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Classical music and the science of the brain

February 19, 2011 | 11:15 am

Robt A new series that takes place in Santa Monica this spring will look at some of the big questions that connect classical music to the basics of human life -- emotion, evolution and the brain itself. The series, put on by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, will include music performances and addresses by three scientists intimately familiar with the overlap of music and the mind.
Dr. Peter Whybrow, a UCLA neuroscientist who has spent a lot of time thinking about creativity, will speak about depression and the way it can both provoke and frustrate musical talent. He’s concentrating mostly on composer Robert Schumann, but says that the patterns often recur.
For artists with mood disorders, he says, three things usually drive their work. “One, the ability to generate intelligence, which is tied to intelligence. Two, a prodigious memory to be able to manipulate those ideas, like keeping a score in your head. Third, mood swings turn things in a novel way. Some artists produce these by taking drugs. But it you have an instability of mood, which Schumann had, you have an acceleration of creativity. You feel an exuberance, which allows you to see things in novel ways.”
Schumann, like Van Gogh and many other artists and writers, likely had a combination of depression and a mild kind of mania called hypomania. “When you’re hypomaniac, you’re very willing to talk to anybody. People like to talk to you, and suddenly you ‘re the center of attention, which excites you because you’ve spent the last three years sitting against a wall drinking beer.”
This is a little different than more conventional mania, which sounds unpleasant. “They became sexually promiscuous, spending money they don’t have, running around insulting people. The manic people tend to fall out of favor.”
For more on the LACO’s series on music and the mind in my Arts & Books article, click here.

-- Scott Timberg

 Photo: Robert Schumann