Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

Vision, Music, and Waking Up the Brain

Can improving vision change the way you hear music?

In my last post, I wrote that piano practice can have far-reaching effects. The skills I learned at the piano as a child helped me to progress through vision therapy as an adult. But what goes around, comes around. Seeing better also changed the way I play and hear music.

 My piano playing benefitted from several practical consequences of better vision. Before I undertook vision therapy, I paid little attention to my peripheral vision. I also had trouble looking down because this action caused nystagmus or a rapid back-and-forth movement of my eyes. As a result, when I looked straight ahead at the musical score, I could not simultaneously see my hands on the keyboard. Today, I can read the sheet music and have a peripheral view of my hands. This makes for more accurate fingering, especially when my left hand has to jump from one far-flung chord to another.

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Like many people with strabismus or crossed eyes, I experienced a condition called “crowding” or difficulty distinguishing letters and numbers when they were very close together. Crowding is diagnosed when a person can identify a letter on a standard eye chart more easily if the letter is seen in isolation than when flanked by other letters. Crowding can make it hard to read music too, especially to see the notes making up a chord. After I practiced exercises to alleviate crowding, it became much easier to read, for example, all the notes in this set of chords from a Chopin mazurka:

 But the major musical changes were much less tangible and more far-reaching. Music takes up volume; it fills space. When I began to coordinate my eyes and see in 3D, the space around me expanded; I felt myself enveloped by my surroundings. At a concert hall, the music expanded too, and filled up a larger volume of space. These thoughts became clear to me when I read a piece by music critic, Nick Coleman, who lost hearing in one ear. Music now seemed flat to him. It lost its emotionality, its spaciousness; it no longer surrounded and inhabited him. He even quoted from "Stereo Sue," Oliver Sacks’ account of my story, in which I described my joy at being “inside” a snowfall. The sense of immersion that I gained when I learned to see with two eyes spilled over into the way I heard music.

 Since I knew of many superb musicians who were blind, I had always assumed that my visual problems would not affect the way I experienced music. Yet, I have talked with several people with strabismus who are professional musicians, and they too found that their musical sense was deepened when their vision improved. If you are completely blind, then no effort is put into seeing so that more attention and neural circuitry may be devoted to hearing. If you see however and depend heavily on your sight, as most people with strabismus do, then the extra effort put into seeing and interpreting what you see may detract from your other senses.

 When I was cross-eyed, my two eyes saw different views so that my brain struggled constantly with this conflict. With optometric vision therapy, I learned to coordinate my eyes and point them simultaneously at the same place in space. Now my two eyes provide my brain with the same input, and this conflict is resolved. It feels like my whole brain has woken up. My old way of seeing gave me the world in smaller doses. With my new vision, all of my senses are awakened. The world is keenly present. Music takes up more volume, and I feel the music more.

 

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

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