Ravel’s Boléro is one of the most popular pieces of music in the world, associated by many with the skating duo Torvill and Dean. New research lends weight to the theory posed by scientists and musicologists that its repetitive rhythm may have been a product of the composer’s early onset dementia.

In his fifties, towards the end of his life, Ravel suffered from neuro-cognitive problems. Frontotemporal dementia starts earlier than Alzheimer’s, can trigger artistic expression, and allows some musical abilities to be maintained in its later stages.

Mathematicians have revealed how dementia spreads through the brain, by creating a map of its architecture, the so called ‘connectome’. Professor Alain Goriely of the University of Oxford says it’s now possible to produce frontotemporal dementia in a model:

“We can understand how different cognitive networks are damaged in each stage of the disease. They are the same networks used for learning abilities such as music. The evidence we have on Ravel matches the symptoms for this form of dementia.”

Professor Goriely will talk about maths, music and the brain at the launch of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s series Bach, the Universe and Everything which combines music and a talk from a scientist (Sunday 13 October, Kings Place, London).

He says: “Frontotemporal dementia affects the frontal cortex which removes inhibition in the patient and can trigger unexpected artistic talent. Some patients in a study group became very bold in their artistic expression and were able to draw in a very precise and adept manner. Ravel’s Boléro is so different to other contemporary works, and it’s also very precise, so we can speculate that his disease may have contributed to its style. The Boléro is a good metaphor for the type of behavioural patterns that you observe during these illnesses.”

Frontotemporal dementia is less common than Alzheimer’s, accounting for around 20 per cent of dementias but occurs earlier in life. It is very different to Alzheimer’s in which people lose the ability for spatial representation.

Musical skills are complex and rely on many different networks in the brain, such as the ability to recognise a piece of music or to play an instrument. Typically, dementia patients lose the ability to recognise a composition but some are still able to play. This indicates that different networks are affected at different stages. We know from his neurologist that towards the end of his life Ravel could still identify his own works and spot an error when played. Yet by that time he had lost the ability to compose or conduct.

In what may be an apocryphal story, when the Boléro was premiered in 1928 a woman in the audience screamed at Ravel that he was completely mad, to which he replied that she had completely understood the piece. But we know for sure that the Boléro played a special part in his life. The day before his fatal brain surgery, Ravel told his friend “What a good joke I have played on the musical world.”

Ravel’s Boléro is so popular there are claims that it’s played somewhere in the world every fifteen minutes. It consists of one fifteen minute crescendo with only two themes, which are each repeated eight times.

Professor Goriely says: “We now understand that dementia progresses by using the same type of network on the connectome that we use for learning music and other processes. The great irony of dementia is that the very same processes which makes the human brain uniquely adept and flexible at learning and functioning are also harnessed by the disease to systematically invade and destroy the brain. The tragedy of it is that it appears the progression of dementias is mathematically relatively simple to describe, but it remains nearly impossible to treat clinically.”

 

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