For each of us, there is a place we go to find peace and solace, where our mind unwinds from the pressures of the day and enables us to cope with stress and pain. For some, it is food. For others, a pet. Our children. A father’s voice. Hitting a golf or tennis ball. Plunging into mother ocean. Fine whiskey. Refined cannabis. Fast cars. Human touch.
It’s a long and wondrous list that embraces all the senses and makes for health or ill. Too much food and we may become overweight. Too much drink and we may become alcoholic. Our genes play a role. Nature and nurture.
Without a safe space in the mind, we couldn’t endure life’s hardships.
For me, that place is music, and the particular effect it has on my brain. It may be because there are and have been serious musicians in my family tree on both sides. I’m the black sheep whose hands could never master the guitar, accordion, drums, recorder, harmonica — you name it, I can’t play it. Yo-Yo Ma was a neighbor and classmate in elementary school. Tom Petty’s keyboardist rocked our boarding school. I manifested the legs to walk five miles or more to bluff my way into Greenwich Village music joints I was too young to enter.
My brain on music is different from without. Sans melody, my recollection is weak. Don’t ask me to memorize a poem. Put music to it, and I remember every line, off-key or not. Why is that?
According to neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugaya, who co-leads with his violinist wife a highly popular course on music and the brain at University of Central Florida, “If you learn music as a child, your brain becomes designed for music.”
That’s me, professor! Turn me on, I’m a radio. Drop a dime right into the slot, I’ll give you back something that’s really hot. Music is my drug without choice.
That addiction, and benefit to the brain, is lifelong. Says Sugaya, “Usually in the late stages: Alzheimer’s patients are unresponsive,” but give them music and “they start moving and sometimes singing.” On an MRI, “lots of different parts of the brain light up.” And it isn’t just the cliche of classical music. More on that later. Despite knowing cello-master Ma, it’s pop music that floats my boat. Your gray matter likes the same music as you; it’s emotional resonance that counts. Intrigued by this, I asked Sugaya what music he had heard induce a positive response in an Alzheimer’s patient. He cited “Hotel California.” Fly like an Eagle.
The popular music in my personal canon dates back to Tin Pan Alley on West 28th Street in Manhattan’s Flower District in the 1880s, where songwriters and music publishers congregated. By the mid-20th century it had moved a mile uptown to the Brill Building, where songwriters such as Carole King and Burt Bacharach composed some of the most glorious tunes since Gershwin. As a boy, I made a weekly hegira to Colony Records on the Brill’s ground floor, where I could find everything from Elvis Presley to the Supremes and the Beatles.
This modern journey is an echo of one that has been going on, some say, before human speech. The oldest surviving musical instrument is a 4,000-year-old flute fashioned from a vulture bone. Greek mythology credits music to the muses, goddesses of Zeus. Persian lore tells of a legendary Shah Jamshid who invented melody. The Chinese are more specific, pegging 2697 BC as the year musician Ling Lun, by command of the Emperor Huangdi, crafted a bamboo flute in imitation of the song of the mythical fenghuang bird. Whatever the origin myth you subscribe to, or none at all, we danced and sang to music as one of our earliest media.
Wondering if there were a formal use to which we could put music in our lives, I asked Professor Sugaya for his recommendations. He gave me both the good and the bad.
On the positive side, he noted that although music’s beneficial effects for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are transient, “The Mozart effect in utero and on infants is true and long-lasting, with a 50 percent increase in frontal lobe function,” because Mozart’s music “induces neurogenesis,” or neural growth. Further, the rhythm of lullabies mirrors a mother’s heartbeat and can silence pain response, so “Dentists should play music with heartbeat rhythm.” Are you listening, doc? On the downside, given where he lives in central Florida, Sugaya warned that one should never play B-flat near the swamps, as it mimics the male alligator’s mating sound, causing him to attack. As Beethoven used that note a lot toward the end of his life, the professor cautioned me to choose my composers carefully when camping there. See you later, alligator.
Rock me, baby, in 6/8 time.