“Georgia… Georgia…The whole day through, just an old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind!” As an Atlantean, I grew up hearing the rich, melodic voice of Ray Charles regularly. His iconic song, “Georgia On My Mind,” embodied the rhythm of an entire state. His prolific piano skills mesmerized those who listened and those who watched as the musician ferociously swayed his head while majestically playing the keyboard. Besides his legendary music, Ray Charles stage presence was iconic and never would he be seen without his thick, black sunglasses and 1000-kilowatt smile. Charles was blind by age 7 due to glaucoma. Nonetheless, young Charles had insatiable love for music and learned to play the piano using braille music. He was particularly drawn to jazz and the blues, which he later heavily incorporated into his music. Charles was still incredibly popular when another musician, Stevie Wonder, entered the jazz, R&B realm. The Motown wonder churned classics after classics with hits like “Superstition” and “You are the Sunshine of My Life.” Wonder like Charles had no eyesight and wore thick black frames; Charles had lost his eyesight when he was born six months premature and experienced retinopathy as a premature baby receiving excessive amounts of oxygen. The two men, both blind, had some of the most remarkable hearing.
This made me curious; does being blind influence our auditory processing, making us more attuned to our other senses? This was a rumor I had long heard and was curious to explore further. In an article published just last month in The Journal of Acoustical Society of America, Zhang and Jiang, 2019 tested whether congenital blindness enhances perception of musical rhythm more than melody in Mandarin speakers. While neither Charles nor Wonder spoke Mandarin, it is reasonable to assume that the rhythmic enhancement that would occur due to congenital blindness would similarly occur in those who are congenital blind and speaking English.
Using the Musical Ear Test, a common musical aptitude test that focuses on both rhythm and melody, the researchers tested the musical competence of sighted and congenitally blind individuals to determine musical competence. The experiment included twenty-eight sighted individuals eighteen congenitally blind subjects; all with no formal musical training. They then were placed individually in rooms and given different stimuli to listen to containing various sound pressure and intensity and then asked to identify which stimuli were identical to each other (Zhang and Jiang, 2019). The results were surprising and nuanced. Congenital blind individuals demonstrated higher general higher musical amplitude and more specifically a superiority in music perception exclusively for rhythm (Zhang and Jiang, 2019). Blind and sighted individuals performed equally well on melodic tasks. Perhaps the reason for this is because music is not solely an auditory function but with an underlying motor component (Levitin et al., 2018). The motor components of music such as pulse, tempo and rhythm are vital to musical success and part of our evolutionary history.
While the review article does not explicitly state that rhythm identification is enhanced by blindness, I am curious as to whether those who are congenitally blind grow up relying more on rhythmic components to learn music and thus are more attuned to hearing them. Given we are exposed to music regularly our entire lives, it is difficult to distinguish whether the rhythmic advantage found in congenital blindness in the Zhang and Jiang, 2019 study is one rooted in neuroanatomical differences in our auditory system or whether greater reliance on the auditory system has improved its function through practice. Additionally, these rhythmic enhancements could be due to an absence of visual distractions. When one typically listens to music, one is looking at the singer, observing their emotions and stage presence. In a car, listening to music, yet again we are distracted. Perhaps the rhythmic advantage seen in congenially blind individuals is linked to the decrease of other distracting stimuli, allowing the brain to solely focus on the rhythm.
In addition to rhythm, a recent study conducted Arnaud et al., 2018 analyzed whether patients with early stage blindness had a difference in pitch perception. Pitch perception was tested for fifteen congenially blind adults and fifteen sighted adults with each individual identifying a native and non-native vowel as a baseline. The study then asked participants to identify pitch differences in these vowels and discovered that blind subjects had a higher discernment ability for pitch differences for native vowels, music stimuli, and pure tones (Arnaud et al., 2018). Interestingly, older participants indicated an improved ability to identify instrumental noise over speech sounds. This reminds me of research I did several years ago on Alzheimer’s patients and music, and how songs with strong emotional attachments were played for patients with dementia to recall memories. Music in all its glorious forms seems to touch us deeply and intricately in a way that is not fully understood but is unequivocally challenged amongst people of all stratospheres.
Arnaud Laureline, Gracco Vincent, Menard Lucie (2018). Enhanced perception of pitch changes in speech and music in early blind adults. Neuropsychologia. 117, 261-270,
Levitin, D. J., Grahn, J. A., and London, J. (2018). “The psychology of music: Rhythm and movement,” Ann. Rev. Psychol. 69, 51–75.
Zhang, Linjun & Jiang, Wenling & Shu, Hua & Zhang, Yang. (2019). Congenital blindness enhances perception of musical rhythm more than melody in Mandarin speakers. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 145. EL354-EL359.