His name was Kung Tsu Chen. He was a Chinese poet in 1847 when he described a rare but very real phenomenon now known as “musicogenic epilepsy”. With musicogenic epilepsy, the individual suffers from brain seizures that are triggered by music, and in his case a very specific kind of music. You see, Kung Tsu Chen recorded that though he didn’t know why, he would become sick when he would hear the sound of a street vendor’s flute during the evening sun.
Researchers tell us that this form of epilepsy can appear as a result of many kinds of music. In the case of our Chinese poet the trigger was apparently flute melodies, but seizures can be triggered by type of music, or type of instrument, the composer or even the emotional content of the piece. As a matter of fact, in some cases just thinking about the music, regardless of whether the individual is awake or not, is enough to trigger an epileptic seizure.
Exactly how musicogenic episodes are induced is unknown and unfortunately due to how few cases of musicogenic epilepsy in the world the research monies have not been available to study this question directly. It has been suggested, however, that the right temporal lobe of the brain contains, within the right auditory cortex, a series of modules that specialize in processing music. If this is so, the theory suggests, then musicogenic epilepsy is evidence of a malfunction of this part of the brain.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Music has also been found to have a profoundly positive effect on individuals with epilepsy as well. One research study even found that when epileptic patients are treated with music therapy as well as conventional epileptic medicines as many as eighty percent of their patients had the frequency of their epileptic seizures reduced by seventy five percent! Likewise, eighty percent of epileptic patients experienced at least some reduction in the intensity of their epileptic seizures.
The reason for this, it has been suggested, may be found in the fact that the brain does not have any single center for processing music. Instead, the areas of the brain that process music are scattered widely across the brain. Thus, when the brain is subjected to music that is highly structured, such as Mozart’s Sonata for Two Piano’s, the brain process is actually aided. Unfortunately, the implication is that the inverse is true as well, certain kinds of music could, in theory, make it more difficult for a brain that is struggling to function in the first place if there is a clash at that weak point.
So, does this mean that we avoid music? Unless you have musicogenic epilepsy the answer is no. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that patients with other kinds of epilepsy can actually be benefited by listening to music! As a matter of fact, in one such study, the researchers found that epileptic episodes were significantly reduced in more than seventy-nine percent of the cases when Mozart’s Sonata for Two Piano’s was being played in the room where the patient was located.
To my knowledge, music is not yet used as a formal treatment for epilepsy, but the sheer fact that music has shown a potential ability to be a treatment for epilepsy as well as its ability to induce epileptic seizures would seem to indicate that music just might play a more significant role in the human experience than we ever imagined.
Duane Shinn is the author of over 500 music courses for adults including “Pro Secrets: Piano Playing Secrets Of The Pros”. http://www.piano-playing-by-ear.com He is also the author of the popular free 101-week online e-mail newsletter titled “Amazing Secrets Of Exciting Piano Chords & Sizzling Chord Progressions” at www.playpiano.com with over 61,400 current subscribers