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Out on a Limb

B.B. King + “Lucille.” Eric Clapton + “Blackie.” The bond between musician and instrument is sacred.1 If “music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life” [Beethoven], then musical instruments are the mediator of that mediator. The vehicle through which the spiritual can be heard. But in order to fluently and fluidly communicate this inner state, all technical details—the fingering of a note, the plucking of a string—must become as second nature as the most mundane everyday task. done without a moment’s thought. So all that is left is a deep and intense focus on musicality.

astor + pollux. illustration by shawn feeney.

Musicians often describe their instruments as an extension of themselves. To be great, you must become one with your instrument. incredibly, this oneness can actually be achieved because our brain can actually come to see a musical instrument as a physical extension of the body!!

To pilot our bodies through the motions required for everyday tasks, the brain builds an organized model of the body—the body schema. To devise this internal schematic, the brain dynamically integrates tactile and visual information from our sensory receptors with the body’s innate sense of its position in space [a la proprioception]. These sensory syntheses allow us to judge distances, manipulate objects, and approach those around us. To move through and interact with the world.

Amazingly, our brains can even incorporate inanimate objects—particularly tools—into this mental plan.2 These tools essentially become internalized as temporary extensions of the body’s consciousness, though it is important to note that they never become incorporated into the body schema; the loss of a tool is never felt in the same way as the loss of a limb.


jawharp. illustration by shawn feeney

The musical instrument is just like any other tool, except that instead of being used to carry out some traditionally practical task, it is used as a device for expression. And so, like any other tool, it too becomes integrated into the body schema upon use—a natural [and literal] extension of the expressive self.3

Of course, the sort of re-organization required to extend the body schema to the musician’s instrument takes time. [remember, practice makes perfect.] The average person requires more training with an instrument than she would with, say, a fork or a hammer. Still, there do exist those rare prodigies—the Mozarts and Yo Yo Mas—for whom musicality comes naturally. Though I am by no means an expert in neurophysiology or music performance theory, here are two possible explanations i’ll put out there as a fun thought experiment:

one: Perhaps for these few, their body modeling is more plastic. Instead of treating the instrument as a bodily extension only after intensive training, their brains may be more readily and rapidly accepting of the instrument into the body schema.

The violin came naturally, and it really fit me. When I picked it up [and placed it under my chin], it looked like it had grown there. It just fit. ∇Δ Miriam Burns

two: There is still the possibility that the prodigy’s brain sees her instrument as a sort of extra limb. The vast majority of amputees feel bodily sensations in their phantom limbs. These sensations actually allow amputees to successfully incorporate prostheses into their body schema because their minds have not fully registered the loss. Then, perhaps a non-corporeal entity like an instrument could become instantly incorporated into the body schema. Rather than acting as a mere bodily extension, the instrument may be filling a void in the prodigy’s body schema, behaving just as a prosthesis would for an amputee.

This last hypothesis is admittedly more far-fetched. However, considering how little we actually understand the brain, particularly the unconscious brain, not much is out of the realm of possibility: “The brain is the last and grandest biological frontier, the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe… the brain boggles the mind” [James Watson].