Music on the Brain

Better Living Through Chemistry


Photo by REX//Phanie (987117a) Colored MRI scan through the brain and EEG.

The human brain, full of its folds and electric highways and chemical conversations, brews in the skull like a micro-universe, hailed by many as the most complex organism in the known universe—the ever-expanding, macro one. When scientists and researchers began opening the doors of how music affects the brain, no one was quite prepared for how thoroughly integrated music is in our brain activity.

Early studies surprised no one in arts education when they showed that children who received music training had a larger growth of mental activity than children who had no music training. Children learning music scored higher on IQ tests, performed at higher proficiencies in math and were generally better socially adapted. Later studies further confirmed that music training promotes focus and enables some people to hold their concentration better. Evidence mounted that music education fostered the mind, body and spirit, and, eventually, some brain researchers began to speculate that our relationship to music predated our formation of language. Studies showed that infants understand the “grammar” of music quite naturally, proving music is not so much an art form as it is a developmental component of our biology. It’s in our wiring: we’re born with a nervous system prepared for tunes.

plato blog quote

Life got easier for researchers peering into music’s effect on the brain when imaging technology (like MRIs) improved. Suddenly, we could see areas of the brain igniting like a strand of blinking holiday lights when Mahler or Mingus or Madonna piped into our ears. Listening to, creating and playing music fire all the major regions of the brain, activating almost every possible cognitive function. Studies over time showed that the brain changes shape as the result of exposure to music. Now that discovery was mind-bending.

These findings shifted music from its status as life’s lagniappe into a mystifying, powerful tool in forming the human experience.

Psychologically, music produces pleasure, fear, comfort and an array of emotions that can also alter our perception of the world. The power of music is not to be underestimated or written off as merely an emotional response: music inspires the brain to release certain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Music changes our brain chemistry, which affects our emotions, which shapes our perception, which determines our reality.


A colored 3-D MRI scan of the brain’s white matter pathways traces connections between cells in the cerebrum and the brainstem.

In an even more telling study, researchers pitted music against anti-anxiety drugs in pre-operation patients, and they discovered that the patients who listened to music had lower cortisol levels (the hormone secreted to deal with stress) than the group who took medication. The implication was clear: music was a better drug. If you’ve ever wondered why we listen to sad songs when we’re feeling blue instead of happy tunes, it’s because sad songs reassure us that we’re not alone in our feelings as sad music encourages the brain to release prolactin, the hormonal tranquilizer found in mother’s milk.

Music has the power to induce trance states in individuals and groups, the latter a phenomenon that famed author and neurologist Oliver Sacks acknowledges as an actual enmeshing of collective nervous systems: somehow the music transduces separate participants into a shared energy. Think Grateful Dead show, tribal ceremony, Springsteen concert or hip hop cipher. Music literally binds people together.

No doubt brain science will continue to illuminate the intricacies of music within our personal mini-universes, and we will continue to marvel as new insights emerge into the influence of music on our intellectual, psychological and emotional well-beings. As we continue to delight in Beethoven’s 9th and rock out in our cars on the drive home from work, we can also imagine the electric light show happening as we participate in our natural birthright that is better living through chemistry.


Drawing on Theater Magic

The tricky business of adapting an animated movie into a stage musical

 “The book was better.”

So goes the typical critique of movies based on novels, but one rarely hears “I liked the cartoon better” as audiences stream from theater venues where their favorite Disney film characters sang-and-danced through a musical version of the animated film.

What secret of adaptation makes or breaks a story’s translation from one genre to the next?

Adaptation itself is a challenging art form. Daunting, formidable, some brutal act of transmogrification that must appear easy to do … Charlie Kaufman’s film Adaptation, about him cracking up while taking a crack at turning Susan Orlean’s lurid, Florida-based book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay, remains the unchallenged authority on what writers can go through trying to get it right from page to screen.

Or screen to stage.

For the writer—and in the case of Disney animated movies, the creative team—the logistics of space and time present the first two puzzles. How do I take this 350-page novel that covers three generations and boil it down to a 100-page screenplay? Or, how do we take a 72-minute animated movie and convert it to a two- or two-and-a-half-hour full-blown musical?

Story. That solves the two puzzles of time and space. For a movie, the story generally follows one character’s journey through some type of transformation, accompanied by a B story, or subplot for a minor character. (Vignettes, where the film cuts from one character’s story to another, is a popular way to have several equally-important plot lines going at once.) Most film adaptations of books fail to satisfy because the intricacies of the plots, the legion of minor characters, the flavor of the language and the gripping descriptions of place and person—what ignites our imaginations and is the very nature of the book form’s storytelling power—weighs down a screenplay, which is a streamlined form of storytelling through pictures that move. (Hence the early naming of films as “moving pictures” that became the truncated “movies.”)

In a stage adaptation of an animated film, more songs and dance numbers fluff out the story, changing the 72-minute movie to a two act, two hour musical. Characters reveal more personal details, more depth about themes and plot, with more music for the stage version.

For Disney, The Lion King remains triumphantly successful not only at the box office but also as an act of adaptation itself. Their stage musical arm, Disney Theatrical Productions, headed by Thomas Schumacher, made a bold and ultimately brilliant choice hiring avant-garde puppet theater expert Julie Taymor to conceive of the adaptation in the 90’s.

Theater’s magic lies in the fact that the audience can—coached with good lighting, stimulating costumes and evocative music—suspend its disbelief to the point of what is called “filling in the blanks” on stage. For example, a spiral staircase becomes the entire landscape for Pride Rock, and actors transport the audience members to some place magical in their imaginations though they never leave the theater.

For Taymor and the team putting together the stage version of The Lion King, reliance on the audience’s ability to fill the blanks and suspend disbelief was the gamble that paid off in the end: Taymor purposefully designed the puppets for the actors to wear, so puppet-human-animal appears visible at all times. Taymor’s artistic deviation from the animated movie—her response to how to solve the problem of making animals come to life on stage with human actors—risked alienating the core audience. However, Taymor’s vision worked. Not only did it work, it elevated Disney’s animated story to legitimate theatrical artistry.

In the final analysis, what makes or breaks the translation from one genre to another is having the work in the hands of artists and craftspeople who understand the unique demands of the individual art forms: Can we take all that makes a book a book and find a way to translate it into all that makes a movie a movie? Can we take a 72-minute cartoon and craft it into a work of theatrical art?

Taymor, who immersed herself with indigenous theater cultures and ran a mask-dance company in Indonesia before her directorial success in the U.S., knew the best ways to translate The Lion King’s story symbolically and literally for the stage and for the Broadway musical audience of Disney fans. Choreographer Garth Fagan added his exquisite choreography for the animal-human movements, and the circle of life, at least for this adaption, was complete.

(In an interesting note: Taymor originally pitched the idea of rewriting the entire ending, adding a Trump-like villain named Papa Croc who tricks Simba into fighting gladiator-style in Papa Croc’s Vegas-esque desert oasis. The end. Obviously, Disney execs eighty-sixed that adaptation of their movie.)