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L.A. Beat

Singing in the Brain

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Do you ever sing in the shower? I know I sure do, much to the chagrin of certain ex-roommates and even one neighbour. There is just something about the falling water and the acoustics in the shower stall that motivates me to belt 'em out at top volume - half the time just making songs up as I go along.  I am also the type of person who whistles and hums, plays drums on tabletops and tap their toes to the rhythm, even if the music is only in my head. To me - music is much more than just the sum of its parts.

Music is emotion, it is art; it is support and love.

Music plays a key role in my existence. Without it I am lost; a ship without a mast floating in an ocean of dark reality.  Therefore, it goes wherever I go, be it on CD, MP3, or just buried somewhere deep down in my soul.

I also read a lot; reading everything I can get my hands on; be it the sides of cereal boxes, two or three paperbacks on the go at one time, or articles and journals that seem to be interesting. Some of these readings focus on people like me - musically oriented individuals that seem to have little need for peace and quiet.

Two books I have read over the last few years were 'This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession', written by Daniel J. Levitin and 'Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain' by Oliver Sacks. Both of these books, written by renowned neurologists and academic scholars, examine how the human mind is affected by music. Just as intriguing, they study how music is interpreted by different human minds in different human ways.

Certain people love jazz music with its unrestrained nature allowing it to morph instantly from one 'mood' to another. Others resist jazz music for these very same reasons. Levitin and Sacks however, note jazz lovers seem to have the ability to shut down those areas of the brain that regulate inhibition and self-control, while jazz haters tend to favour strict controls, consistent rhythms and rigorous structures; essentially lending themselves more towards blues-based rock and roll or predictable pop.

These two neurologists imply there are links between music and brain activity. They use examples of music being shown to have the power to soothe infants, trigger memories, temper pain, aid in sleep, and cause changes in heart rate.

Music can alleviate the symptoms of disorders ranging from autism and dementia through depression, stroke and hypertension.

In one of his chapters, Daniel Levitin infers through music's ability to influence our emotional state, we improve our health unconsciously just by listening to it. When we are relaxed and calm, we reduce our stress levels and our hormones find balance. We breathe more deeply, digest our food more smoothly, and engage in natural conversation with others more fluently. Oliver Sacks backs up this idea in his book, which applies a more moral argument to the idea. He justifies music as being integral to the human race; essentially claiming that our responsiveness to melody and music is imbedded in the human brain itself; with receptors and regions that are flawlessly evolved for the sole purpose of embracing music.

These books were both very interesting so I would recommend them to anyone. They are written so the average layperson can easily understand them. Just this afternoon however, I came across two other works that took the ideas of Levitin and Sacks to entirely new levels.  The first of them even took music one step further.

In Jeffrey Masson’s book 'When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals', he examines the stigma science maintains against anthropomorphism, or the idea animals have complex systems of feelings just as we do - pain, pleasure, love, loss, grief, sadness, impatience and more. If we were to assume animals can feel just like we can, what would happen to our entire system of farming, in which we kill animals for their meat, their fur, their fat, horns and tusks? We may have to re-examine everything that has happened since Darwin first implied animals have feelings - an implication that was shunned and rejected.  

Yet this one chapter of Masson's book detailed the emotional responses our animal friends have shown when exposed to certain types of music. It would seem that pigeons have been known to cuddle up closer to a speaker system when the music was played too quietly, as though they wanted more volume.

Grey parrots have been observed flapping their wings in delight when they hear certain 'favoured' songs. Pods of humpback whales have been recorded underwater creating their own whale-symphonies. Wolves have been known to shun their own kind if they howl off-key or out of tune. Gibbon monkeys sing daily duets, with males singing long solo notes while females let loose great calls overlapping the solos.

Here in Lethbridge if you have ever listened to our meadowlarks as the sun goes down, or a pack of coyotes howling over the moon, it is as though they never sing two notes exactly the same way twice. Any cat or dog owner has likely seen their pet's tails wagging, seemingly in time with the beat or rhythm coming from the stereo. Could it be that music is ingrained deeply in their DNA as well? Could it be a cat purring vigorously is not that far removed from our own humming aloud when we're content? Could it be our own house pets would sing in the shower, were they able to do so?

The last item I came across today was the website for the Canadian Association for Music Therapy. Music therapy is the skilful use of musical elements to restore all facets of health - mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. With qualities that affect each of these, music is used by accredited therapists to aid individuals from all walks of life. Those suffering from brain injuries, palliative care, grief counselling, anxiety, abuse trauma, geriatrics and pain control; they can all be partially healed with music.  I dare you readers, if you don't already do so; for one month, try listening to just one short daily dose of music that you love and see what a difference it makes. As a music lover, I am well aware how the right song played at the right time can act as tranquilizer, as steroid, as pain relief and even as intoxicant.  

One of my favourites, appropriate for this column; is right here:

Music transcends language and cultural barriers, breaks down all between gender and age. The first music a baby hears is while it is still in the womb; the rhythm is two heartbeats and the melody is the mother's voice. From the time we are born, we collect music in our souls; and songs will come back to us decades later, now associated with specific people or places. Music can work when mere words would fail.

It can inspire a sense of belonging and identity, even if no two Canadians ever feel the exact same response when hearing our national anthem. Plato once wrote that music is a "moral law; one which gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything."  
Music can influence our memory and concentration.
 Albert Einstein once attributed the reason he became so smart to his parents' forcing him to learn violin when he was child.
Music's connection with human activity can be traced back to the dawn of civilization, almost back to our 'caveman' ancestors. Every known culture on earth has music, even those tiny distant ones that have never been exposed to western music at all.

Though those tiny cultures may interpret one song as mournful, another may consider it uplifting. Those tiny cultures may not even have an actual word for music - yet they will have instruments, and they will have music. For in effect, music seems to be one of the basic parts of life - along with food, water and shelter. We need it. I need it.

I will never be able to deny the inherent power in music, for I have engaged in making it appear from nothing at all.
Moreover, sometimes, I admit, silence is the best music of them all.  Nevertheless, the truth of why I sing in the shower - of why I hum and whistle when I'm walking around - is that while I may not always be inside the music - the music is always inside me.  So look out your window this week at all this miserable weather we're having. What a wonderful time to be singing in the rain.

• “Music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired”                - Boethius
• ”Music can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.”  -Leonard Bernstein

• “Give me control over he who shapes the music of a nation, and I care not who makes the laws”

- Napoleon Bonaparte

• “He who sings scares away his woes.”     - Cervantes


This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals

Canadian Association for Music Therapy

 — By Chris Hibbard, Music Lover Special To L.A. Beat

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