Indre Viskontas, Neuroscientist and Operatic Soprano, Shares How Music and the Brain Work in Tandem

“Music isn’t music until the brain makes it so” – Indre Viskontas

Neuroscientist and Operatic Soprano, Indre Viskontas believes that science and art are complimentary, especially regarding music and the brain.

Some people are artsy, some people are scientific. You have half a brain for logic, half a brain for emotion, and the two realms don’t touch.

Well, it seems that’s baloney. In fact, in many ways, art and science are inextricably connected.

At least, that’s what Indre Viskontas, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, found when she started looking into the connection between music and neuroscience, her two life’s passions.

It’s all in your head

What is music, anyway? You might define it as harmonious, expressive sounds that are pleasant to the listener.

But that definition reveals the reality behind music: It’s just a bunch of sounds, and whether you like it or consider it to even be music at all, is a matter of how it sounds to you—which is a matter of how your brain interprets the sound waves it encounters.

As Viskontas, a neurologist and operatic soprano, says, “our brains create a subjective listening experience for each of us.”

Indre Viskontas
Neuroscientist and operatic soprano Indre Viskontas says, “I work at the intersection of music and neuroscience to educate, engage and entertain.” [Photo courtesy of]

What this means is that something that is music to my ears may be nothing but noise to yours.

For example, Viskontas points out that patients with cochlear implants have to work hard to understand speech sounds as language, but that work doesn’t necessarily help them to hear music the same way somebody else might. This indicates that your brain has to do a lot of processing to turn sound waves into music.

Monkey hear, monkey do

Whether we’re listening to it or playing it, music is music, right? Well, not exactly.

In fact, our brains are operating in different ways depending on which we’re doing. In particular, studying what happens when musicians listen to music points to some interesting conclusions, as Viskontas mentions.

When a musician listens to somebody playing a piece similar to a piece they would play themselves, their brain looks similar, as though they are putting themselves in the performer’s shoes.

However, amateur musicians show activity in more areas of the brain, while advanced musicians have finer-tuned activation: “fewer hot spots, but more intense activity in them.”

This can teach us a lot about what it means to develop expertise in art. The more skilled you are, the more you focus your effort just on the actions that are most important, freeing more of your mind for creative expression.

The power of music

One possible implication of the connection between neuroscience and music is in the field of art therapy.

For example, patients with brain injuries who have lost the ability to say certain words can often still sing them. This knowledge can be used for melodic intonation therapy, which trains patients to regain speech by activating the right side of their brain, which processes music.

The conclusion is clear: art is not just a matter of the heart. The brain is far more active and involved in matters of the soul than you may think. So the next time that a symphony makes you tear up with its beauty, you’ll know you have science to thank.


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