A retired, flute-playing neurologist discusses music as therapy and communication.
Music and medicine have always been on equal footing for Ellenberger (Perimetry, Principles, Technique, and Interpretation, 1980), who studied flute performance while enrolled at the Yale School of Medicine. In 1973, a job offer from the Pennsylvania State University’s medical center took him to Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, where he joined the Harrisburg Symphony and founded a nationally renowned small music festival, Gretna Music. In the first part of this book, the author examines how the brain processes musical information: “The requirement of a highly developed neocortex probably explains why humans (Homo sapiens)…are the only species who play and listen to music,” he explains. He also floats the possibility that music is an inborn human need, similar to religion. Brain plasticity in the first two decades of life, he notes, makes it much easier to develop musical skill and memory, which may account for child prodigies. (Still, only 1 in 10,000 children under the age of 10 have absolute pitch, he reports.) At another point, Ellenberger suggests that classical music could appeal to younger people more if concerts were shorter, advertised more widely, and held in unconventional locations; he notes that the Mt. Gretna Playhouse, tucked into a forest, is a good example of the latter. The book also includes intriguing and helpful chapters on the use of music in therapy and its potential for delaying dementia and treating Parkinson’s disease. In the book’s second part, the author brings his musical musings closer to home, remembering his own meaningful collaborations with pianist Jerry Bramblett and harpsichordist Doris Ornstein, among others. These reflections, which are presented in somewhat random order, may not be of wide interest outside the Gretna circle; they also feel rather disconnected from the content of Part One, which is much more engaging. Ellenberger can be overly reliant on long quotes from other authors at times, but it’s clear he knows his stuff, and he makes the science of music understandable throughout this work.
Illuminating thoughts on the medical and emotional benefits of music.