The Musical Brain

Filed Under (Autism and Learning, Joy, The Joy Of Autism) by Estee on 26-10-2009


Many of us have read Oliver Sack’s Musicophilia and I attended his lecture here in Toronto a couple of years ago when the book was released. Neuroscientists study the innate rhythm of our brains, citing that no other species possess this capability. Apes cannot synchronize if one ape taps a stick. The other apes cannot keep up the rhythm. So this is innate to human beings and perhaps a way we have evolved. Our ability to socialize, to gather as communities have been largely facilitated by this ability.

Young babies can understand musical structure before they understand language. Alzheimer’s patients can remember emotions and early memories, as well as right/wrong notation and words of music even if every other faculty is gone. In other words, music is the last thing, the only thing and neuroscientists are looking at this aspect of our humanity.

For Sting who had an MRI done in order to study aspects of this, when finally looking at images of his brain after it had been evaluated post-testing, he became a bit undone. He said he didn’t want to know the inner workings of what is otherwise a mystical, spiritual experience for him. While interesting, dissecting his musical brain was unnerving.

It is also said that by learning a musical instrument, we may be able to ward off Alzheimers. Similarly, a child will increase their I.Q. by 7% by learning a musical instrument.

Adam is learning to play piano, and like all people, my autistic little boy loves music. He can sing better than he can talk. He tries, although motorically challenged, to keep a dance rhythm with his body, but is otherwise a wonderful drummer. Rhythm, be it through music or rhyme has composed a major aspect of our lives in just basic communication in our home, and I’m lucky because it also comes naturally to me as I have been a singer, have learned many musical instruments in my life (violin, guitar, flute, piano, recorders…). But use it or lose it. I’ve forgotten how to play what used to come so easily, although I can pick up tunes by ear very easily using the piano. We sing “home-made” opera in our house — sort of a daily dialogue in a Bugs Bunny/ Wagnerian way.

Use of music and rhythm is extremely important for any of us to use language, and it is highly effective with non verbal people. It makes me wonder why we don’t discuss and utilize this so much more. We love to make utter fools of ourselves singing our home-made opera in our house — from asking for the juice to brushing our teeth, there is no shortage of home-made songs for every occasion. And even though it is I who makes the major fool of myself the most by doing it, I think Adam enjoys it as he tweets back my silly tunes in his smaller, more cherub voice. I also think if we all did a little more of it, we all might be a bit happier as well. Music does ignite the pleasure centre of our brains.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.