Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Healing Power of Music

One of my teachers, Pepe Romero, used to talk about how music has healing powers. I have often found it to be an immense consolation in times of sorrow or despair. Music also seems to act as a bridge between people that connects them in a way nothing else does. A few days ago NPR (National Public Radio in the US, a bit akin to the CBC in Canada or the BBC in the UK) put an interesting article up on their website about how music can help elderly people with dementia. In the article Dan Cohen, who creates personalized iPod playlists for elderly patients, says:
"Even though Alzheimer's and various forms of dementia will ravage many parts of the brain, long-term memory of music from when one was young remains very often. So if you tap that, you really get that kind of awakening response. It's pretty exciting to see."
So music, it seems, can, like the famous episode of the madeleine in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, invoke long-lost memories and bring people back to themselves despite brain deterioration. Remarkable! Cohen ends with the thought "what's more core to your being than music?" That tickles the musicologist in me, so let's muse on that for a bit.

Not all people have the same connection to music. I usually feel that the core of my being is music because there always seems to be some kind of music chugging around in my brain somewhere--usually banal sequences. Sometimes I think I compose just to quieten that down. But surely there are lots of people for whom something other than music is the "core of their being"? What does that mean, anyway? I think for Cohen, music is some fundamental part of personal identity. Now I want to steer around all those philosophical issues surrounding personal identity because it has been much too long since I read in that area. But the idea that music, one's recollections of music, form a kind of substratum in one's consciousness is an interesting one.

In the 2004 revival of Battlestar Galactica there is an evocation of this that works pretty well. There are four characters on the ship that believe themselves to be human, but who are actually Cylons. They are brought to consciousness of this by means of a song, at first heard concealed behind bits of static on a radio and only slowly revealed. Each character quotes a line from the song, but interwoven with dialogue so it is not evident. Finally, the episode ("Crossroads" Part 1 and 2) ends with the whole song. The song, a famous one from the 60s, is "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan made a hit by Jimi Hendrix. I know the song quite well from its first release over forty years ago. It was a remarkably eerie sensation when I finally realized that they were referring to that song! It was like entering some deep part of your mind or memory.

Here are all three versions of the song (which I have put up before). First, Bob Dylan's simple arrangement from the album John Wesley Harding:

Now the version by Jimi Hendrix:

And finally, the Battlestar Galactica version [UPDATE: I should have mentioned that this version is by Bear McCreary]:

The irony is that this is the precise moment when the series jumped the shark. But the point, that music does seem to be able to access deeper levels of memory, remains. And since each person will have different musical "madeleines", I suppose this does form part of our unique identities. Here are a couple of my musical "madeleines":

And a classical one:

UPDATE: How could I have forgotten this one:


RG said...

You could offer the top three finalists a free visitor's pass for one year of The Music Salon.

Bryan Townsend said...

Second prize, two years?

Shouldn't this be on the music contest post?

Along with some kooky answers...