Musical Notes by a Neurologist

Carl Ellenberger, MD

ABOUT Theme and Variations

Music, an ability that distinguishes homo sapiens from all other species, can help shape the developing as well as the adult brain by activating and expanding parts of the brain that can also serve other purposes. We have learned  how these parts connect and strengthen with practice and study. Dr. Ellenberger addresses why we like certain kinds of music and why playing and listening can exercise the brain at all ages. Music can be a risk-free treatment of a range of human disease. Especially when learned early, it prepares us for engaging the full spectrum of human understanding necessary for individuals and societies to achieve their fullest human potential.

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A pianist from Juilliard

Simply put, Theme and Variations: Musical Notes by a Neurologist is wonderful. Carl Ellenberger manages to appeal to both experts and the relatively uninitiated ("long ears and short ears," to paraphrase Mozart), defining complex terms, both musical and medical, clearly and succinctly while making a case for the fundamental value of music, particularly "art" music with Western European roots. After his premise is well-established through meticulously researched and documented yet thoroughly readable, at times cheeky prose, Dr. Ellenberger takes on a variety of topics, from Thomas Jefferson to Prince (of whom he is not a fan). Thank God (who also gets mentioned) the void left by the sublime Oliver Sacks has finally been filled.

An early reader on Amazon -- Five Stars

Dr. Ellenberger has written two books in one. The first part covers your brain on music, providing a neat summary of the current neurological research -- everything we know as well as what we don't. The second part includes a series of essays covering his life in music (as the founder of the Mt. Gretna Music Festival, he has seen a lot). Some readers might gravitate more to one side of the book than the other, but I found both parts tremendously interesting and enjoyable. Although a classical musician by training, he is equally at home talking about Prince as he is about Mozart, and seamlessly transitions from jazz clubs to Carnegie Hall. I found additional evidence for musical education in how deftly written this book is. Dr. Ellenberger's ear, trained for the flute, obviously extends to the music of the English language as well.

Net Galley Review

 A fascinating and personal account of the relationship between music and the brain. The author is both a doctor and a proficient and passionate musician. The book is broadly divided into two sections, the first half dealing with the science and the second based more on the author's personal experiences. My personal preference was the first half, I found the science to be well researched and clearly and concisely presented. The topics covered ranged from the effects of exposure to music on the development and plasticity of the brain in young children, to the possibility of music being used as an adjunct to conventional treatments in conditions such as dementia and even Parkinson's disease. The tone of the second half of the book is more personal, and describes the author's lifelong love of music and his passion to share it with others.

Professor Emerita, Cal State University

Seldom do you find an author who is so competent in two fields (music and neurology) and who possesses the ability to integrate them in such a way that the reader is not only more knowledgeable but awestruck. This is what Dr. Carl Ellenberger has done in this book.  He uses his lifetime experiences in both areas to bring together a clear understanding of the effects of music on the brain. Not only is this book based on evidence from many sources (well referenced), but neurological terms new to the uninformed reader are defined as they are used. 

The author provides very good evidence to support the notion of when learning music is most robust for individuals. I now have more reasons to be grateful to my parents, who supported my years of violin lessons as a youngster.

The chapter titles are very enticing, such as “Love: A Neuromusical Rhapsody.” Of special interest to me was “Music and Dance vs Parkinson’s.” But you will have to find your own favorites.

The second part of the book is devoted to the author’s amazing musical experiences, including the founding of Gretna Music, which has lasted more than 40 years. And during those years he has been intimately involved in programs, performers, and performances. This is a wonderful read.

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Table of Contents


Part One: Music in the Brain

1.  Why There is Music?  

2.  Why We Like Certain Music Or None at All   

3.  Can Learning Music Make Us Smarter?   

4.  Can Music Heal?  

5.  Music vs. Alzheimer’s Can Music Delay Dementia?  

6.  Music and Dance vs. Parkinson’s  

7.  The Flute and The Stethoscope   

8.  Usher Me Out With Music  

9.  Treasure Your Hearing You Will Never Regain What You Lose  

10.  What's Your Temperament?  

11.  Musicians With Dystonia When Practice Makes Imperfect

12.  What's the Matter With Classical Music?  

13.  Disdain for Classical Music   

14.  Love: A Neuromusical Rhapsody

15.  Sex and Classical Music Better Marketing Through Chemistry    

16. "Purple Brain" (2016)

Part Two: Reflections on a Musical Life

17.  A Model for Arts Education  

18.  There’s No Place Like Mt. Gretna 

19.  Is There a Doctor in The House? 

20.  Old Goats Playing the Flute    

21.  Russian Festival (Gretna Music, 2014)  A Weird Slice of Music History   

22.  The Village Bach Festival 

23.  The Audubon String Quartet  

24.  A (Funny) Polymath  

25.  Thomas Jefferson & Music   

26.  He Commandeered A Villa But Not Just Any Villa  

27.  The Rubato Queen of Shaker Heights

28. My Illustrious Career as a Non-Pianist

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About The AUTHOR


  • I have taught, researched, and learned at the University of Rochester, Yale Medical School, University of Virginia, US Army Hospital, Ft Ord, CA, Washington University, Penn State University, Case Western Reserve University, Geissinger Medical Center, Lebanon Magnetic Imaging, American Neurological Association, American Academy of Neurology. I have contributed articles to The New England Journal of Medicine, Brain, Annals of Neurology, Archives of Ophthalmology, and others, and chapters in books, including Neuroimaging, a Companion to Adams' and Victor's Principles of Neurology and Handbook of Clinical Neurology, 2016.
  • I have been certified in neuroimaging by the United Council of Neurologic Subspecialties and in Neurology by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.


  • My career began at the Interlochen Center for the Arts during summers in high school. At The University of Rochester, I received a Performer's Certificate from its Eastman School of music. During medical education I played music with the Yale Collegium Musicum and Symphonic Wind Ensemble, the New Haven Symphony and later the Harrisburg Symphony, the Village Bach Festival, the Boulder Bach Festival, and the Festival Internacional de Musica en Toledo and others. When teaching at Penn State's medical school in Hershey, I started Music at Gretna (now Gretna Music). Over 44 years Gretna Music has hosted 1500 classical and jazz musicians including Grammy winners, MacArthur Fellows, concertmasters, Met Opera singers, and competition winners. Elizabethtown College awarded me a Doctorate in Music honoris causa. 

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My GretnaMusic Blog, 2012-2018


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Theme and Variations

PO BOX 70, Mount Gretna, PA 17064, US

(717) 304-2066