“Neuro-pianist” and conductor Eitan Globerson explains the intricate connections between a musician’s instrument, hands, and brain and how the power of music can heal and improve brain performance and enrich our lives.
Dr. Stieg: That music you just heard was performed by today’s guest. You may be wondering why we have a pianist on the show. Well, everything we do relates back to our brains including playing music, but more than that our guest is a neuro-pianist, both a scientist and a performer. We’ll be talking with him about yet another dimension of the human brain related to the performance of, and appreciation for, music by both artists and their listeners. Bringing together the study of neuroscience and musical performance is Dr. Etan Globerson Has been a faculty member of the Jerusalem Academy of Music since 1991. He has conducted all major orchestras in Israel including the Israel Philharmonic and given masterclasses around the world, including at the Yale School of Music and the Beijing Conservatory. He himself is a brilliantly accomplished pianist as we heard at the top of the show. But in addition to his academic and musical abilities, Etan also holds a PhD in Brain Sciences and is currently working with the Magnetoencephalogram Lab at the Gonda Brain Research Center in Israel. Hello, Dr. Globerson, or should I call you Maestro? Thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Globerson: Well, it’s a pleasure for me to be with you. Ah, regarding the title. It depends on the day.
Dr. Stieg: Your fields of research include perception patterns of sound and rhythm and psychoacoustics. What does that really mean to our listeners?
Dr. Globerson: So first of all, regarding psychoacoustics, that’s one field of psychophysics, which means — when we refer to psychophysics, we’re talking about the way our brain processes an external signal and the way our consciousness, or how the signal arrives to our consciousness. So psychoacoustics is the way we perceive the acoustic signal. And this is very important and very central to to music perception because music perception actually involves sound. So the way we, we trust the sound is a very central tool to the way we process music.
Dr. Stieg: I’m curious, since you’ve linked two very specialized areas, science and music, how have they affected each other in you as an individual? How does your science affect the way you approach your music and how does the music that you love or perform affect the way you think about your science and the scientific question you’re going to ask?
Dr. Globerson: When I perform, I don’t think as a scientist in the actual performance. I mean when I play on stage as a, as a pianist, I was trained as a concert pianist and as a conductor. My training, you know, is something which is inheren in me. This has been with me for years. But when I practice I think differently. I believe I changed the methods in ways I practice following my education as a brain scientist. I’m much more aware of motor control, of what can be done, and what cannot be done in motor control. For instance, in bimanual coordination, which is very central to piano playing. I think a lot about staging that in the way to control it. I refer to it also in my teaching of how to acquire automaticity and how not to lose it on stage, which I found very, very important to any kind of performance of complex skills in human performance.
Dr. Stieg: Well I was interested when you’re in one of your articles where you talked about this performance-vicious cycle and then how you can overcome that with thinking through the piece and the individual hand movements and then the paired hand movements, not even playing the piano, but just thinking through them and then sitting at the piano and playing them. Could you expand on that a little?
Dr. Globerson: First of all, referring to bimanual coordination, we now believe that there are different ways of coding a movement. So there is a way of coding a movement as bimanual. So if for instance you move your hand, one hand, let’s say your right hand forward, and your left hand backwards. So you could think of it as two separate movements, but you could also think of it as one movement and that can be mentally controlled. So if you try to correlate movements and regard them as one movement, then you’re actually saving a lot of energy and just calculation of movement. And this just has an incredible effect on practicing and on playing and even on playing great — the right notes. I now try to implement this principle of trying to correlate movements in my playing in my teaching. And this has a real effect on myself, on my students.
Dr. Stieg: So I guess this is why the professional athlete, the professional musician, it always looks so much easier when they’re doing it. Then we, the hack, goes out and tries to emulate their behavior.
Dr. Globerson: Mmhm. Well I will say that this has to do with, with another feature of our brain, which is very important, is automaticity. Because athletes, gymnastics and music performance have something very important in common is the timescales, because we perform sequential movements. We perform in very short timescales. In music, you know, you take let’s say a Chopin etude, or any virtuoso piano music and then both hands have to have to perform so many movements in such a short time. Sometimes it’s timescales of tens of milliseconds. Now it’s impossible to plan and execute the movement in such short timescales. Meaning that we actually rely on automaticity. By the way, in driving, it’s the same. People will start to learn how to drive. They drive very slowly, because they have to think about every new movement. But after some time, this becomes sequential, automatic action. And the same applies to playing into gymnastics and to athletes. In a way, musician’s brains are an idealist model of brain plasticity because we start to learn a musical instrument is a very early age. I started learning piano at the age of seven and this is, this is not the earliest stage possible for studying to learn music. You think about Mozart started to learn, play the piano, at the age of three?
