Recently, my husband and I were browsing through Barnes and Noble and we came across this book: Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks. I read the back and immediately needed to purchase this book. As I began reading, I found everything so fascinating that I’ve decided to bring up interesting topics from the book and discuss them here.
I’ve always been intrigued by psychology, and I’ve made my career out of music, so reading about how the two intertwine is interesting. In the book’s preface, the idea that there is little biological reason for music and the arts is mentioned. As the daughter of two scientists, it is difficult to argue with science, but as a musician, it is hard to not witness the clear affects of music. The arts help people express emotions. They are therapeutic to patients with illnesses and disabilities. They help develop focus and understanding in other scholastic studies. How could something so clearly important be biologically insignificant?
Of course I find music important – it’s my life. But I’m hoping to find an argument, through this book and other studies, to prove its importance, and the importance of all the arts (with the help of my storytelling, librarian sister), to everyone, musicians and non-musicians alike.
Musicophilia – literally a love of music. The book begins with stories of people who, by lightening or stroke, had a brain altering experience that ignited this musicophilia. Many of them were middle-aged adults who had little to no musical experience as children, but after their experiences, their brains created a sudden desire to play and compose music, almost to the point of neurotically needing the music. As someone who’s spent their whole life developing musicophilia, I’m a little envious that some people can get it overnight (though I’m not envious of how they get it). If something so drastic can happen to your brain and change your desires and needs, and even instantly develop a skill, music must have an important relation to the brain.
I always thought that I was a visual learner because I’m left handed, and while that may have something to do with my right brain dominance, musicians tend to have to be visual. Pianists especially, are generally expected to perform from memory, which requires the ability to see and hear the music in your head. Through aural skills, the study of identifying elements of music by ear, musicians are again required to visualize the notes in our brain and hear their relation. I have taken for granted that, because of music, I can envision words, music, people, etc. A week before my senior undergraduate recital, I developed tendonitis in my wrist. I couldn’t physically practice piano, which was scary, but my professor told me to mentally practice. Visualize the music, move my fingers, basically do everything but actually play on the piano. My recital went well, and since then, I have continued mental practice, though I have not had any more pain. In the weeks leading up to my masters recital, I would fall asleep running through every recital piece, in order. I truly believe this positively affected my performance. I have since passed this technique along to my students, especially those who come in with broken arms.
You know how you can get a song stuck in your head? Oliver Sacks writes about patients who get some music stuck incessantly, maddeningly. Musicians, particularly composers, tend to have a constant stream of music floating in their brain. Is this not something that many people, musicians or not, experience? I usually have some music in my head. Sometimes it’s entire songs, but more often than not it’s my own radio channel of snippets of songs. I think that’s partly why I can’t ever sit still, something is always bouncing to a beat. My husband says that the way to get a song unstuck from your head is to listen to a new song, but for me, that would just get the new song stuck. Perhaps this is something else I have taken for granted if it is not as common as I assumed.
Music plays some role in most people’s lives. We may not all be musicians, but technology has developed so that we can be plugged in at all times: iPods, smart phones, Pandora, Spotify, etc. We listen for comfort, we listen to meditate, to study, to worship, to shop, to drive… Music is important to our lives and our brains, and all the benefits we get from listening to music, amplify when we learn music, rather than just listen.
Sacks, Oliver W. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.
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Owner and instructor at Keys Piano Studio in Athens, Georgia.
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