Whisper music to my weary spirit


Is music just sounds -a series of notes bundled together, like words in a conversation, or shapes in a painting? Like them, is musical appreciation an attempt by the brain to assign meaning, relevance, and structure to differentiate it from the ambient sounds we encounter every day: the whistle of wind leaking through a partially opened window, the rustle of leaves in a forest, the chirrup of the first robin in a nearby tree at dawn?

Do we break music down like we do the grammar of sentences: subject, object, verb,  noun, adjective…? Is music, in other words, merely the phonetic equivalent of morphemes strung out, not into mere sentences, or even paragraphs, but into whole stories?

In a way, we can maybe see the similarity of a memorable story with that of a catchy tune, or perhaps a moving symphony; and yet, should we -can we- equate the information and emotional content of a novel, say, with that of a concerto, or maybe a choral requiem? There seems to be a qualitative difference -each may be stirring, but somehow in non-identical ways.

I have wondered about this ever since I was an admittedly nerdy child. What was the difference between a gorgeous sunset, and an inspiring story; between a Rachmaninoff prelude, and a poem by Robert Frost…? In those early, naive days, I suspect I was wont to conflate things that drew me into them -things that had the magic quality of dissolving whatever boundaries confined me inside my own thoughts. Music was a potent drug, and so many of the intervening years have been occupied with a search for more and more purveyors: dealers.

I have therefore been attracted to articles dealing with that hard to describe boundary between music and, well, the rest of reality. There was an article I found in Aeon that caught my eye: https://aeon.co/essays/music-is-in-your-brain-and-your-body-and-your-life

It was written by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas. I suppose what initially intrigued me was her contention that ‘the past few decades of work in the cognitive sciences of music have demonstrated with increasing persuasiveness that the human capacity for music is not cordoned off from the rest of the mind. On the contrary, music perception is deeply interwoven with other perceptual systems, making music less a matter of notes, the province of theorists and professional musicians, and more a matter of fundamental human experience.’ In other words, that music is somehow different, something more than mere sounds piled one on top of each other -more than whatever order may be ascribed to the pattern emerging from a dropped deck of cards.

Indeed, ‘Brain imaging produces a particularly clear picture of this interconnectedness. When people listen to music, no single ‘music centre’ lights up. Instead, a widely distributed network activates, including areas devoted to vision, motor control, emotion, speech, memory and planning. Far from revealing an isolated, music-specific area, the most sophisticated technology we have available to peer inside the brain suggests that listening to music calls on a broad range of faculties, testifying to how deeply its perception is interwoven with other aspects of human experience. Beyond just what we hear, what we see, what we expect, how we move, and the sum of our life experiences all contribute to how we experience music.’

And as she writes, ‘Music, it seems, is a highly multimodal phenomenon. The movements that produce the sound contribute essentially, not just peripherally, to our experience of it – and the visual input can sometimes outweigh the influence of the sound itself. Visual information can convey not only information about a performance’s emotional content, but also about its basic structural characteristics.’

I was struck by the picture that begins her essay: a photograph of the late Janis Joplin performing at The Fillmore, San Francisco in 1968; she was a particular, and long-time, favourite of mine. Just seeing Janis, with her head tilted back, and eyes closed, I felt I could hear her again. Feel the energy… I could hardly stop my foot from tapping out the rhythm of Try (Just a little harder) and I was transported back to all the various other concerts of the 60ies I had attended. Amazing, eh? That a memory, a photograph, can bundle so much together. That music can knit the ravelled sleeve of care, and ‘paint an embodied picture of music-listening, where not just what you see, hear and know about the music shapes the experience, but also the way you physically interact with it matters as well. This is true in the more common participatory musical cultures around the world, where everyone tends to join in the music-making, but also in the less common presentational cultures, where circumstances seem to call for stationary, passive listening.’

‘Neuroimaging has revealed that passive music-listening can activate the motor system. This intertwining of music and movement is a deep and widespread phenomenon, prevalent in cultures throughout the world. Infants’ first musical experiences often involve being rocked as they’re sung to. The interconnection means not only that what we hear can influence how we move, but also that how we move can influence what we hear.’

I have always found music to be so much more than the sound or the rhythm, and I have to admit that although I have never felt compelled to dance, I have never been able to remain motionless -or for that matter, emotionless- in its presence. And, as with everything else in life, I am affected more by some songs, some genres, some performances than others, but these things, too, vary. Music isn’t static, any more than a particular recipe always tastes the same no matter the cook.

As the author, Margulis, writes, ‘Music cannot be conceptualised as a straightforwardly acoustic phenomenon. It is a deeply culturally embedded, multimodal experience. At a moment in history when neuroscience enjoys almost magical authority, it is instructive to be reminded that the path from sound to perception weaves through imagery, memories, stories, movement and words.’

The threads that music has woven through my years have not frayed; unlike the patchwork pattern of my life it has held together -indeed, held me together. I am reminded of a proverb I read somewhere: A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song. And sometimes, you know, that is really all you need…

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