Dr. Stieg: Yes.
Dr. Globerson: And this influences our brain because the this age, these ages, very early ages are exactly the critical periods of development of our brain. So when musician’s brains are examined by different imaging devices such as a functional MRI, there are morphological changes which are detected.
Dr. Stieg: It’s not my area of expertise, but I think there’s lots of literature suggesting the beneficial effects of music in terms of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, affective mood disorders. Do you have any comments about what you know about rhythm and individuals with the autistic spectrum of disorders? Can music help in that specific disorder?
Dr. Globerson: In the autistic spectrum, there’s a lot being done nowadays with music therapy and she knows in those autistic spectrum they’re there. There’s a variety of phenomena such as lack of language and so on. Now nowadays that there’s, there’s so many universities in music schools which are opening music therapy departments because the therapeutic set of music is acknowledged more and more as something which is quite enigmatic I would say. You know, it’s, it’s interesting to see what a wonderful effect music can have in cases of trauma. For instance, rehabilitation of language music being used, I don’t know if you’re aware of intonation studies or intonation therapy.
Dr. Stieg: Yes.
Dr. Globerson: Which has been used in treatment of aphasia caused by a lack of language caused trauma or stroke and it is also being used in the autistic spectrum. Not only rhythm but music in general because music has an integrative effect on our mind. It’s not only rhythm or pitch. With functional imaging, one can see that musicians tend to process music with a left dominance. And this is in some contradictions with the general population. Now this could do with the fact that musicians regard music unconsciously as a language.
Dr. Stieg: Well, I’ve always been interested in this. Me being a neurosurgeon, a number of my contemporaries will play music in the operating room. I personally don’t because I don’t want it to distract the other people in the room that are there to help me. That being said, during certain components such as the opening and the closing, I love listening to Baroque music. I find it peaceful. So clearly there are benefits and I’m hopeful that having taken piano lessons at the age of seven through 14, my brain developed more effectively and I’ve conserved some of those neurons.
Dr. Globerson: Well for sure you’ll conserve some of the richness of music which, which you, which you learned. I’m sure it didn’t risk your life. Now, regarding morphological changes in the brain. As I said, this is, this has been shown, but another aspect of learning to play a musical instrument is what is commonly referred to as the mater effect. Meaning that general cognitive abilities are influenced by studying music in general. It is quite common knowledge now nowadays that studying music helps in academic studies, academic abilities. So I believe that music does have a positive effect on other abilities. It for sure has a very, very positive effect on life.
Dr. Stieg: What I’ve always found interesting also is the truly accomplished, we’ll keep it focused on a pianist, has the ability to merge emotion with technical ability. We’ve all seen somebody that can play a piece really well, but they do it mechanically and it doesn’t have the same emotional impact on me. As a listener, how has your science affected the way you approach a piece emotionally and mechanically?
Dr. Globerson: So, so as I said, I think that when I perform. My general thought is, of course the influenced by the fact that I studied science. But that does not come into effect when I interpret a musical piece. I don’t think so. You mentioned, people play mechanically and not mechanically. I think if you control your instruments and if you perceive music as is part of, you know, as, as a language, as a separate language and you control your instrument, technically it’s just like speech. You know, we don’t think about the way we move our lips or the way we operate our vocal tract when, when we speak; this is automatic. So if you really practice your instrument and you control your instrument, then it is a way of expression. It becomes part of you. It’s like a brain machine interface, with an external machine.
Dr. Stieg: So it makes me think as I listened to, uh, one of the most primitive parts of our brain, the limbic system, where does that interact with creating music?
Dr. Globerson: That, that’s a very interesting question, actually. More and more studies have shown how the limbic system operates or functions when, when people listen to music, very interesting studies. Some of them showed that the reward system, the activation of the reward system is correlated with how much people are willing to pay for a piece of music. So they were asked how much they would pay, and then they, they found that, that, that, uh, amount of money, the sum of money was, was correlated, positively correlated with, with the activation of the limbic system.
Dr. Stieg: Etan, this has been a wonderfully interesting and entertaining segment. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me all the way from Israel. Thank you. It was a pleasure to talk to you.