whenever I hear a waltz, be it German, Mexican, 17th Century or modern, I think of my uncle. Remarkably, in his 9th decade – unable to remember how to tie his shoes and ceaselessly folding and unfolding papers (making meaningless origami that perhaps only he understood) – he could hum along when a waltz was played. He and his wife loved to dance and belonged to several dance clubs when they were younger; now, he had great difficulty arising from his favorite restaurant table. But when a waltz was played, he would move his gnarled hands in sweeping rhythm to the music and he would smile. I’m certain that in some corner of his brain, he and my aunt were dancing across a polished floor, perfectly in step and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
That’s why an article I saw on “neuroplasticity” caught my attention.  The word is used to describe the heretofore little understood ability of the brain to change, to move functions around, to in effect shuffle its connections.  The piece reported on the use of music to help restore function to people with neuromuscular disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and to reach people closed in by Alzheimer’s and strokes.  The basic premise is something we’ve always known:  music is powerful.  It elicits emotions, memories, pleasure and sadness.  The question is how, and how can music enrich neural function?
…music is powerful.  It elicits emotions, memories, pleasure and sadness.

Aren’t we all avid readers of  Trends in Cognitive Science?  No?  Not so much?  Well, according to this learned journal, music was studied head-to-head, as it were, in comparison to anti-anxiety medications in people who were about to undergo surgery.  By tracking the amount of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, the researchers were able to conclude that the music group was less stressed (and by their own reports) than the control group who took anti-anxiety medications.  You may have also noticed that some oral surgeons give their patients earphones before they start to work.  They have no doubt learned that a dose of Chopin (in my case, anyway) causes a less anxious patient.

Furthermore, says Daniel Levitin, a neuropsychologist at McGill University, listening to or participating in the production of music increases immunoglobin A which is linked to higher immunity to bacteria and other nasties.  “I think there’s enough evidence to say that musical experience, musical exposure, musical training, all of those things change your brain,” says Dr. Charles Limb, associate professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins University. “It allows you to think in a way that you used to not think, and it also trains a lot of other cognitive facilities that have nothing to do with music.”  Dr. Limb is also hopeful about the prospect of musical engagement as a way to prevent, or at least delay, dementia. (This from a CNN report by Elizabeth Landau, 2/16.)

Some years ago, researchers studying brains and their circuitry began using a tool known as functional MRI – or fMRI to the cognoscenti. fMRI allows the actual tracking of, among other things, verbal and non-verbal communication. And here’s the really cool part of what’s been learned: brain areas that “light up” in response to music are also affected by language, memory, attention, motor control and executive function. Apparently, music can stimulate interactions among these functions. (This is a very abbreviated discussion of what I learned from the DANA foundation about the work of Drs. Michael Thaut and Gerald McGregor on music and the injured brain.)

Brain areas that “light up” in response to music are also affected by language, memory, attention, motor control and executive function.

Bottom line:  listening to or performing music has cross-over effects on many other brain functions. One example that comes to mind is the “Haydn Effect.”  I’m stopping-and-going (more the former than the latter) along Wurzbach Parkway – and you know why they named it Park-way, right? I am not at all happy about time and gas wasted when my friends at KPAC choose to air the Adagio of Haydn’s Symphony no. 94 in G major.  So I turn up the radio and just listen to the gorgeous music.  I am no longer exerting a death grip on the steering wheel and the grimace on my face relaxes into a calm acceptance of the fact that since I’m not going anywhere fast, I may as well enjoy Haydn.

So I would like you to think of your attendance at the San Antonio Chamber Music Society’s season concerts not just as a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but as brain therapy.  As you enjoy the Brasil Guitar Duo (Nov. 20) or the Aeolus Quartet (Jan. 22), turn inward and see if you can catch your brain in the act of being plastic!

– E Doyle

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