Musical Notes by a Neurologist

Carl Ellenberger, MD

(photo: Kathy Judd)


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 not only where these parts are but also how they 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.

What's Inside

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


"If you are looking about for really profound mysteries, essential aspects of our existence for which neither the sciences nor the humanities can provide any sort of explanation, I suggest you start with music. The professional musicologists, tremendous scholars all, for whom I have the greatest respect, haven't a ghost of an idea about what music is, or how the human mind makes music on its own, before it is written down and played. The biologists are no help here, nor the psychologists, nor the physicists, nor the philosophers, wherever they are these days. Nobody can explain it. It is a mystery, and thank goodness for that."

Since a late medical colleague of mine, Dr. Lewis Thomas, wrote that in 1980, scientists have stepped up efforts to understand his mystery. What and why is music? Those “biologists, psychologists, physicists, and philosophers, wherever they are these days,”answer now to the new appellation, “neuroscientist,” and have applied new methods made possible by a growing critical mass of interest and data, the latter a product of the digital revolution, including the ability to see the living brain at work using functional magnetic resonance imaging in real time (fMRI).

If such an eminent biologist as E. O. Wilson can speak of the neuroscience of religion, then we can also speak of the neuroscience of music

Musicians with Dystonia

"When I have to play for anyone, I'm overcome by an anxious inhibition of my fantasies that drives me to despair . . . the third finger seems really incorrigible."

            Robert Schumann, 1832

". . .a kind of paralytic condition, manifested first in that [the fingers] possessed only a weak feeling, and second in that so far as movement was concerned, they no longer responded willingly."

            Moritz Emil Reuter, M.D.

                 Schumann's physician

The music of Robert Schumann remains vital and wondrous in the universe of classical music. Perhaps we should thank dysfunctional brain plasticity for it. At the age of 22 when he was studying law against his wishes while also a piano student competing with his teacher's daughter Clara, with whom he was in love against her father's vehement wishes, drinking too much, actively searching for his sexual identity, feeling anxious and depressed, and fighting loneliness after his teacher took Clara away for months, Schumann began to lose control of the middle finger of his right hand. He tried various remedies to no avail, including mechanical contraptions and also a cutting-edge medical treatment of 1831, "inserting the ailing extremity into the moist belly of a slaughtered animal." Thereafter, Schumann turned from performing to writing music and writing about music.

About The AUTHOR


  • I have taught, researched, and learned in universities, medical schools, and professional organizations: University of Rochester, Yale Medical School, University of Virginia (Neurology and Neuropathology), US Army Hospital, Ft Ord, CA (Chief of Neurology), Washington University (Neurology and Ophthalmology), Penn State University College of Medicine, 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. I have been guest speaker and visiting professor at medical schools, meetings of medical societies, and of the AMA, and meetings of the American Academy of Neurology and the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.


  • The other half of my career began at the Interlochen Center for the Arts during summer vacations in high school. Then, as a pre-med student at The University of Rochester, I received a Performer's Certificate from its Eastman School of music. Throughout my 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 I found my first medical job at Penn State's medical school in Hershey, I bought a house in a small Chautauqua, called Mt. Gretna, down the street from a historic outdoor hall. In order to continue to play music with friends from Interlochen and Eastman, I started Music at Gretna (ONA Gretna Music). Over 43 years Gretna Music has hosted 1500 classical and jazz musicians including Grammy winners, MacArthur Fellows, orchestral concertmasters, Met Opera singers and competition winners. They have all taught me about music. Elizabethtown College graciously gave me a Doctorate in Music honoris causa. I have spoken at The Chautauqua Institution, hospitals, and medical schools about music.

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Music in the Brain

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