Singing Parkinson's patients

Improvisation is a learning experience

It is possible that the music lessons you had as a child were all wrong. You were taught to learn notes when it would have been better for you to improvise on your recorder. Robert Harris is a researcher at UMCG, teaches at a conservatory and is an expert in the field of music and our brain. During his PhD research, he discovered that the brains of musicians who were improvising reacted to music differently than the brains of musicians who were not improvising, as well as the fact that people with Parkinson’s make great singers.
 By Simone Harmsen / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photo by Reyer Boxem

Conservatory instructor and neuroscientist Robert Harris is fascinated by how our brains process music: ‘People often forget how special music is.’

Harris’s work focuses on the brain and music. In his PhD research at the Neuroimaging Centre, he compared the brains of improvising musicians with those of classically taught musicians.

He discovered that musicians that are not improvising mainly engage their left hemisphere. The improvising musicians also used part of their right hemisphere, which is responsible for the spatial control of the movement of playing.

According to Harris, people learn music the way they learn a language: by improvising. By teaching people to play the piano without notes, Harris is teaching his students to see music as a language. He hopes it will make them more expressive.

The brain is special when it comes to music. Harris discovered that Parkinson’s patients make great singers. When they speak, however, they often sound monotonous and disinterested.

In his new research, Harris combines the knowledge of the musical brains of healthy and ill people. He teaches piano to people with cochlear implants, hoping to speed up their recovery. ‘The first results are phenomenal.’

Reading time: 4 minutes (933 words)

According to neuroscientist and conservatory instructor Robert Harris, music does amazing things to our brains. After studying movement sciences in the ‘90s, he continued to be fascinated by the brain. Harris wondered what neuroscience could teach him about how to play the piano, so he went back to the university and used his PhD research to study the brains of musicians at UMCG’s Neuroimaging Centre.

Musical brains

‘In classical music, we only ever use sheet music. None of the notes we play on the stage were made up by us. In the past, that was quite different. All the big composers were improvising musicians. They were more like jazz musicians than the classical virtuosos of today. There are quite a few people who think we should train our musicians differently, that we should go back to the musicians from before.’ And yet there was no scientific basis to support this idea. After wondering for years if anyone was going to do something with the subject, he decided to pick it up himself.

Using a brain scan (an fMRI), he mapped out the brain activities of both types of musicians. The musicians were put into an MRI machine and played along with a recording in their mind. Harris discovered that musicians who were not improvising mainly use the left hemisphere of their brain. The improvising musicians used part of their right hemisphere in addition to the left. This hemisphere is responsible for the spatial control of the movement of playing.

The area in the right hemisphere is activated, however, when classically taught musicians play from sheet music. Harris thinks this should also be happening when they are just listening to music. Therefore, he wonders if musical education is due for a massive change. By only learning to play music from paper rather than through improvisation, people are actually learning something unnatural.

Music as a language

To clarify, Harris compares playing music to learning a language. ‘I’ve got no problem reading a German book aloud. But that doesn’t mean I can speak the language.’ According to Harris, the same goes for many musicians: ‘Ask a classical musician to improvise. They often can’t.’ But is that such a bad thing? Harris points out that it is often said that modern musicians are not as expressive as musicians used to be. By teaching his students to ‘speak’ the language of music, he hopes they will learn to play more expressively: ‘In my piano lessons, they are given access to music in a completely different way. They don’t learn notes: they have to learn to play by ear. This way, they learn to use music more as a language. It’s the first step towards a ‘new musician’.’

At the neurology department at UCMG, Harris met many patients with Parkinson’s disease, and it touched him. ‘Music and Parkinson’s are closely related. The patients’ movement patterns change when they listen to music, which is phenomenal. If the music has a solid beat, they start walking in a completely different manner.’ Harris wondered if the same applied to singing. But there was no one who could tell him. ‘The more I searched, the fewer answers I found. It was just astonishing. So I decided to research that as well.’ People with Parkinson’s speak in a seemingly disinterested monotone. Harris discovered that there is no audible difference between the singing of healthy people and people with Parkinson’s. ‘It was an enormous amount of work, but it enriched both my life and my research.’

Piano for deaf

Harris remains fascinated by the research. In his latest project, he combines his knowledge of musical brains of healthy and ill people. Nowadays, deaf people can get what is known as a cochlear implant (CI). In collaboration with the ENT department, he teaches three patients with CIs to play piano. This implant takes over the functions of the ear and converts sound into electrical signals. Someone with a CI does not immediately get their hearing back: their brains need to learn to interpret the signals. ‘We wanted to know if piano lessons could speed up the recovery process. The results from the pilot study are amazing. Women who were deaf a few years ago were playing piano like it was nothing!’

Harris hopes the study will teach him more about how to instruct people with a CI to play music. ‘People used to think that it was simply a matter of learning which note on paper matched which key on the piano. But I don’t think that method will be of use for hearing. In my lessons, people play without notes. They have to come up with a melody themselves and find out how that sounds. I’m still experimenting, but it turns out these people can be taught to play the piano with no problem.’

Not just another artsy profession

Harris often gives lectures and teaches classes about brains to musicians, trying to translate the neuroscientific theory into practice for music teachers. ‘They’ll fly me in to discuss music from a neuroscientific viewpoint, so I connect the worlds of neuroscience and music.’

According to Harris, people often forget how special music is. ‘There are only four or five species of animals that can discern a beat, such as the cockatoo. The same applies to melody. If you play a bird’s song in a higher key, it won’t recognise it. Imagine us not being able to recognise our national anthem if it was played in a different key! Music isn’t just another profession. It’s a biological human quality that we need to develop. That’s something we’ve lost sight of.’


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