Music & Emotion,  Music & The Brain

Pitch black: Music without vision

This week I had a musical experience that I must share with you, dear reader. To make things even more interesting the event in question led me to spend some of my spare time this week investigating an area of music psychology about which I knew almost nothing – what is it like to listen to music when you are blind?

A few weeks ago I had a very kind invitation from the Southbank Centre in London to attend a night at the London Jazz Festival called ‘Phronesis: Pitch Black’.The event was to feature the talents of London-based jazz trio Phronesis, which comprises Copenhagan-born Jasper Høiby on bass, Ivo Neame on piano and Anton Eger on drums.







If you would like a little musical taste of this fantastic band and to hear a little about their stories then they have a handy introduction Youtube video.

The ‘Pitch Black’ project was inspired by Jasper’s sister, who lost her sight to severe cataracts five years ago.  Jasper told me that his experience and admiration for his sister lead him to consider the real importance of senses in the musical experience and how drastically different music listening music be in the absence of vision. The aim of playing in the dark was to inspire a closer communication between the band members and between them and their audience. He was interested to discover how a lack of visual information would influence people’s experience of the band’s music and how it would inspire the band’s improvisation interactions in turn.

My tickets!

I was invited along to be part of the post-show panel and to comment on music perception in the absence of vision. I agreed immediately! It was a chance to experience a new musical event with fascinating possibilities and an excuse to dive into the literature for new ideas on music perception.  A perfect storm of temptation for me!


Findings in this area focus mainly on the difference in auditory skills between sighted and blind individuals. To summarise, the majority of papers in this area have reported that blind people have greater expertise in auditory tasks, including;

1)      Pitch discrimination (ability to perceive small changes to notes)
2)      Spatial localisation
3)      Verbal memory
4)      Speech perception, including hearing speech in noise
5)      Tasks that combine hearing and touching (such as Braille reading)

An excellent summary of the background findings is provided in a paper by Rokem and Ahissar (2009)

Another interesting finding is that blind individuals show greater amygdala activation in response to emotional auditory stimuli compared to sighted people. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system and is strongly associated with the processing of emotion. The theory goes that the amygdale has a natural ‘allegiance’ to visual information, which quickly and more effectively signals emotional intent than sound (such as in emotional faces). When visual information is not available the amygdala switches its allegiance to interpreting auditory information.

This alliance between auditory information and the emotion centres of the brain is primary and therefore more automatic in blind individuals.  Even in sighted people however there is evidence that this relationship between visual and auditory emotional input is in place; sighted individuals experience greater amygdala activation to emotional music when their eyes are closed compared to when they are open (Lerner et al, 2010).

Blind individuals can also sometimes show activity in their visual cortex in response to auditory tasks, including during spatial location tasks (Gougoux et al, 2005) and emotion identification in voices (Klinge, Roder & Buchel, 2010), and there is a relationship between the amount of activation and the length of time someone has been blind. In the words of Robert Zatorre this demonstrates:

“ ..that there is plasticity in the brain. That is, [especially] when we are young we can actually change the way the neurons work, and reorganize brain function to suit our survival needs”

It is impossible to understand the experience of listening to music as a blind person by simply closing your eyes if you are sighted. The brain adapts, learns and grows over the period of time that it is without visual input so that an individual who has been blind for some time activates quite different brain areas when listening to music compared to a sighted person. We know from the behavioural tasks I listed above that this can sometimes, but not always, result in superior auditory skills.

So now the big question: what was it like to listen to 50 minutes of melodic contemporary jazz in the pitch black? It was truly amazing. The lights went down slowly over 7 minutes and at first you could sense the tension in the room. There is a natural apprehension that goes with knowing you are in a room full of strangers that you can’t see! But then once everyone relaxed, this was much easier with eyes closed in my case, the music took over the space. I could no longer locate the exact source of the sound but this soon ceased to matter. My listening became much more global as opposed to local – I wasn’t listening to any one instrument anymore but to the blend. Expectation based on the performers movements was also removed which resulted in some lovely musical surprises and quite a few moments of chills.

The interaction with the performers was, of course, more limited. As one audience member said ‘when the lights came on I suddenly realised that I had missed them’.  So I would not claim that the experience of listening to music in the dark was ‘better’ – just different. Exciting but at the same time very relaxing: A special feeling. And quite simply the best live jazz I have ever heard.

Thank you to the Southbank Centre and of course to Phronesis. I hope to see you guys again very soon.

You can read an interview with Jasper about the gig here.