The Wonderful Relationship Between Music & the Mind

Composer Maurice Ravel, who suffered from damage to the Broca's area of his brain. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

On the evening of May 5th at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica, in an event presented by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra via its Westside Connections Series, two seemingly different categories on the surface – music and the mind – came together in what was actually a natural melding of art and science. Dr. Linda Liau, Neurosurgeon and Director of the UCLA Brain Tumor Program, lectured about what happens to the music-mind connection when the latter is adversely affected. Complementing the educational insight was masterful soprano, Jessica Rivera (along with pianist Robert Thies) and a rousing string quartet – comprised of Margaret Batjer, Maia Jasper, Roland Kato, and Andrew Shulman – who celebrated the works of two historic, and mentally affected, musical geniuses (Robert Schumann and Maurice Ravel).

Dr. Linda Liau

Dr. Linda Liau, neurosurgeon, has helped her musician patients retain their wares. Photo courtesy of

We know that music is nature’s gift, when arbitrary sound becomes ordered with a recognizable pattern. It can be understood, played, and composed by those well-versed in musicianship. Certainly, this allows for communication and coordination between musicians, who, when using the C, D, E, F, G, A, B letters available to them (and their superscripts) are able to bring measures (sentences) of music to life, as if a story is being told, just exclusively for the ear.

If you think that music is a language unto its own, you’d be right. In fact, language and music comprehension are learned and stored in the posterior-temporal region of the brain called Wernicke’s area. The expression, or manifestation, of language and music is, moreover, dependent upon the Broca’s area of the brain. Thus, acquiring and composing music is no different than one who learns English, French, Spanish, or Italian, but like all languages, it’s best to acquire at a young age while the brain is still developing such that it becomes a central part of the individual identity well into adulthood.

But what happens when there is a disconnect? Or, when an unfortunate circumstance affects the brain? What then becomes of how music, in the mind of the musically learned, continues to be read, played, and composed?

Looking back into the annals of history, we have first-hand accounts of two musical geniuses in particular – Schumann and Ravel – who suffered from brain maladies, causing deep depression and dementia, respectively. Although MRI technology was not available in either one’s life, Dr. Liau theorizes that the same frontal lobe that enabled Schumann to create colorful melodies was also the same region of his brain hampered by schizophrenia. Also, because the base of Schumann’s brain was found to have a “gelatinous mass” during autopsy, the German composer had every reason to complain of ringing in his ears because there is a patent neurological link there.

Jessica Rivera

Soprano Jessica Rivera effortlessly sang works of Schumann. Photo courtesy of

Furthermore, Liau is able to scientifically explain why Ravel, who exacerbated his brain disease in a taxi accident, had great trouble notating his musical musings on staff paper. The reason is simple and it is called aphasia. If Ravel had a shrunken left frontal lobe (Broca’s area), as documented, then it would explain why his capacity for composition remained unaffected, but his ability to express it became impossible.

Given the newfound knowledge that inextricably connects music with the mind, Dr. Liau is conscientious about preserving the musical competence of her musician patients who undergo brain tumor-removal surgery. In the case of former patient, Brian, a professional French horn player, Dr. Liau decided to keep him awake during brain surgery so that his musical prowess could be tested every step of the way, from being asked to hum notes as he read them to moving his fingers as if he were playing his instrument. Another musician patient, Dominic, was asked to create new melodies while his brain was being operated on. This medical practice for patients, who play music, consequently ensures that neurosurgeons like Dr. Liau can do what they can to preserve passions and livelihoods.

That being said, the fascinating thing about music – particularly its absorption, performance, and creation – is that it can be regenerated even if some is ultimately lost. An example of this is longtime violinist for the L.A. Philharmonic, Barry Socher, who, despite suffering from a stroke following brain surgery, and, as a result, impaired motor functioning on his left side, relearned many music principles via new synapse formations in his brain.

Ultimately, while beautiful music is to be admired, the beautiful mind that learns and applies it, is to be revered even more.

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