It wasn’t so long ago that the very existence of synesthesia was questioned. (You may recall from an earlier post that there are 60+ types of synesthesia, the condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to automatic experience of a second sense.) Many scientists throughout the twentieth century scoffed at the idea of synesthesia – saying that people who claimed to have it just had strong childhood memories linking two senses – for example, colors and numbers.
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But research during the 1980s and 90s definitively proved the existence of synesthesia, and scientists are now looking at its advantages and disadvantages. Does having synesthesia give you cognitive benefits? Does it improve memory? Is it embedded in our genes, or do we learn it through environmental associations from childhood? Can adults be taught synesthesia?
A few months ago I wrote several posts about the importance of mirror neurons in the study and performance of music. Mirror neurons, as you recall, are the cells that fire both when we act and when we see someone else making the same action, and multiple studies have been conducted that specifically explore mirror neurons in musicians. But some scientists have called mirror neurons the most hyped concept in neuroscience. So are mirror neurons myth – or reality. And what difference does this controversy make to practicing musicians? Continue reading
This year, instead of giving a gift card from a favorite bookstore or a DVD from the Met Opera Shop, how about giving an iPod or donation to Music and Memory in the name of that special someone? A non-profit organization, Music and Memory brings music to the elderly and disabled, particularly those with Alzheimer’s, and the results have been nothing short of amazing. Continue reading
I have always been fascinated when I hear an orchestra play without conductor. Interpretation issues aside, how do the musicians stay so expertly in sync through all of the nuances and flexibilities of tempo? A few weeks ago I heard the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in a concert that included the Beethoven Third Symphony. I know the Eroica well, but heard it that night as though for the first time. The thirty-six musicians played without conductor and the performance was electrifying – slightly faster tempos than usual, but with a great deal of flexibility; absolute clarity, making it possible to hear voices one doesn’t always hear; and an emotional intensity that is often missing when a group has played a Beethoven symphony countless numbers of times. Continue reading
Some of you may remember the story from a few years ago about the violinist who played the violin during his own brain surgery. It’s a powerful statement about the impact of medical professionals and musicians working together in creative ways to address the specific medical problems that musicians face. The story has recently been in the news again, as the Mayo Clinic has publicized it as part of its 150th anniversary celebration. Thanks to former student Lindsay Warrenburg for alerting me to the resurgence of this remarkable story. Continue reading
When musicians play together, we always try to be “in sync,” unless, of course, we are playing Steve Reich’s Piano Phase or Violin Phase. And then we find how difficult it is, when two musicians are playing the same music, to be purposefully “out of sync” or out of phase. So are we hardwired to want to play “in sync?” What is happening in our brains when we are performing together? First, a necessary “sidebar” to talk about brainwaves.
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100 billion used to be the figure that was always given for the number of brain cells, or neurons, in the human brain. But we seem to have lost about 14 billion. Although you still see the higher figure, more recent research shows that there are actually 86 billion neurons in our brain, which is still an inconceivable number. (You may not want to know that researchers determined this figure by making soup out of brains that had been donated to science. Check out the story here.)