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Creative Career Path

All Ears2011.12.05


    Charles Limb is a man who has combined two passions at a professional level, through the science of hearing and the art of music. He is both a physician and a musician, and specializes in how the brain creates and perceives music. He is a man with two titles: Associate Professor of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery; and Faculty, Peabody Conservatory of Music. As a surgeon at Johns Hopkins, he helps patients regain hearing through cochlear implantations. And he plays Jazz on three instruments, sax, piano, and bass.


    His talks on, where he speaks on Building the Musical Muscle, and Your Brain on Improv, are informative and inspiring. He takes you vicariously into the world of the hearing impaired, and what it is like when a person loses the ability to hear or appreciate music. He has helped children who were born deaf to hear well enough to understand language and speak as well as any person born with normal hearing. Sadly, the cochlear implant does not restore the ability to hear the subtleties of tone, pitch, and timbre that make music so engaging.


    And yet, some of these children have learned to play the piano well, and Beethoven continued to compose music despite his complete loss of hearing. Charles Limb makes the distinction that while restoration of basic sensory function is vitally important, restoration of the ability to perceive beauty is what we aspire to. We want to thrive, not just to survive.


    He has also researched at Johns Hopkins University what happens in the brain when a Jazz musician or Hip Hop Artist improvises, compared to what happens when they play a memorized score or chant a memorized script. His studies revealed not only that similar areas of the brain are engaged in both language and music, but also that there are distinct differences in which areas are active in improvisation vs memorization. He was able to measure prefrontal brain activity during improvisation on a keyboard, using an fMRI device that scans and measures blood flow to different areas of the brain. While what happens is certainly complex, during improvisation the areas of the brain which ordinarily engage in self-monitoring and self-censure are largely at rest. The Jazz musician is able to disengage the inner critic, and fully engage in exploring and expressing music in sheer delight.


    In combination with this it is worth watching another talk delivered in 2003 by Scottish born Grammy-winning percussionist and composer Dame Evelyn Glennie. Despite losing nearly all of her hearing by the age of 12, she is now perhaps the world’s leading percussionist performer and educator. She demonstrates that the music written on the score is simply the mechanics, and only comes to life when the musician interprets and expands on the score. She has learned how to hear music through her body and all of her senses, which she says is the way that we should all listen to music.


    Despite her considerable musical ability, she was at first refused the opportunity to audition in an orchestra. She not only called into question the whole process that would pre-judge a musician without hearing them play, but eventually she did audition and changed the rules to make the auditioning process barrier free to anyone with talent, regardless of what people might consider to be a disability. She has combined her passions for music and education, and is transforming our world.


    Even people with so-called normal hearing may in fact be virtually deaf when it comes to a true appreciation of music. Although they hear, they do not listen. Evelyn Glennie has a website at, which is dedicated to helping the world learn how to listen. Through her lectures and music we can learn how to become all ears, and fully engage with the world of our senses.



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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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