Monday, July 13, 2015

Are you hearing things?

I mean, things that aren't actually there, auditory hallucinations. Apparently, according to this story in Globe and Mail, this isn't necessarily a sign of mental illness: "How hearing voices, long assumed a sign of mental illness, can be a part of the human experience." Well, sure, but mental illness is also part of the "human experience" too. The headline should have read, "Just because you are hearing voices, it doesn't mean you are nuts!" But that would be too, uh, un-Canadian.
As researchers are discovering, auditory hallucinations are neither rare, nor necessarily a sign of serious mental illness. A large study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in May, involving 31,000 respondents from 18 countries, found as much as five per cent of the general population experiences auditory or visual hallucinations at some point in their lives. Scientists, health professionals and people who experience them are beginning to view them as a meaningful part of the human experience and not just as a problem that needs to be treated or eliminated.
The article seems to conclude that these phenomena are just particularly vivid memories or something--they aren't terribly clear--instead of a symptom of schizophrenia.

The interesting thing about this is its potential implications regarding composers and creativity. Composers who talk about this sort of thing, and most don't, say things like "it just came to me" or, as Bob Dylan described it:
“I’m not that serious a songwriter,” he says, a smile on his lips. “Songs don’t just come to me. They’ll usually brew for a while, and you’ll learn that it’s important to keep the pieces until they are completely formed and glued together…I’m not thinking about what I want to say, I’m just thinking ‘Is this OK for the meter?’ “But there’s an undeniable element of mystery too. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.”
Don't take that first part too seriously, but the bit about the ghost is interesting. I have had the experience many times of having a motif or whole passage just come to me, often in the shower. I keep humming it to myself until I can get to the computer! But, in the case I am thinking of, the working out of the whole composition just started with that. The ending was particularly difficult and to date I have re-written it six times!

But what interests me here about that story is that, while they talk a lot about hearing phantom voices, there is also the phenomenon of hearing phantom melodies or instruments. Composers, as I said, don't like to talk about this, but I wonder if sometimes an auditory phantom might have been the seed from which a piece of music grew?

But a seed is just a seed: all that growing and developing needed to turn it into a full-fledged piece of music is what the craft and art of composition is all about.

One of the most famous examples is the story behind the song "Yesterday" by Paul McCartney. He woke up one morning and the whole tune was just there, in his head. So he went to the piano and worked out the chords for it. For a long time he thought that it was a tune he had heard somewhere, but everyone he played if for denied knowing the tune. It just sat there for quite a while with the title "Scrambled Eggs" because he didn't have any lyrics for it. But finally he came up with the lyrics and voilá: "Yesterday". Part of the genius was definitely finding the right bittersweet lyrics to go with the melody. Oh, and there are something like 2500 cover versions of this song, which makes it one of the most popular ever written:


Marc Puckett said...

I don't doubt that the phenomena being discussed are interesting as objects for research, or that they may be burdensome to the individuals experiencing them, but Dr Woods lost me, probably, when she commented, 'the task of a psychiatrist was to shift people to a conventional reality, and if you inquired too deeply into their reality, you weren’t going to help with that task', her implication being-- perhaps, hence the 'probably' supra-- that the distinguished corps of psychiatrists has progressed in its thinking and is now happily comfortable with as many different 'realities' as it meets.

If 5% of the population has experienced auditory hallucinations (it looks as if this includes people who've heard X once, so the part of the population that hears these hallucinatory events on an ongoing basis is likely far smaller), are we to suppose that 5% of composers or musicians do? I wonder about this-- I mean, it's a small percentage but in modern times e.g. it would have to be a substantial number of people in total. You'd think there'd be at least a Facebook group at this point, particularly after the 60s when it became fashionable to advertise one's eccentricities and oddnesses of taste.

Bryan Townsend said...

Those are some interesting questions, that hadn't occurred to me. But one thing for sure, the distinguished corps of psychiatrists now seem eager to accept all our "realities". Unless you are politically in a different camp, of course.