By Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow

Derek Amato appears to be like any other professional musician—he travels around the country performing at different venues, is on the regular talk show circuit and inspires many children through different charities he has joined. What sets Derek apart from most musicians is that he has no real musical training under his belt, yet he plays like a professional. One afternoon with his buddies, in an effort to catch a ball thrown over a swimming pool, Derek dove into what turned out to be the shallow end. After striking his head on the bottom and enduring a three-day long recovery period from the resulting concussion, he awoke to an intense desire to play the piano. He drove over to his friend’s house, walked up to the music room and played for hours. The beautiful sounds that Derek made brought tears to his friend’s eyes 

The injury to Derek’s brain left him with an acquired form of synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the senses are mixed. In one of the most common forms of synesthesia, letters and numbers take on their own colors. In Derek’s case, he sees a bunch of little black and white blocks that correspond with keys on the piano. In order to play, he just follows the blocks with his fingers. He has no conscious control over what the blocks tell him to play; he just obeys. While his newfound talent surely is a gift, it can also be a headache—he suffers from an extreme compulsion to play all the time.

Derek’s talent is seems unbelievable. How can someone just wake up able to compose and play beautiful music? Much recent neuroscience research indicates that musical ability may in fact be the output of an unconscious process. Unconscious processes are capable of amazing things. How hard is it to pick up a coffee mug? We effortlessly pick up things all the time without thinking much about it, but it takes literally millions of calculations for a computer to smoothly perform the same task. Your unconscious mind is responsible for approximating the size and distance of the object in relation to your hand, calculate the precise hand aperture and arm extension needed to pick up the mug, and continuously update calculations according to multiple proprioceptive feedback mechanisms. It truly is amazing what the unconscious can do.

It’s not surprising, then, that the unconscious appears to be responsible for understanding some aspects of music as well. Like spoken language, music has syntax. An important structural component of western popular and jazz music is rhythm—a pulse, a recurring sound in the flow of musical time. A distinct number of regularly spaced pulses can be grouped together to form a “meter.” There are many different ways to make a rhythm. You can divide the time between pulses by an integer multiple of 2 or 3, place additional acoustic events either together with the pulses of the regular meter or in the resultant time grids, or stress events differently. These arrangements are known as rhythmic structures. Most jazz and classical music use what are known as syncopations—the emphasis of an acoustic event within a regular time grid.

Syncopations introduce something unexpected and interesting, but they work in such a way that they’re consistent with the musical structure. If one introduces something completely unrelated to the musical flow, this results in what’s called a violation. Electroencephalography (EEG) scans show that violations evoke event-related potentials in the frontal or temporal regions of the brain. Interestingly, these are the same areas activated when syntactic violations are made within spoken language, suggesting that the organizing principles of both music and language take place in overlapping brain areas.

Marcus Herdener from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics explored the impact of musical training on the brain areas involved in detecting deviations from temporal expectancies based on rhythmic structure. In a recent study, Herdener and collagues exposed participants to a regular rhythmic sequence to establish a temporal or rhythmic expectancy of future events, interspersing it with syncopated deviations or incorrect deviations (violations). They scanned participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Like other studies they found that rhythm in general activated language centers in the brain. But they also found significant variations between professional jazz drummers and musical laypeople. While the brains of both groups responded to violations, only highly trained rhythmic experts showed a response to syncopations. This additional activity was located in the left hemispheric supramarginal gyrus, a higher-order region involved in processing of linguistic syntax. Thus, musical experts appear to rely on the same neural processes the brain uses for the processing of linguistic violations.

These results suggest that, while unconscious processes do process syntax within music, the plastic brain adapts to become better with practice. In cases like Derek’s wherein skills are acquired overnight, we would not expect his brain to work in the same way as practiced musicians. But it is certainly possible that traumatic brain injury could unlock hidden musical potential. Our working theory is that Derek’s synesthesia provides him with some sort of conscious access to a normally unconscious syntactic process. The black and white blocks he sees are conscious representations of calculations made by unconscious processes. Even if this theory is correct, a further question remains: how is Derek able to actually play what he composes despite no training on the piano? At this point, we don’t know. Many areas of the brain are required for the complex motor movement involved in playing an instrument, so his gift is likely the result of structural changes in multiple brain regions. We plan on conducting further research on Derek in order to find the key to unlocking musical genius. When we do, we’ll let you know.

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