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Re: Musical abilities are among the last to be lost in cases of brain damage?

Dear List

I would echo Dennis' caution here. It's very easy For Oliver Sacks to say that musical abilities remain when other things are lost on the basis of a few (no doubt correct, and very interesting) clinical case studies. But to generalize this in any way is highly doubtful. Nobody has done a serious broad study confirming this. And there's no good neurobiological reason to expect it: music depends on the integrity of a wide range of neural circuitry, which when damaged will result in deficits. Musical skills are not somehow magically immune. Besides, as Dennis points out, there are plenty of case studies that show the opposite dissociation (music skill impaired with everything else intact), and specific musical deficits of various types have been widely documented after many types of brain damage in both musically trained people and in nonmusicians. Plus, you'd want to specify precisely which aspects of music might or might not be preserved, and in which types of brain damage. So let's not make broad generalizations without really thinking through what we mean.


At 09:03 27/02/05 -0400, Dennis P. Phillips wrote:

Hello Everyone:

I wonder if there might be a misunderstanding here.  Is it true that
"musical abilities are among the last to be lost in cases of brain
damage" is some kind of general rule about brain function?  An
alternate view has three points.  First, musical ability is mediated
by somewhat different brain regions than is language function.
Second, competent language function is also arguably more common than
is competent musical function, so selective impairments in the former
may be more visible for that reason.  Finally, we perhaps hear more
about the survival of musical skill in aphasia, than survival of
language skills in amusia, because aphasia is so staggeringly obvious
and debilitating when it occurs.  None of this disputes that in other
patients with brain damage, the reverse pattern of deficits is seen,
i.e., musical skills are impaired while language function is
relatively preserved.  As examples, please see:

Peretz, Belleville & Fontaine
Dissociations between music and language functions after cerebral
resection: A new case of amusia without aphasia.
Can J Exp Psychol. (1997) 51: 354-68 (in French).

Piccirilli, Sciarma & Luzzi
Modularity of music: evidence from a case of pure amusia.
J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry (2000) 69: 541-545.

Peretz & Zatorre (Eds.)
The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music
Oxford University Press, 2003.

I hope that this helps. All good wishes,

Dennis P. Phillips
Killam Professor in Psychology
Dalhousie University


Robert J. Zatorre, Ph.D.
Montreal Neurological Institute
3801 University St.
Montreal, QC Canada H3A 2B4
phone: 1-514-398-8903
fax: 1-514-398-1338
web site: www.zlab.mcgill.ca