Sunday, December 19, 2010

Musings on Music

I am a person who cannot imagine life without music.  I am not musically talented, although I whistle, hum, sing, bang away at my old piano.  In the past I have also attempted to play a six string guitar and mountain dulcimer, with limited success.  I can make noises on both the jaw harp and note flute, although I hesitate to call that music.  In high school and college I sang in large choirs, where my thin soprano would be mostly lost, but I could be in the middle of people passionately making music, could feel it in my entire body.  Last year, when I attended our community's annual walk in Messiah concert, I was disappointed almost to the point of tears to realize that after years of straining my voice in the classroom, I could no longer make any sort of pleasant music with that instrument.  Out of concern for others, this year I will stay home.

So, in my dotage I mostly listen to music that other people make, and mostly on my computer or iPod.  I splurged on a gift for myself in honor of my upcoming sixtieth birthday and bought a Bose sound dock for my studio, and now spend many happy hours there listening while I work.  Music serves to at least partially turn off the analytical part of my brain, the part that is ultra-critical, the part that keeps me from taking artistic risks.  I work better with music.  Oddly, I also am more successful at video games when I have music playing.  When I was younger I could read with music playing in the background, but in the past few years have lost my ability to concentrate on words when there is music playing.

I'm sure neurologist and author Oliver Sacks could explain all this.  Sacks is an author who I almost always enjoy, although sometimes he goes into more scientific detail than I care to read. I've learned to selectively skip ahead when the science is too technical for my interest level.  So far I have enjoyed several of his nonfiction books (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, Island of the Colorblind, An Anthropologist on Mars), all of which tell stories of people with neurological differences cause by strokes, disease, physical trauma, or genetic accident.  Without fail, Sacks' descriptions of how these people perceive the world, and how their differences are not always deficits, are instructive and entertaining. 

In Musicolphilia Sacks covers a wide range of topics related to music and brain function.  He discusses musical hallucinations, tunes that become stuck in your brain and why that happens, perfect pitch, the relationship between music and blindness, people who cannot enjoy or appreciate music, and therapeutic applications for music.  I found reading about ways that music can accelerate physical healing and be helpful for aphasic patients and people suffering from various sorts of dementia, to be gripping and thought provoking.  From the cover blurb, this seems to sum it up: Music is irresistible, haunting, and unforgettable, and in Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks tells us why.

I also found a couple new composers and songs to add to my iPod.

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