The Amusiac Mind
The brain’s relationship with music reflects its level of function, but an injury can impair this key aspect; four ways to help fix this common problem.
Dr. Philip Maffetone
Brain injuries are becoming more common, impairing learning, relationships, memory, creativity – and the natural love of music.
Basic musical abilities are innately built into most of our brains. Many people respond well to music listening, while others may also create it. But an unhealthy response to the sound of music, once very uncommon, is increasingly seen in people, and may be associated with a type of brain injury called amusia. The problem is associated with significant perceptual impairment for music due to underdeveloped neurological music processing, and could influence, or be influenced by, many other areas of the mind.
Amusia is best viewed as a spectrum. It is not due to hearing loss, lack of early music exposure or learning, nor is it associated with intellect. It can develop before or after birth due to various physical, biochemical, and/or mental/emotional insults called stressors. While amusia has been referred to as a learning disability for music, not unlike dyslexia is for language, these are both examples of brain injuries, which can result from many factors aside from trauma.
It’s possible that half a billion people in the world may be on the amusia spectrum, especially if the definition includes impairments such as the inability to hear words in songs that most people can hear. Some amusiacs recognize spoken lyrics but not those same words when sung. A common, somewhat classic sign associated with amusia is tone deafness — not recognizing differences in pitch or melodies, and especially singing notably out of tune. Another may be the inability to tap a finger or foot to the rhythm of music, which is also associated with a dislike of dancing. An indifference toward music is also common among amusiacs, although for some just listening to music, even at normal volumes, actually can be painful. These and other factors can cause individuals to appear socially awkward, quirky, even distressed.
Unless these deficits are clinically uncovered, amusiacs tend to naturally avoid uncomfortable social situations. Some become more aware of their issue when reading articles like this one. And many don’t know it can be helped.
However, amusia is worth addressing because impairment of a particular function of the brain that influences music can adversely affect other functions, such as learning, memory, and creativity. Improving one function often likewise helps others. That’s how music therapy works — improving the musical mind can have profound effects on overall brain function. It’s important to address specific areas that appear impaired rather than use a general one-size-fits-all therapy using music or musical tones.
Below are some specific and relatively easy at-home forms of biofeedback that I’ve found very effective for their respective symptoms. (In more difficult cases, one-on-one with a clinician may be useful.)
While various forms of biofeedback have been successfully used to help improve musical and overall brain function, it’s important to first evaluate and recognize a particular deficit, a symptom you can use to help personalize and monitor biofeedback success. In other words, if a therapy is working, you’ll see functional improvements. And if you can perform these tasks easier over time, you can almost be guaranteed that not only is that area of the brain working better, but others are too.
Here are four potent home-use biofeedback therapies:
Marching. The ability to move or march to a beat, like tapping your foot to a song, requires the cerebellum to coordinate rhythm throughout the body. A small hand-held metronome or phone app is all you need. Test your ability with a metronome set at a relatively slow 80 beats-per-minute and walk or march in place. Then do it while moving around the house. Your feet should hit the floor exactly to the sound of the metronome, and your whole body should move in harmony. If that seems easy, increase the tempo to 90, then 100, or 120 bpm. Each time you go faster, keep marching to the beat. If this is not easy, the therapy is to spend time marching — starting slow and easy and working your way to faster paces. The effectiveness is often evidenced after the first day or two. In more difficult cases it can take longer. (For athletes, using this technique during training may improve performance and reduce the risk of injury.)
Lyrical Challenges. Some people are not able to hear all, or any, words sung in songs. Most music is produced so the lyrics can be easily understood, and most people can do so. This problem may not seem significant, but it may indicate other brain areas are not as functional. The remedy may be relatively simple. Find the lyrics of a song (easy to do online) and read them to yourself — reading along while listening to the song. Do these two or three times, then use other songs over a period of a few days. After a week or so, test yourself by listening to a song without the lyrics. Usually, it’s possible to begin hearing lyrics more clearly, and if it’s not working yet continue the treatment.
Pitch. Another discrimination problem come with recognizing differences in pitch or notes, especially two notes that are one or two steps apart. In short, the biofeedback therapy to help (re)train the brain includes using a properly tuned keyboard (or another instrument). First, play single notes slowly in different places on the keyboard. See the key as you touch and hear it. Then hold the note while closing your eyes to better hear it. Do this for about three minutes. Then, in the same way, play any two notes at the same time you played previously. Try to distinguish between two notes closer together. Notes farther apart may be easier than those close together. If you have trouble hearing the difference in some notes, perform this simple biofeedback: Look at which key (or string) is playing a certain note. Now hit another key, any key. Then another. You don’t have to understand music to do this, just combine both the visual and auditory aspects of each note and the differences between two notes. Improving discrimination tends to be a much longer process of weeks for many people and a function of how often you perform the therapy. An advanced approach to this involves humming or singing single notes together with those you play.
Brain Waves. A general but potent remedy for helping the brain manage stress is respiratory biofeedback, also called the 5-minute Power Break. Its purpose is to release healthy alpha brain waves, which can reduce stress hormones and balance the autonomic nervous system, among many other benefits. As such, it’s an ideal mind-body warmup before performing any of the other forms of biofeedback. See my 5-Minute Power Break video.
If you’re not offended by music listening, listen more to songs you’re familiar with, and new ones, but not in the background. Use earbuds, headphones, or good speakers to listen carefully to the music, trying to pick out notes, different instruments, vocalizations, lyrics, and other features. Your brain will love it!
See more of my music and the brain articles in the Mind Your Music tab on my website. For a related scientific article, see: Ayotte J, et al. Congenital amusia: A group study of adults afflicted with a music‐specific disorder. Brain. 2002; 125(2).