March 2010: An Interview with Dr. Henry Claman

David Claman: Last time we spoke we discussed stress hormones being reduced by playing music for patients in intensive care and brain scans done with FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) on people listening to music. You also discussed patients with Alzheimer’s. Is there anything you would like to add?

Henry Claman: One of the situations which has been very fascinating is in Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s patients frequently lose the ability to talk spontaneously, and many of them become silent. If you ask them to repeat a phrase, like Twinkle, twinkle, little star, they can’t do it. If you ask them to sing Twinkle, twinkle, little star with the words, they do it just fine. This tells you that there are several pathways for processing language in the brain. In fact, there are so many, that when sophisticated neurologists study brain function in people who have lost a lot of brain function due to stroke, Alzheimer’s, or trauma, they discover that the musical abilities are among the last to go. Oliver Sacks tells a very interesting story about a patient of his who had trouble taking care of himself, including the ordinary needs of the day. And he could not organize or remember, or do anything. If the activities were organized in song, he could do them. He had songs for dressing, songs for eating, songs for bathing, songs for everything. And I have had people come up to me after I give my talk on music and the brain and tell me, “My aunt has Alzheimer’s, and she can’t say things, but she can sing them.”

Something we have not touched on so far with regard to music and health is the relation between music and dance—exercise—and how much more fun your exercise class is with Heavy Metal pounding. What is it about music? Schopenhauer said that music was our peek into the ding an sich, the thing-in-itself, the noumenal universe “behind” the real universe, behind the world of maya.

DC: Well, he also advised everyone to study Sanskrit, even though he did not know the language himself.

HC: It may be a metaphor, but it means something; that music is different than sight.

DC: And is it different than language? That is a huge can of worms. . .

HC: Well, we have not discussed it but historically speaking, music probably arose at the time when language arose, about 40,000 years ago.

DC: What is the evidence for that? That seems very hard to pin down.

HC: The evidence for language is not very good. But there are people who have studied the structure of the larynx, and they say that until the larynx is developed in a certain way, you can’t speak – and presumably can’t sing. And there are musical instruments 40,000 years old. And that is the date of the first cave paintings. 40-50,000 years ago is currently the general date for the creative explosion, in which something happened to the human brain. What happened were three things: language, music, and art.

DC: There was a huge expansion.

HC: Or mutations. An allied question, which is quite abstruse, is the question as to whether music is culturally or biologically determined. If you listen to Darwin, he had the birds pegged just right. He knew that fifty percent of the bird’s species were songbirds and fifty percent were not. Among the songbirds, it is almost always the males that do the singing. They do more singing in the mating season. And so—the guy who sings the best gets the best girl, and together they get the best kids. This makes it biological.

DC: Like colorful plumage.

HC: Yes. There is an evolutionary advantage to being a songbird with a good voice.

DC: And that is why there are groupies for rock stars . . .

HC: Same thing.

DC: More seriously though, this suggests there is survival value in music, more than just pleasure.

HC: Absolutely. You will have bigger litters, which will have more songbirds in them themselves if it is a dominant characteristic, which it probably was. And the cultural aspects of music, which, for example, can promote social interaction and cohesion, and which are quite real—are superimposed on the biological. That is the current thinking.

DC: That is all very interesting. Thank you.

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